John Dewey Ahead of my return to graduate school I have decided to spend some time grappling with the theories and philosophies of Joh Dewey, Paulo Friere, Carter G. Woodson, and other educators whose work informs my own perspectives on public education and education reform. I have decided to begin with Dewey’s Experience and Education for two reasons. First, Dewey is the theorist with whom I am least familiar and to whose work I was introduced most recently. Second, his essay/book Experience and Education is written with a conciseness and clarity that I hope to master in my own writing. Rather than address the entire essay at once, I have decided to write and reflect on this work a chapter at a time in the hopes that I am able to come to some new set of conclusions regarding the state of progressive education in the present, as well as to consider what progressive public education might resemble in the future.

According to Dewey, three interrelated components come together to form a triad (my word, not Dewey’s) that is Traditional Education. These components are (1)content knowledge and skills that students are expected to master, (2) rules and behavioral norms to which students (and staff) are expected to adhere, and (3) systems of organization to which students, staff, schools, and school districts are beholden. Dewey’s expanded description of the three components are as follows:

  • Content Knowledge and Skills are “bodies of information and skills that have been worked out in the past…”
  • Systems of Organization are “time schedules, schemes of classification, and of examination and promotion.”
  • Behavioral norms are described as the “forming of habits of action in conformity (emphasis mine) with rules and standards.”

Essentially, traditional education requires passivity and obedience from students and staff in order for it to accomplish it’s goal, the transmission of static knowledge and skills from books to teachers to students in order to “prepare the young for future responsibilities and successes in life.” A significant, and sad, point of interest is that for over three-quarters of a century (Experience and Education was published in 1938) educators have been rebelling against the same things…imposed conformity, rigidity, and an adherence to static traditions in favor of a system of education that advocates for creativity, flexibility, and educative experiences designed to address the present, while encouraging students and staff to think, teach, and learn for the future.

Dewey presents Progressive Education as a more just and natural alternative to Traditional Education. It is more just in that it does not rely on imposition from above and without as a means of control. It is more natural in that it seeks to explore strategies for teaching and learning that are best for students. However, Dewey does not frame Progressive Education as the Jedi to Traditional Education’s Sith. It does not exist solely in opposition to what came before it. Dewey sidesteps the wholesale rejection of all that is typified in Traditional Education and instead advocates that proponents of Progressive Education adopt an approach that encourages them to explore how rules, organizational structure, and content knowledge may be employed in a system of education that is not overly rigid or imposing. Progressive Educators ought to explore how such components may be used to create experiences for and with students that encourages their present, and future, love and pursuit of learning.

Dewey’s take on Progressive Education is of particular interest to me because his vision, or at the very least his message, seem to have been co-opted by educational activists and corporate reformers alike. Everyone claims to want the same things, but for very different reasons. The corporate reformers want students to be “college and career ready, ” which is just code for productive employees. I believe that the educational activists that I respect want students to truly develop a love for learning (and social justice) in order to solve the problems that humanity must face if we are ever to mature as a species. However, in both cases, I wonder how much time either camp has spent grappling with the roles that current norms may play in promoting or retarding students” interest in learning in their new schemas. If I were a betting man, I would wager half of my salary plus all of my retirement that the answer is “not much.”

For me, the logistics of a shift from Traditional Education to Progressive Education matter as much as the philosophies that undergird the shift. The logistics are the specific answers to the who, what, when, where, how, and why, of the work. Without attending to these questions then all we have is a wish for education reform, not a plan.

And so, as Dewey points out, Progressive Education cannot be a wholesale rejection of all that typified Traditional Education because as we answer the questions (who, what, when, etc.) we will invariable attend to what students must learn, when they must learn it, who will be responsible for various aspects of operating the school, etc. We will end up borrowing a great deal, at the very least schemes of organization and the identification of content and skills, from Traditional Education to create New Schools. However, in creating these New Schools of Progressive Education we must ensure that the experiences that students have are those that promote a current and future love of learning, particularly for students who are typically excluded from curricula (students of color, female students, students with disabilities, non-English speaking students, etc.). Inclusiveness must be central to any notion of Progressive Education.

Teacher preparation programs, charter schools, curricula, educational technology, and even the physical space of schools are all worthy of critique, given the scope of the problem of reorganizing Traditional Schools. I’ll explore each of these in greater detail later, but for now, I’ll read, research, and think more on the problem.


Traditional vs. Progressive Education: Thoughts on Dewey

5 thoughts on “Traditional vs. Progressive Education: Thoughts on Dewey

  • April 12, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    Your quote, “However, in both cases, I wonder how much time either camp has spent grappling with the roles that current norms may play in promoting or retarding students” interest in learning in their new schemas”, can also apply to how current norms may play in promoting or retarding effective teachers’ interest in teaching.

    My attitudes ebb and flow, but steadily as of late, I don’t see myself lasting in the public school sector. My love for teaching has not weened, only my compliance and faith in the system has. My pedagogy and practice is too Reality based. My theories are almost backwards to the system’s. Even when teachers know how to educate using a reality pedagogy or a progressive approach, the opportunity and system support to implement that practice is rare. Even if you have an administrator who loves your practice, if someone above them thinks you’re too radical, they’ll find a way to oppress your rights as a public school educator. The few times I have been given antonymy (door closed, no questions asked) in my classroom, my students exceeded benchmarks, but believe it or not, systems don’t even care about you legitimately “meeting the needs of all students” if your cultural practice is not what they understand. The Teacher Evaluation online system is effectively rooting out progressive teachers too.

    Perhaps next week, I feel more on the upswing.
    Thanks for this post.

    • April 12, 2014 at 11:10 pm

      Thank you for reading, and for commenting.

      I’m right there with you with regard to the realities of this work. If we could close our doors, or the doors to our schools, and teach as we saw fit, the possibility for small pockets of progressive education would increase significantly. However, we all have a boss, who also has a boss, with whom to contend.

      My thoughts have been drifting more toward teacher preparation programs (traditional and alternative) lately. My feeling is that if we could improve those programs…or somehow infect the next generation of teachers with the spirit of progressivism BEFORE they ever set foot in a classroom…and we could also somehow nurture that philosophy in them while they work…then we would eventually have administrators and central office staff who would have at least had the seeds of a better way of doing this work implanted in them.

      Maybe I’m being naive, but I think that it would be better for us to create healthy teachers rather than fix broken ones. Don’t hold me too tightly to these words though. As I said in the post above, I’m still trying to sort all of this out.

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  • September 20, 2017 at 7:13 pm

    Hi, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and I was wondering if I could quote you in one of my papers. If so, how would I reference your article?


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