Curriculum Theory / EDUC-910 Week 6 Readings

Traditional vs progressive education… either-or?

John Dewey

John Dewey

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education, pp. 17–23, 25–31. New York, NY: Touchstone.

Traditional vs. Progressive Education

“Mankind likes to think in terms of extreme opposites. It is given to formulating its beliefs in terms of Either-Ors, between which it recognizes no intermediate possibilities.” (p.17)

Dewey’s opening statement may fit well for belief, for systems of faith, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with an accurate portrayal of what we can say we know based on empirical evidence. As a body of evidence grows, we adapt what we know to fit that evidence. If the evidence changes, we change what we perceive to be fact. Dewey argued that when extremes cannot be attained, practicalities force us into compromise, with educational philosophy being no compromise.

Talking Point: This reasoning has logic to recommend it, and may, in many areas of practice be completely true. But the initial premise that belief is focused on an “all-or-nothing” philosophy, rules out simply following the evidence. Can anybody think of where the political realities of curriculum development and implementation have actually done this? Could we argue that the Tyler Rationale went some way toward following the evidentiary trail of its time?

Dewey painted a picture of Traditional vs. Progressive Education

Traditional Education Progressive Education
The subject matter of education consists of bodies of information and of skills that have been worked out in the past; therefore, the chief business of the school is to transmit them to the new generation. In the past, there have also been developed standards and rules of conduct; moral training consists in forming habits of action in conformity with these rules and standards. Finally, the general pattern of school organization (by which I mean the relations of pupils to one another and to the teachers) constitutes the school a kind of institution sharply marked off from other social institutions.Learning here means acquisition of what already is incorporated in books and in the heads of the elders. Moreover, that which is taught is thought of as essentially static. It is taught as a finished product, with little regard either to the ways in which it was originally built up or to changes that will surely occur in the future. It is to a large extent the cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past, and yet it is used as educational food in a society where change is the rule, not the exception. (pp. 17-19). To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.I take it that the fundamental unity of the newer philosophy is found in the idea that there is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education. (pp. 19-20) 






Dewey saw the kind of imposition of learning, based on the established history of subject matter in the traditionally organized format, as limiting rather than promoting the “intellectual and moral development” (p. 22) of students.

In rejecting the traditions of the old system, Dewey’s progressive education emphasized the freedom of the student, but posed the question, “What does freedom mean and what are the conditions under which it is capable of realization?” (p. 22)

The Need of a Theory of Experience

Dewey argued that the answer to his previous question lay in the connection between education and personal experience (which he covered in greater detail in his Pedagogic Creed). He then goes on to tie the argument in logical knots:

 “Experience and education cannot be directly equated to each other. For some experiences are mis-educative. Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience.” (p. 25)

Talking Point: Some years ago, I worked with a wonderful line manager called Derek Weaver, a man with a wickedly sharp sense of humor. One of his favorite expressions, following any particular event which had not gone quite according to plan was, “[T]his is not a cock-up [mis-hap, error], this is a learning experience.” What is mis-education? This is a matter of perspective, context and judgement. The educational experience of a socialist, is not the educational experience of a traditional conservative. The educational experience of a theist, bears no relation to the educational experience of an atheist. Given Dewey’s comments regarding a personal god at the end of his Pedagogic Creed, I suspect he and I would have somewhat differing opinions regarding such learning experiences.

 “The proper line of attack is that the experiences which were had, by pupils and teachers alike, were largely of a wrong kind.” (p.26)

Experiences are experiences, they are not right or wrong. Mistakes (a matter of context and judgement) can be learnt from, indeed unexpected results are the very basis of scientific investigation. If all of our results were correct (a matter of context and judgement), there would be little point in experiment and investigation.

 “[H]ow many [students] lost the impetus to learn because of the way in which learning was experienced by them?” (p. 26)

Many of us have experienced a careless or callous remark from a teacher that has forever altered our perspective on an aspect of education, yet this can’t be considered mis-education. It’s an experience to be evaluated and informs our future learning.

“Everything depends upon the quality of the experience which is had. The quality of any experience has two aspects. There is an immediate aspect of agreeableness or disagreeableness, and there is its influence upon later experiences.” (p. 27)

I would categorically disagree, the crux here is not the experience per se, but how a learner evaluates and reacts to that experience—which can be heavily influenced by further experience/s—and such experience can be had regardless of the method, or philosophy behind the curriculum.

 “So we come back to the idea that a coherent theory of experience, affording positive direction to selection and organization of appropriate educational methods and materials, is required by the attempt to give new direction to the work of the schools. The process is a slow and arduous one.” (p. 30)

And I would argue that Dewey never really developed such a coherent theory. Progressive education never really worked on its own. Progressive education needed to incorporate elements of social efficiency before it could be implemented as a reliable, replicable, standardized method of education throughout a state, much less a nation. This gives the lie to Dewey’s “either or”.

“But the fact that the empirical sciences now offer the best type of intellectual organization which can be found in any field shows that there is no reason why we, who call ourselves empiricists, should be “pushovers” in the matter of order and organization.” (p. 31)

I have highlighted that part of Dewey’s text in italics. Both sides of the traditional vs. progressive have argued their case to be called empiricists, constructing their theories based on their own observations. Yet Dewey’s work still uses notions of freedom, mis-education and requires a coherent theory of experience.

In the spirit of Socrates, let’s clear the decks and look at just what empiricism really means. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary lists the definitions of the word empirical, as follows…

(1) originating in or based on observation or experience
(2) relying on experience or observation alone often without due regard for system and theory
(3) capable of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment
(4) of or relating to empiricism

Empirical. (n.d.). Retrieved October 13, 2014.
Retrieved from

Talking Point: I can see Dewey’s ideas of progressive education slipping nicely under the definitions in both (1) and (2) above, with the Tyler Rationale ensconced happily under definitions (1) and (3). Yet again, one person’s demon-haunted world, is another’s constructed from subatomic particles (Patton, 2002; Sagan, 1997). Anybody else’s thoughts?


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