John Dewey (1859–1952) - American EducationAmerican educator, psychologist, philosopher and social critic who revolutionized education and teaching methods in the United States. The father of PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION, Dewey discovered that children learned more and at quicker rates when teachers encouraged their natural curiosity instead of subjecting them to the rigid discipline and corporal punishment of traditional 19th-century classrooms. Using games and various forms of play as vehicles for teaching, Dewey produced educational results that brought him world renown and formed the basis of modern 20th-century educational methodology.
Born in Burlington, Vermont, he earned a B.A. at the University of Vermont and a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University. He spent the next 10 years teaching philosophy and psychology at the University of Michigan, where he met his future wife, Harriet Alice Chipman, a brilliant social activist who inspired his deep interest in such social reforms as women’s suffrage, compulsory universal education and an end to child labor. Dewey combined his teaching at Michigan with advanced studies in philosophy and in the then-new science of child psychology. While many scoffed at the new science, Dewey found it to be the missing link for his revolutionary new theory of education, namely, that children learn much the same way as adults, absorbing only that information they need to solve problems they face in real life. Education, he said, was thus not an end in itself but a means for solving problems. In 1894, Dewey moved from the University of Michigan to the chairmanship of the Department of Philosophy at the three-year-old University of Chicago. Two years later, he opened the UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO LABORATORY SCHOOL, where he put his new theories of education to the test. The school, which soon became known as the Dewey School, served as a model for academically superior schools everywhere in the United States and around the world. It opened with 16 students and two teachers, but within seven years, had grown to 140 students, 23 teachers and 10 assistant teachers, in 12 grades, from preschool through tenth grade. The school assigned each group exciting projects appropriate for their age. The youngest “played” house, learning a variety of tasks such as cooking, sewing, and sawing and nailing wood together to make play furniture, but all the while they were learning the basics of mathematics by measuring, adding and subtracting, and of basic reading skills by following recipes, patterns and plans.
John Dewey (Library of Congress)
Six-year-olds (first grade) used skills and crafts learned in kindergarten to “build” a farm, using blocks for each of the buildings and planting imaginary crops on a large sand table. By dividing the table into separate fields for different crops, they learned fractions—all, while experiencing immense pleasure “playing.” To the astonishment of the world of education, Dewey’s six-year-olds learned to use measuring sticks to divide the fields into halves and quarters and convert inches to feet, yards, acres, and other units of measurements. They learned volume by counting and measuring bushels. They learned addition and subtraction, as well as the denominations of money by pretending to take their crops to market to sell.
As their mathematical skills reached what were the third-grade levels, their reading and writing skills kept pace because they needed to make signs to label crops in the fields and bushels for market. They drew elaborate plans to build the farmhouse, barn and stable, labeling each element of the house with properly spelled words, measuring each section carefully to be certain they used the right number of blocks. A wrong measurement or calculation often made the house tilt or sent it falling down. But Dewey believed his students learned as much from their errors as they did by solving problems correctly.
Second graders studied prehistoric life by building make-believe caves (with blocks and huge sheets of paper) and pretending to live in them. At every step, students combined what they read in books with “doing.” Third graders studied early civilizations, while nine-year-olds studied local history and geography. Ten-yearolds studied colonial history and built a frontier log cabin. Dewey introduced the “field trip” to modern education as another teaching tool that captured children’s imaginations. Sixth graders and all the older children worked on more complex projects involving politics, government and economics, and scientific experiments in biology, chemistry and physics. In addition to academics, the children also learned useful skills such as sewing, cooking and carpentry. Dewey called his method learning by indirection because teachers taught everything indirectly. The smallest children simply did what all children do naturally—play by building a make-believe farm; but indirectly their teachers taught them to read, write and calculate, and gave them all the other educational tools they needed to build the farm. “If a child realizes the motive for acquiring skill,” said Dewey, “he is helped in large measure to secure the skill. Books and the ability to read are, therefore, regarded strictly as tools.”
In addition to skills knowledge, the Dewey School taught students to work together and cooperate. Again, through indirection, teachers taught children to govern themselves democratically, with each student contributing to the planning and completion of each project, taking turns as leaders and learning to perform every other student’s tasks and substituting for one another. Dewey’s goal was to prevent development of gender discrimination and what he called the antidemocratic belief that one person is better or more important than another. Boys learned to cook and spin and sew, and girls learned carpentry, and all learned mutual respect. Dewey’s teachers imbued their children with the belief that they were indeed created equal and equally important to the smooth functioning of their miniature democracy. “What does democracy mean,” asked Dewey, “save that the individual is to have a share . . . and that . . . through the free and mutual harmonizing of different individuals, the work of the world is better done . . . ?”
Teaching at the Dewey School was more difficult than at conventional schools of the day. Teachers had to be trained in Dewey’s methods and child psychology and become knowledgeable in every subject they taught, from sewing and carpentry to physics, music and art. They also had to learn to keep their students excited about learning by seeing the world from a child’s as well as an adult’s viewpoint. “Like Alice,” wrote one of Dewey’s teachers, “she [the teacher] must step with her children behind the looking glass and in this imaginative land see all things with their eyes . . . [but] be able to recover her trained vision and from the realistic point of view of an adult supply the guide posts of knowledge and the skills of method.” Dewey’s students invariably finished the laboratory school two years ahead of their peers in conventional school, an accomplishment for which he heaped generous praise upon his teachers: “The art of giving shape to human powers,” he said, “is the supreme art; one calling into its service the best of artists. . . .” The Dewey Laboratory School became internationally renowned, and its teaching methodology was emulated by hundreds of schools across the United States and around the world. Thirty years later, the Progressive Education Association did an eightyear study of nearly 1,500 graduates of progressive schools in the United States and found that they had done far better at college than had graduates of traditional schools.
Progressive education was the target of considerable criticism both during and after his lifetime because of the public misperception that it promoted permissiveness. Such misperception was largely Dewey’s own fault. Although a prolific writer, he expressed his ideas in complex and excruciatingly vague language that allowed for much misunderstanding among those in the practical world of teaching. Many teachers, school administrators and educators misinterpreted Dewey’s ideas about learning through play by giving students free rein to play in school with inadequate teacher guidance or discipline. Dewey was, however, a firm believer in strict behavioral controls and close teacher supervision—and appropriate punishment when necessary. He also believed strongly that every child should learn “the basics” of good education—reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, literature, advanced mathematics, history, foreign languages, the sciences, art and music. Dewey’s system of progressive education did not, in other words, change what children learned, only how they learned it. Instead of fear, he substituted personal discovery as the basic method of teaching and learning. He called it “purposeful learning” and “learning by doing.”
Dewey taught American teachers to tie knowledge to student interests and needs instead of forcing students to memorize isolated facts. He taught them to become partners with students in education and to rely on mutual trust instead of fear and intimidation. He led American education into the 20th century and helped it evolve from a cruel form of breaking children’s wills into a way for them to grow and reach their full potential.
In 1904, the University of Chicago was unable or unwilling to provide enough money to keep Dewey’s school going, and it closed. Dewey resigned and in 1905 he became professor of philosophy at Columbia University, in New York, where he remained for the rest of his life. He was never again so directly involved in elementary or high school teaching, but he nevertheless helped train thousands of teachers at Columbia’s Teachers College. In the course of his Columbia career, he also took several leaves of absence to help such nations as Japan, China, Turkey and Mexico establish public school systems and teacher training schools. A tireless worker for social reform, civil rights and the right of workers (including teachers) to belong to labor unions, Dewey wrote hundreds of articles and books on every imaginable subject, including philosophy, psychology, politics, religion and art—enough to fill 37 volumes.
Dewey helped found the New School for Social Research in New York City, in 1919, and, in 1933, the “University in Exile” at the New School, which helped rescue nearly 200 European scholars from the Nazis. It was later officially renamed the New School Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science. Dewey also helped found the American Association of University Professors and the first teachers’ union in New York City. He was honorary president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ organization in the United States.
His work to promote international peace and outlaw war (Dewey said war killed more children than it did soldiers) led to the 1928 signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which condemned war as a way of solving international arguments.
After the death of his wife in 1927, Dewey, then nearly 70, applied for retirement from Columbia. Stunned by the possibility of losing him, the university rejected his resignation and appointed him its first Professor Emeritus, on full salary, with no teaching obligations. Free to come and go as he pleased, he spent most of the next 10 years advising graduate students and busied himself writing about and working for social reform and world peace.
In 1951, he finally retired from Columbia, after 47 years, but public celebrations of his 80th and 90th birthdays kept him in the limelight until his death from pneumonia, in 1952, at the age of 92. His writings, papers and memorabilia are housed in the Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. (See also KILPATRICK, WILLIAM HEARD.)