Re-reading Dewey

2016 is the centenary of the publication of Dewey’s Democracy and Education. The book, published during a period of rapid economic growth in the US, places education at the heart of social progress. Dewey’s philosophy is one of hope for a better future in which people are educated to adapt to changing economic conditions. In educating children to think critically and reflectively, schools can help to challenge the inequities that exist in society: “It is the aim of progressive education to take part in correcting unfair privilege and unfair deprivation” (p. 140).

At the heart of education is the child – not for some liberal ideal, but because “a progressive society counts individual variations as precious since it finds in them the means of its own growth” (p. 357). For schools that would have all children act in exactly the same way, Dewey warns that quashing individual traits in favour of conformity and uniformity induces “lack of interest in the novel, aversion to progress, and dread of the uncertain and the unknown” (p. 60).

The progressive message seems unfashionable at the moment. For ideologues who promote ‘content-centred’ direct instruction, teachers who profess a child-centred approach risk destroying their students’ futures. Dewey characterises teachers who emphasise the transmission of knowledge as social conservatives who block progress: “The development within the young of the attitudes and dispositions necessary to the continuous and progressive life of a society cannot take place by direct conveyance of beliefs, emotions, and knowledge” (p. 26).

That is not to say Dewey disregards knowledge wholly in favour of experiential inquiry. Indeed, he says that it is a nonsense to talk of developing a mental or physical skill separate from the subject matter involved in exercising the skill. However, knowledge is viewed progressively, which is to say knowledge is not an inert residue of the past, but finds value “in the solidity, security, and fertility it affords our dealings with the future” (p. 178).

Re-reading Democracy and Education is a tonic in times of economic recession and cuts to education budgets. Today social conservatism prevails. Either education is viewed as a process of filling up long-term memory or it looks to evidence of ‘what works’ to achieve narrow externally-imposed targets. Against such impoverished views, it is exciting and refreshing to be reminded of the transformative power of education when teachers adopt the progressive mission.

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Traditionalists’ knowledge deficit

Traditionalists are whipping themselves into a frenzy about progressive education at the moment. Recently the writer of one post fantasised about being Stormtrooper FN-2187 in a Star Wars film taking on the Dark Side of “the majority of educators who support the progressive philosophy of education.” While the post found favour with the UK Schools Minister, many teachers who do not adhere to the traditionalists’ educational straitjacket might be surprised to be labelled as the progressive enemy.

However, casting the net so wide turns out to have its advantages in on-line debate; it becomes relatively easy for the traditionalists to find a target for criticism. Learning styles, ‘fads’ of all types, group work, student talk and Student Voice, teaching a lesson for relevance or for children’s interest or without a textbook – all become part of the insidious progressive agenda.

For teachers who call for a ‘core knowledge’ curriculum, the traditionalists have a lamentable lack of knowledge of progressive education.

Progressive education is not occasional group work or giving students a superficial ‘voice’; instead, it proposes a complete restructuring of the contemporary model of schooling. The conformity demanded of students and teachers in the current system would give way to a collaborative community in which all participants learn to direct the journey to greater knowledge. New ways of learning would promote initiative, independence and creativity.

Progressives in state schools can take inspiration for the possibility of change from early attempts to develop experimental methods. For example, Rosa Bassett, headteacher at the County Secondary School in Streatham, introduced the Dalton Plan in 1920. Learning at the school was completely reorganised. Students decided how much time they would give to studying each subject, determined which subject ‘laboratories’ they would visit each day and took responsibility for recording their progress in completing the monthly assignments.

Rosa summarised the result: “One must confess that the brilliant child progresses at a far greater rate than before, but, at the same time, one must also acknowledge that the slower child progresses, too, at a greater rate and in a far better way” (The Dalton Plan, 1922, p. 194).

The majority of state teachers use a pragmatic mix of methods to get their students through the next exam. Some of the methods might be characterised as child-centred, but that does not make the teacher a progressive.

Before traditionalists start targeting teachers with one label or another, they should acquire the requisite knowledge that would allow them to enter the debate on an informed basis.