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Why John Dewey’s Approach to Progressive Education is Still Resonant Today

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Abstract

This essay will try to explain why John Dewey’s theory on democracy and education are still relevant in 2019 and how looking back on his theories can improve the overall well-being of our citizens. The world we live in has become such a divided nation due to the numerous cultural and political issues that swarm the news media on a daily basis. The reason for the division is because people are forgetting what is means to be human and how to show love for others who may not feel comfortable enough to speak up for what they truly believe in. Dewey explains in his essays that the way to rectify this divide is to allow all individuals to come together as one and contribute to society so that we can all grow and learn from one another. This includes the notion that no one should be left behind or made to feel different just because they have a strong belief that does not resonant with your true values. Everyone should be accepted and loved for exactly what they are, and schools nowadays need to start promoting this concept more.

Progressive Education in the 21st Century

John Dewey’s significant approach to education still exists to this very day. The very notion and idea of schooling has always intrigued me ever since I decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life as an educator. I believe giving your life to children and helping them grow up and succeed is the best gift anyone can ever ask for. John Dewey’s theory on education began all the way back in the early 1900s and is still as relevant as ever, which is amazing in its own right. I couldn’t imagine writing philosophies hundreds of years ago that would still be used today and be a guiding light for how to treat others with respect and dignity. His main idea as a progressive was that children should be the primary focus of the classroom and the student’s academic needs and interests should always take precedence over anything else. Students should learn about real-world issues that they can use with them long after they graduate instead of being taught generic concepts from out-of-date textbooks. Students should be allowed to explore and come up with their own questions about everyday life instead of just being handed it on a silver platter. But also, teachers should prepare their students to be advocates in their own life and allow their students to grow up in a world where they will be good and honest citizens because they are the future. We want to leave our kids with the idea that they hold the key to all the success in their lives as long as they hold onto those aspirations and dreams. In this paper, I will demonstrate why John Dewey’s approach to education not only effects students inside the classroom but also outside as well.

Progressive Education in Life

After reading John Dewey’s book entitled “Democracy and Education”, I was really blown away by a comment that he wrote that still resonates with the current state of the economy we live in today:

A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. The extension in space of the number of individuals who participate in an interest so that each has to refer his own action to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his own, is equivalent to the breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory which kept men from perceiving the full import of their activity. 

I think what’s amazing about the above quotation is that it can be interpreted in a few different ways. The first is that when people decide to participate in a cause, they have to understand how their actions can affect other people especially those who feel like they just don’t have a voice today. You can either go around with a positive or a negative mindset towards others. If you go around and try to help others who are struggling to make sense of the world around them, it won’t matter what the outcome is because people always remember how you made them feel and the effort you put in to change their lives. But, if you approach things with a negative mindset, those are the types of people to avoid since there main intent is to bring others down to their level. You can’t just go around and feel like no rules apply to you and that you are just above everybody else. Being a role model for kids is what I plan to do when I become a teacher because you want to shape today’s youth to know that it’s so easy to make a difference in a person’s life.

Recently, in one of my graduate classes, we were watching a short video about The Summerhill School, which is located in Suffolk, England. This British boarding school was founded in 1921 by Alexander Sutherland Neill. Even though this school is one of the oldest progressive and most democratic institutions still present today, there have been criticisms in the past about way the school has been run. A.S. Neill’s biographer, Richard Bailey, argued that “Neill seems to have had an indifference to the outside world. His lessons were presented as take-them-or-leave-them. However, absolving himself of responsibility for his pupils’ learning, for all of its other possible virtues, risked losing those children who needed the lessons most.” After researching the school’s main website, they mentioned on the home page that their students have “no compulsion to attend” their classes and “all lessons are optional”. John Dewey states in his 1937 book, Experience and Education, that a “fundamental unity in the idea that there is an intimate and necessary relation between the process of actual experience and education” (Dewey, 1937, p. 7). That point perfectly sums this concept up and would go against all the rules and beliefs of The Summerhill School. Dewey is suggesting that there needs to be a clear correlation between actual learning and growing when you come to school. If you just come to school without that drive to improve yourself and with no proper direction on the course material, that relationship that John Dewey is talking about will not work and will unfortunately limit the potential for all prospective students especially those who are struggling in school. Every student learns the material at a different pace and John Dewey was a huge proponent for figuring out what works and what doesn’t work for every classroom. If you don’t take any responsibility for your students, then being an educator is clearly the wrong profession for you.

Another way that the quotation above from Democracy and Education can be interpreted is the fact to be compassionate to others and respect their opinions especially if they differ from your own. The principle above could not be more relatable especially given the insane amount of division that is currently plaguing our educational and political climates. When you don’t consider other people’s perspectives and opinions, that’s when a society will become divided. Nobody wants to feel like an outsider but unfortunately with all the social media bullying we are experiencing nowadays; people are afraid to just be themselves because the current culture we are living in has become overly sensitive to everyday issues. The point that I’m trying to make here and bring back to John Dewey is that people in society should be allowed to speak freely without fear of being judged or reprimanded for not conforming to what society expects of you. Dewey states in his 1939 essay, “Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us”, that “the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute”. We have to start shifting to a world where individuals in a community can all gather together to share their thoughts and feelings on how to improve society as a whole. Dewey is suggesting when people feel like they are contributing and actually making a difference, that feeling will entice them to advocate for themselves and those who don’t feel like they have that voice to stand up for what they believe in.

Progressive Education in School

School to me is everything and its honestly what shapes and forms a person to grow up to be a good and decent human being. But educators have to understand the great responsibility and accountability that lies with educating students today. “The last several decades also gave rise to the standards and accountability movement, which in turn led to the increased value placed on student performance, assessment, and standardized testing. This quote from Mordechai Gordon, who wrote a scholarly article about John Dewey’s theoretical philosophies, really goes into the constant stress and pressure that teachers are facing in this current economy. But Gordon also goes into how Dewey “lived through a time in which the winds of change were blowing through society in general and education in particular (Gordon, 2016, p. 1079). The main point being expressed here is that education is always evolving for the better and unfortunately for the worst too. New laws can be passed that could cut funding for extracurricular activities and for other educational programs that students really need, but teachers cannot let political issues stop them from doing their job to the fullest. But given all the technological advancements and social media applications that can be used in the classroom now, teachers can tailor and modify their lesson plans to fit their student’s individual needs. Instead of constantly conforming to what the school wants for your class, the teacher should know deep in their heart what works for every student and what does not. Teachers need to be their own advocates and do what’s best for their children at the end of the day.

The quote below from John Dewey perfectly states my point about the educational process and why educators can’t allow a single student to fall behind in their class:

Nothing can be developed from nothing, but the crude can be developed out of the crude – and this is what surely happens when we throw the child back upon his achieved self as a finality and invite him to spin new truths of nature or of conduct out of that. It is certainly as futile to expect a child to evolve a universe out of his own mind as it is for a philosopher to attempt that task. 

School needs to be a place where people can actually come together and form real conversations and connections. In Dewey’s work, the way I conveyed his idea of education was not in the physical sense of schooling, where you just come in everyday and learn in front of a chalkboard all day. But, in the sense that people will be stronger as a society by listening to others and actually forming real conversations that will help them improve on social interaction in and out of school. Being a teacher is such an amazing job because when you look at every school year, you only have a finite amount of time to make a difference in your student’s lives because eventually they will graduate and move on to the next grade so you want them knowing that you did everything in your power to help them grow and live their lives to the fullest. This point made me dig up some information regarding the John Dewey High School, which is located in Brooklyn, NY and was founded on Dewey’s philosophy about education. 

“The object of a democratic education is not merely to make an individual an intelligent participant in the life of his immediate group, but to bring the various groups into such constant interaction that no individual, no economic group, could presume to live independently of others (Dewey, 1916, p. 116).” This quote from John Dewey perfectly sums up the statistics above because they show how diversity is a crucial component to success in life and school. When you create a home where everyone is accepted and no one is looked at for being different, you create a harmonious community full of love and support. When schools are diverse, you get the ability to learn from other people who lived all over the world and get to experience everything they learned from their home towns. When you seclude people and discriminate based on race, gender, and disability, that’s when bias comes into play and you’re setting the students up for failure. John Dewey is trying to show that looking at the world through an open-minded lens is the way to live a prosperous life. At the end of the day, we are all here just trying to connect and find our place in this world so instead of shutting people out, actually let them in and give them the ability to share their story to the world. If you also notice in the statistics above, the student and teacher attendance are some of the highest numbers on that list, which signify that this school is keeping up with the traditions and beliefs of John Dewey’s work. Showing up every day to do your job and be there as a guiding light for your students is the essence of what makes being a teacher an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling occupation. From my experience working as a teaching assistant with special needs children, the job really does have its challenges physically and emotionally, but the lasting relationships and bonds you create with the children is what makes this occupation so memorable.

Conclusion

In summation, I would like to end this paper with a quotation from John Dewey’s 1922 book, “Human Nature and Conduct”, “The recognition that good is always found in a present growth of significance in activity protects us from thinking that welfare can consist in a soup-kitchen happiness, in pleasures we can confer upon others from without”. It shows that good is the same in quality wherever it is found, whether in some other self or in one’s own. An activity has meaning in the degree in which it establishes and acknowledges variety and intimacy of connections. As long as any social impulse endures, so long an activity that shuts itself off will bring inward dissatisfaction and entail a struggle for compensatory goods, no matter what pleasures or external successes acclaim its course.

John Dewey has a way of showing that educators and students alike can always bring out the best in one another whether it’s inside of school or outside. We are all put on this planet to connect so we need to stop fighting and start accepting everyone for who they really are. This couldn’t be more relatable for teachers because all students are different. They could have different learning styles or may need accommodations for their assignments but that’s the beauty of being an educator is that you can modify the curriculum to fit your student’s needs because the last thing you want is for one student to fall behind while the rest succeed. John Dewey has had a lasting impact on the education field for over a century, which just shows how much time and energy he put in to master his craft. But I believe there is still more to be done in this field and I hope my future adventures in education will allow me to come up with my own techniques and skills to become a successful teacher.

References

  • A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School Website Home Page. http://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/
  • Bailey, R. (2013). A.S. Neill. London, UK. Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education, New York, NY: The Free Press.
  • Dewey, J. (1939). Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us. Edited by Boydston, J.A., John Dewey, The Later Works, 1925-1953 (Vol. 14, pp. 224-230). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.
  • Dewey, J. (1902). The child and the curriculum and the school and society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Dewey, J. (1937). Experience and education. New York, NY: The Free Press.
  • Dewey, J. (1922). Human nature and conduct: An introduction to social psychology. NY, US: Henry Holt and Company.
  • New York City Department of Education. John Dewey High School Statistics. https://tools.nycenet.edu/snapshot/2018/21K540/HS/
  • Gordon, M. (2016). Why Scholars Keep Coming Back to John Dewey? Educational Philosophy and Theory. Vol. 48, No. 10, 1077-1091.

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