History Teaching and John Dewey

How can educational philosopher John Dewey help educators understand how to create an interactive education in history? Dewey’s educational perspective was “progressive” (8). In this type of education, the child is more at the center of the educational experience and a more active participant in the learning. Being active means students participate in group discussions and projects, but more importantly it means the students participate in the shaping of the curriculum. This participation turned education into an experience, which was a conducive environment for learning and creativity. Below I will explain how some of Dewey’s ideas relate to teaching history. I will first use a quote and then explain the connection.

“He [Dewey] contended that learning should focus on practical life experiences and social interaction rather than the more traditional and staid manner of instruction and rote learning evident in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century schools. For Dewey, learning was at the center of the learning process” (6)

John Dewey

Focusing history education on practical life is something that I have strived to do in my own teaching, and I believe most teachers believe their curriculum is relevant. An educator that uses Project Based Learning (PBL) and creates opportunities for students to develop their own questions can be said to focus on practical experiences. Problematically, a teacher who lectures throughout their class and simply tests students ability to recall information can say with equal confidence that they are preparing students for the “real world.” So then, what does it really mean to connect history to practical life experiences?

Can we truly know the past?

One argument that I have heard is that knowing one’s history improves a person’s ability to be a good citizen. I push back on these educators and ask what is it “to know” history. History cannot be known and is more foreign to contemporary people as a foreign culture. Simply knowing historical facts does not give students the ability to navigate new social interactions nor does it give them the skills to address new issues. What matters is how students approach historical information. The way in which students seek out, interpret, analyze, and conclude through evidence matters far more.

“He [Dewey] proposed that learners needed direction and that teachers have an important responsibility in facilitating learning by encouraging and channeling individuals’ curiosity and motivation so they can develop intellectually” (6)

John Dewey

If a history teacher were to move beyond lecturing over a set number of factoids and ask students to think critically, then they must allow students to become more constructive of their own learning. Students should be asked about their opinion, especially in how their perspectives and life outlooks can affect the curriculum. Since no student is the same, numerous opinions will suddenly flood over the teacher. In order to survive the rising waters, the teacher must prepare activities where students reflect over their perspectives and how it connects to the history being taught. Data collection can also be a powerful tool in changing students perspectives; I have written about some of these activities on the History Forge Blog. For example, ask students about what news events they are most concerned about, or what issues does their community suffer from the most. Once students have had time to reflect, they can then search for historical events, people, ideas, and moments that relate to their concerns. Students can begin exploring these special historical themes and connect them to larger historical themes and/or movements.

John Dewey

“From Dewey’s viewpoint, teachers were to become facilitators, helping pupils to develop skills and processes to solve problems at times of possible uncertainty- skills which could be transferable to other subjects- and for them to thrive and contribute to a democratic society….Dewey spoke out about the need for teachers to have greater freedom in their interpretation of the curriculum” (9)

I believe teachers already possess a great deal of freedom to interpret the curriculum. In this sense, educators have the freedom to choose to interpret curriculum however they want. For instance, an educator can lead their classroom using a progressive style, while another teacher who instructors over the exact same discipline in the same school can do something more traditional. In this example, it would seem that teachers have too much freedom to interpret the curriculum.

What is the proper balance between teacher freedom to interpret curriculum and what may be called “scripted curriculum.”

I believe the freedom that teachers lack is the time to think about the curriculum since they are too busy teaching students. As a professional, teachers should possess the autonomy to interpret educational theory and read about the latest trends and ideas. Unfortunately, educators do not have this time, and even when they do have preparatory periods in their day, they are quickly filled with subbing for other teachers, lunch duties, recess watch, study halls, and much more. In order for teachers to truly participate in the democratic society that Dewey envisioned, teachers must have compensated time to professionally develop.

John Dewey

“There are some convincing arguments opposing Dewey’s of devaluing the use of theories and facts” (11)

One of the major criticisms of Dewey’s theory is the devaluing of facts and theories. It is true that a Dewian approach would focus on procedures and how to improve cognition, but I do not believe facts and theories are completely removed, nor are they reduced to an unusable level. A useful question to ask researchers and teachers is how much fact and theory is too much? Another, how much fact and theory can students handle before their minds can no longer absorb the information? Finally, how much fact and theory do students need before they are able to learn about skills? Teachers must be shown the cognitive research that shows students are unable to solely learn through all day lectures, hours of dry, textbook reading, and homework that does little more than have students search and find answers.

“Dewey has been called the last of the great public intellectuals because his own practice informed his theory and his theory was carried out in practice” (12)

Something we discussed in class is John Dewey created his educational system outside of public schools and away from the general community of educators. Dewey created the Chicago Lab School where he and others tested pedagogies that allowed students more freedom in choice. Dewey’s theory was never fully accepted in professional academia; for years his influence can be traced in education, but there was never a “Dewey movement.” Or perhaps, we are still in a Dewey movement that competes with other perspective forces. The critique I want to make is Dewey informing his own practice did little to spread out his theory. Dewey did work with other educators, but it seems like these partnerships existed outside public education. I do not know enough of Dewey to know if he moved into more public classrooms, but I believe his lab school should serve as a warning to any researcher or “improver” of education. We must endeavor to work with our partners in the public education sphere as that is where most of the teaching is happening. The United States is filled with private schools, charter schools, experimental lab schools, and even types of public schools that can be considered magnet programs (New Tech High School in Sioux Falls, SD, and the Science Program “Zoo School” in Lincoln, NE). These schools may be creating great educational programs, but what are they doing to influence the schools around them?

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