The legacy of John Dewey

|5 min read

Is your teaching practice stuck in 1899? Maybe it should be. John Dewey’s ideas of a child-centred approach and linking school to real-life experiences are just as relevant today.

I remember taking John Dewey’s The School and Society off the shelf at the university library. It was a hardback, published in 1899 with a brown cover and embossed lettering. The pages were thick and cream coloured. It smelt old. Safe to say, I expected a long, dry read. How wrong I was!

Here was a voice from the past that still resonates with educational issues today. I read the whole book that day and found a new hero.

So who is John Dewey and why is he still so relevant today?

Who was John Dewey?

John Dewey (1859–1952) was an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer. As one of the most prominent American scholars in the first half of the twentieth century, he believed in basing education on the principle of learning through doing.

He viewed learning as a highly social activity that happened through ‘direct living’ rather than ‘abstract or remote references’.

Dewey’s child-centred approach

Dewey pin-pointed several elements he felt were lacking within traditional education. He hoped that there would be a revolution away from them and towards a more child-centred approach.

These elements were:

  • Passivity of attitude
  • The mechanical massing of children
  • The uniformity of curriculum and method

Seem familiar? The elements put the ‘centre of gravity’ outside the child and on to the teacher and the textbook. Something that’s still noticeable in education today.

Echoing Vygotsky, Dewey understood that learning is social — children learn from adults and peers. It’s a waste to not link experiences outside the classroom with experiences inside the classroom (and vice versa).

Dewey identified that school could be too isolated from the rest of a child’s life. That certainly resonated for me when I read it.

Dewey’s four impulses of learners

Dewey didn’t appreciate the unnatural way schools separated learning about things from learning through using the imagination and having experiences.

He challenged the practice of his day by asking:

Shall we ignore this native setting and tendency, dealing, not with the living child at all, but with the dead image we have erected, or shall we give it play and satisfaction?

120 years later, we could ask the same question: is imagination and opportunity for experience relegated and replaced with knowledge for knowledge’s sake?

Dewey believed that learning should connect to the four ‘impulses’ of learners. These impulses are natural resources that lead to growth.

  1. The social impulse: meaning conversation and communication. Dewey stated, “the language instinct is the simplest form of the social expression of the child and the greatest of all educational resources”.
  2. The instinct to make: a child’s impulse to construct and be creative instead of being passive and conforming.
  3. The instinct of investigation: the way children like to do things and watch to see what will happen.
  4. The art instinct: where children tell or make to express and represent.

The maths mastery approach uses all four instincts: social through collaborative tasks, the instinct to make and the art instinct through mathematical representation and story-making, and investigation through the anchor tasks at the start of a lesson. Dewey might have enjoyed that!

What does Dewey’s approach mean for your classroom practice?

So much of what Dewey identified in American schools a hundred years ago seems very familiar to us. Despite the movement towards a more child-centred approach in the second half of the twentieth century, it’s easy to see that ‘school’ is one kind of learning and ‘home’ another.

He even went as far as saying that although books are key to interpreting and expanding experiences, they’re no substitute for actual experience. Symbols are never a stand-in for reality. Instead, children benefit from seeing books as a way to solve real-life problems and pursuing their interests.

A good example of this is in the teaching of history, which Dewey suggests could be taught as ‘social processes’ by relating it to current realities and problems in society.

How to integrate Dewey’s insights into your practice

Dewey’s refreshing perspective was that school life should connect to a learner’s home life. Today it often seems that these ideas take a backseat and covering the curriculum takes priority.

So, how can you integrate Dewey’s insights into your practice?

  1. At the start of a lesson, ask learners a question that ties in with their own experiences.
  2. Link learners home lives to your lessons. When one of my learners was recently in the newspaper, we used that as a starting point for working on writing a report.
  3. Look for creative ways to incorporate learning through experiences. These could be school trips, inviting specialists to teach skills in the classroom, or asking community members to pass on hobbies or life skills.

John Dewey’s inspiring legacy teaches us that relating school to the rest of the learners’ lives makes their learning more meaningful. It’s our role to bridge the gap and integrate the two in a system that doesn’t always facilitate it.

Further Reading:
John Dewey (1899) The School and Society and The Child and the Curriculum.