John Dewey


I recently spoke to my sister, a professor English and American Studies at Smith College, about her hero, John Dewey, often seen as the father of progressive education. She recommended that I read his 1938 work, Experience and Education, in which he argues that students should learn from experience and that the quality of their experience determines the quality of their education. The best sorts of experiences, he argues, balance values of social control, like civility and democratic consensus, with values associated with freedom, like risk-taking and creative thinking. The idea is to move toward a structured goal but in a way that opens the student to unstructured experience in the process. He writes: “No experience is educative that does not tend both to knowledge of more facts and entertaining of more ideas and to a better, a more orderly, arranging of them.”

I asked my sister how she thought Dewey would respond to the current emphasis on testing in education. This was her response:


When you think about high stakes test preparation, it’s hard to see how that fulfills any of Dewey’s criteria for meaningful learning. Tests are a single, rigid, top-down goal, at odds with the sort of flexible goal that Dewey would support. He described the ideal classroom as a kind of “embryonic democracy” where the work, the social interactions, and the content of the real world are rehearsed. This work is simplified, purified of its trivial and demeaning aspects, and organized in a way that allows students to understand and use the results.

People who haven’t read Dewey often assume that he was somehow “anti-content”—that it’s all about child-centeredness and hands-on work for its own sake. But Dewey is as much a champion of the “subject” as he is of “the child.” They are, he says, two ends of a spectrum. You begin with the child—with interest—but you end with the content. The work of the teacher is to figure out how to get from one place to another; to create an environment in the classroom that allows students, in all their social, emotional, and intellectual complexity, to engage in experiences that will allow them to master the subject matter.

Whether you are teaching kindergarteners or college seniors, I think the work of the teacher is the same. That work is hard—which is another reason why so many teachers opt for following the textbook. And determining what is learned is also hard—which is why administrators focus on standardized tests to measure this.

Dewey’s book contains intriguing ideas, but is a difficult read. This is an irony I have encountered before: progressive, egalitarian ideas wedded to an obscure style and aimed at an elite audience. But, then, the relationship between form and content can be just as hard to determine as what is learned in a classroom.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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