Spring 2018

21st Century Education, John Dewey, and Modernity

A Historical Hot Topic in Education

Ronald Wright’s 2004 Massey Lecture, A Short History of Progress develops a two-pronged argument. The first is relatively uncontroversial: the social world that we inhabit is changing. The second is bolder, but also more exciting: the social world that we inhabit is changing at an increasingly accelerated rate, which renders the taken-for-granted world unrecognizable to us with alarming quickness. From the Palaeolithic era to the end of the last ice age, a span consuming 99.5 percent of human existence, tools and cultural ideals replicated themselves, evolving at a staggeringly slow pace.

Nowadays, Wright argues, we have reached such a pass that the skills and mores we learn in childhood are out-dated by the time we’re thirty, and few people past fifty can keep up with their culture—whether in idiom, attitudes, taste, or technology—even if they try.[i]

The first progressivist wave overtook Canada during the interwar period, intensifying in the years following the Depression. Half a decade after Alberta introduced a revised Programme of Studies for public schools in 1936, every province in Canada had transformed its formal curriculum, infrastructure, and examination structures. A new and progressive age was on the horizon, and it demanded that school life adjust to meet the needs of a contemporary world. This world was altered by the transformative effects of modern warfare, as experienced in the trenches of Europe, as well as by immigration, industrialization, and urbanization.

The second wave of progressive education followed the first by approximately 35 years; an indicative example is Ontario’s Living and Learning document, which was submitted to the public in 1968. More commonly referred to as the Hall-Dennis Report, a name associated with the two chairs of the committee that drafted the document, Living and Learning offered a wide set of recommendations, which challenged educationists to focus on the individual learner’s inclination towards self-discovery and exploration, to limit competition, to re-vision classroom spaces, and to abolish corporal punishment. Educationists wrestled to make sense of new technologies in the classroom, such as television programming and conceptions of individual rights and responsibilities.

The third wave of progressivist thinking, 21st Century learning, is a tidal force in education today. Whilst mediated within a discourse that concentrates upon the transformative influence of technology on our existence, the rhetoric of 21st Century learning is thoroughly progressivist in its philosophical orientation towards the place of schools in society. Curriculum revisions are undertaken across Canada, in most cases concentrating on disciplinary thinking rather than content memorization and on the alignment between school learning and life beyond the classroom. The debate surrounding Ontario’s new Health and Physical Education curriculum is indicative of a century-long tension between progressivist and traditionalist thought. The former, as noted previously, explicitly aims to modernize education, while the latter resists the impetus to jump at various provocations that modernity advances.

21st century learning is a hot topic, yet schools of today should help students understand and live in a modern world rather in a world that has passed. Nearly nine decades ago, John Dewey (1938) articulated a challenge to progressivist educators that still resonates; he felt that the dichotomy of “traditional” and “progressive” schools is problematic.[ii] Dewey dared progressivists to be more critical of their own pedagogical principles and claims, but also to articulate an educational philosophy that was not defined primarily in opposition to another set of ideas, which is generally depicted in caricature.

Progressive educators who had proceeded according to this principle of continuity had neglected questions central to the pedagogical project. Dewey was noting a reactive element to reformist rhetoric, which exposed an instinctual response to the present.

Even as it acknowledges its internal inconsistencies, progressivist rhetoric drives forward an agenda that yokes progress to skill development that relates to the marketplace as depicted in its present place and as projected into the future. This is consistent historically.[iii] What distinguishes 21st Century learning is its concentration upon information and computer technologies. This concentration is not led entirely by educational associations, as technology corporations are intimately involved as partners. One might consider, as a case in point, Canadians for 21st Century Learning and Innovation, or C21. Ten of the 12 founding members of C21 are corporations.[iv] It is unsurprising that producers of technology products will argue that their commodities are essential to the future of education, yet educational stakeholders’ rhetoric is not misaligned.

Looking to Ontario’s past, the rhetoric of progressive education was equally concerned with the relationship that schools had with modern, contemporary society. Rather than looking towards technology as a means of dealing with the future, educationists turned to other innovations and program revisions, including the introduction and elaboration of technical education, domestic science, and vocational guidance.[v] This sparked somewhat more of a backlash from traditionalists who felt that education was reforming too much and too quickly in its effort to keep pace with modernity. The curriculum had survived social evolution in the past, and it could be a bulwark that would help Ontarians deal with their future.[vi]

If technology is today’s metaphor for social progress, as well as the principal means by which we could reform schools to address this progress, industry was both the medium and the message for many Ontarians during the interwar period.[vii] The depiction of schools as a factory and children as resources is entirely consistent with many efficiency progressivists’ characterizations of the educational process.

Dewey’s pragmatist framework and his articulation of the need to act intelligently in the present as a means of developing habits of mind that will be useful in an uncertain future resonate in contexts ripe with rapid social change. John Dewey’s My Pedagogic Creed claimed education “is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”[viii] He was keenly aware of the social realities that were radically changing in North America, particularly after the First World War. John Dewey was, in the words of Lawrence Cremin, “sensitive to the movement of things around him”; he “wanted schools to use the stuff of reality to educate men and women intelligently about reality. His notion of adjustment was an adjustment of conditions, not to them.”[ix] As a pragmatist, Dewey invoked an active approach to learning that helped students find the best solution to the problem at hand.[x] Solutions to future problems could not be derived today. It was only possible to practice intelligent and authentic problem solving today and cultivate those habits and practices that will be useful tomorrow.

Preparing students to deal with the uncertain world of the future entails engaging them thoughtfully with the present uncertain world. Professional development for teachers, then, within a Deweyan framework, would indeed concentrate educationists’ attention upon the world at hand. This would involve thinking upon the world as it is and studying it. This does not entail transforming teachers’ brains, but their habits of mind and practice. By concentrating upon the world around them thoughtfully, teachers can then deal with the world of the future, whatever that may be.

Dewey’s response to the problems of modernity is consistent with the very problems of modernity. It is, perhaps, a very part of modernity. We cannot know the future, yet we must concern ourselves with this future and its social realities howsoever they manifest themselves within particular contexts. There are no eternal truths and persistent solutions, but there is a pressing concern to deal with the present, as this is the only means of facing the future intelligently and well.

Theodore Christou is the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Research in the Faculty of Education, Queen’s University. He serves as co-editor of the Canadian Journal of Education and he is an Associate Professor of Social Studies and History Education. Theodore is a published poet active in the fields of educational history and philosophy
iRoland Wright, A Short History of Progress (Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press, 2004), p. 14.
iiJohn Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Touchstone, 1938), p. 20.
iiiTheodore Christou, “Progressivist Rhetoric and Revised Programmes of Study: Weaving Curricular Consistency and Order Out of Diverse Progressivist Themes in Ontario, Canada,” Curriculum History 13, no. 1 (2014), pp. 61–82.
ivThese corporations include: a) one that arranges for educational excursions internationally, but also online language learning, Education First; b) five publishers, Scholastic Education, Pearson, Oxford, McGraw-Hill/Ryerson, and Nelson; and c) four from the technology industry, Dell, Microsoft, SMART Technologies and IBM.
v“Vocational Training and Vocational Guidance,” The Canadian School Journal (November, 1932), p. 371.
viTheodore Michael Christou, Progressive Education: Revisioning and Reforming Ontario’s Public Schools, 1919–1942 (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2012).
viiKieran Egan, Getting It Wrong From the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance From Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget (New Haven, CT and London, UK: Yale University Press, 2002), p. 2.
viiiJohn Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed,” The School Journal 54, no. 3 (January 16, 1897), pp. 77–80.
ixLawrence A. Cremin, “John Dewey and the Progressive-Education Movement, 1915–1952,” The School Review 67, no. 2 (Summer, 1959), p. 170.
xJohn Dewey and Evelyn Dewey, Schools of To-Morrow (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1915), p. 249.

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