In praise of Dewey

One way to look at Dewey [1] is as a radical liberal and a social reformer who identified the importance of a common humanity to personal and social growth [2]. He was an academic and the prototype of the public intellectual, contributing to political debate, active in teacher unions, supporting the settlement movement and setting up his own experimental schools. His commitment to democracy led him to be on the right side of many of the arguments that dominated his life and times and still matter today. He saw mass immigration into the USA as an opportunity for generating a national democratic culture, he was patriotic but not a militarist, he was an early supporter of women’s rights. He was prescient when it came to philosophy – a pragmatist and ‘fallibilist’ [i.e. he understood that we might be wrong] in a way that was unusual in his time – and wanted us to search for consensus based on reason. He was romantic about community and what it offered for social life but was forward looking, urban based and not interested in rural idylls. He was politically radical while remaining, unusual among radicals of the time, anti Marxist and anti Stalinist. He was not afraid to talk ‘truth unto power’ in USA or on a global stage. He chaired the ‘Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials’ that exposed the absurdity of the Stalinist purges in the 1930s but was not impressed by Trotskyism. He was, in spite of everything, wilfully optimistic about life and our ability to make sense of it. It should not matter in the consideration of his ideas, but it seems he was a playful, though distracted parent, and he endured the death of two of his children bravely.

Dewey has drifted in and out of favour over time but he is still a key point of reference for educators. His work has always managed to wind up conservative commentators on education on the largely mistaken grounds that he was a ‘progressive’ educationalist [3]. Having recently had an election here in the UK, when evenly mildly expressed social reform took a bashing, expect to see another attack next year on Dewey to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of his landmark book ‘Democracy and Education’. So what did he believe that upset the conservative Right? In a nutshell he saw that learning was triggered by problem solving and wanted to put inquiry at the heart of learning. He was forward thinking too in the way he thought about language and saw communication as core to learning. For example in ‘Democracy and Education’ [4] he writes:

To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience. One shares in what another has thought and felt and in so far, meagerly or amply, has his own attitude modified. Nor is the one who communicates left unaffected. Try the experiment of communicating, with fullness and accuracy, some experience to another, especially if it be somewhat complicated, and you will find your own attitude toward your experience changing; otherwise you resort to expletives and ejaculations. The experience has to be formulated in order to be communicated. To formulate requires getting outside of it, seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another so that it may be got into such form that he can appreciate its meaning. (Dewey 1916 [1947]:12)

This sets Dewey up as a very radical thinker about education, but perhaps this was because his opposition to didactic teaching took centre stage, given that didaticism was the dominant mode of teaching in his day. Less time has been given to his critique of so called progressive teaching because this was, and has always been, something of a sideshow. Nonetheless it is worth clarifying that in ‘Democracy and Education’ he was not advocating that children should take over their schools but was asking how can we help children generate habits for later democratic participation in society. Similarly, his idea of ‘learning by doing’ sounds very experimental and unfocused but this was not what he was saying. Rather he felt that while learning was triggered by problems you should not flay around wildly trying to solve a problem, instead you needed to think reflectively and socially on what to do. A problem-solving curriculum was a structured one with important roles for teachers and teaching. It is just that the structure and the preparation for teaching was different to what didactic instructors imagined. His key point was that the teaching of concepts needed to be rooted in experience, not learnt by drill. Here [5] he differentiated between ‘genuine ideas’ and surface assimilation:

Suppose it is a question of having the pupil grasp the idea of the sphericity of the earth. This is different from teaching him its sphericity as a fact. He may be shown (or reminded of) a ball or a globe, and be told that the earth is round like those things; he may then be made to repeat that statement day after day till the shape of the earth and the shape of the ball are welded together in his mind. But he has not thereby acquired any idea of the earth’s sphericity; at most, he has had a certain image of a sphere and has finally managed to image the earth after the analogy of his ball image. To grasp sphericity as an idea, the pupil must first have realized certain perplexities or confusing features in observed facts and have had the idea of spherical shape suggested to him as a possible way of accounting for the phenomena in question. Only by use as a method of interpreting data so as to give them fuller meaning does sphericity become a genuine idea (Dewey, 1910: 109.)

To sum up, Dewey was concerned with education as an end in itself and he offered a child centred approach that was not over romanticised or sentimental. In politics he was a democrat (small d) worried about the ways that our democratic instincts were skewed by special interests and inequalities. In philosophy he saw that we were responsible for interpreting the world but saw this as reason for optimism rather than existential pessimism. So what is there not to like? He was, and will remain, forever criticised from the socialist left for lacking an economic analysis of capitalism – this would, following Marx, place Dewey as a ‘utopian’ though a practical one who, in his own way, believed that the point was not to understand the world but to change it. For sociologists Dewey was too ready to see the world through the lens of what bound us together rather than through structures of class and other social formations that pulled us apart. And more generally social scientists do not get his action-oriented inquiry in the way that educators do. His views on education are never going to appeal to conservative thinkers, even ones who have taken the time to read him. However a more widely expressed criticism is that he was unnecessarily vague as to what he was advocating and in fact he might be a lot more, or for that matter a lot less, radical than we think. He offered little too, in the way of detail, in terms of pedagogic strategies. Another recurring but often unacknowledged difficulty with Dewey was that he was really only writing about children and education. Indeed you want to imagine that his university classes, like his experimental schools, were full of activity, practical experimentation and lively debate, but they were not and for me that is the most disappointing thing about him.

[1] Dewey (1859 – 1952) is widely celebrated as a philosopher, social psychology social but is often assumed to have given his name to the Dewey system of library referencing. However that was Thomas Dewey. More importantly Donald Duck had a nephew Dewey (plus two others Huey and Louie) but the name probably was again taken from Thomas rather than John.
[2] This view of Dewey as a radical liberal is articulated in Ryan, A. (1995). John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
[3] Professor Robert Pring wrote:
Indeed, when I came to Oxford I was seated at dinner next to Lord Keith Joseph who had been Secretary of State for Education under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He accused me of being responsible for all the problems in our schools – because I had introduced teachers to John Dewey. And subsequently there was systematic attack on Dewey even from philosophers as well as journalists and politicians. Professor O’Hear, for example proposed that ‘[i]t is highly plausible to see the egalitarianism which stems from the writings of John Dewey as the approximate cause of our educational decline’. In Pring, R. (2007) John Dewey, London: Bloomsbury Press.
[4] Dewey, J. (1916 / 1947). Democracy and Education. New York: The Macmillan Company.
[5] Dewey, J. (1910). How We Think. London: D. C. Heath & Company available online at

Social Science and Difficulties With Theory

It is difficult for those not following the field to get the importance given to theory in social research; researchers are continually asked to be theoretical and to align themselves with a position of some sort or another. To be theoretical is to lift your research to a ‘higher plane’; to deal with the world not just as it presents itself but to step back and offer an explanation as to how and why things happen as they do. Theory allows us to move from observations (for example we might see that young people are more likely to vote for anti-establishment parties) towards an explanation (for example we might propose a theory of behaviour that says that those with less of a stake in a system are more likely to want to change it; a theory of maturation that says part of growing up is to experience a sense of exuberance and an enhanced sense of agency; a theory of association that says young people are adept at creating counter cultural ‘spaces’ and so on). It is theory which moves social science into a wider narrative about the way the world works; for doctoral students it is always a damning put down if told ‘yes your thesis is very good but where is the theory?’.

But are we over rating ‘theory’? Here it is worth remembering that in everyday conversation someone described as ‘theoretical’ may lead of us think of someone who is obsessed by abstraction, someone who follows what the theory says and ignores what is in front of them. There is a further put down of theory: it often dresses up in complicated ways something that is quite easy to understand. Probably apocryphal, but there is a anecdote about an earnest young intellectual in the 1930’s who is excitedly explaining to an unemployed shipyard worker that Marx had written a book with a theory to explain that the capitalist system was structurally designed to impoverish the worker. The response was ‘you mean someone wrote a whole book about that?’.

At this point I should say that I like reading and writing about theories and much more than I ever did in the past. I still however feel that there is something unbearably smug about some ‘theoreticians’ as shown in the disdain expressed for the ‘merely descriptive social research’. I remember how my horizons expanded through reading the classics of participant observation (for example communities studies associated with the Chicago School [1]) and I can imagine how they would be put down by some theorists today. I remember too a tutor who had pinned up on his door a piece from Goethe along the lines that ‘description was the richest form of explanation’ [2], this I found oddly inspiring and led me into an interest in phenomenology. A descriptive account of a phenomenon (natural or social) is explanatory [3].

So why have my feeling about theory changed? In part it is the realisation that in looking at a theory you don’t have to buy into the whole package, it is tempting to do so but you do not need to. Indeed there is rarely a whole package to buy into. If you look at any of the key thinkers you can find differences of emphasis in their work depending on what they were trying to address at the time, and in any case you can only read them with a contemporary purpose in mind, very often a purpose theorists could not have envisaged when they were first putting their ideas forward. When all is said is and done a theory is ‘simply’ a lens on something, it illuminates what is happening and, in so doing, it necessarily closes off other perspectives on the problem. The pleasure of using theory is in describing the view.

My thoughts about theory were prompted recently by reading a paper by Sue Timmis on cultural historical activity theory or CHAT [4] For those interested CHAT was a theory which grew out of social constructivist theory of Vygotsky and particularly developed by Engerström, Cole and others [5]. Vygotsky (1978) can be understood as someone who helped expand our focus on learning from what was happening ‘in the head of the individual learner’ to the wider world of tools, artefacts and people that surround the learner and with which they can and do engage. This perspective was further extended into a wider Activity System covering not only subject (the person doing), the object (the purpose of what the person was doing), outcomes (what happens), tools and artefacts (which include both physical and cultural tools such as language and signs) but also the context in which the activity is taking place, the rules, community and division of labour by and within which people work and share their work. This Activity System or CHAT has often been presented as a set of triangles within triangles – these have been endlessly reproduced but see for example go to Wikipedia to see examples

The paper by Timmis is very good and takes you through the different ‘waves’ of CHAT. She highlights the problems of over interpreting ‘the triangles’ and argues that the point of CHAT is not simply to show that while we are all constrained by what is culturally and physical available to us we should notice the tensions and contradictions within a system and the opportunities for change.

I thoroughly enjoyed the paper but did not end up convinced by CHAT and I wondered why not? In part I cannot get out of my head all those wretched triangles – it is all very well for flexible interpreters of CHAT to point out that the triangles were only introduced to draw your attention to key issues but, once lodged in your mind, they rigidly frame the way you look at a case. This dominance is reinforced as the framework is so all encompassing it is practically impossible to think of a situation in which it could not be applied – in other words if you look for an Activity System you will find it. The second problem, a related one, is that the holistic picture that CHAT provides might not be as valuable as it appears. It seems to me that theories work best by offering distinctive perspectives on one thing or another, rather than trying to get to grips with the whole picture. The pleasure in social science is flipping between perspectives, for example switching between an account of the small scale and local to one which deals with the large scale and structural. In my, albeit limited, experience those using CHAT are trying to capture both the small and the large picture at the same time and end up not saying as much as they could either about the wider structural issues which constrain us or about our exercise of agency. Anyway make your own mind up, and particularly if interested in educational technology, I recommend the Timmis paper.

[1] I am thinking of classics such as Louis Wirth (1928) The Ghetto (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928) and William Whyte (1943) Street Corner Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] For example see From Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature, David Seamon & Arthur Zajonc, editors. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998] – I was able to access this online.

[3] In respect to social research, see for example notes on ‘thick description’ in Geertz, C. (1972) Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight, Daedalus, 101, 1, Myth, Symbol, and Culture – again I was able to access this online.

[4] Timmis, S. (2014). The dialectical potential of Cultural Historical Activity Theory for researching sustainable CSCL practices. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 9(1), 7-32.

[5] Cole, M., & Engerström, Y. (1993). A cultural-historic approach to distributed cognition. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.