Was Dewey Right? Are Schools a Reflection of Society?

Summer 2018

By Matthew Byrnes

It is an exciting time to be an independent school leader. With the growing body of knowledge about brain science and how people learn, new insights into behavior and psychology, and advances in technology, the opportunities for school improvement and better teaching and learning seem nearly limitless. At Wooster School (CT), we have started applying methodologies generated by advances in personalized and relationship-based learning, mastery-based assessment, and project-based learning.  We’ve also been exploring new scheduling, technology, and configuration options, which will allow us to develop greater agency and independence in students, while also improving skill and disposition development through stronger learning relationships between teachers and students.

Because most of our inquiry has focused on individual brain function and learning, so too has much of the innovation that has followed. Our ability to better understand the particular learning needs of students—and to deliver appropriate learning experiences—is moving forward by leaps and bounds. As we begin to apply this new knowledge to the structures and processes that form the traditional paradigm of school, new possibilities emerge, though they are not without challenges.

Meanwhile, inquiry into how students learn together, and why this may be integral to social development, is moving at a slower pace. Questions about a school’s role in shaping society—through social learning—are not new, and my interest in asking them now comes from my recent exploration of some seminal works of John Dewey with my colleagues in the Klingenstein Heads of Schools Program at Columbia University. Having just spent two intense weeks with 19 other heads of school, I’ve witnessed the verbal gymnastics that we all go through to try to express our concerns about society without falling into political oppositionalism. It’s clear to me that many of us are realizing that we avoid this public discourse at our own institutional peril. But in order for independent schools to chart a responsible path forward, we need to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going. We need to look at teaching and learning through the critical lens of our society.

Status Check

As we map a progressive course toward learning environments that promise better outcomes for all students, and therefore more citizens who have the skills, dispositions, and knowledge to experience success, we are living through a period of governmental dysfunction and societal discord. As more ways of communicating saturate our society, we seem less capable, or willing, to engage in discussion.

Off campus, we recognize a profound shift in thinking about how “school” can be delivered. Seemingly overnight, the landscape is now populated with public charters, for-profit independent schools, online opportunities, homeschooling collaboratives, and a burgeoning educational technology sector and venture capital market that’s driving—or chasing—innovation.

Look no further than the evolution of Facebook to find an example of how the convergence of technology, brain science, and psychology can profoundly influence human behavior and social norms. What can we learn from the social media phenomenon, and how does it change our conception of our own work? Perhaps more importantly, how does the evolution of corporations like Facebook, and the behaviors of its founders and developers, reflect upon our schools?

Then there are other questions: How have our schools helped to exacerbate an income gap that grows every year? Why are so many graduates of our nation’s schools socially disaffected, so much so that they simply vote for change, no matter the consequences? Why, as a school-educated citizenry, are we losing ground on issues of equity and inclusion?

Shaping Our Students

Studying Dewey in the Klingenstein program took me and many of my colleagues back to a way of thinking that helps us consider how our schools have influenced today’s social environment, and how we might think more deeply about schools that will shape the future.

In “Moral Principles in Education,” a speech he gave to prospective teachers in 1909, Dewey's central premise—one that he would build on over the rest of his long career—was that all learning must be “social.” Further, he argued that the success of the school enterprise can only be measured in so much as the individuals shaped by it find reward in contributing to the greater good, to their families, their work, and to the ability of others to enjoy the same success and rewards. For Dewey, the morality of the school and the building of character in its students were intrinsically tied to developing habits and behaviors designed to further this end. The student does not learn about morality at school but rather practices morality there every day through social interaction. 

The development of the moral ideas in the individual, which in his speech Dewey defined as “ideas of any sort whatsoever which take effect in conduct and improve it, make it better than it otherwise would be,” can only be achieved in schools whose core processes are themselves social. The school model itself has to be formed “as a social institution, having social life and value.” This thinking follows much of what would later become the hallmarks of the progressive education movement—child-centered, collaborative, and inquiry-based methodologies applied to authentic, real-world problems.

Dewey’s Warning

Many schools have struggled to create more meaningful social learning for their students because they are constrained by the structures of our traditional school paradigm—the accumulation of credits, grade levels, classroom architecture, hidebound curriculum, the ranking and sorting of students, the illusion of meritocracy, and deeply held cultural beliefs about competition. In 1909, Dewey predicted what these structures would do to students—and society.

In his speech, Dewey warns his fellow teachers that if schools were to rely on extrinsic motivations, competition, fear, and “comparative rewards” to frame students’ learning and motivate them, society would pay the price. He predicted that “fear of losing the approbation of others; or fear of failure,” would be become “so extreme as to be morbid or paralyzing.” He warned that when we rely on “comparative success” as the measure of individual learning:
…the feeling of superiority over others is unduly appealed to, while timid children are depressed. Children are judged with reference to their capacity to realize the same external standard. The weaker gradually lose their sense of power, and accept a position of continuous and persistent inferiority. The effect upon both self-respect and respect for work need not be dwelt upon. The strong learn to glory, not in their strength, but in the fact that they are stronger. The child is prematurely launched into the region of individualistic competition, and this in a direction where competition is least applicable, namely, in intellectual and artistic matters, whose law is cooperation and participation.
Reading these words again now, I can’t help but pause and wonder at the prescience of Dewey’s thinking. Systems based upon individuals’ ability to outwork and outthink their classmates—without much regard for what Todd Rose, in The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness, refers to as the natural “jaggedness” of each individual’s strengths and needs, nor for the context of their lives—are still alive and well in some form in most of our schools.

Because Dewey was nothing if not thorough in his critiques, he goes on to predict the effect of our broader reward system—work, college, future success—on students as they move through our educational system and become full members of society. 
I have in mind the habitual procrastination that develops when the motive for work is future, not present; and the false standards of judgment that are created when work is estimated, not on the basis of present need and present responsibility, but by reference to an external result, like passing an examination, getting promoted, entering high school, getting into college, etc. Who can reckon up the loss of moral power that arises from the constant impression that nothing is worth doing in itself, but only as preparation for something else, which in turn is only getting ready for some genuinely serious end beyond? Moreover, as a rule, it will be found that remote success is an end which appeals most to those in whom the egoistic desire to get ahead—to get ahead of others—is already too strong a motive. 

How many of us have lived the life that Dewey describes, products of this same educational system, always seeking the next extrinsic goal, only to realize, after the necessary accretion of experience and wisdom, that the key to improved well-being is more time spent on the present, and on a present shared with others, on what Dewey would call “the social” in our lives? Despite that epiphany, how many still view our responsibility to society as being somehow separate from our responsibility to ourselves and our families? Is it any wonder that while we’ve all been tending to ourselves, we’ve lost the thread on what it means to be a society?

Just as we need to reckon with how our model of schooling has helped to shape our people and our country, we also have the power and the agency to take those lessons and put them to use as we move forward. As we stand upon the threshold of being able to create schools with the ability to truly meet the learning needs of every student, of being able to break free of the tyranny of comparing and grading so much of what our students do, of being able to bring so much of society into the daily lives of our schools, can we commit to creating the schools that Dewey envisioned? Schools that “shift the center of gravity from selfish absorption which is selfish to a service which is social.” We not only can; we must. ▪
Matthew Byrnes

Matthew Byrnes is head of school at Wooster School in Danbury, Connecticut.