Dewey’s Influence on Education

Dewey’s profound influence on education is readily apparent.  What sets him apart from traditional education of the time is the focus on a student’s everyday experience.  This relates to ‘modernist’ thinking of the 1920s and 1930s, which broke free from traditional structures and sought to find meaning in the ordinary (i.e. famous writers such as William Carlos Williams).  It was Pestalozzi who championed ‘learning by doing’, and Froebel who discussed the ‘importance of play’, but Dewey combined these philosophies into a child-centered approach that emphasized the student’s natural proclivities.
Gutek (2011) suggests that ‘in the twenty-first century, Dewey’s emphases on social intelligence and community has again elicited a favorable response’ and his ideas of education based on experience ‘is being reasserted by some educational policymakers’ (p 364).  Dewey’s ideas concerning ‘inquiry methods’, the ‘need for process-based learning activities’, and the utilization of ‘authentic assessment’ would be applauded by any educator utilizing higher-order thinking skills in the classroom.
I often think the shift in the teaching of vocabulary when I consider how instructional processes have shifted from the traditional to today.  Even during my student teaching, students would learn vocabulary by utilizing a workbook which presented them with a list of words to memorize and definitions to regurgitate at the end of the week.  Now, our standards call for us to teach vocabulary acquisition through context-clue strategies in authentic texts.  The long-term benefits of this are astounding.  When students connect a word to prior knowledge or some other experiential context, they retain the connection.  Likewise, in situations where they encounter an unfamiliar word, they have supports in place to help them utilize critical thinking to determine the meaning without a dictionary or other crutch.  Dewey would applaud the emphasis of building vocabulary through personal connection.  This makes perfect sense when you consider the ways in which a toddler acquires vocabulary: connecting words to objects that they encounter every day.

Gutek, G. L. (2011). Historical and philosophical foundations of education: A biographical introduction. Boston, MA: Pearson.

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