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John Dewey: The Dream of a Democratic School

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on 14 March 2015

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Transcript of John Dewey: The Dream of a Democratic School

"Learning is active”

The children place the bowls of pasta, herbs and dandy bread on a tray to bring to the classroom.
“We forgot milk!” says Eli. He goes to the refrigerator to find two small pitchers of milk.
The children count and stack 16 cups, plates and forks on another tray.
Meanwhile, in the classroom, another group has prepared the tables and chairs for lunch. When Mr. Sam and the children return from the kitchen, everyone begins setting the table. The meal is served family style.
Garrett announces proudly, “There are only sixteen peas. So, only have one. There’s only enough for one.”
Jake leans over his pasta and says, “Mmm. Smell.”
“That’s the lemon,” Eli says proudly. “We squeezed it.”

John Dewey's work began before the events of the 20th century that shaped our world. Yet, his ideas ring true and feel current to educators more than a century later. He has influenced the world of art, education, psychology and public policy; but he was first and foremost a philosopher.
Dewey's Influence
In the kitchen,Chef Sam asks them if they would help cut the herbs for the pasta salad. “We need to fill up this bowl with small pieces of the herbs and spinach. Then we will add it to the pasta and stir them together with the dressing.”
Ana says, “Jake does not like the green pieces in his pasta.”
“I know,” Ana says, “we could put the green pieces in a bowl and if you want them you can sprinkle them on top. If you don’t you could say ‘no, thank you’.”
“That’s a good idea. I had not thought of that.”
“Out of the occupation, out of doing things that are to produce results, and out of doing these in a social and cooperative way, there is born a discipline of its own kind and type.”

"The occupation supplies the child with a genuine motive; it gives him experience at first hand; it brings him into contact with realities” (Dewey, 1915, p.22).
“A society is a number of people held together because they are working along common lines in a common spirit and with reference to common aims" (Dewey 1915, p.14).
John Dewey
The Dream of a Democratic School

“In working the matter, there are recurrent beats of patting, chipping, molding, cutting pounding, that mark off the work into measures”
(Dewey, 1934, p.148).
In the Kitchen
“As one enters a busy kitchen in which a group of children are actively engaged in the preparation of food, the psychological difference the change from more or less passive and inert recipiency and restraint to one of buoyant outgoing energy, is so obvious as fairly to strike one in the face” ( Dewey, 1915, p.15).
In the Garden
Chef Sam takes a small group of children out to the school garden. They begin picking and filling a large colander with dandelions.
“Try to get the ones that are like this.” Ana shows the other children a closed dandelion. “These ones are the best.” Once inside, the children will remove the petals and wash them for a class favorite- dandy bread.
Progressive and Democratic Schools of Today
The Lewes New School in the UK, embraces many of Dewey's ideas. Enjoy this short video, created and produced by the students of the Lewes New School, and a lovely example of project work today.

The teacher calls on Jake who is extremely excited to begin. “Hammers!” he shouts (Jake has recently been diagnosed with PDD NOS). He hops up and gets straight to work. In another room, a wood shop has been set up for the students. The teachers, noticing his love of pounding, have offered this option in response.
Jake’s peers have joined him in this interest and a small group of builders has formed. The children work together on an ongoing building project, inspired by Jake.
Garrett asks Mr. Sam, “Can we pick peas, too?”
“I don’t know. Do you think there are enough?” The children love picking and snacking on the peas during their time outside and they are almost spent for the season.
Garrett notices, “The leaves are all yellow and hard, but I see some peas.”
"Ok”, says Mr. Sam.
Garrett picks the peas and lines them up on a nearby stump. “Mr. Sam, is this enough?”
“Well, let’s count.”
Garrett counts 15 peas. “Fifteen!”
“We have 16 children today.”
Garrett runs back to the growing peas. “ I need one more pea! I can’t find one.” The children gather and help.
“Found one!” Eli says. The children return to the stump and count the peas again. “-16!
A day in the life of a Democratic School inspired by John Dewey.
The Ideal School

The children clean up and prepare to go outside for the afternoon. Weather permitting, the children spend the majority of the afternoon outdoors. The school has a thoughtfully planned playground with many practical activities, including : a mud kitchen, garden, and a chicken coup. A small group of children has been building a long house with large pieces of driftwood. They begin talking about their plans.
Caring for the school chickens
is a responsibility of the children.
They prepare treats of sunflower
seeds and lettuce, feed them, and
collect the eggs. Each week, the
the children bring home eggs to
their families.
“Introduce into the school something representing the other side of life-occupations which exact personal responsibilities and which train the child in relation to the physical realities of life” (Dewey, 1915, p.12).
“For although there is a bounding horizon, it moves as we move. We are never wholly free from the sense of something that lies beyond" (Dewey, 1934, p. 194).

In the studio, Esther tells the teacher she needs the chairs to build her cabin.
The teacher provokes, "Hmm. I am not sure what you mean. Can you draw that for me?"

The studio is stocked with materials for the children to choose from and help themselves to, including; drawing and paint supplies, clay, and paper making supplies.

Esther makes a thoughtful sketch. It becomes clear that she plans to use the chairs with the colored tape to make her cabin.
The children have the option to help Chef Sam prepare the meal for the day in the kitchen. A small group of children raise their hand to join Chef Sam in preparing and presenting lunch for the class.
"No training of sense-organs in school, introduced for the sake of training, can begin to compete with the alertness and fullness of sense-life that comes through the daily intimacy and interest in familiar occupations" (Dewey, 1915, p.11).
In the Ideal School, the home is enlarged; here children and adults experience a free and rich social life, where the child is “living, primarily and learning through and in relation to this living” (Dewey, 1915, p.36).
Today a class of four and five-year-old children arrive at school. They gather for their morning meeting where they sing, share stories and share ideas.

“The child is the starting-point,
the center and the end….
Not knowledge of information,
but self-realization is the goal"
(Dewey, 1902, p.9).
The teacher shares a Native American folk tale with the children. The children are currently deeply involved in an ongoing study of Native Americans.
To conclude the meeting, the teacher asks the students where they would like to start their day.
Today, a number of options are available for the children, including;
wood shop,
music lab,
and art
Equal Opportunity
Civil Rights
The class is composed of children from diverse backgrounds. The program is provided at no cost to families.
John Dewey Valued:
“The medium is a mediator. It is a go-between of artist and perceiver”
(Dewey, 1934, p.200).
“Language exists only when it is listened to as well as spoken. The hearer is an indispensable partner”
(Dewey, 1934, p.107).

John Dewey’s experiences in school contributed to his child-centered education philosophy. The elementary school Dewey attended had no grade levels for younger students, and instruction focused on the basics, using repetitive drills. In the upper grades, his English teacher's grammar explanation consisted of: "There is a rule against that". He attended college at the University of Vermont, where he learned about a more Continental philosophy that questioned the foundations of his Scottish education. His wife, Alice, who he met and married during this period sparked his interests in early education, feminism, socialism, and the labor movement. Alice continued to work for the interests of young women at the University, who were so isolated in their boarding houses that they had little social life. She was part of the founding of the WomenÕs League in 1890 (Harms, DePencier, 1996).

The world might have changed more during the time period of John Dewey's life, than any comparable time in history. These changes included the abolition of slavery, distribution of electricity, transportation by automobile, start and end of two world wars, and rise of many new revolutionary ideas. As a philosopher, logician, and educator, Dewey's views on man and society contributed to these movements in the twentieth century.

John Dewey’s work in experiential education began in 1896 during his tenure with the University of Chicago where he founded the University Laboratory School that later became the “Dewey School.” The laboratory school became a venue for experiments in educational thinking. Dewey considered his school a community where the students became active members. He wanted it to be a place where education occurred based on principles of mental activity and on the processes of growth . In 1906, when Dewey accepted an appointment with Columbia University, his years of work with the Dewey School had already set the foundation for his educational philosophy. During his tenure at Columbia, he continued developing his philosophy through a series of published works that included Democracy and Education (1916), and Experience and Education (1938). (Knoll, 2014).

In January 1896 the University of Chicago opened the Dewey School, now known as the Laboratory Schools, and changed forever the educational thinking and practice in America. John Dewey, the head of the departments of Philosophy, Psychology, and Pedagogy at the University, with the assistance of his wife, Alice, began a school that was “truly a laboratory from its inception-an experimental school where his theories of education could be put into practice, tested, and scientifically evaluated” (Harms, DePencier, 1996.) He enrolled a dozen pupils, from six to nine years of age, two teachers, and an instructor who was listed as "in charge of manual training." (Harms, DePencier, 1996).

Some of the practices of the Dewey school, which widely differed from the traditional education of that time included :

A child would be be introduced to the school through activities connected with the home and through those relational activities would gain social experience. Reading, writing, and spelling would be taught incidentally, as an outgrowth of the child's activities and his need to communicate and achieve a familiar goal
The child would learn to live in the present rather than preparing for adult life in the future. He would learn to be part of a group, taking his turn, helping his co-workers as well as getting help from them and from his teacher. The school would be a community in which the child had a responsible role, instead of just a place for learning lessons from a book. His feelings of success came from being a part of a cooperative enterprise instead of being the winner in a competitive field (Knoll, 2014).

The school was to be a place where the child's curiosity would be aroused by problems, where he would be challenged to find solutions by his own methods as far as possible, using his own inventiveness and creativity. There was to be no rote learning, no answers to be committed to memory. By engaging in trial and error before finding a solution to a problem, knowledge would remain with him. Learning the multiplication facts could be accomplished faster by drill, but an appreciation of number relationships, though it would take longer to acquire by investigation, would result in more fundamental learning.

A child would be held to his self-set task. No prizes, no false incentive, no standards imposed by adults would be used-or needed. And his learning would be interesting, challenging, and geared to his abilities (Harms, DePencier, 1996).

(Dewey, 1902, p.9).
A group of children begin work on the longhouse, stacking pieces of driftwood. Nearby, another group of children begin working on a teepee. Soon the two groups compete over the wood and sticks on the playground. An argument erupts:
"They are taking all our wood! We need that for our longhouse!"
"Well, we need it. We are building a teepee."
This exchange soon involves many children. As it escalates, the teacher suggests they talk about it inside during afternoon meeting.
Inside , the children create a circle of chairs facing each other for afternoon meeting. In this arrangement all faces and expressions are visible to one another. Sitting in the chairs, the children prepare for a serious conversation.
The teacher begins:
"On the playground today, I saw some of you building a longhouse with the wood pieces and some of you building a teepee with the wood pieces. Then what happened?"
Omar begins,
"They taked our wood from our house."
Jessie replies,
"We needed it to build our teepee."
Many children chime in with similar sentiments.
The teacher interjects,
"It sounds like both building groups felt they needed the wood to build with, but there was not enough."
"We need more wood!"
says Omar.
The teacher replies, "I don' think we have anymore. All of the wood at the school is out on the playground."
"We could go get some," says Eli, "at the creek."
A chorus of agreement rings out.
"Yeah, let's go to the creek and get more wood!"
A plan is made to bring the wagon to the creek the next day to gather wood pieces for the playground. This time, instead of bringing the decision to a vote, the children reach a consensus and a solution.

Dewey’s philosophy on education, published in Experience and Education (1938), considers an alternate approach to the traditional and progressive education common in the time of his writings. Where traditional education focused upon strict authoritarian approach using curriculum and cultural heritage for its content, ignoring the capacities and interests of the learner, progressive education focused on the learner’s interest and impulse, allowing excessive individualism and spontaneity which Dewey says is “a deceptive index of freedom”. According to Dewey, neither of these systems is adequate.

Dewey’s philosophy points out that traditional education was overly concerned with delivering preordained knowledge, and not focused enough on students’ actual learning experiences. He insists that education requires a design that is grounded in a theory of experience. He sides neither with traditional education, nor with progressive education, but with the understanding of how humans have the experiences they do, and how this understanding is necessary when designing effective education. What Dewey’s philosophy proposes that a theory of experience be considered and its relation to education. Dewey’s philosophy is that experience arises from the interaction of two principles:continuity and interaction.( Simpson, Jackson, 2003.), John Dewey's philosophy of education was influenced by the philosopher Georg Hegel and the scientist Charles Darwin. Dewey borrowed the idea of a unified whole from Hegel and the idea of improvement by combination from Darwin. Two intellects, also influenced the development of his philosophy, George Sylvester Morris and G. Stanley Hall. George Sylvester Morris was a German-trained Hegelian philosopher, who introduced him to the organic model of nature characteristic of German idealism. G. Stanley Hall was an American experimental psychologist who directed his focus to the power of scientific methodology as applied to the human sciences. (Harms, DePencier, 1996.) Dewey’s insistence on this foundational aspect to his philosophy, he began a movement that generated the development of experiential education programs and experiments. His philosophy continues to remain foundational in designing innovative educational approaches and programs today.

Dewey writes in his book, Experience and Education (1938) about the opposition that exists in educational theory: the contrast between traditional and progressive education.
Traditional education, he describes as a system that consists of bodies of information, skills, developed standards, and rules of conduct that worked historically, and that encourages a student attitude of “docility, receptivity, and obedience”. (Dewey, 1938. p.20) Communicating knowledge and skills, and enforcing rules of conduct is the primary task of the educator. To illustrates the disparity between traditional education and the relevance to students he writes, “Call up in imagination the ordinary schoolroom, its time-schedules, schemes of classification, of examination and promotion, of rules of order, and I think you will grasp what is meant by "pattern of organization." if then you contrast this scene with what goes on in the family, for example, you will appreciate what is meant by the school being a kind of institution sharply marked from any other form of social organization” (Dewey 1938, p. 5 ) .

Progressive education he criticizes as imposing adult standards, subject matter, and methods upon students. It provides minimal active participation by students in the development of subject matter. He argues that progressive education has to do more than simply react to the problems of traditional education Dewey does not reject all philosophies of traditional education and instead suggests that 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. (Simpson, Jackson) 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 (1938) suggests that the remedy to the opposition that exists in educational theory requires a resolution based on a new philosophy of experience.

"Dewey's interest in education was embedded in a wider concern about progressive social change. He was a supporter of such causes as women's suffrage and the Settlement House movement of his friend Jane Addams. His immense range of public and political activities included presidency of the teachers' union, sponsorship of the ACLU, support for the ‘Outlawry of War’ movement in the interwar years, chairing the People's Lobby, and partiticipation in the ‘trial’ of Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1938. After his move to New York, and particularly after the onset of the First World War, a substantial part of his published output consisted of commentary on current domestic and international politics, and public statements on behalf of many causes (Festenstein, 2012).

in John Dewey's, The Child and The Curriculum (1902) he states "children's development and learning were anything but rational and orderly” (p. 8). He advocated a child-centered and community-centered curriculum to give students experiences that make “rigorous intellectual demands in the contexts of democratic social living". The process of education is considered from both perspectives – child and curriculum. Dewey believed that the structure of a child's mind is far different from that of an adult. A child does not have a framework in which to classify and place all the information he is receiving. The child is still developing both the context and the framework to process information about the world around him. The child's interests lie in the world of persons and relationships as opposed to that of facts and laws (Dewey, 1902. p. 5) . John Dewey, with the assistance and support of his wife Alice, developed and tested these ideas in the University of Chicago Laboratory School. The educational philosophies that developed from this partnership shaped the direction of American education. When considering the cultural diversity of today’s society, the ideas identified by Dewey a century ago form the rationale and requirement for a multicultural curriculum. John Dewey knew from both the personal experience, and extensive, hands on research, that the curriculum and the child must meet on the child's terms (Harms, Depencier, 1996).
Dewey aimed to integrate the school with society, and the processes of learning with actual problems of life, by the application of the principles and practices of democracy. The School system would be open to all on a completely free and equal basis without restrictions or segregation on account of color, race, creed, national origin, sex or social status. Group activity under self direction and self-government would make the classroom a miniature republic where equality and consideration for all would prevail. This type of education would have the most beneficial social consequences. it would tend to erase unjust distinctions and prejudices. It would equip children with the qualities and capacities required to cope with the problems of a fast-changing world. It would produce alert, balanced, critical minded individuals who would continue to grow in intellectual and moral stature after graduation (Warde, 1960).

Casil, A. S., (2006) John Dewey
: The founder of American liberalism.
New York, NY:
Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.

Dewey, J., (1934)
Art as experience.
New York, NY: Minton, Balch & Co.

Dewey, J.
, Democracy and Education (1916)

Dewey, J. (1938).
Experience and Education.
Toronto: Collier-MacMillan Canada Ltd.

Dewey, J., (1902)
The Child and the Curriculum
The R. W.B.Jackson I
Library OISE Library. The Ontario Institute for Stud’e Cation, Toronto
Chicago Press, Chicago and London. The University of Toronto Press,
Toronto 5, Canada.

Dewey, J. (1915)
T.he school and society.
Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press

Festenstein, Matthew, (2014, Spring)
"Dewey's Political Philosophy", The Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/dewey-political.

Fraser, S. & Gestwicki, C. (2002)
Authentic childhood: Exploring Reggio Emilia
in the classroom
. Albany, NY: Delmar.

Harms, W., DePencier, I., (1996
) 100 years of learning at the university of
Chicago Laboratory Schools

Knoll, M.,
John Dewey’s Laboratory School

Encyclopedia of
Educational Theory and Philosophy, ed. D.C Phillips. Sage 2014. vol 2. pg.

Leddy, Tom,
"Dewey's Aesthetics",
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
(Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =


Morrison, G.S., (2014)
Fundamentals of early childhood education.
(7th ed.) Upper
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Simpson, D., Jackson, M., (2003 Fall) J
ohn Dewey's view of the curriculum in
the child and the curriculum
. Education and Culture Fall, 2003 Vol. XX No. 2

Warde W. F. , (George Novack) (1960)
John Dewey’s Theories of Education
International Socialist Review, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter 1960.

Democracy in Action
Progressive schools around the world have adapted the principles of Dewey's dream of the Ideal School to the world of today. Examples of progressive and democratic schools, each embracing the philosophy of active collaborative learning in their own unique ways, include:
The Summerhill School
Bank Street School
The Little School

John Dewey's work strongly influenced Loris Malaguzzi, largely considered the philosophical leader of the schools in Reggio Emilia (Fraser & Gestwicki, 2002). Dewey's "philosophical position uniting the life in society and the content of learning in the schools" continues to be a "crucial element of the Reggio approach" (Fraser & Gestwicki, 2002, p.10).
John Dewey has been credited with the development of the project approach. John Dewey and his wife, Alice, developed the approach during their tenure at the laboratory school at the University of Chicago.

The project approach can be used with early childhood classrooms but it "uniquely suited for implementation in inclusive settings." (Morrison, 2014)
Implementing this approach requires that children have the opportunity to learn about subjects and topics that interest them, there exists a sense of ownership between the child and his work. In addition, since the project is unique to each child, the work can be adapted for each individual learner. This allows for complete inclusion in the classroom. Essentially, every child experiences learning in ways that both meet their needs and interest them. Since children are taking ownership of their work, these children are more likely to actually retain and remember the information and experiences they learned about.
Project Work
Two digital cameras and a photo printer are available for the children's use. They are encouraged to take pictures of their more ephemeral or impermanent works of art.
Art and Technology
"The expressive impulse of the
children, the art instinct, grows also out of the communicating and constructive instincts" (Dewey, 1915, p.44).
Art as Experience
The Life of John Dewey
The Laboratory School
The conception underlying the school is that of a laboratory and had two main purposes:

1. To exhibit, test, verify and criticize theoretical statements and principles.

2. To add to the sum facts and principles in its special line. ( The University Record, 1, No. 32.417).
A New School
Dewey's Philosophy:
Experience and Education
Traditional vs. Progressive Education

Dewey’s theory of experience was explore in his 1938 book Experience and Education as a means to add value to the educational experience. Educators, he argues must first understand the nature of human experience. Dewey's theory is that experience arises from the interaction of two principles -- continuity and interaction. (Dewey, 1938. p.25 )

Continuity (past experiences influence present influence)
Interaction (present experience arises from interaction between past experience and present situation.

One’s experience of the moment is unique and profoundly influenced by one’s experience of past moments. The experience of the present moment will impact on the experience of all future moments. The teacher must understand what each group and each individual student brings to the present educational present. The teacher must also understand how the present educational moment can affect all future moments for each student. The educational experience of a student arises from the interaction between a students past and (Dewey, 1938. p. 28) the present situation. It is the responsibility of the educator to understand the dynamic of the past-present-future interactions in order to construct/facilitate education experiences which will provide maximum benefit both in the present and future for the students (Simpson, Jackson, 2003.)

Because, according to Dewey, no experience has pre-ordained value, what may be a rewarding experience for one person, could be a detrimental experience for another. The value of the experience should be judged by the effect that experience has on the individual's present, their future, and the extent to which the individual
is able to contribute to society.
The Need of a Theory of Experience
John Dewey's Contribution to Inclusive Education
The Project Approach
"All studies arise from aspects of
the one earth and the life we live upon it"
(Dewey, 1915, p.91).
The Project Approach also allows students to experience learning in real life settings and ways. Through project based learning children are able to interact with other people, their environment and be inquisitive, rather than simply being passive sponges. In addition, responsibility, teamwork and communication are areas in which children will grow immensely since they are constantly performing investigations on their own and then sharing with their peers. Essentially, the Project Approach focuses on the child and how they can grow and develop in real, engaging projects. (Morrison)
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