Martin: Dewey’s Still With Us

Oct 19, 2015

Vermont is the small state with big ideas. Think of Bernie Sanders, Ben & Jerry’s, or even John Deere… But when it comes to big ideas that still have a big impact, it’s hard to beat John Dewey, who was born in Burlington 156 years ago today. His progressive ideas about the individual learner, school, and democracy are still relevant today—and we’re still working to live up to the humanist ideals he set forth.

Dewey rejected an industrial version of school where theory is separate from practice, academics from the trades, and the curriculum from personal aspirations. In his words, “Education is a social process; education is growth; education is not preparation for life but is life itself.”

Dewey pointed out that the Greek word techne described science and the arts, and wanted educators to connect learning across traditional subject areas. In The Child and the Curriculum, he wrote that the average student, “… goes to school, and various studies divide and fractionalize the world for him.” I think Dewey’d approve of today’s STEAM programs, which intentionally connect Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Math. He’d also like the current trend of Maker Spaces in schools where each student can be designer, engineer, and manufacturer.

Many schools now promote problem- or project-based learning, and this too goes back to Dewey, who wrote, “We only think when confronted with a problem.” This idea is now considered best practice in curriculum design—start with a real-world problem, then design learning activities that tackle it head-on.

Vermont’s Act 77 also traces back to Dewey’s big ideas. The new law requires Vermont students to have a Personalized Learning Plan that’s shared with parents and continually updated. This is to plan each student’s learning opportunities, not just in class, but also via internships, community service, online courses, and dual enrollment. These plans are intended to connect school and the community, but also require students to develop a sense of agency through formal reflection and goal-setting. Those of us who believe that education is more than just training agree with the intent of Act 77 and Dewey’s famous line “The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.”

In our age of competition and consumerism, the idea that the purpose of school is to help students find their place in a democratic society may be one of Dewey’s greatest gifts to us. In Dewey’s own words, “Hunger not to have, but to be.”