Experience And Education
The 20th century bore witness to countless education trends, fads, and philosophies. Some of the more dominant strands include traditionalism, as in the Great Books approach; scientific efficiency, most closely linked with the psychology of behaviorism and the goal of social control; and romantic progressivism, represented at its extreme by the "free school" movement.
Proponents of these major philosophical positions argued vehemently with each other over much of the last century, and they are still at odds as we embark upon the 21st. John Dewey, with his thoughtful critiques of all of these approaches, has been at the center of these debates. In hundreds of articles and books, he attempted to carve out an education theory and practice that might answer the pressing social concerns of his day. Experience and Education, published in 1938, is perhaps his most concise, readable response to the problems he perceived in both traditional forms of pedagogy and in the radical reactions to those conservative forms. In his view, traditional practices mainly served to reproduce an existing unjust social order. But he also argued that many of the free schools of his day failed to offer students the guidance they needed to develop self-control as well as the knowledge they needed to shape their destinies.
When I accepted a faculty position at Goddard College, an institution dedicated to the core principals of progressive education, I was handed a copy of Experience and Education. The assumption, I supposed at the time, was that this was the "bible" that would answer all my pedagogical questions. That was almost a decade ago, and in the intervening years I have used this tiny book—it's only 91 pages—in teacher-prep and graduate courses on education philosophy and curriculum design as well as in a popular class called "Radical Ideas in Education." Despite multiple readings, I always find that the book challenges me to revisit cherished assumptions about how people learn. My students invariably find its ideas of contemporary relevance, and it serves as a useful template as they begin to navigate the complex terrain of teaching and learning.
In the book, Dewey answers some of our most perplexing educational questions. He examines, for example, the appropriate relationship between process and content and discusses how to lead students from engaging experiences to an engagement with knowledge. He also addresses the necessity for teachers to discover the genuine needs of their students (as opposed to their momentary desires) and to create activities and curricula that resonate with these needs.
The fertile soil of Experience and Education also germinated and nourished ideas that form the basis for many of today's common education practices: cooperative and inquiry-based learning, hands-on science, play-oriented preschools, and performance-based assessment, to name but a few.
Conservative critics of Dewey like to blame him for much of what they claim is wrong with our schools, including students' lack of discipline and respect for authority, teachers' emphasis on activity at the expense of learning, and the "dumbing down" of the curriculum. A careful reading of Experience and Education, however, reveals that if anyone is to blame for these problems, it's not Dewey but rather those who have misunderstood and misapplied his ideas. Indeed, Dewey wrote Experience and Education to address popular misunderstandings of his ideas and writings. He criticizes, for example, those educators who emphasize student freedom over learning. One discovers in these pages that Dewey was not an ideologue promoting any sort of "ism"—including progressivism—but rather a serious thinker seeking to provide a solid basis for teaching and learning.
These days, teachers across the nation are feeling the need to respond to tough new education standards and high- stakes testing. Progressive practices are under assault. In many places, educators who passionately believe in Dewey's tenets—that students' experiences should be the starting point for learning and that control of the learning process should rest with students, not teachers—are feeling pressure to conform. To better answer their critics, these teachers would do well to study the intellectual roots of their convictions. Experience and Education is a great place to begin.
Vol. 11, Issue 7, Pages 57, 73Published in Print: April 1, 2000, as Experience And Education