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American philosopher and one of the founders of functional psychology, John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont, on October 20, 1859. He graduated from Burlington, Vermont, high school at age 15 and attended the University of Vermont, graduating at age 19. He then received a PhD from Johns Hopkins University. He taught high school in Pennsylvania for two years and one year in an elementary school in Vermont, but decided that he was not suited to be a teacher at those levels, so he taught at the university level at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Columbia University. He also cofounded the New School for Social Research in 1919. Dewey was married and had seven children. A major educational reformer of the 20th century, he wrote over forty books and hundreds of articles relating to many aspects of public education in the United States at the time. Dr. Dewey died in New York City June 1, 1952.
When Dewey was making a name for himself in philosophical and educational circles, the world was at war and industry was booming. There was a large influx of people to cities, looking for work in war industry manufacturing plants. Inflation was high and soon businesses began laying off workers and reducing wages, causing poverty issues for many. Large numbers of immigrants were coming to the United States to escape their war-torn countries or just looking for a better life. World War I brought many demands for well-trained workers. Education and special training were the keys to fill those positions. There was greater cultural mixing and people needed to know how to communicate and get along successfully with people unlike themselves. Women were entering the workplace in large numbers and the image of the family was changing.
Dewey’s educational ideas came from the philosophy of pragmatism and experimentalism and were associated with the Progressive Movement of the 1890s to 1920s. His main educational theories were that only a truly informed, educated citizenry would be free and able to promote the ideals of democracy they wanted to pass on to the next generations. He believed that what was taught in the classroom should mirror what was going on in the homes and communities from which the children came and that curriculum must be relevant to their lives. He espoused active participation in learning and that true learning only takes place when children are actively engaged in hands-on learning and questioning. The idea was that doing demands thinking and thinking promotes learning. He believed that discipline is best maintained by keeping children actively engaged in learning from activities in which they are interested. Positive behaviors should be imitated and negative behaviors or thoughts should be redirected.
Dewey felt American education was failing in many areas and it needed to change to meet the needs of present times. He strongly believed in democracy and rule by an educated majority. In order for this to be perpetuated, he saw a necessity for teaching/learning to not only be truthful, but for the students to see how it is applicable to their daily lives, increasing interest, and causing them to be more engaged in their educational pursuits. Dewey was convinced that education needed to be relevant to situations of everyday life and be linked to practical social experiences. At a time when most schools worked on the premise that children were seen and not heard and that the teacher ruled in a strict, regimented, and authoritarian manner, his ideas began to draw considerable attention, much of it negative. He strongly believed that children should be active learners, being taught social skills, problem solving, and critical thinking. He thought the classroom should reflect life in society, that life skills should be taught as part of the educational program, and that curriculum had to be relevant and practical to students’ lives. He taught that there was a strong relationship between experience, reflection, and learning and believed that effective teaching and learning must link present learning with past experience.
One of the central truths which Dewey espoused was that the education process should be a democracy.
“A society which makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible readjustment of its institutions through interaction of the different forms of associated life is in so far democratic. Such a society must have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control, and the habits of mind which secure social changes without introducing disorder” (Ed. And Dem., p. 99).
He felt that “education, in its broadest sense, is the means of social continuity of life” (Ed. And Dem, p. 2) and was convinced that schools, classrooms, and curriculum should reflect the community from which the students came and that it should be both relevant and interesting to the learners. He believed teachers were not to act as the instructional experts, but rather be facilitators, guiding students to make personal discoveries and become independent, active learners and thinkers. The teacher, student, and instructional content were to be a team, working toward a common goal of linking present learning to past experiences. The teacher’s role would be to know the students well enough to be able to come up with lessons and experiences that would cause the child to become interested and engaged. Dewey believed that if students were truly drawn into an activity with hands-on discovery, they would come up with explanations for themselves as they “do” learning.
Dewey was, of course, a huge proponent of the democratic way of life. He went so far as to say that “any social arrangement that remains vitally social or shared is educative to those who participate in it”(Ed. And Dem., p. 6). To him, it was much more than a form of government, but shared ideas and interests, associated living, and common experiences. As people interact in various activities of life, they learn from one another. From this knowledge, they may develop certain likes and dislikes. This socialization is a major part of a person’s education. He believed the simple act of living together in a family or interacting with others at school or in a social setting was in itself educating.
Critics of his philosophy, and there were many, believed that this type of approach to learning would lessen the teacher’s authority and students would not get the discipline or basic academic skills and knowledge that were needed. It would cause deterioration of standards-based education. There was also the criticism that experimentalism/inquiry-based education leads to uncertainly. The obvious issue with this is that the children were learning what the teacher thought was relevant and important, which may not have been what the child needed or something to which the child could not even relate.
Dewey thought that environment was a vital factor in socialization and learning. “We never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment”(Ed. And Dem., p. 19) As persons interact, they learn from one another, pick up habits, develop likes and dislikes, and pass on knowledge to one another through both language and actions
Activity is caused by stimuli, but not all stimuli are good or desirable. In a school, activity should be adjusted and directed by creating stimuli which are positive, focus attention on proper actions, and bring necessary response. Focusing and ordering direct attention of the student is a major step in facilitating learning. In a school setting, things that affect a child adversely can be eliminated or at least somewhat controlled in a way that increases the child’s ability to socialize more positively.
Classrooms need to be set up so that stimuli can be created which are positive and helpful, focusing the child’s attention on bringing proper response. If a child is not positively engaged in an enjoyable activity, their interest wanes, then is lost, and behavior often becomes negative. “Redirection of thought and behaviors usually has a positive consequence. It is much easier to maintain control in a classroom where children know what to expect, what they should be learning, how they are expected to behave, and the consequences that will occur if these are not followed”(Ed. And Dem., p. 28).
Positive behaviors should be imitated. By observation, students will likely see an activity as fun and very soon be engaged in it. Without really having to instruct the child, the teacher has directed learning in a manner that accomplishes a guided, desired outcome. Dewey was big on imitation, but only as it related to positive attitudes and behaviors. He felt that if the teacher worked for maximum interest and positive activity, poor behaviors would be minimal. If a child sees an activity as interesting and fun, soon he will be engaged in it. It becomes a learned social activity that was achieved by observation, imitation, and repetition.
Dewey emphasized over and over that “the educational process is active, constructive, and is continually reorganizing, restructuring, transforming”(Ed. And Dem., p. 50) and it has no end as long as there is interest and incentive. In The Child and the Curriculum (p. 25), Dewey talks about presentation of facts to a child. Introductory information must be given to draw the child’s thinking to the idea being presented, but only enough to whet interest and get all the children “on the same page.” If there has been no previous hints, discussion, preparation, and no clues, it is highly likely there will be no interest and no curiosity to stimulate the mind. He calls this is a “dead weight to burden the mind”. There is no motivation and, very likely for most children, there will be no learning.
Dr. John Dewey was certainly a strong proponent of American education, but his ideas definitely “ruffled some feathers” for those who believed in the traditional, established methods of educating students. His theories did produce needed changes in many areas of education. There was more emphasis on teaching students how to think, to stimulate learning by creating curiosity and asking questions instead of supplying all the answers. Rote memorization and the regurgitation of information rarely constitutes learning. If one does not understand, if one is unable to make application of the information, there has been little learning taking place. What is needed is the ability to put information and experience into practice in the home, in the workplace, and in society in general.

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