100-year-old advice to shape our activities and lessons today


Teaching | Monday, May 15, 2017

100-year-old advice to shape our activities and lessons today

John Dewey was a visionary in education. His words are still as relevant today as before. See how the can lead us now. (Public domain image via Pixabay.com)

John Dewey was a visionary in education. His words are still as relevant today as before. See how the can lead us now. (Public domain image via Pixabay.com)

It’s amazing how wisely John Dewey could speak to educators today in an age without digital devices and the Internet.

In Dewey’s day, individualization and differentiation of instruction was heresy. Rote memorization and recitation were common practices.

The more I dig back through his life, his views on education and his quotes, the more I learn about relevant, modern education today.

Whoa, Matt.

Wait a second, you may be thinking.

Why in the world would you write about a guy who was publishing books 100 years ago and died 65 years ago? For goodness sake, this is a blog about technology, creativity and innovation in education, right???

We’re trying to shift the practices of education today. We don’t want today’s kids to get the same type of education their parents and grandparents got if we can do it better, right?

With the access we have to best practices, groundbreaking technology and a network of educators sharing ideas, we should be able to do better than before.

To do that, I think we need to go back to our foundations. Back to Education 101. We’ve got to make sure our instructional house is built on a firm, solid pedagogical foundation.

Whenever I read Dewey’s work and quotes, I feel like he’s still speaking to us in a clear, relevant voice.

It’s amazing how his ideas +/- 100 years ago reflect what we’re trying to do in schools — and some of the big pushes some might call “new and innovative.”

This is a different type of post than I usually write. I’m experimenting with the ideas I share with you to help you become the best, most relevant educator you can be for the students you serve.

Disclaimer: I’m not a Dewey expert, nor am I an expert in pedagogical theory. Dewey had his critics. This is my best attempt to pull together some of the insightful ideas he shared years ago.

Differentiation before differentiation was cool

John Dewey. (Image via U.S. Library of Congress)

John Dewey. (Image via U.S. Library of Congress)

Dewey is considered the father of constructivist learning. Constructivism:

  • promotes active learning (learning by doing)
  • acknowledges and embraces the uniqueness of each learner
  • values the background, culture and worldview of the learner and encourages him/her to let it influence his/her education
  • assigns responsibility for learning to the learner

Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? We’re big into hands-on, experiential learning today. (In fact, in my DITCH framework — different, innovative, tech-laden, creative, hands-on — that active learning is the H!)

Dewey was pushing for individualized assignments way before Google Classroom had a feature for creating assignments for small groups of students.

Responsibility to the learner? That was much harder when you had a finite number of books (especially in a one-room schoolhouse.) Now we have Google, YouTube and Wikipedia (or Google Scholar and ProQuest if you want something more academic).

In Dewey’s words: growth mindset, problem-based learning and STEAM

The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.

We’re not a finite, completed version of ourselves. We can grow and improve. Our brains are constantly changing. These are the hallmarks of growth mindset and at the heart of Carol Dweck’s popular book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Perseverance and grit are hot topics in schools today.

Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.

In traditional schools today, failure seems to be the worst thing that can happen to a student. They get a failing grade on an assignment, a project or a test and there’s hardly a way to recover. Standards-based grading is helping us think differently about this. Instead of seeing failure as the end, Dewey was basically suggesting a “fail forward” mentality or that FAIL acronym: “first attempt at learning”. 

We only think when we are confronted with problems.

That’s the heart of PBL, right? Not project-based learning, but problem-based learning. Find a problem worth solving and solve it. This is also at the heart of the design thinking process: find a problem, generate possible solutions, prototype and iterate. Dewey was suggesting it before it became en vogue in recent years.

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.

“Lifelong learning.” It’s in the mission statement of nearly every school district. Dewey highlighted that we never really stop learning. Education is the core of learning anything new, whether we’re children or adults.

If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.

Ah, here it is: my favorite Dewey quote. This speaks to this frustrating roadblock to improvement and innovation: “If it was good enough for me and my parents, it’s good enough for my child.” Thankfully, we don’t take that approach to medicine. As we learn more about quality education, shouldn’t we continue to update our practices?

The deepest urge in human nature is the desire to feel important.

This is still so important to remember in schools. It doesn’t mean that we should coddle students and stroke their egos. However, finding meaningful, worthwhile work that helps us to become who we’re made to be is at our essence as humans. When we can show students how their work in class connects to that — or let them craft their own education based on that — they’re in control of their own destiny.

Art is not the possession of the few who are recognized writers, painters, musicians; it is the authentic expression of any and all individuality.

Individuality. Self-expression. Dewey knew that STEM would be better as STEAM. Add arts to science, technology, engineering and math. Creativity will be a currency that students can cash in as information and ideas are increasingly important in the workforce.

How can the child learn to be a free and responsible citizen when the teacher is bound?

Let’s close this out with teacher freedom in the classroom. With more and more academic standards and forced curriculum, teachers are losing their ability to teach their students what they need in the way they know best. Let’s listen to Dewey here. We know our students. We know our content. We need to be able to act on it!

A return to solid foundational teaching

We live in a world of education where we’re being constantly bombarded with new technology. New apps. New websites and digital tools.

We have new theories and frameworks and initiatives that catch on all the time.

With professional learning so focused on these things, I think an important shift needs to be back to basics: on solid teaching and learning. We “learned” some of this in our teacher preparation programs, but if you’re like me, we haven’t revisited them in a long, long time.

A little bit of solid pedagogy mixed in with new ideas, methods and technology can have big results.

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  • Hi Matt,

    Thank you so much for your timely post. It’s so important that we go back and re-read Dewey. Which of his works did you re-read and take your quotes from? I am especially curious about which of Dewey’s works these two are in:
    “The deepest urge in human nature is the desire to feel important.”
    “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

    I’m not sure Dewey would have been a STEM / STEAM fan as those agendas tend to be driven by the interests of capital. In his vision of social democracy, he certainly would have put history, literature, and philosophy – or broadly, the humanities – as subjects just as central to education.

    I noticed that your favorite quote is one that circulates as being from Dewey, but in fact isn’t. I linked to a place where I wrote a bit about that.


    all the best,

  • David Hansen says:

    No need to re-invent the wheel. Thanks for sharing this.

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