How to do Dewey-ism

In my last post, I wrote about John Dewey’s most approachable text, “The Child and the Curriculum.” I wanted to say one more thing that stood out to me.

Dewey is not what I thought he’d be . . .  in a good way.  


Most people associate Dewey with the idea of “learning by doing” — but that’s not exactly true.  In Democracy and Education, Dewey critiques narrow vocationalism and the teaching of mere routine.  If a kid’s learning to swing a hammer and that’s it, that kid’s not really growing, is he?  And if he’s consigning himself to a life of doing the same thing over and over without finding meaning in it beyond a paycheck . . .  Dewey’s not really a fan of that either.

In “The Child and the Curriculum,” the idea of “learning by doing” is hovering in the background, but it’s definitely not the focus.  The focus is not on getting kids to “do” stuff, but instead it’s about engaging their interests as “propulsion” (Dewey’s word) for further learning . . .  which definitely seems like it probably includes some book learning, too. So book learning is only bad in so far as it’s remote from students’ interests . . .  not because it comes out of books, per se.

How do you do that?  How do you get kids interested in subject matter or content or the lessons of history or the rules of correct grammar or any other type of “book learning” . . . ?

So what does a Deweyan school look like today?

Does that even exist?

Actually, there’s one right across the hall from me.

Years ago my school started a small alternative program.  It’s modeled on the Big Picture prototype, which is based on the MET School, Dennis Littky’s creation in Providence, Rhode Island.  This sort of enterprise is almost exactly what Dewey would have wanted because it starts with students’ passions. Whatever they’re interested in, that’s what they design their Learning Plan around.  That’s right — students have Learning Plans that they co-design with their advisor, based around their interests. Really into airplanes? Let’s read Ernest Gann and Antoine de-Saint Exupery for English credit.  Maybe write some papers about those guys. Read books about old airplanes or visit museums and design a project for Social Studies credit. Study the physics of flight and learn physics.  

This is all easier said than done.

The whole idea — and this is right out of Dewey — is that your interest in, say, planning your first cross country flight in an airplane makes you realize, “Hey, I need to learn to the formula for calculating distance . . .  now I’m motivated to go pick up that old math textbook and learn Algebra.” 

Hmm.  Does a year’s worth of toiling through equations seem worth it suddenly if there’s a tie-in with your passion for airplanes?  Maybe . . . maybe not. Maybe a light goes off and you realize, “Hey, to be a pilot or a mechanic, I need math.” Or maybe you’re only interested in sticking with it until you master the one equation you need.  Then maybe you’re not so excited about the next eight months of math . . . especially when you could be out flying airplanes.

That’s the hard part in Dewey.  How do you start with a child’s interests and end up learning algebra?  How do you start with airplanes and end up with the ability to be curious and knowledgeable about things other than airplanes?

And what do you do when your interest in airplanes runs out, and you  move onto something else? 

How do you get kids to stick with stuff and not just “taste without eating” (to paraphrase Dewey)?

That’s what’s hard.

What’s the answer?  Based on what I’ve seen across the hall, you try to do what good teachers have always done.  You try to sell the kids on the idea that math is Relevant. Hopefully the fact that they’re interested in school because it’s designed around airplanes helps.  Hopefully the fact that they realize they want to become a pilot — and to be a pilot, you have to get into college, and to get into college, you need to do well in math — will help.  Then you build relationships. Not just with teachers but with mentors. You hope that students’ experiences in the field, working under real-live pilot-mentors who are constantly using math themselves and selling its importance to the students . . .  maybe that helps reel them in too.

What a noble idea by Dewey . . .  but what a hard one to pull off. It’s worthy work.