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Educating All Educators – John Dewey’s Reach Keeps Growing Longer

By Paul Smart

If there’s anyone from the past whose leadership could help us all now, one need look no further than John Dewey. A Vermont native known for his writings as a philosopher, a pioneer of more practical and therapeutic forms of psychology, and most of all, a progressive ideal for a truly democratic and American form of education, Dewey was also involved in the founding of the University of Chicago and The New School in New York City.

You know the basics of his thought: “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes,” is one of Dewey’s. So are “Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another,” and “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

Underlying the man’s thoughts, which were judged quite radical at their time, but also wholly American, was a deep belief in democracy, in schools, as a laboratory for “experimental intelligence” and plurality, and for the ideal of a civil society. He believed the key to a true American Democracy came not just from the extension of voting rights, but the forming of valid public opinions through open communication among citizens, professionals, and politicians, with the latter being accountable for the policies they have been asked to adopt.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Dewey of late; I have an eighth grader coming to the close of an open form of education and readying himself for public high school during the coming tumultuous election year of 2020. And not only his grander thoughts, but what he started implementing, alongside his decades of progressing thought regarding all levels of education, in the form of Chicago’s much-heralded K-12 Laboratory School. What was that, you ask? How about an ideal of educating students in a constantly changing and respectful manner that, like any scientific laboratory or truly exploratory artist’s studio, has two main purposes: to exhibit, test, verify, and criticize theoretical statements and principles; and to add to the sum of facts and principles students are asked to study and help further. 

Think in terms of education as being innately educational. And remember that having published more than 700 articles in 140 journals, and approximately 40 books, Dewey is still considered, as many said during his long lifetime, that “Dewey has been to our age what Aristotle was to the later Middle Ages; not a philosopher, but the philosopher.”

The school my kid’s been going, the Albany Free School, turns 50 this year and is celebrating by reworking many of its underlying structures the way it’s been redoing itself regularly throughout the past half century. The founder of the school he almost went to, Hudson Valley Sudbury School outside of Woodstock, is running for the New York State Senate using the Democracy in Action principles their school and all such alternatives utilize as a key level of experience to bring to “greater” legislative matters.

Those principles include letting students learn at their own pace without grades, tests, or a firm schedule;  self-governance through regular democratic all-school meetings run by students utilizing Robert’s Rules, with staff getting the same voting power as students. 

“We are a school that believes that kids should be kids. At The Free School kids learn through play, exploration, and our approach fosters creative-minded thinkers. We are part of a long tradition of freedom schools, democratic free schools and anarchist modern schools that aim to put control of education back in the hands of communities instead of the state,” reads the Albany progenitor of similar institutions across the Americas. “We provide a unique alternative to traditional models of education by offering children a self-directed approach to their learning. Students at our school, many whom have slipped through the cracks of today’s regimented test-driven school system, flourish in a nurturing environment that allows them the freedom to chart their own course of learning while fostering emotional growth and interpersonal skills…The Free School is a unique and important model of true community based education.”

At Sudbury, “the fundamental difference between our school and any other type of school is the student’s level of responsibility. In a Sudbury school the students are solely responsible for their education, their learning methods, their evaluation and their environment,” according to founder, teacher, and Senate candidate Jeffery Collins. “In a public school, the state takes responsibility for most aspects of a student’s education including curriculum and evaluation. The student is left with little responsibility except to learn what is taught, how it is taught, in the environment in which it is taught, and then to reiterate it back at evaluation time…In most private schools, as with public schools, a student has personal responsibility only for learning what someone else determines is important to learn, at a time they think it is important to learn it, in a way someone else has determined it should be taught, in an environment designed by someone else, and they must do this well enough to pass the evaluations written and graded by someone else.” 

John Dewey, who started this whole ball rolling in so many ways, from the philosophy, to the psychology, to the basic principles of a truly non-European and American ideal of education, continually argued that “education and learning are social and interactive processes, and thus the school itself is a social institution through which social reform can and should take place,” as Wikipedia would eventually summarize things. “In addition, he believed that students thrive in an environment where they are allowed to experience and interact with the curriculum, and all students should have the opportunity to take part in their own learning.”

What happens to these self-taught free kids as they continue their education, you ask? They’re smart and engaged moving forward, we’ve found. Self-motivated. Engaged with community and social action movements. Innovative. 

At The Free School, the girls tend to go off to New England boarding schools, often on farms. The boys tend to go on to Albany High, where they flourish until they head off to college. My kid’s best friend’s older brother is now at the London School of Economics on a scholarship. Several other groups of kids went on to make movies, and became the youngest to premiere a feature at Sundance.

The school, located in an economically and racially diverse inner city neighborhood, breeds a sense of equity, or wokeness, I am proud my 13 year old has embedded deep within his soul.

At Sudbury, being located in a more sylvan and less diverse location, breeds just as much empathy through its emphasis on democracy and civility. It’s students also head off to fine colleges, productive, and engaged lives.

If only, now, we can re-engage the entirety of our nation in that once-accepted realization that education can be eternal, that voting only matters if its well-informed and inclusive of information from all strata of our societies. And that civility does matter.

As does John Dewey, whether we all realize it, and remember him, or not at this troubled moment.