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Dewey Ever! The Enduring Vision of John Dewey

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In early March at the National Association of Independent Schools annual conference, educator, blogger, and thought leader Grant Lichtman summarized his findings from a months-long, coast-to-coast odyssey exploring schools that have embraced in some significant way the tenets of what we call, for lack of anything better, "21st-century learning." All he had encountered, Lichtman said, could be distilled to a single word: "Dewey."

In many ways history hasn't been kind to John Dewey as an educational thinker. Progressive education--in Dewey's mind and in its classical form a highly intentional and disciplined approach to teaching--has been twisted in the popular mind to a muddle of alternative and sometimes incoherent versions of education characterized by permissiveness and a lack of consistent methods or standards.

It was never meant to be that way. Dewey's differences with traditional education were co-opted in the 1960s and 70s into a point-by-point and then general opposition, in the end giving progressive education such a bad, or murky name, that some schools with strong Deweyite heritages dating back to the early 20th century now shun the word.

A few years back I tried my own hand at reclaiming the P Word in a 21st-century context, working the New Progressivism idea as hard as I could. It seems to me that there is a clear through-line from Democracy and Education (1916) to many best practices in our own era, and Dewey would be ecstatic to find creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking at the heart of our most forward-focused educational thought. He would celebrate the intentionality of well-designed project- and problem-based learning and be extremely happy with assessments based on student understanding and student performance.

Dewey would also be excited, I am quite sure, by the trend in schools toward teacher-created materials and curriculum and by the growing role of students in determining their own learning objectives in environments driven coequally by rigor and relevance. Dewey was not soft on learning and demanded purposeful and well-trained teachers, and he believed education should above all prepare students for informed and thoughtful engagement with their world.

In one of educational history's crashing disappointments, the efficacy of Dewey's methods, and those of his acolytes in the founding of schools across the United States, was at one time pretty well established but almost instantly forgotten. The mechanism by which this took place was the so-called Eight-Year Study, instigated by the Progressive Education Association and largely funded by the Carnegie Corporation and involving dozens of schools (public and private), hundreds of colleges, and thousands of students between 1933 and 1941. The Study's results were published in 1942, just as World War II distracted national attention away from any but the industrialized, rote teaching methods that enabled the nation to swiftly sort and train a giant conscript military using lowest-common-denominator methods that were expeditious and certainly, in a national emergency, effective enough.

The Eight-Year Study essentially showed that control groups of students from traditional and progressive schools performed equally well through their secondary school years, and that students with progressive preparation outperformed traditionally taught students in college. Furthermore, "students from the most experimental, nonstandard schools earned markedly higher academic achievement rates [in college] than their traditional school counterparts and other Progressive-prepared students" (source here). We might attribute this to earlier training in what we today call active learning and critical thinking; sadly, pondering these results and their apparent support for radical educational innovation was the last thing on the national mind in 1942.

So Lichtman's pleasing revelation that much of what we now account as 21st-century learning has its roots in the century-plus-old work of Dewey ought not to come as much of a surprise. Educators in the last few decades have taken much of what Dewey laid out--the need to understand children's brains and interests, the need for learning to be interactive and experiential, the importance of creativity and craft in the learning process, the centrality of planned and responsive teaching--and applied to it the latest research on cognition, social psychology and organization, and curriculum and assessment design. All this later research has strengthened the philosophical and methodological framework established by Dewey and his followers.

We ought, then, to be celebrating John Dewey by pointing out, as Lichtman has done, the extraordinary and lasting power of his ideas and by pushing ourselves even harder in the domain of innovation. The year 2016 will be the centennial of Democracy and Education, and I'm all for some gorgeous fireworks to celebrate the moment. But the best acknowledgment will be to continue to move education ahead along pathways set by its most forward-thinking practitioners.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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