“Dewey” See Any Changes 100 Years Later?


I recently read a chapter from The Educational Imagination by Elliot Eisner.  The topic was Curriculum Ideologies, and one of the ideologies featured was “Progressivism.”  As I was reading this, I was taken back to my undergraduate days when we studied the philosophy of John Dewey from the early 20th century.  I respected Dewey’s ideas back then, and I still do today.

For the last five years I have been studying the principles of “21st century skills.”  I have read, listened to, and spoken with some of the top thinkers in this area such as Alan November, Will Richardson, David Warlick, Thomas Friedman, and Daniel Pink.  The message they advocate is the same:  We must change the way we teach to meet the needs of 21st century learners.  They espouse the importance of self-directed learning, authentic units of study, problem-based learning, metacognition, and students taking ownership of their learning.  These forward-thinking educators are some of the leading critics of the lack of change in teaching methodology in the current No Child Left Behind environment.

I believe that these concepts are child-centered and are the best practices in teaching, yet I continue to be frustrated with the contradictory policies that make up the high-stakes testing world of NCLB.  How can we possibly expect children to develop critical thinking skills or self-directedness when our schools are judged on the results of multiple choice tests given once per year?  The strain on teachers and administrators to prove their worth through standardized test scores is so great that we are compelled to continue with the “sage on the stage” mentality instead of turning over the learning to the students.  Teachers are feeling pressured to “fill up their students’ heads” with massive amounts of information so they will meet state standards on tests like the ISAT.

Interestingly, while reading the Eisner chapter, I was disturbed to read that the situation in American education has not changed much in the last 100 years.  The curricular ideology of Progressivism and more specifically the philosophy of John Dewey, rings as true today as it did in the early 1900s.  Dewey wrote about the “educational situations through which a child becomes increasingly able to deal with ever more complex and demanding problems.”  He clearly believed that education should be problem-centered, that children should be motivated to create the problems to be solved, that they should formulate their own rules for social living, and that the instruction should start with an understanding of the whole child including his social and emotional well-being.

Dewey’s beliefs conflicted with the more popular viewpoint of his day which revolved around the concept of running schools like factories where the outcomes of education were based on the achievement of standardized goals.  This “efficiency movement” in education was the foundation of the American public schools in Dewey’s era, whereas the concepts of Progressivism flourished only in small independent schools.  The similarities of early 20th century educational thought and early 21st century educational thought are striking.  As much as I am a proponent of public school education for the good of our country, I cannot help but wonder if the best place for children is in private, independent schools that do not fall under the auspices of federal and state mandates.  This thought frightens and upsets me, and I hope there is change on the horizon for the majority of children who are enrolled in public schools (like my own kids).

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