John Dewey was an American writer and educational philosopher who lived from 1859 to 1952.
He believed that education should be relevant and rewarding – rather than only theoretical. It should also equip students to take a full and active part in shaping their future society.
They may even be able to find their real vocation. He wrote:
“To find out what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is the key to happiness.”
America was shifting towards a different kind of economy and, John maintained, traditional schooling would not produce active, creative citizens.
‘Traditional education’, John believed, saw children as empty, passive receptacles to be filled with ideas. This helped to support the existing order.
‘Progressive education’, for which he – rightly or wrongly – became known, saw school as an opportunity for children to develop as individuals and citizens. So how could students develop skills to shape their future lives?
John believed education must be linked to the child’s experience. Students were much more likely to embrace mathematics, for example, if they could see how it applied to their daily lives. He wrote in My Pedagogic Creed.
“I believe that the school must represent present life – life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.”
Dewey was one of the first to promote this approach in America. Here are some – though not all – of the principles that run through his work.
People can learn by participating in relevant learning experiences.
People can develop their problem-solving skills, clarify the learning and apply the lessons in their daily lives.
People can take responsibility, think for themselves and take an active role as citizens.
People can follow their vocation and develop the habit of life-long learning.
A person’s vocation is their calling: it is what they are here to do. They can follow their vocation, express it through various vehicles and do valuable work.
Dewey railed against the concept of ‘vocational training’ being used to serve industry. Students were being prepared for jobs in which they might be trapped for life.
He had a very different view of what a vocation entailed – and also believed in life-long learning. Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education:
“The dominant vocation of all human beings at all times is living – intellectual and moral growth.
“Put in concrete terms, there is danger that vocational education will be interpreted in theory and practice as trade education: as a means of securing technical efficiency in specialised future pursuits.
“It is a conventional and arbitrary view which assumes that discovery of the work to be chosen for adult life is made once and for all at some particular date.”
“The preparation for vocations (should) be indirect rather than direct; namely, through engaging in those active occupations which are indicated by the needs and interests of the pupil at the time.
“Only in this way can there be on the part of the educator and of the one educated a genuine discovery of personal aptitudes so that the proper choice of a specialised pursuit in later life may be indicated.
“Moreover, the discovery of capacity and aptitude will be a constant process as long as growth continues.”
Dewey’s views sparked controversy. Backed by humanists, his writings spread far and wide. He travelled the world, lecturing in places such as Europe, China and Japan.
His views, however, continue to appeal to those who aim to translate philosophy into practice. For example, people who focus on project work, action learning, workshops, simulation and community based learning.
Contribution to the strengths approach
John’s work embodied many elements of the humanistic tradition that has contributed to strengths approach. For example:
He believed in enabling people to follow their vocation – their calling – and encouraged the concept of life-long learning.
He focused on the student’s real-life experiences and believed in making learning relevant and rewarding.
He provided the philosophical foundation for ‘learning by doing’ and experiential education.
This enabled people with different learning styles – multiple intelligences – to make use of these strengths when developing. People could then take responsibility for their learning, clarify the lessons and apply these in their future lives.