Saturday 26 August 2000

Individual Psychology and Education (1934)

From The Philosopher, Volume. XII, 1934




By John Dewey 

Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, New York

1999: The Editor adds:

The Philosophical Society was an early proponent of philosophy for children, but this was only part of its wider interest in education. Here, John Dewey, justly celebrated as one of the great progressive educationalists behind much educational reform in the second half of the twentieth century, outlines some basic principles for an education that is both democratic, effective and enjoyable.

The purpose of education has always been to every one, in essence, the same - to give the young, the things they need in order to develop in an orderly, sequential way into members of society. This was the purpose of the education given to a little aboriginal in the Australian bush before the coming of the white man. It was the purpose of the education of youth in the golden age of Athens. It is the purpose of education today, whether this education goes on in a one-room school in the mountains of Tennessee or in the most advanced progressive school in a radical community. But to develop into a member of society in the Australian bush had nothing in common with developing into a member of society in ancient Greece, and still less with what is needed today. Any education is, in its forms and methods, an outgrowth of the needs of the society in which it exists.

No one is surprised that the educational methods in Soviet Pupils Russia are different from those elsewhere That' other. methods will develop in a Hitlerized Germany is easy to understand. Yet even within an rigid and controlled societies as these two countries are at present striving for, there is and will be experimentation, discussion and difference of opinion amongst teachers as to the best methods of developing members of those societies. There will be satisfied parents and dissatisfied parents. There will be happy children who like the schools and adjust to them easily, and children who do not adjust and whose difficulties are blamed on the schools.

The Australian aboriginal, the Athenian, the Soviet citizen, the Hitlerite had, or have, societies that can be defined in definite terms; the aims of which whatever we think of them, can be recognised by any one. Accept these aims and there will be comparatively little, difference of opinion about the kind of education that should be given youth in any one of the societies. In .most democratic countries, aims have, until recently, been stated in terms of the individual, not, in those of the society he is to be educated for. In the early days of modern education, all that seemed to be necessary for the attainment of the ideals of democracy was to give every child an equal start in life by furnishing him with certain fundamentals of learning, then turn him loose and let him do the rest.

Then life began to change. The things once made at home were now made in factories and the child knew nothing of them. The inventions and discoveries in science brought railroads, the telegraph and telephone, gas and electricity, farm machinery - a host of things about which one could not really know without far more training than was given by mere practice in using the finished product. Industrialisation brought the.big city with its slums and palaces, its lack of play space, its sharp distinction between city and country. Finally it brought the automobile, the movies and the radio, with their enormous influence in taking the family out of the home and making even the little child much more part of the great world than had ever been dreamed of in the past. These changes did not happen all at once. If they had, perhaps it would have been necessary to scrap the simple curriculum of the first schools and begin afresh with one that recognised all. these new and tremendously different factors at once. Instead, what happened was that gradually, as one new need was felt, a new subject was added to the course of study.

The science of individual psychology began to develop after the enrichment of the curriculum was well on its way, so that the two developments went on in parallel lines touching almost not at all. The discoveries of the former about the way people learn, about individual differences and the interrelation of effort and interest, were unknown to schoolmasters, or were thought of as too new-fangled for consideration. It was a little as if no one had been willing to put radios on the market, because it was obviously an absurd idea that sound can be transmitted for vast distances through mountains and brick walls without special means like wires. And although these psychological discoveries are many of them as well established today as the facts of the radio, they are still temperamentally abhorrent to a great many schoolmasters and parents. A great many others are willing to admit them when stated in general terms, but feel the strongest emotional reluctance to giving children the benefit of them by applying them to teaching methods. In brief these psychological discoveries may be stated as follows:

1. The human mind does not learn in a vacuum; the facts presented for learning, to be grasped, must have some relation to the previous experience of the individual or to his present needs; learning proceeds from the concrete to the general, not from the general to the particular.

2. Every individual is a little different from every other individual, not alone in his general capacity and character; the differences extend to rather minute abilities and characteristics, and no amount of discipline will eradicate them. The obvious conclusion of this is that uniform methods cannot possibly produce uniform results in education, that the more we wish to come to making every one alike the more varied and individualised must the methods be.

3. Individual effort is impossible without individual interest. There can be no such thing as a subject which in and by itself will furnish training for every mind. if work is not in itself interesting to the individual he cannot put his best efforts into it. However hard he may work at it, the effort does not go into the accomplishment of the work but is largely dissipated in a moral and emotional struggle to keep the attention where it is not held.

A progressive education movement has been the outgrowth of the realisation by educators of the fact that our highly complex, rapid, crowded civilisation demands and has been met by changes in school subjects and practice; that to make these changes effective something more is needed than simply the addition of one subject after another. The new subjects should be introduced with some relation to each other and the ways in which they operate and integrate in the world outside of school. It is also the outgrowth of the desire to put, into practice in the classroom what the new science of psychology has discovered about individual learning and individual differences.

The desire to adjust a school curriculum to society results too from the use of the new psychology to increase the pupil's learning. When one tries to adjust a school curriculum to society, it immediately becomes necessary to formulate a conception of what that society is. What are its strengths that should be stressed in the schools, what its weaknesses that children should understand. Is it a good thing to bring up the young with desires and habits that try to preserve everything just as it is today, or should they be able to meet change, to weigh the values and find good in the new? How much of the background and development of our civilisation do children need to be able to understand what is in the world today? How much do they need to become cultivated individuals, able to enjoy leisure and carry on worthwhile traditions? The answers to these and many other questions, and the skill used in translating them into practice will determine the kind of school. Both these factors will differ according to, the temperament, beliefs, background and experience of the individuals who answer them. In a world changing as rapidly as ours, expression of differences of opinion by different kinds of schools is a wholesome sign and an encouragement to progressive education.

Two instances of the kind of criticism that is commonly levelled at a progressive school are the matters of learning to read and of discipline. We know today that certain children have reading difficulties, due sometimes to eye peculiarities, sometimes to left-handedness, sometimes to other more obscure causes, or to a combination of all these possibilities. Experience has shown that if a child is mentally normal, he will learn to read anyway by the age of ten or so, and. that in after life it is impossible to tell these late readers from the children who teach themselves when they are three.

This shows that the fact that some children are backward about learning to read has nothing to do with the kind of school they go to. Similarly, the is absolutely no scientific objective evidence to support the view that behaviour problems are relatively more common in progressive schools than in traditional schools, or that the former are less successful in straightening out those that do arise than the latter. It is probably true that a progressive school seems disorderly to visitors who cannot imagine a school except as a place where rows of silent children sit quietly a desk until told to do something by the teacher. But modern education does not aim at this kind of order. Its aim is the kind of order that exists in a roomful people, each one of whom is working, at a common task. There will be talking, consulting, moving about in such a group, whether the workers are adults or children. The standard for order and discipline of a group is not how silent is the room, or how few and uniform the kind of tools and materials that are being used, but the quality and amount of work done by the individuals and the group.

Progressive education, it is sometimes said, stresses individual development and the training of special abilities or talents at the expense of learning social adjustment, good manners, how to get along with adults. In fact, it is criticised because of its highly individualistic philosophy. If we confine ourselves to the philosophy, just the opposite seems to be the truth. It is the modern schools that have formulated their :aims in definite social terms. It is they that are trying to work out some method of achieving harmony between the democratic belief in the liberty of the individual and his responsibility for the welfare of the group.

To many, the mere fact that children are free to move about, to seek help from others, to. undertake pieces of work in small groups, is taken as evidence that the aim of the methods must be to develop individualists, to let the children do as they please. These methods were, in fact, introduced because we know that physical freedom is necessary to growing bodies and because psychological investigations has proved that learning is better and faster when the understands his problem as a whole and does his work under his own motive power rather than under piecemeal dictation from a master. Moral and intellectual powers increase in 'vigour when the force of the individual's spontaneous interest and desire to accomplish something are behind them. This is as true of children as it is of adults. It is these powers that progressive education seeks to release.

Progressive methods, some would say, may work with young children; but when the high-school is reached they must be given up and replaced by the old methods in order to allow pupils to pass college entrance examinations. It is true that these. examinations require the accumulation of such a vast number of specific facts, that a great deal of drill and cramming is necessary if a pupil is to know enough answers to pass. This does not mean, however, anything more than to get into college a young person has to spend a great real of time memorising details that he can answer a great many detailed questions. This is so much true, that an interesting experiment is being carried out at present in the United States where nearly twenty progressive schools have completed arrangements with almost all the accredited colleges and universities to begin, in 1936, admitting their students on bases other than the passing of the regular entrance examinations. After a reasonable number of progressive school pupils have graduated from college, we shall have an authoritative answer as to whether progressive methods can be used in high schools with pupils who are going to college.

Meantime, change and experimentation will go on anyway because life, outside the school is changing because scientific knowledge of the nature of growth is developing, and because parents want things for the children that they did not obtain when they went to school. The real measure of the success of the progressive schools is the modifications that finally take place in conservative schools because of the experimental pioneering. For after all every worthwhile education is a direct enrichment of the life of the young and not merely a more or less repellent preparation for the duties of adult life. Life is growth and while it involves meeting and overcoming obstacles, and hence has hard and trying spots, it is essentially something to be enjoyed now.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Montessori trusted the standard instruction framework makes youngsters lose numerous puerile attributes, some of which are viewed as ideals. In Loeffler's Montessori in Contemporary American Culture, Loeffler states that "among the qualities that vanish are not just chaos, rebellion, sloth, insatiability, vanity, factiousness, and insecurity, yet in addition the supposed 'innovative creative energy', take pleasure in stories, connection to people, play, accommodation et cetera".FinQuiz

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  7. I believe there is a mistake in this text - please see the first line- " The purpose of education has always been to every one, in essence, the same - to give the young, the things they need in order to develop if an orderly, sequential way into members of society." - I believe it should read "The purpose of education has always been to every one, in essence, the same - to give the young, the things they need in order to develop in an orderly, sequential way into members of society.

  8. Thanks, 'Anon', I think you're right.


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