Book Review: Democracy and Education

One of the last books I needed to read for Modern Mrs. Darcy 2016 challenge was a book that intimated me. Well, that book happened to be Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education* by John Dewey. Over the winter break, I spent three days having an in-depth conversation with Mr. Dewey. I will not kid you, it was exhausting. After the three days, I was wiped out.

Dewey has some wonderful ideas about education, but in my opinion, he makes you work for each one of them. 

Democracy and Education was published in 1916. I was struck how similar the world was to that of today.  The world was/is at war. The US was in full swing of the industrial age, the US is now in the information age. Education is the key to success in both cases. Dewey believed that education was essential for life. Because of the industrial age, there were more demands of an individual to function in a diverse society. School was an essential ground to experience the differences of culture. With the globalization of the information age, we still have this need. I believe that we need a more educated society than we currently have to help our nation succeed in an increasingly technical world. With the current backlash against education, I have my concerns. Perhaps it is not content we are teaching but how we are teaching it. Perhaps Dewey had the answers 100 years ago. Dewey believed that we could not fully achieve the benefits of education based on the dualisms that education has throughout the curriculum. More on dualisms in a moment.

Democracy and Education is 378 pages long and spans 26 chapters. As I earlier noted, Dewey does not take the most direct route to the lessons he provides. The language of the book is very academic. This was another intense vocabulary lesson. [I did learn that if you use Google Now, you can ask Google to define a word. Not only will you get the definition, but also the correct pronunciation of the word.] Throughout the book, Dewey would bring forth an issue, discuss its history, and expound on the problems as he saw them. He frequently discussed the origins of education and often highlighted Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. He also brought the works of Locke, Hegel, and other philosophers. (Personally, I need to pull out the great books and become better familiar with these works.) These thought leaders helped to shape our current education system. Much of it was set up for the convenience of the instructor, not the learner.

While there are countless lessons in this book for someone who has a progressive eye towards education, there are too many to write about in this post. I will focus on some of the lessons that resonated with me.

Education should be about experience tied to life. Dewey found fault with traditional methods of instruction where the instructor simply presented a lecture, the student had to read the books, and later recited what he had learned on an exam. Dewey believed that school was about preparation for life that did not exist while a student was in school. Life was not about regurgitating information, it was about putting information and experience into practice. Students needed experience in handling problems where there are not yet solutions. They could get this experience by engaging with real problems that mean something to them where they did not have prefabricated answers. They cannot appreciate a solution unless they toil with it. Dewey felt it important to have students struggle with their unknown before guiding them to known solutions. They could better understand what an inventor or discoverer experienced by going through the same experience.

Dewey went at length about the many dualisms found in education. Such dualisms include the division between labor and leisure, theory and practice, body and mind, vocation and cultural education, subject matter and method, doing and knowing, etc. Dewey believed these dualisms interfere with learning. For example, in life when you address a topic, you do not separate it into individual subjects. When running a business, a business owner addresses marketing in line with finances and product development; each topic supports the other topics as well as impact the problem and solution. However, in school, sciences are separated from the humanities. The arts are separated from mathematics. Dewey provided a wonderful example of teaching in an integrated interdisciplinary manner when he referenced gardening.

Gardening, for example, need not be taught either for the sake of preparing future gardeners, or as an agreeable way of passing time. It affords an avenue of approach to knowledge of the place farming and horticulture have had in history of the race and which they occupy in present social organization. Carried on in an environment educationally controlled, they are means for making study of the facts of growth, the chemistry of soil, the rôle of light, air, and moisture, injurious and helpful animal life, etc. There is nothing in the elementary study of botany which cannot be introduced in a vital way in connection with caring for the growth of seeds. Instead of the subject matter belonging to a peculiar study called botany, it will then belong to life, and will find , moreover, its natural correlations with the facts of soil, animal life, and human relations. As students grow mature, they will perceive problems of interest which may be pursued for the sake of discovery, independent of the original direct interest in gardening—problems connected with the germination and nutrition of plants, the reproduction of fruits, etc., thus making a transition to deliberate intellectual investigations. (Dewey, 1916, p. 200).

Another topic that resonated with me was regarding interest. In terms of education, instructors need to arrange and find content that grabs and holds the interest of students. This means that instructors need to get to know the students, and more importantly, students need to have a say in their learning. Who better to understand what is interesting and engaging than the learners themselves. This is a concept that is tightly tied to Universal Design for Learning.  Instructors need to provide choice in terms of learning methods, materials, and assessments. One hundred years ago, Dewey was setting the path.

In my mind, learning is all about dialogue and experience. The dialogue can be with others or with the content. However, learning is not about the filling of a vessel. Too often, what is consider learning is lecture, reading, and exams. The result is short term. By developing experiences, it is possible to create something that is lasting. That is why I am a fan of blended learning. In blended learning, there is a balance of “traditional” instruction, but an increase in hands-on experiential learning—the experiences.

If we want students to be better prepared for an uncertain life, we need to create experiences that more closely mirror life.

While Democracy and Education is a tough book to read, I would gladly recommend it to anyone interested in education and learning.

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