Educational Transition and Reform: A Digest

Integrating practical experience with classroom studies has long been regarded by some educators as a panacea for a host of educational problems such as increasing student interest in school, and stemming dropouts, while providing a stimulus for learning. Advocates maintain that by combining theory with practice, students see connections between their studies and the larger community, and develop abstract principles from practical application. Thus, according to this view, students find new meaning in their classwork developing internal control and motivation, and developing the ability to make reasoned, independent judgements.

John Dewey
John Dewey


This view took hold in the twentieth century, when a leading American educator, John Dewey, vigorously promoted ‘experience-based education’, an idea that laid the philosophical foundations for both the progressive education and the vocational education movements.


Experience is a living part of society and culture, which makes it difficult to grasp and fit into the structure of organized schooling. Because it goes beyond the boundaries of most schools’ concerns, integrating experience with education necessarily means broadening the focus of education itself, which has generated debate for centuries.


For example, Socrates’ approach to education (now known as the ‘Socratic method’) held that learning begins with the self, not with external knowledge. Within this concept of the self as the initiator of the learning process lies a basic tenet of experiential learning. Questions are both raised and answered through experience in a give-and-take between the individual and their environment. Aristotelians believed that education should be based on fact and logic external to the student, this early Greek approach to learning was student centred, knowledge or facts were useful in-so-far as they aided the students inquiry. Experience played a major educational role as Europe moved out of medieval time and into the modern world. Houle (1976) argues that key forms of advanced learning were mostly experiential.


These included apprenticeship training carried out by the crafts guilds; the chivalric system of education; and the self-directed study of priests, kings and scholars carried out in monasteries, courts and private libraries. The core of these activities was learning by doing – some with more supervision than others. John Amos Comenius in the seventeenth century observed that knowledge should grow from the roots up; that it must be based on childrens’ own opinions and own examination (Drake 1967). Educators who subscribed to this point of view came to be called ‘Realists’. They believed that sense perception should be at the core of learning.


Accordingly, activities that emphasized sensation were part of the active process of learning. Later, Rousseau outlined the beginning of a more humanistic and progressive educational philosophy that emphasized experience with nature, and which followed the natural tendencies of the child (Drake 1967). In Emile, Rousseau captured the joy and excitement that is apparent in learning through discovery and generated debate on the process of education and the role experience should play in it. In the early nineteenth century, Friedrich Froebel, who had been heavily influenced by the earlier ‘Realists’, developed a set of educational principles that can be easily seen in contemporary progressive education programmes.


According to Froebel, students’ self-activity promoted development; unbroken continuity helped ensure the acquisition of correct knowledge; creativeness ensured the assimilation of knowledge and fostered the growth of power and skill acquisition (Bowen 1893: 180-1). In the United States these ideas found their influence in Francis Parker, William James, William Kilpatrick, Alfred Whitehead and John Dewey as they grappled with the way in which experience should be integrated with classroom instruction.


Whitehead and Dewey added new dimensions in grasping the elusive teaching power of experience. Whitehead, in the Aims of Education (1929) conceived of experience as a way of keeping knowledge alive, thus preventing it from becoming inert. Dewey and Whitehead each felt that education was synonymous with self-discovery. There is little doubt that while Whitehead was an important figure in education, John Dewey was probably the most influential writer on the role of experience in learning.


In Experience and Education (1938), Dewey asked: “What is the proper relationship between subject matter and experience ? How can freedom be used to foster learning ? How many students lose the impulse to continue learning because of negative experiences in school ? Why should students acquire information if they are unable to extract meaning from future experience ?


In attempting to answer these and other questions it led Dewey to define an educational experience as one that has at least three characteristics.

  • First, an educational experience should promote personal growth and move students toward new experiences.
  • Second, an educative experience should cause the learner constantly to examine, evaluate and modify their inner beliefs as a result of conflicts presented by external events.
  • Third, despite its often provocative nature, experience should be enjoyable so that learners continue learning and are not discouraged.


In Dewey’s analysis, the problem lay not so much in the fact that most students lacked experience, but rather the experiences they had were miseducative. By ‘miseducative’ Dewey meant experiences that arrested or distorted students’ growth, or inhibited their willingness to continue learning. Although Whitehead’s and Dewey’s themes were never fully embraced by most educational practitioners, they were nevertheless profoundly important.


Their lasting influence can be seen in the work of more modern developmentalists including Kohlberg and Mayer (1972), Schaefer-Simmern (1949), Erikson (1968), and others. It was with this background in mind that I taught a class in UCLA’s Teacher Education Laboratory called ‘Can You Find Dewey in the Classroom ?’ to see if we could find evidence of John Dewey’s educational philosophy in a systematic study of Los Angeles junior and senior high schools.


In the first few weeks of the class we read and discussed Whitehead’s Aims of Education, and Dewey’s experience and Education, though for the sake of efficiency, we focused most attention on Dewey. Early in the discussions, it became clear that some of the student teachers held the view that teaching was little more than transmitting organized material to students to develop their academic ‘skills’.


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However, Dewey’s ideas seemed to resonate with most students, though many remained skeptical about the feasibility of implementing them in modern classrooms. Through group discussion, students culled Dewey’s guiding principles from Experience and Education, and ‘operationalized’ them, by defining them in ways that would allow their observation in the classroom.


Three chief principles emerged:

  • First, some educationally purposeful activities drawn from outside the classroom should be present in day-to-day classroom instruction, and students should be actively involved in them.
  • Second, evidence of continuity and progression of the subject under study should be apparent. For example, does the master-teacher draw on past lessons or experiences that hold interest for students to help them see connections between one lesson and another ? Does the organization of the course and students’ involvement in it lead them naturally from one issue to another ? Are students engaged in issues from the larger community in ways that help them understand abstract principles ?
  • Third, evidence of interaction between students’ inner thoughts and beliefs and external events should be observable. Are students fully engaged in the lesson and participating actively in their learning ? Do they appear to reflect on their experiences and draw connections between them and the subject matter ? Can they transfer classroom learning to their own lives ?


Student-teachers observed whether or not their master-teachers provided some form of purposeful activity in their lessons, and whether or not such activity appeared to help integrate other subject matter with the classroom studies. Surprisingly, in only nine per cent of the classrooms, student-teachers reported their master-teachers ‘frequently’ integrated their lessons with such activity.


Slightly more than half (53 per cent) reported the occurrence ‘rarely or never’. In a few cases, classroom activities included truly creative projects like writing poetry that drew on imagery, mythology, literature, and students’ own experience. But more often, activities were of a mundane variety like filling out workbook assignments or practising with musical instruments for a presentation. One student-teacher observed:


After the master-teacher had demonstrated how to work a few problems, students were given a ditto on which they were to work out a set of problems, just like those the master-teacher had just done. There was absolutely no self-discovery or thought involved. Students were just passive learners.
Student-teachers noted that most master-teachers also failed to integrate theory and practice, or issues of the larger community with the classroom lesson.


Student-teachers also observed the degree to which class activity was student-directed, and reported that in most cases activities were directed by the teacher. Though the vast majority of the student-teachers reported that students appeared to understand the purpose of the activity (83 per cent) when it was present, most observers agreed this key element of Dewey’s philosophy was not a regular part of classroom instruction. One student-teacher summed up others’ views as she wrote:


Dewey’s principles seem alien to the everyday operation of this class. Students’ interests are just not engaged. Class is a drudgery for both the teacher and student.


Student-teachers also investigated the extent to which the master-teachers ensured continuity between lessons, and if they made efforts to connect issues raised in class to students’ interests and daily lives. While more than half (54 per cent of the master-teachers were observed taking steps to relate class issues to students’ daily lives. One student-teacher in music said:


The true purpose of instrumental music should be to provide students with an expressive experience. But, playing the right notes becomes the main purpose for my master-teacher. Music can and should be related to other fields, but I have never observed connections being made in my master-teacher’s classroom. He honestly isn’t aware that there are other aspects to music than pushing down the keys and playing the right notes.



Student observers said that the apparent lack of connectedness between classroom studies and students’ lives probably accounts for many students’ lack of interest in their studies and the resulting ‘pandemonium’, ‘inattention’, and ‘mischief’, leading to the need for the imposition of teacher control. As one student noted:


…all students have interests. The failure of education is its failure to engage them. This failure, rather than any evil in the nature of children, leads to the lack of control among students. Is it any wonder that the teacher is grim and unenthusiastic ?


Responses from the 150 sampled students confirmed the finding that Dewey’s educational philosophy appeared to honoured more in the breach than observed in practice. According to these students, classroom learning appears to stand along, having little relationship to their live’s other studies or the larger community.


More than a quarter of the students (29 per cent) said they were ‘not at all interested’ in their class, and a further 59 per cent answered that they were only ‘somewhat’ interested. Students’ lack of interest no doubt stemmed in part from their inability to relate classroom studies to their own lives. Eighty-two per cent said they found no connections between their lessons and their lives or the larger community. None reported being able to transfer learning from one class to another. In the face of soaring student dropout rates, it came as little surprise that nearly two thirds of the students reported that their classes failed to interest them to continue their education.


In describing his master-teacher’s classroom, one student-teacher captured the dynamics that characterize many American classrooms:


After the tardy bell rings, the master-teacher gives the students a vocabulary test to settle them down. He does this every morning without fail. He says that it’s important to begin the class with a quiet activity to get the students under control. After the students finish, the lecture for the day begins. Hi often ignores raised hands, leaving students confused and frustrated. After the lecture, students do workbook exercises. ‘It’s good to have them busy right up to when the bell rings,’ the master-teacher explained.


Dewey would cringe. There was no discovery, no stimulation, no exploration. The zest to learn, participate, discover and explore are clearly absent in room F-116. Dewey is not there, but doesn’t mean that some learning doesn’t take place. It is possible that on occasion, a little Dewey slips in the back door, and when he does, the students are relieved of the endless routine that they have been trained to endure.


The virtual absence of the stream of educational philosophy from Socrates to Dewey in these classrooms raises important questions about its failure to endure. Because the Deweyan concept has been so influential, and because its educational promise has been so widely recognized, it is important to explore plausible reasons that may account for its absence in these American schools.


In discussing their findings, the UCLAS student-teachers reasoned that classroom education frequently becomes detached from students’ interests and the larger community because of a self-reinforcing cycle of circumstances that seems to characterize American education.


First, curricula are developed to ensure that students acquire specified information. Typically, curricula are imposed from the top down, and are increasingly driven by tests as the USA grapples with educational reform – particularly in academically oriented classrooms.


Consequently, teachers become responsible for ensuring that students get through large amounts of abstract information on which they are routinely tested. It is little wonder that students lose interest. One student-teacher reported that his master-teacher admonished him for attempting to engage students’ interests. ‘I looked at my class and saw boredom’, ‘just give them information,’ his master-teacher said, ‘You’re not in the entertainment business’.


Second, most student-teachers said they felt that teachers were paid too little and worked too hard, with few opportunities for professional advancement. ‘A teacher’s chief job is to get through the subject matter. Beyond that, everything else is extra,’ observed one student-teacher. ‘There are plenty of barriers to being creative in the classroom, and few incentives.’ Another student-teacher noted:


To give students the right kind of educational experience takes more effort than most teachers are willing to give. Mr Brown’s plans are already drawn up. He has stacks of his 30 page syllabus just waiting. It comes as no surprise that students quickly lose interest in classroom learning that has little or no value for them. The need to impose classroom order is a natural consequence, taking the place of order that would otherwise come form students who are truly interested and engaged in their studies.


One student-teacher wrote:


The school isn’t a group or community, held together by participation in common, meaningful activities. Their absence invites direct intervention by the teacher, who keeps order – literally.


Many student-teachers described their classrooms as ‘prisons’, ‘dictatorships’, and ‘police states’. It is within these realities of abstract curricula, designed to advance some students to higher education while weeding out the less academically-inclined with standardized tests, that uninterested students learn to play the game of school. And, as one student-teacher observed, the results are negative:


Academically advanced classes faithfully mirror society. We may produce good test-takers, but we do not produce good learners; we produce people who work for a specific reward. Most students want that which is easiest and familiar; they have learned how to work within the system.


In the end, according the UCLA student-teachers’ analysis, both students and teachers lose. One young woman said:


On the one hand, most teachers are afraid to let students have any control. On the other, most students fear having to take responsibility and be in control.


What is left is an educational system in which authority for educational decisions is increasingly centralized to maintain classroom order with the effect of alienating both teachers and students. As a result of this impersonal control, education has witnessed a slow death of ideas in teaching – it is little wonder that education is rarely broadened to accommodate practical experience.


Too often, by the time teachers get to the classroom the creative thinking has been done for them. Salaries, working conditions, and class size have been negotiated elsewhere; curricula have been established by school boards; content has been specified by subject-matter experts; disciplinary procedures have been prescribed by the courts.


Anyone who has the good fortune to encounter a truly remarkable teacher would probably agree that the teacher found creative ways to engage students’ interests and made connections between their studies and the community around them. Yet increasingly large numbers of teachers are leaving the profession because of the lack of opportunity to breathe life into the deadening classroom routine.


According to the US Census Bureau, about nine per cent of the national teaching force leaves each year. Most studies agree that within the first few years of teaching, 40 to 50 per cent of all new teachers leave. A recent study done for the Montgomery County School District (Commission 1987), which is regarded as one of the finest public school districts in the nation, revealed that 40 per cent of its new teachers left within the first three years, and that many of them left the profession entirely.


The report pointed to ‘top-down bureaucratic control’ as a chief cause of teachers railing to enter the career, or leaving in mid-career. One discouraged teacher was reported to say, ‘I’m just a drone in the system’. The report observes. Decisions that are made far removed from the classroom can also result in unrealistic expectations, as well as frustration and cynicism, for both administrators and teachers. Teachers feel some curricula are paced too fast for many students. They feel they must push kids from objective to objective, regardless of retention, to meet the standards that have been set. (Commission 1987:46).


In its chief recommendation, the Commission echoed Whitehead, who half a century earlier warned that unless education helped students see the woods by means of the trees, and unless school reform worked from the schoolhouse level up, education would lurch from one ‘dung-hill of inert ideas to another’ (Whitehead 1929:25). The Commission recommended that teachers must become managers of learning, and not drones or assembly-line workers. It called for giving teachers ‘breathing room’ to do their jobs, noting:


This will require recognition that children are not educated by directives from above, comforting as the belief might be. We must trust our teachers, and restructure the schools and the way we deal with the schools, to enhance, not frustrate their efforts. (Commission 1987:47)


Sirotnik (1981) also found the same behaviour as did the UCLA student-teachers – that teachers spent about half of the class time talking to students, but less than one per cent of the time was devoted to asking open questions that would demand more than a simple recall of information.
It should be noted that this patter is found in other industrialized nations as well. For example, Watts and his colleagues in Great Britain (1983) show that few educational programmes rooted in experiences outside the conventional classroom survive and prosper. While Watts lays some of the blame at the feet of immature students and uninterested employers (who provide work experience), he mainly blames teachers and school administrators who allow little deviation from formal instruction.


According to Watts, while most educators fail to embrace experience as a legitimate part of education, most students like it. Though this data are limited, some students are motivated by their experiences to work harder in school. Others think they learned more outside school than in it. One student is quoted as saying, ‘To be quite honest I think I learned more in those two weeks of work experience than in the three years at school’ (Watts 1983: 88).


Other studies noted by Watts reveal that nearly two thirds of students in work experience programmes became keener to leave school, perhaps because they felt a sense of power over their own lives as they assumed, at least temporarily, adult roles. Said one student, ‘You feel how big you are, then you’ve got to shrink back doon (sic) into school size’ (Watts 1983:91).


What seems clear is that it is the cultural expectations of formal schooling in the US as well as in most other industrialized nations, that account for its rigid nature. In this conception, traditional schools pass along the dominant culture… Classwork is made up of highly structured information, and students’ progress is measured in clock-hour credits and examination scores.


Most often, structured classwork is taught as a finished product, thus requiring little original thinking, but rather rewarding students’ abilities to absorb, store, and recall it. To absorb and store structured information effectively, students naturally develop learning styles that are characterized by passivity and docility.


Subject matter in American public schools is taught by teachers who have themselves been trained and qualified in the same way. Subject areas are formalized in lesson plans that break down subject matter into units with statements of objectives of what is to be learned and how.


Classrooms of Dewey’s era, as well as those of today, are characterized by students sitting facing the teaching to receive information. As I have already noted, the purpose of such learning is determined by authorities, distant from the schoolhouse and from the students’ own interests.


Thus, it is also not surprising to find education that is rooted in students’ own experience failing to achieve its full educational potential in traditional schools. Studies of the failures of the American alternative schools of the 1960s and early 1970s help describe why traditional schools may be inhospitable hosts for education that is orientated to students’ experience (Deal 1975). Deal pointed out how traditional schools were unable to cope with new organizational problems produced by new authority patterns and by the alternative educational processes that were messy and hard to control.


For example, alternative school programmes, like educational programmes based on experience, encompass a much larger group in the learning and teaching process. Unlike teaching in the traditional school, teachers are no longer the only ones in control.


Programmes that integrate practical experience with classroom studies dramatically change the substance of what is learned. In these programmes, students’ education is no longer limited to concepts that can be reflected in textbooks and reduced to units that can be tallied up in lesson plans and converted to clock-hour credits. Instead, students’ learning becomes highly individualistic, dependent on discovery. Also, such individualistic education eludes easy measurement and evaluation, which are the chief requirements for allocating resources in an efficient system.


Programmes rooted in experience change the reasons for learning. Students’ own intrinsic motives take priority, and shifting the locus of motivation for learning from school authorities to students upsets the sequence in which learning takes place. Instead of teachers ‘delivering’ predigested information to students, students learn more from their own experiences – a process in which teachers act more as guides and mentors than as authorities. Learning becomes redefined as a process of development that works from the inside out, rather than from the top down.



In conclusion, I think a primary reason that traditional schools appear to have such difficulty in truly embracing experience is because their purposes are culturally defined according to an unchanging conception of education. Traditional schools, by and large, treat education as a systematic process of inculcating students in externally defined bodies of information that demand the imposition of coercive order.


In contrast, programmes that are based on students’ experience treat education as a developmental process in which the students’ own experience becomes a primary locus of motivation and learning. So long as the traditional school’s purpose remains simply to transmit the culture, and not to rediscover and renew its meaning with each generation, efficiency and external control will probably continue to characterize its educational approach.


Thus Dewey’s position of nearly half a century ago, that the full potential of learning through experience can be brought forward only with a well thought-out theory of experience, still holds true. But, without a social consensus about the purposes and process of education, any such movement will remain abstract and only theoretical. It seems most likely that until such a change is mandated by society, most schools will probably continue to respond to the predominant social mandate to serve their educational purposes in the same way.


This article is a digest of Educational Transition and Reform: The Status of Dewey in Contemporary Schools written by Wellford Wilms who is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Education in UCLA.  His interests are organizational change and the diffusion of ideas from one sector to another; using action research to foster broad participation within organizations; rebuilding social fabric at the local level to sustain positive changes; using mediation to resolve conflicts.

(Wellford Wilms, Educational Transition and Reform: The Status of Dewey in Contemporary Schools, Handbook of educational ideas and practices, 1989, ISBN: 0415020611; pp 242 – 254)