John Dewey

Education, teaching and discipline are lifelong social phenomena and conditions for democracy, according to acclaimed American philosopher John Dewey.

We learn by doing. Our world is an ever-changing, practical world that we can only know through action. Or put in other words so familiar that any person with even a peripheral pedagogical knowledge have heard them: Learning by doing.

The man behind the words is the American philosopher, educator and social critic John Dewey, who all the way back in 1887 wrote his first pedagogical article My Pedagogic Creed, and whose pedagogical thoughts have since been known worldwide.

 

Education is life itself

One of Dewey’s ideas about teaching and learning is that practical problem solving and theoretical teaching should go hand in hand. This idea has had a huge impact, especially among teachers in the USA. In Denmark, his way of thinking inspired the school system to such a degree that Denmark has been called Dewey’s second home country.

Furthermore, Dewey was sought after in countries like China and Soviet where he was used as a pedagogical consultant.

However, Dewey’s pedagogical philosophy is not just about learning by doing. According to Dewey teaching and learning, education and discipline are closely connected to community – the social life. Education is a lifelong process on which our democracy is built. As he put it: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

According to Dewey, democracy and education are two sides of the same coin. Both involve and foster self-determination, self-development and participating in the common good, enlightened by intelligent understanding and scientific spirit. 

The teacher is the master

Dewey was pragmatic and in no way did he agree with the romantic Rousseau that “the untainted nature of the child should be protected from the depraving influence of culture.” Not only did this position make him contradict the traditional concept of learning – it was also going against progressive anti-authoritarian pedagogy.

Traditional schools with practical learning by passive reception he described as “medieval”. Partly because it submitted pure intellectual, detached knowledge that belonged to the past – and partly because it was based on the inaccurate assumption that children are listening creatures. “But they are not,” Dewey emphasized. “Children are first and foremost interested in moving, communicating, exploring the world, constructing and expressing themselves artistically.”

Furthermore, he criticized the school for counteracting the children’s ability to corporate, because it was considered “cheating” and “copying”, if the children helped each other. On the other hand, he wasn’t a follower of the anti-authoritarian pedagogy, which in his opinion tended to see any form of pedagogical leadership and guidance as an intervention in the individual’s freedom.

On the contrary he declared that authority is a pedagogical condition for the individual’s development. Of course, he didn’t mean the outer authority of the traditional school, but the one of the “modern human knowledge and skill.”

“Humans learn through relations to more proficient people, who become a role model. Not by being left alone. Hence the need for more guidance from others than in the traditional school,” he said. He explained his view of teaching as a sort of apprenticeship, where the teacher was the master.

Good judgement

In 1896 Dewey founded an experimental school at the University of Chicago. It was shaped by “what the best and wisest parents want for their children.” In Dewey’s opinion that had to be what the community would want for all their children.

Dewey’s own children attended the school and in 1902 – when the number of pupils was at its highest – it had 140 students and 23 teachers, who were occupied with the core of the school’s teaching: Chores.

According to Dewey, chores are “an activity with the child that reproduces, or runs parallel to, a sort of work being done in the social life.” That meant activities such as wood work, cooking, sewing and other activities necessary for sustaining life, which combine the child’s experience from its own intimate world with the practice of society.

In a Dewey school the stereotypical gender roles are discarded. Girls participate in crafting equally to the boys, who have as many cooking classes as girls. However, the children are divided by age, where the youngest do what they know from their home. The six-year-olds build a farm of blocks and plant crops they process.

The seven-year-olds study prehistorical life. The eight-year-olds are occupied by exploring, the nine-year-olds geography, and the older ones by scientific experiments within anatomy, physics, political economics and photography.

Dewey thought that this type of practical learning combines more learning recourses than any other method. Partly because you do something, partly because you do it together and thereby acquire social interest and moral knowledge.

The goal is to make the children want more teaching. That is the only way democracy can function as a lifeform, Dewey thought. And the ultimate goal is to create human beings with good judgement, who can participate in the community to discover the common good.

And how could anyone possibly be against that?

Still controversial!

Dewey’s views on pedagogy and politics are still considered controversial.  In 2005, a conservative think tank with scientists from Princeton University among others, should specify the most harmful books from the 19th and 20th century. Dewey’s “Democracy and Education” came in fifth, only surpassed by “The Communist Manifesto”, “Mein Kampf”, Mao’s “Little Red Book” and Kinsey’s “Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male”.

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