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The ideas of the great American philosopher, John Dewey, transformed the American education system. While all Dewey did was simply apply some of his pragmatist philosophical ideals to the classroom, the results of his work changed education forever. In the short essay, “My Pedagogic Creed,” Dewey gives his readers great insight into his ideas regarding what education is, how it should be done, and why it’s important. Today, he is considered a “father of education” and his views are being adapted in all sorts of ways in classrooms around the world. Dewey first stood out by rejecting the traditional ideal of American education which was built around teachers standing up in the front of the classroom and pouring information into the minds of their students. Instead, Dewey suggested a new form of education that utilized applicable experience as the key element of learning. Thesis sentences here
John Dewey embodies many of the pragmatic ideals that define American philosophy. He was born around the time that Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species book came out, so the debates surrounding that topic had a monumental influence on his philosophy. Along with many other American philosophers of Dewey’s time, such as Charles Sanders Peirce, there was a desire to respond to these new discoveries in evolutionary science and find out how they related to philosophy. Dewey believed that knowledge was best discovered through the scientific method. As I will later talk about, this is nowhere more prevalent than in Dewey’s model for education in which he defaults to hands-on experience and inquiry as the paramount key to learning. Going out into the real world and having a live experience that could be tested and criticized by others in order to progress to something better was essential to Dewey’s view and a foundational belief of many American pragmatists.
In the eyes of Dewey, education and life were one in the same. Dewey is quoted as saying, “education is a process of living and not a preparation for future life” (8, My Pedagogic Creed). A proper education of the individual was essential to the functioning and growth of that individual and the society they lived in, as school was first a “social institution.” School was to be centered on the community and the student was being developed in school so they could be an active member of the community. Dewey advocated that what a child does in their home life should be incorporated into the curriculum in the classroom. Also for Dewey, the student had to be invested in their education for it to mean anything. The way that he suggested this be accomplished was to let the students learn about something they were interested in. An education could only be valuable if the student was learning material that they could actually apply to their real everyday life as evidenced by Dewey’s quote, “True education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself” (2, My Pedagogic Creed). Dewey believed that education was a process of discovery where students would study what they were interested in at their own pace as they were gradually becoming more aware of where their interests laid.
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Dewey’s education system is perhaps most well known for how it stresses the importance of “hands on” experience in the learning process. Dewey believed that people learned best by going out and interactively “doing.” Out were the days where teachers would lecture on facts and information, forcing their ideas onto the students. Dewey criticized teachers and the current education system for protecting students too closely and not letting them go out into the real world so they could blossom saying, “the situation approaches learning to swim without going too near the water” (The Relation of Theory to Practice, Dewey). For Dewey, a teacher’s job was more about being a facilitator to the students, helping them discover what they were interested in and then creating ways for them to actively ‘do’ these things. Ultimately for Dewey, learning grounded in experience combined with subject matter that was interesting and applicable to the student would lead to a greater society.
I think that both good and bad come from John Dewey’s ideas for education. First off, I like Dewey’s movement away from teaching styles that stressed only memorization and the regurgitation of facts. Hands-on experience is a proven way for students to learn. It is much more enjoyable for the student and seems to be directly applicable to their future. I also agree with Dewey’s view that students should learn about something that interests them. Stuffing facts that kids do not have any desire to learn down their throats is not beneficial to anyone. When students can actually connect with the material they are learning, they are more likely to put in the time and effort that is necessary to fully develop their knowledge and understanding of a subject. Lastly, I believe that it’s a good idea to focus your studies in one particular area as it is very difficult to master a multitude of subjects. I think it’s better to be extremely proficient in one subject than to have an average amount of knowledge in multiple subjects. This way, everyone can pick an area of study that interests them and then, as a community, each person can bring their one unique area of expertise to the table and the rest of the people that aren’t as fluent in that subject can benefit. With that being said, I think the preceding principles need to be applied in moderation.
While memorization and repetition is not a perfect form of teaching, the results are hard to argue with. I believe that there is something to be said for mastering a subject. For example, my major area of study is accounting. It is one thing for me to get hands on experience directly applicable to my major, but learning cannot just come through “playing” so to speak. I must first study all the foundational information that is out there. There are many people in the world that are much more knowledgeable on the subject than me and there are a lot of valuable things I can learn from them. Secondly, to be a successful accountant, there are other core subjects that I must be competent in. For instance, I need to be knowledgeable in English to be able to communicate with my coworkers and I need to know math so I am able to compute the formulas required in accounting. There is a proven value in having a rounded education. Learning about subjects that may not directly apply to your area of study can benefit you in many different ways. As an example, perhaps it could sharpen your critical thinking skills. And on top of that, a student might think they are not interested in a certain subject until they actually take a class and learn about it. Hard work and long hours spent in the library-sometimes memorizing principles and formulas-is necessary for me to be a master of accounting, although I may not enjoy that work. To me, Dewey’s education system seems to encourage skipping the main course and going straight to dessert. I believe that I first need to master the principles of accounting in order to deserve a shot of going out into the real world and actually “doing” accounting.
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Dewey stayed true to his pragmatic ideals by testing out his own education theories in a real-life environment. He created what became to be known as his very own “laboratory school.” Dewey’s school was radically different than any other of its time. The students did not sit at desks and listen to a teacher lecture or do homework problems out of a textbook. Instead they would be moving about the classroom doing varying physical activities, such as sewing or cooking. As I stated earlier, Dewey believed that students could learn the critical skills (math and science for example) that they needed by doing these types of activities instead of the more traditional “studying the textbook” method. The children were broken down by age and every different age group was always doing something different. Dewey had the kids going on field trips, building models, acting out plays, and playing games among many other “active” things. He preached that teachers should hold off on having kids do things like reading and writing until the student found it necessary and appealing to do so (Dewey Article, Enotes). Dewey’s school had its successes and failures and there is a lot that can be taken away his grand “experiment.”
While I do admit that a lot of great education practices were first developed at Dewey’s laboratory school, I cannot help but notice the fundamental flaws that existed in it. If I was to apply what Dewey showcased in his school to today’s world of education, I think his system would fail. The reason for this is first that Dewey seemed to be looking at education through “rose colored glasses” so to speak. In my opinion, a theory on education should be able to apply to any situation. I think about what Dewey had put together in his school, where the home life was heavily incorporated into the class curriculum. But, what about children that come from broken homes, as we see so often in today’s society? If a child is being abused or suffering under the watch of alcoholic parents, who could care less about their child’s education, how would that fit into Dewey’s system? Dewey’s school would probably work well in a case where a child has very supportive parents that are extremely interested in their child’s education, but how often is that not the case in today’s world? Henry Perkinson, an author and educator at New York University, makes a comment about Dewey’s lab school saying, “Dewey’s educational philosophy depicts a school or school enterprise that never existed and probably never could exist. To carry it out would require superteachers and superstudents” (Perkinson). While I believe Dewey is taking education in the right direction, I think he first needs to find a way to develop a theory on education that can apply to each and every student.
Another area that I just can’t agree with Dewey in is how he resorts to experience as the primary way for a student to learn. Without a doubt, I believe that his method of inquiry can add a lot to a student’s education. In his school, the kids were doing so many amazing things that I wish I could have done in my years as a young boy. But, looking at the big picture, there seems to be so many things that a child must learn over their lifetime that they cannot possibly discover and “do” everything. Yes, you can learn math when measuring out the flour required to bake a cake, but can that form of math be applied to everything? There are other things out in the world like measuring liquids or counting coins. How would one child have the time and the means to experience every single thing? I think that at some point, students will need to use some form of memorization of information or facts as a basis of knowledge that they can then use to learn about other things. A quote from a parent that had a child in Dewey’s school really sums up this problem saying, “We have to teach him how to study. He learned to ‘observe’ last year” (Storr).
I think that Dewey had the right idea, but he had everything backwards. First, the student should learn a foundation of knowledge, from something like a textbook, and then they can go out and experiment and apply that knowledge to real everyday situations.
John Dewey was a great philosopher that made ground-breaking advances in education. He was a man that practiced what he preached and for that I have great respect. I do like Dewey’s ideas in doses. In the end, I think that a good balance of his “experiential learning” in combination with a disciplined study of information and textbooks is the best form of education. While his ideas did have their flaws, the direction that he took American education was for the better.
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