The Education Reform Primer: John Dewey’s ground-breaking approach to education

The Education Reform Primer: A blog exploring the history of public school education in America

This blog will explore some of the influences from the last 375 years (mostly from the last 100 or so) that have shaped public school education and made it what it is today. So stay tuned, add this to your favorites, and prepare to receive a bit of education on education.

John Dewey’s ground-breaking approach to education

by Matthew R. Plain

We’ve all taken a class in school where we mindlessly copied words from a chalkboard, an overhead projector, or a teacher’s mouth to our own notebooks, and then regurgitated the same words, from memory, onto another piece of paper during a quiz or a test at some point thereafter, and this was considered teaching and learning. Hopefully, we’ve all also taken a class where the teacher’s own desire to delve into the topic, to master concepts, and to continuously improve was palpable during the dedicated hour of instruction; where the teacher related the curricular concepts to our everyday lives; where the teacher engaged the class in a learn-by-doing process; and where the desired outcome of teaching and learning involved a student grasping the concept that education equates to continuous self-improvement and positive social change. Well, if you had the fortunate experience to take a class that resembled the latter, it’s likely that your state, your district, your school, or your teacher were influenced by the late 19th-century/early 20th century education reformer, John Dewey.

John Dewey graduated from the University of Vermont in 1879. Upon graduating from college, he spent a few years teaching before obtaining his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. From there, Dewey would enjoy stints on the faculty of the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, where he helped start the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. In 1904, he came back east to Columbia University, where he would work as a philosophy professor until his retirement in 1930. In his time back in New York, Dewey helped start The New School for Social Research.

Dewey’s then-revolutionary theories pertaining to education centered on such concepts as:

  • Interactive learning
  • Education as a process for realizing one’s full potential, rather than as a mere mechanism for developing a discrete skill
  • Relating educational content to experiences
  • Teacher training continuing throughout a teacher’s career with professional development
  • Education as a facilitator of social consciousness
  • Education as a social and interactive process
  • The school as an institution of social reform

During the course of his career, Dewey published hundreds of articles and dozens of books on a wide range of topics from psychology and philosophy to education. He was (and likely still is) one of the most well-known proponents of hands-on learning. Dewey helped catalyze the evolution of the teaching and learning process from the traditional model of a lecturer with a passive student en route to obtaining a discrete skill to a new model involving a passionate facilitator with an active, engaged student en route to obtaining the ability to learn, grow, and effectuate positive social change.

John Dewey’s work is likely evident, in varying degrees, throughout all levels of education across the country. His approach to education was ground-breaking in its time, and continues to contribute to education reform today.

Barton Gilman provides the full scope of legal services to education clients – including charter schools, charter management organizations, private schools, education advocacy organizations and other education-related organizations – throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York City. For more information, please click here

Matt Plain is a Partner at Barton Gilman focusing his practice on education law, including school governance, administrative law, labor and employment, special education, and contract drafting and disputes. In addition, Matt is currently serving his second term as an elected member of the East Greenwich School Committee. In this capacity, he chairs the district’s policy subcommittee and serves on the negotiating team. Matt also teaches Education Reform and Policy at Roger Williams University School of Education. He is a former public school teacher and holds a Master of Education degree with a concentration in Curriculum and Instruction. Matt has been named a 2018 Best Lawyer in America in Education Law, a New England Super Lawyer Rising Star, and a 40 Under Forty honoree by Providence Business News.