Impact Of John Dewey On Western Education

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The Purpose of Education: John Dewey’s Perspective

For John Dewey, a philosopher that contributed a large portion of his works to education, the purpose of education was essentially social reform whereby a democratic education would ensure that children became citizens who were culturally aware, open-minded people who positively contributed to society. Dewey believed that the traditional system of boring, rote learning was not productive or conducive to the children’s learning and that the sharing of information and knowledge through experiential learning, in a child-focused manner, was a more effective method of gaining knowledge.

“According to Dewey, the purpose of education is not the communication of knowledge but the sharing of social experience so that children become integrated into the democratic community”. (Piedra, 2018)

Dewey felt that the education system at the time did not help the children realize their full potential. Dewey (1897; as cited in Talebi, 2005) states that “…to prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities”. Dewey regards school as a place where children need to learn about life as a whole and not just a place where they are taught content subjects. (Talebi, 2005) Notably, Dewey did not throw out any previous or current theories on learning but rather pointed out that they were incomplete and did not cater to the child from a holistic perspective, he believed:

the right kind of education, a democratic education, will be guided by nature, students’ interests, and an understanding of natural development; it will allow individuals to flourish, utilizing their skills and interests to secure social efficiency; and it will lead to an enlightened citizen, a genuinely cultured one. (Mintz, 2018.)

Dewey’s ideas of education were deeply rooted in his moral belief system and democracy. I see a correlation between Dewey’s desire for democratic education and Mann’s desire to change society through education. “Mann claimed that education was a better means than law to change society” (Jeynes, 2012).

The Principles of Dewey’s Philosophy and Their Influence on Education

At the heart of Dewey’s philosophies’ we see some guiding principles on how the education system is a process, “Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” (Dewey)

1. The Principle of Democracy

“With the principles of democracy as a basis, Dewey developed a new concept of education emphasizing experience and growth” (Sullivan, 1966). Democracy itself emphasized a person’s right to freedom of choice. Dewey believed that the children were the most vulnerable people in the quest for democracy, with the traditional system teaching children to sit quietly and listen to instructions. “Dewey was specifically concerned about the rights of the child as an individual, his right to exercise his decisions, choices in learning and education, and his participation in a democratic learning process.” (Sikaya, 2015)

He theorized that the growth of the children in developing critical thinking skills allowed them to grow into adults that could make decisions based on the information that they provided. When thinking about democratic education, “His preoccupation with this issue is a constant theme in his works, which are infused with ideas about the role that education and, most specifically, our school system have in the transformation of society.” (Pérez-Ibáñez, 2018)

This argument is still relevant today and not enough has been done to include the freedom of thought in the global education system. In many countries, the idea of creating free thinkers would not suit political agendas. Dewey’s writings on democracy and education may even be a cause for concern and a reason for politicians to hold such control over the education system in countries where authoritarian rule is still in place. Despite the guise of democracy and the lip service to the voting system, countries, like Zimbabwe, still have control of their citizens. The introduction of such a philosophy to their education system would not be tolerated. Berding (1997; as cited by Sikanda, 2015) comments about Dewey, saying:

His writings on democracy and education express his philosophy of education as a way of social reform. He saw education as a means of serving the democratic process through making corrections in the economic evils and by obtaining political ends that would lead to the progression of society. Hence, education for Dewey is the culmination of his political ideas. The shaping of a society in which the common goods, among which are the knowledge and social intelligence, are distributed fairly among all who participate in that society.

2. The Principle of Experience

John Dewey valued experience in an educational setting. He believed that by performing an act and then experiencing its consequence that children would learn from such an experience. Dewey did elaborate on this and say that the context in which the experience happened is important as is the child’s direct involvement with the consequence.

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Experience as mentioned in Dewey’s definition of education is a social process that involves the interaction of an individual with his environment. An experience includes initial confusion, tentative hypothesis, investigation, elaboration of hypothesis, and action to bring about results. (Sullivan, 1966)

Dewey believed that if the child was to enjoy the experience or have a positive reaction to that experience, then it would encourage the child to want to know more. Along the lines of the principle of experience is the theory of interaction and continuity. “Seemingly the most significant principle Dewey employed was what became known later as interaction or transaction” (Morgan, J., & Shermis, S. 1970)

An experience can be either positive or negative, depending on the outcome of said experience. “One's present experiences are a direct result of how their previous experiences interact with and influence their present situation” (Dewey). In Dewey's philosophy of education, the ‘interaction’ of a student will depend on the current situation, and how the child feels about the experience. ‘Continuity’ will depend on whether or not the experience was positive as to whether or not the child will choose to partake in the experience again.

The principles of interaction and continuity (intersection between experience and education) form a major part of John Dewey’s philosophical discourse. According to Dewey, these principles determine the quality of educative experience for meaningful life‐long learning. (Bassy, 2010)

The principle of experience as a tool in education could provide a child with the intrinsic desire to learn more. Positive experiences would encourage the child's’ innate desire for knowledge. “These experiences are given value and direction by the teachers; therefore, there should be order and direction of a child’s experiences, which will give him a composed and integrated personality” (Sikander, 2015) It would be essential that a teacher can harness the individual child’s willingness to explore a topic further. Understandably, a teacher cannot possibly know or understand the experience that a child has had outside of their care and therefore communication regarding a subject matter between the child and the teacher is important.

Dewey believed that progressive educators could craft learning experiences that invited equally absorbing forms of exploration and promised equally exciting experiences of mastery by harnessing the natural drives of children in the service of socializing them to valued cultural activities and norms. (Meyer, 2015)

Experience-based learning has been implemented in many schools around the world. We can see this through the field trips organized by schools, school gardens, museums (Winstanley, 2018), and science studios. Dewey has influenced teachers to believe in the benefits of experience-based learning, but policies still demand a high turnout of graded papers, and therefore not enough time is given to this valuable method of teaching.

3. The Principle of Curriculum

As Dewey’s principle of teaching was based on experience and learning by doing, it figures that the curriculum would be based around the child, their experiences, and their willingness to partake in a particular activity. As Sikander (2015) references Berding (1992) who wrote:

Curriculum, Dewey demanded was not imposed upon the students, rather it could allow individual differences among the students and value their experiences. Dewey’s curriculum theory is based on anthropological, psychological, and social-philosophical (political) perspectives that hold a child to be like an organism and this organism is searching for stimuli to grow. (Berding, 1992).

Dewey believed in a child-centered curriculum where the teachers taught to the individual child's needs. These demanded the teachers know each child and their needs on an intimate level. In education today we can see this being observed in Individualised Education Plans and schools like Montessori schools, however, it requires a need for a low teacher to student ratio, which is not often found in public schools.

The Alignment of John Dewey’s Principles with IB Education

According to their website The International, Baccalaureate® aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. John Dewey was one of their key influential educationalists and this can be seen in their aim to create a more peaceful world, this notion aligns with John Dewey’s principle of democracy. Their key insight from the work of John Dewey was the importance of tapping into the children’s natural curiosity. We can tap into their natural curiosity through understanding their experiences and therefore the IB education aligns with the principle of experience-based learning. Finally, we look at their curriculum. It is evident through their website that children are examined and therefore this would require some form of standardized testing and learning. I do not feel that they would align with John Dewey’s principle of Curriculum although they do believe in child-centered learning.

It must be noted that whilst theoretically sound and psychologically relevant, John Dewey’s philosophy of education would require a substantial budget, awareness, and buy-in from teachers and policy changes from a political perspective. These challenges along with the fact that his philosophies and theories do not come equipped with a road map for how to deliver content means that there is still work to be done towards implementing some of Dewey’s principles.


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