Monday, May 7, 2012

Traditional vs. Progressive Education (Dewey 1938)

Dewey, J. (1938). Traditional vs. Progressive Education. Experience and Education (pp. 17-23). New York: Simon & Schuster.

Dewey begins his discussion of what that experience of education should be by clarifying that he is not attempting to completely negate traditional education. In fact, he feels that complete negation of traditional education would result in developing a new form of education “negatively rather than positively and constructively” (p.20). He does, however, note that the drawback of the “traditional scheme” is that it is “one of imposition,” in which teachers “are the agents through which knowledge and skills are communicated” (p. 18). When this happens, the “gulf between the mature or adult products and the experience and abilities of the young” is too wide and students cannot actively participate in constructing meaning (p.19). While traditional education is static and taught “as a finished product,” without regard to how that product was constructed, it doesn’t allow for students to consider how to construct solutions, which Dewey claims is a valuable skill for developing solutions for future problems. Progressive education, doesn’t immediately solve problems by eliminating the barriers that traditional education imposes. Instead, it creates new problems, such as “What does freedom mean and what are the conditions under which it is capable of realization?” and “How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?” (pp.22-3) In his introduction to his ideas about the possibilities of education, he clearly proclaims that the progressive form is certainly not the easier, but one that necessitates both learners and teachers to determine a “more effective source of authority” (p.21) for a truly educational experience.

I completely agree that progressive education is NOT the easier route. Instead, we adults are delicately dancing between guiding and informing the student. Especially in the age of the Internet, I recognize that my role needn’t be one of informant. Instead, I should be helping students learn how to learn.

Additionally, I found his comments about imposing adult standards and subject matter very interesting. In thinking about how adults and teens should interact, there should be a healthy balance of shared experiences. The gap must not be “too great,” or it is not a healthy, constructive environment. Like psychology research Robert Epstein, Dewey seems to feel that interaction between students and adults is very important.  While Epstein contends that the interaction allows for teens to learn how to become adults (versus break away from them), Dewey feels that adults should not impose ideas (or subject matter) onto teens. This creates a huge question for the teacher. How much guidance is too much?

His opposition to static, product-oriented learning reminded me of how project-based learning can go wrong. When a project simply replaces an essay or test, it is another form of a static, finished product. BUT, when the project allows for students to tackle a problem, or to figure something out, this is a useful skill that can be applied to problems in the future. It’s transferable. Progressive learning necessitates looking into a changing world and recognizing that the world is their present; they shouldn’t simply prepare for what is to come and wait for their application “someday” in the future.

His question about how much of the past adults should bring into an interesting one.


“Teachers are the agents through which knowledge and skills are communicated and rules of conduct enforced” (p. 18).

“The traditional scheme is, in essence, one of imposition from above and from outside. It imposes adult standards, subject-matter, and methods upon those who are only growing slowly toward maturity. The gap is so great that the required subject-matter, the methods of learning and of behaving are foreign to the existing capacities of the young. They are beyond the reach of the experience the young learners already possess. Consequently, they must be imposed; even though good teachers will use devices of art to cover up the imposition so as to relieve it of obviously brutal features. But the gulf  between the mature or adult products and the experience and abilities of the young is so wide that the very situation forbids much active participation by pupils in the development of what is taught.” (p. 18-19).

“Moreover, that which is taught is thought of as essentially static. It is taught as a finished product, with little regard either to the ways in which it was originally built up or to changes that will surely occur in the future” (p. 19).

This could be a huge benefit to constructive project-(or problem-) based learning. It means taking in information and figuring out a problem. It involves figuring something out... which, of course, is a useful tool for the ever-changing future.

Traditional vs. Progressive
“To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity, to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world” ( pp.19-20)

Dewey claims that we must not forsake the older practices, lest we develop a new form of education “negatively rather than positively and constructively. Then it takes its clew in practice fromt hat which is rejected instead of from the constructive development of its own philosophy ” (p.20) i.e., Don’t reject everything just because you are aiming for something new.
“...there is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education” (p.20)

Democratic Education:
“When external authority is rejected, it does  not follow that all authority should be rejected, but rather that there is need to search for a more effective source of authority” (p.21)

Why Adult-Student Relationships are Crucial:
“On the contrary, basing education upon personal experience may mean more multiplied and more intimate contacts between the mature and the immature than ever existed in the traditional school, and consequently more, rather than less, guidance by others” (p.21)

New education doesn’t solve problems, but “set new problems which have to be worked out on the basis of a new philosophy of experience” (pp.21-22)

What it is NOT:
“...many of the newer schools tend to make little or nothing of organized subject-matter of study; to proceed as if any form of direction and guidance by adults were an invasion of individual freedom, and as if the idea that education should be concerned with the present and future meant that acquaintance with the past has little or no role to play in education” (Dewey, p.22).

“Let us say that the new education emphasizes the freedom of the learner... A problem is now set. What does freedom mean and what are the conditions under which it is capable of realization?... How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present? (Dewey, p.22-23)

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