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

John Dewey. Experience and Education (Notes)

This short book by John Dewey (91 pages), written two decades after ‘Democracy and Education’ (Dewey’s most comprehensive statement of his position on educational philosophy), is described on the cover as:

‘The great educational theorist’s most concise statement of his ideas about the needs, the problems, and the possibilities of education – written after his experience with progressive schools and in the light of the criticisms his theories received.’

This book describes in some measure the education system I was working in pre-National Curriculum (in the UK), when education was based more on personal experience (i.e. progressive education) than the transmission of knowledge. Dewey describes the latter as traditional education, which sought to prepare the young for future responsibilities and success in life through the transmission of information and skills that had worked in the past and was static in books or the heads of teachers. Pupils were expected to be docile, receptive and obedient.

For Dewey progressive education opposes traditional education as follows:

‘To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation of a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.’ (p.19/20, my bold)

A Wikipedia article has interpreted progressive education as having the following qualities:

  • Emphasis on learning by doing – hands-on projects, expeditionary learning, experiential learning
  • Integrated curriculum focused on thematic units
  • Strong emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking
  • Group work and development of social skills
  • Understanding and action as the goals of learning as opposed to rote knowledge
  • Collaborative and cooperative learning projects
  • Education for social responsibility and democracy
  • Integration of community service and service learning projects into the daily curriculum
  • Selection of subject content by looking forward to ask what skills will be needed in future society
  • De-emphasis on textbooks in favor of varied learning resources
  • Emphasis on lifelong learning and social skills
  • Assessment by evaluation of child’s projects and productions

Would Dewey have approved of this list? He points out that introducing progressive education is not necessarily straightforward and comes with its own problems. Neither traditional, nor progressive education is completely satisfactory. For example, in relation to progressive education, all experiences are not equally educative; some experiences are mis-educative.  Everything depends on the quality of experience. Dewey believed that what was needed was a new philosophy of experience, which references what is to be done and how it is to be done. Dewey thought this a harder task for progressive education than for traditional education.

In Chapter 3, Dewey discusses the criteria of experience that need to be considered to determine whether an experience is educationally worthwhile. He points to two key principles, continuity and interaction. ‘The principle of continuity of experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after’ (p.35). Experience must lead to growth, and the direction of growth must be specified. It is the educator’s role to draw on past experiences of experts as well as her own,  to determine the conditions that will lead to worthwhile growth, without engaging in imposition, and to bring about a particular kind of interaction. By interaction, Dewey means the interplay between the objective and internal conditions in an experience, which ‘taken together, or in their interaction, … form what we call a situation’. (p.42)

The principles of continuity and interaction intercept and unite. They are the longitudinal and lateral aspects of experience. ‘An experience is always what it is because of a transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment…’ (p.43). The educator must therefore take account of the learner’s past and possible future experiences, his personal needs, desires and capacities, to select the conditions necessary for growth, such that the learner wants to go on learning.

Central to Dewey’s educational philosophy is that education is essentially a social process (p.58). As such educators must consider community activity, social organisation and social control, i.e. ‘the conduct of the interactions and intercommunications which are the very life of the group as a community’. Social control is normal in group activities, such as games, where rules are understood and applied. Social control in these circumstances is not experienced as restriction of personal freedom. Social organization within progressive education allows for all individuals to make a contribution, but progressive education is not a ‘free-for-all’. One of the most important lessons of life, says Dewey, is that of mutual accommodation and adaptation.

In Chapter 5, Dewey considers the nature of freedom. The only freedom of importance for Dewey is the freedom of intelligence, i.e. freedom of observation and judgement, and intellectual and moral freedom. Dewey writes: (p.62)

‘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)

Increased freedom does not mean that there is no time for quiet reflection. Nor does it mean that there is no self-control. ‘The ideal aim of education is creation of power of self-control.’ But freedom of movement is important for physical and mental health, and intellectual growth. The educator must consider how much freedom and what quality of freedom is needed for growth.

Dewey believed that the learner should be actively involved in determining the purpose of his education in cooperation with the educator. A genuine purpose always starts with an impulse, which if obstructed converts into a desire, and it is up to the educator to see that this is taken advantage of, but also that immediate action is postponed until observation and judgment have intervened, and consequences have been considered. Forming a purpose is therefore a complex intellectual operation, a co-operative enterprise between teacher and learner, which involves 1). Observation of surrounding conditions; 2). Knowledge of what has happened in similar situations in the past; 3). Judgment which puts together what is observed and what is recalled to see what they signify (p.69). Purposeful action requires intelligent activity, as opposed to overemphasis on activity as an end.

In  the penultimate chapter of his book (Chapter 7), Dewey considers progressive organization of subject matter, which, he believed, should all fall within the scope of ordinary life-experience. Not only does the educator have to find the material for learning within experience, but more importantly has to develop this into a fuller, richer and more organized form. As such the educator must first discover learners’ existing experiences and start from there. ‘It thus becomes the office of the educator to select those things within the range of existing experience that have the promise and potentiality of presenting new problems which by stimulating new ways of observation and judgment will expand the area of further experience.’(p.75). Dewey believed that this was harder to do in progressive education than in traditional education, because this ruled out a single course of study, and also because the organized subject-matter of the adult and the specialist cannot provide the starting point. (p.83). A key concern for the educator is connectedness in growth, looking to the past, but even more to the future. ‘…. experiences in order to be educative must lead out into an expanding world of subject-matter…..’ (p.87). To do this educators must be familiar with scientific method. The scientific method, says Dewey, is the only authentic means at our command for getting at the significance of our everyday experiences of the world in which we live.

Dewey finishes his book by reiterating his view that education must be based on experience and that we need a sound philosophy of experience to understand what education is. If progressive education has failed it is because educators have failed to fully understand its standards, aims and methods, and have failed to put the basic principles of progressive education, as described by Dewey in this book, into practice.

‘The educational system must move one way or another, either backward to the intellectual and moral standards of a pre-scientific age or forward to ever greater utilization of scientific method in the development of the possibilities of growing, expanding experience.’(p.89)

But for Dewey the key issue is not of old versus new, or of traditional versus progressive. The key issue is the question of what anything whatever must be to be worthy of the name education.

John Dewey’s Experience & Education, is the book that has been selected to be discussed at the next meeting of the Philosophy of Education Reading Network On Tuesday 21st September on Zoom.  The discussion will be opened by Professor Deron Boyles. Distinguished professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at Georgia State University. In preparation for this discussion, Professor Boyles has posed the following questions:

  • Dewey is addressing two audiences in the book—which ones and why?
  • Dewey’s idea that “means and ends” are conjoint often confuses readers. Why does this confusion exist? Why is it so important to Dewey that means and ends be understood together and not separate?
  • Even educators who express their interest or desire to “be Deweyan” in their teaching often run into problems. Dewey gives a clue at the top of p. 19 when he talks about “devices of art.” What does he mean?

References

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. Simon and Schuster

International Center for Educators’ Styles. Dewey’s Philosophy on Experience and Education. (This provides a more comprehensive summary of the book, than I have in this post)

Internet Archive. Full Text of Experience and Education – John Dewey. (This is very useful for word searching, such as for the words ‘means and ends’ which Professor Doyle wants us to discuss on Tuesday).