John Dewey. Traditional and Progressive Education

The last Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s online discussion was on John Dewey’s book Experience and Education (see also a previous post on this blog). The invited speaker to introduce John Dewey was Professor Deren Boyles of Georgia State University, who not only came across as an expert, but also as a strong proponent of Deweyan education. His most recent book is about Dewey – John Dewey’s Imaginative Vision of Teaching: Combining Theory and Practice.

Dewey wrote his book in 1938 and even then was worried about the state of education. He believed that all worthwhile education is based in experience (not any experience, but quality experience).  Traditional education, that is, the type of education system that believes that children/students are empty vessels to be filled with knowledge emanating from the teacher or text books (what Paulo Freire later described as the banking system of education), clearly doesn’t fit with an educational philosophy based on experiential learning, which requires more freedom, student agency and autonomy. The following paragraph quoted from Dewey’s book explains his concerns.

‘Let me speak first of the advantages which reside in increase of outward freedom. In the first place, without its existence it is practically impossible for a teacher to gain knowledge of the individuals with whom he is concerned. Enforced quiet and acquiescence prevent pupils from disclosing their real natures. They enforce artificial uniformity. They put seeming before being. They place a premium upon preserving the outward appearance of attention, decorum, and obedience. And everyone who is acquainted with schools in which this system prevailed knows that thoughts, imaginations, desires and sly activities ran their own unchecked course behind this façade.’ (p.62)

It seems to me that in the past few years this kind of education, that places a premium upon preserving the outward appearance of attention, decorum and obedience, is becoming more prevalent in the UK, and presumably the same is happening in the US since Professor Boyles described US schools as full of unthinking students being taught by unthinking teachers. No doubt he was exaggerating to make a point, but this was, I think, Dewey’s concern.

Here in the UK, schools that expect strict observance of the rules by pupils are often lauded for the good exam results they achieve. For example, Michaela Community School has adopted a traditional approach to education with an emphasis on discipline. In this school,

“There is a “zero tolerance” policy regarding poor behaviour; a “boot camp” week at the start of the year teaches the children the rules and the consequences of breaking them. A strict uniform code and no group work; children sit in rows and learn by rote, and walk in single file between classrooms. Staff at the school tend to reject most of the accepted wisdoms of the 21st century”.

Similarly John Ferneley College requires pupils “to smile at all times, make continuous eye contact with staff, to not look out of windows, to never turn around (even after hearing a noise from behind), to always sit up straight, to walk in single file at all times, to not pick up stationery unless specifically directed to do so by staff, to learn and respond to a series of whistle commands from staff, to always respond to staff in a sufficiently upbeat manner and to be constantly grateful that they have the privilege to be at the school.”

This is clearly contrary to what Dewey was advocating. But Dewey published his book in 1938. Are his beliefs still worthy of consideration in a modern context? Professor Boyles seemed to think that they are, but I would need to know more about schools such as John Ferneley College and Michaela Community College to judge whether they turn out unthinking students in the mould of unthinking teachers, despite their good exam results.

Are good exam results the aim of education and do children learn better, such that they achieve these results, under a strict discipline regime? Michaela Community School and John Ferneley College appear to think they do, and Dewey certainly did not advocate an ‘anything goes’ approach. He warned against interpreting progressive education as unconstrained and uncritical freedom. His view was that both traditional education and progressive education can and do get it wrong, and that we should be trying to understand what is worthy of being called a good education.

The question of whether a traditional education system serves children better, was also raised in a Radio 4 programme Could Do Better I heard this week. This programme was first aired in 2018 and over the course of 5 short 14 minute episodes, it follows the progress of journalist Lucy Kellaway who changes career at the age of 58, when she starts her training as a maths teacher. She also encourages others to follow her example and change career to become teachers, by setting up Now Teach, a charity that focuses on training secondary school teachers.

Particularly interesting for me in the Radio 4 programme, having just read and discussed John Dewey’s book Experience & Education, is a conversation that Lucy has with another trainee teacher, Basil, presumably of a similar age, who ultimately throws in the towel and gives up on teacher training and the education system (Episode 4)

Here is a transcript of the conversation, starting at 8.55 minutes in the recording.

Lucy: The most difficult thing of all is that I feel pulled in two directions. On one hand I see the great advantages of such rigid discipline. It means that a teacher can start teaching the minute the lesson begins, but on the other I’m finding it really hard to toe the line. In this I’m not alone.

Basil: I do feel regret because the dream is still in me – there were too few bright spots.

[Basil, a former TV Producer, is one of the 46 other people that Lucy lured onto the Now Teach Scheme. He’s been training to be an English teacher at a different school nearby, but now he emails to say he’s dropping out. When Lucy sees him, he has become bruised by a system he doesn’t quite fit into.]

Basil: How in that format do you have the chance to make the children want to learn and understand maths because they relate to you, they’re inspired by your personality – because you see, I think you in the classroom, I would see you as an incredibly inspiring teacher. How much do your pupils know who you are and how much of your personality has been able to motivate and be the engine of your teaching?

Lucy: This is the absolutely central thing and I think it’s part of my egotism that I wanted it to be that way.

Basil: No, it’s not – it’s the reason you’re going into teaching.

Lucy: I thought it was, but you see I feel that actually in the way that it is taught I am less good because of my personality.

Basil: That’s because the system is wrong.

Lucy: It’s not that the system is wrong – it’s because that particular thing doesn’t use what I think I’m good at.

Basil: But it is wrong, because you are a teacher – you need that bit of you and everybody whoever inspired us – we all talked about teachers who inspired us – it was their personalities.

[Like everyone on the Now Teach programme, Basil has had a long and high powered career doing other things. All have been paid to have opinions and to be individualists and it’s that, not their age that seems to be the sticking point.]

Basil: You now go to schools where if every teacher hasn’t bought into the ethos down to the smallest degree you are regarded as undermining the system and fatally undermining your fellow teachers – and this means [undermining] the personalities that were part of the richness and diversity, the pluralism of what schools should be. It’s robot time. And you aren’t a robot.

Lucy: No and I’m very bad at being a robot.

Basil: And you shouldn’t be.

Lucy: That’s sweet and I think it’s partly true, but I think I went into it with what you’ve described as a sort of charisma view of teaching, really that you can just teach through charisma. I’m now much more dubious about that.

Basil: Well, I think you’ve been indoctrinated.

Lucy: Well maybe I’ve been indoctrinated, but equally it’s not about what I tell the class. It’s about how much of that they retain and understanding how that works.

Basil: Absolutely true and I completely agree with that. If you don’t find an outlet for you being recognisable Lucy Kellaway, your sense of humour and your warmth, being motivated, the engine to the maths, if you don’t find that, then it will be hopeless and you’ll cry yourself to sleep every night.

For me this discussion raises the dilemma that thinking teachers must face every day. Do they aim to educate children to fit into the system? Do they educate themselves to fit into the system? Or do they challenge the system and aim to educate children to so the same? Is it possible to do both?

And finally, I wonder if Lucy Kellaway’s teacher training programme, Now Teach, includes studying educational philosophers such as John Dewey.

Source of Image: Kansas Historical Society

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