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.
- 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”.
- The instinct to make: a child’s impulse to construct and be creative instead of being passive and conforming.
- The instinct of investigation: the way children like to do things and watch to see what will happen.
- 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!