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Education and Experience - John Dewey Response

Ava Cotlowitz's picture

Ava Cotlowitz


Response Paper #2


            John Dewey’s publication Experience Education begins by framing how educational theory, in its most extreme terms, is an “opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without.”  As far as schools are concerned, this opposition “takes the form of contrast between traditional and progressive education” (Dewey, 5).  Within traditional education, a “pattern of organization” takes place that continuously transmits to new generations bodies of information and skills that have been worked out in the past.  On the other hand, progressive education is a more dynamic mode of learning, in which individualized experiences shape how one learns and grows through creative activity and democratic arrangements.  Dewey argues that the students who learn under these two types of education generally maintain different behaviors and attitudes.  Students who are educated traditionally may be more docile, receptive, and obedient, while students who are educated progressively may be more outspoken, creative, and autonomous.  Ultimately, these contrasting modes of learning rely heavily on difference of experience and how educative and miseducative experience can either foster or stunt growth of further experience.

            Over the past six months, I have been to fortunate to gain insight into two educational institutions practicing polarized methods of learning and producing highly contrasted student experiences. As an art education specialist at Abbington Elementary School, I am privy to strict traditional learning within an urban, all-black West Philadelphia public school context. Yet, as a part-time preschool teacher at The Wheaton School I am witness to the progressive education within a white privileged rural private school.  Within both of these schools, the contrast between student experiences is drastic.  At Abbington Elementary all students are required to complete state exams that test their competence in varying academic disciplines. The value of these test scores are highly emphasized at Abbington, so exam preparation is, in turn, incorporated regularly into class curricula.  With sole devotion to core academic subjects, Abbington Elementary does not have any form of arts education program.  Therefore, Bryn Mawr students volunteer weekly art lessons to a small number of Abbington Elementary students.  Last semester, Abbington Elementary first graders learned about culture, community, government, and geography. As an art education specialist for these first graders, I would create art modules that corresponded with the aforementioned curricula. Yet, when asking these students what they had learned that week, for example, about culture, each first grader seemed to draw a blank.  After a week of learning the characteristics of culture and what it is comprised of, no student could relay the information.  This made me wonder about their quality of experiences, which, as Dewey states, relies on “an immediate aspect of agreeableness or disagreeableness, and then its influence upon later experiences” (Dewey, 9).  It seemed that Abbington Elementary first graders were experiencing transference of knowledge that did not lead to a future experience of understanding and enjoyment, but of boredom and dull drudgery. 

            On the other hand, preschool students at The Wheaton School seem to benefit from a different quality of experience.  Within this progressive setting, students are taught through creative learning and free activity.  Incorporated into daily lessons are activities like painting, music making, dance, and cooking. Students are generally given choices of what they want to engage in and are able to fluidly move from one activity to the next when they so please. Through these more democratic and humane classroom arrangements, students have better qualities of experience, associated with individual freedom, decency, and kindliness. One day, when asking a group of preschoolers what the months of the year were, they all began to break out in a catchy song, naming every single month, perfectly in order.  The students also benefit from physical learning experiences through visual aesthetic.  Two weeks ago, Wheaton School preschoolers were learning about the jungle.  In turn, preschool teachers transformed the classroom into a mock-jungle, using green streamers, leaves, and life-size cut outs of jungle animals.  This learning experience created immediate enjoyment for students whenever they entered the classroom and caused a lasting comprehension of jungle life that will extend to future experiences.