Still Dewy After All These Years; Experience and Education

I have not known any scholar for whom the reading of Dewey is an easy undertaking. I am no exception yet, I am always compelled to analyze and discuss his work because as an educational theorist, his work continues to be prescient and pivotal to the American educational system, as it currently exists. As difficult as it is to analyze Dewey, I will try to distill him into a few concrete points.

Dewey’s theories are formed in the nexus of the ending of industrialism. He comes of age at the start of the progressive era where new ideas about society, work and citizenship. Everything about America was changing at this time of societal expansion and it all filtered into our education system. John Dewey was one of the most major contributors to our changing educational system.

In the essay Experience and Education, Dewey discussed the inherent tension of creating and managing systems on a macro level and showed us that education sits as squarely within that tension as any other system. Dewey illustrated the divide that existed and still exists between theory and practice as well as the need to dispense with the “isms” that create a bifurcated view of education.

Dewey pointed to the issues surrounding the practice of traditional education as stagnation and looking backward towards already constructed knowledge. Such teaching pre-supposes the teacher as the sole power in a classroom, and puts forth curriculum that can be uncreative, disconnected from the youth and devoid of real world application. According to Dewey “Teachers are the agents through which knowledge and skills are communicated and rules of conduct are enforced.”(p5) It is in this way, that teachers become transmitters of culture but also keepers of the status quo for both good and ill.

Conversely, progressive education presents its own problems in form, function and organization as well as the locus of authority and control. Dewey posed the question of whether when external authority is rejected whether “it does not follow that all authority should be rejected, but rather that there is need to search for a more effective source of authority.” (7) Dewey also discussed the “inchoate” nature of curriculum that is driven by amorphous ideas which in modern times continues to be an issue for progressive constructivist educators. Ultimately he points to the tendency for both sides to drown in dogma, rendering both sides as ineffective and lobbies for a more integrative approach to teaching and learning.

Gert Biesta in his book The Beautiful Risk of Education (2013), Biesta continues Dewey’s discussion. Feeling still the need to challenge the schisms of traditional VS. progressive theories of education, as well as the ill informed division of theory from practice. As a former classroom teacher and currently as a professor in teacher education programs it is interesting to note that the conversation hasn’t changed that much. My hope is that that tension that Dewey discussed will continue to keep us moving forward and looking at what works. Showing us that there is little benefit from being dichotomous.

My provocations:

  • How can we move forward from the current dichotomy of theories about education into a more integrative model.
  • What is the implication for teacher education programs in a time where curriculum is bought and sold, often with little input from the teachers who will use it.
  • Dewey is often misquoted or understood in very segmented ways. How can we as educators get a greater understanding of his theories as practice in modern times?
  • Can the cyclical discussion of traditional VS progressive education be solved, and is it beneficial to the field of education that it is not?


One thought on “Still Dewy After All These Years; Experience and Education

  1. Sara Vogel, PhD. (she/her)

    Tracy, your questions are all so smart!

    As to how we as educators / teachers ( and those in formation) can get a greater understanding of Dewey’s theories as practice in modern times (when curriculum is pre-packaged):

    I think about the complex relationship to Dewey that my somewhat disjointed teacher preparation program may have inculcated in me. I came into public school teaching through an alternate route. As part of the experimental master’s degree program I was enrolled in, my cohort took the foundations of education course online. As we know from taking this course, online education can prompt deep reflection, and can involve unique and enriching ways of engaging with material. Let’s just say this course wasn’t on that level. John Dewey was mentioned in videos and readings, but we never had to read his words. All of our methods courses, however, were in person. We internalized strategies for teaching a certain kind of math and literacy (not sure why they chose the kinds they chose, but they seemed like the only approaches back then), and how to manage a classroom. I remember that in some of the circles in which I floated as a first year teacher, reading Dewey was synonymous with out of touch and impractical teacher preparation. That’s ironic to me — because this piece, Experience and Education, is all about the connection between theory/philosophy and practice, and holds particular relevance for educators claiming to be “progressive.”

    If educators today were to read and truly analyze this particular work (maybe not Education and Democracy though… so dense, there is no way an average teacher has enough time!), they would find a fairly practical set of guidelines to reflect upon, which might serve useful as they design non-traditional, non-authoritarian learning spaces. Dewey is right, progressives can’t just define themselves as the opposite of traditional education. They need to consider how learners’ backgrounds, needs and capacities are taken into account, how educational experiences and subjects are to be ordered and sequenced, how to ensure connections between what’s studied in and outside of school, how shared values and goals might influence social control mechanisms, how to handle “exceptions” (students whose prior experiences might prompt them to be overly demure or rebellious), how to plan — all of this in line with a philosophy about the centrality of “experience.” Progressive education is not a free-for-all, and he criticizes those who have interpreted it as such (do we know if he is targeting anyone or some school in particular?)

    In a scenario where curriculum comes pre-packaged, the teacher who reads a text like Experience in Education and engages in critical reflection would feel empowered to adapt, pick and choose, or discard the curriculum being purchased. Of course, political realities at schools might make it such that scripted curriculum is part of the culture, and the autonomy of the teacher is not a value. But at least reading such a text might open a teacher’s eyes to alternatives and new questions to ask about the implications of the kind of education that’s happening in a building. (As he writes, students often learn more from how they learn than what they learn…).

    Also, did anyone else notice all of the connections between the readings from last week about the learning principles that can be derived from gaming and Dewey’s use of games as an analogy for alternative social control mechanisms? He really was ahead of his time..!

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