Critique of Philosopher: John Dewey Progressivism

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When one thinks of the curriculum it can be looked at from a school, subject, co-curricular or the experienced curriculum which Michael Littledyke (1996) refers to as the learning students actually receive as a result of the whole educational experience the school provides. This includes the impact of the school curriculum, the teaching approaches used by the teachers, the co-curricular curriculum and the learning environment which is available. It includes both the planned and unplanned or unintended outcomes of the curriculum.

John Dewey who conceptualise progressivism is of the view that children are naturally curious and therefore schools need to give them the opportunity in their curriculum for critical inquiry, problem solving and to build a worldview based on scientific method. The philosophy of Progressivism is basically the children in charge and teachers are just there to facilitate the process. Dewey (19) said that children should not be forced to learn what they do not think is necessary and while they may be allowed to do their own learning, teachers are needed to guide the process. This was how he came up with the progressivism philosophy which speaks to students deciding what they want to learn.

` This paper looks at John Dewey’s view of the philosophy of progressivism, the perspectives of metaphysics, axiology, and epistemology. The pros and cons will also be discussed and also the relevance of progressivism to the curriculum in the 21st century

Philosophical Thought in Curriculum

Philosophy according to Orstein & Hunkins (1988), requires looking beyond the immediate to causes and relationships and to future developments. In the words of William, (1965): cited by Orstein & Hunkins (1988), “our source of direction is found in our guiding philosophy”. That is to say, “our philosophy of education influences and to some extent determines our educational decisions, choices and alternatives. It therefore means that what is learnt is because of the choices we make. And because of this there are different forms or types of curriculum that may be identified. It is what we are guided by and so even within the planned curriculum all could not be learnt and so many times the hidden curriculum is important to all that is to be done. The importance of philosophy in determining curriculum decisions is articulated by Hopkins L. T (1945): cited by Orstein & Hunkins (1988), “when a state office suggests a pupil-teacher time schedule, this is based upon philosophy, either hidden or consciously formulated.

Perspective related to its metaphysics, axiology, epistemology

When a curriculum is been developed the perspectives that are looked at are metaphysics, epistemology and axiology. Metaphysics deals with reality. The reality is children learn best through their environment, when they interact, have a hands on approach. So the aims of the curriculum is the students interest.

Another perspective of the curriculum is epistemology which looks at knowledge. John Dewey refers to it as theory of enquiry, self-guided activity, active manipulation of the environment is involved integrally in the process of learning from the start. The teacher is to allow students to participate in designing lessons that are relevant to their lives and experiences. By doing this schools would become dynamic and flexible and keep up with the rapid change in society. Teaching approaches influence the learning environment of children directly. Ideas concerning the nature of knowledge and the ways in which children learn influence pedagogy, whilst ideology and values about the nature and purpose of education affect both teachers in their approach to teaching and the planners of the curriculum at the national and the school level. Michael Littledyke (1996).

The third perspective is that of axiology which looks at the moral and social problems, for Dewey, are concerned with the guidance of human action to the achievement of socially defined ends that are productive of a satisfying life for individuals within the social context. Morals determine which materials to be used in the curriculum.

Main Proponents Pros and Cons

As stated earlier within this paper the leading spokesman for progressivism was the academic philosopher John Dewey. In his writings, Dewey emphasized a generalized problem-solving procedure, which is quite similar to the scientific method. This problem-solving procedure is a means by which we find out what works in a given situation. Dewey saw this problem-solving procedure as one-in-the-same with the process of education. He believed that the procedure could be effectively applied to problems in the physical or biological sciences, or to a social problem or even to a personal problem. This is a guide which therefore could help with the development of the curriculum. He would base his philosophy on the fact that the students are active participants in their own learning. They learn by experiencing and doing things hands on and this would promote children working together and so the students think more critically and problem solve. This lends itself to creativity and imagination and integration of entrepreneurship into education. Students will be able to develop their ideas and work together as a team.

With progressivism as stated by Dewey it is what the students want to learn and when they think best that it will be done. Strong emphasis is placed on problem solving and critical thinking Understanding and action as the goals of learning as opposed to rote knowledge Integrated curriculum focused on thematic units

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Critics have said that with this development of curriculum there would be little if any routine and so a specific routine would not be followed which may result in confusion. In contrast, the problem that critics have with this approach to education is that catering to student whims and fancies may ultimately damage the overall curriculum. There maybe educational lags when there is not a specific sequence to be followed since the curriculum would be based on the students feelings and not a planned approach which would be that of content knowledge.

The Relevance of Philosophy and Philosophers’ Ideology

Progressivism believes that there is no particular order in which the curriculum must be taught, that means the sequence of learning is decided on by the learner. Continuity in the curriculum is of no importance. Progressivist believe that only what is important to the learner should be taught and not necessarily what others think that is important. They do not believe a learner should be forced to learn what they have no interest in. They believe that since there is so much knowledge there is bound to be something that the learner has interest in.

Progressives place a heavy emphasis on students working together in the context of a group. This is logical because several students might be interested in inquiring into the same “problem.” Progressives tend to favour group work as an educational end in itself because it enables students to be socialized to one another. This experience should serve one well as an adult when we must frequently work with others on the job, at church, on community boards, and committees, etc.

Teach students how to think instead of what to think, In other words, students would acquire a process of thinking and learning which will enable them to inquire into any problem or body of knowledge, both now and in the future. The 'progressive' or 'child centred' ideology emphasises the individual learner and is 'a conception of children's unfolding nature, their interests and their developmental needs' (Skilbeck, 1982,).

Thus the curriculum is seen 'in terms of activity and experience, rather than knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored' (Board of Education [Hadow Report], 1931, p. 75). This view also assumes that discovering and following the developmental needs of children is more important than the cultural transmission of knowledge. Wheatley, 1991 relates this view of learning to science education and shows that: Rather than identifying the set of skills to be gotten in children's heads, attention shifts to establishing learning environments conductive to children constructing their science in social settings. (Wheatley, 1991, p. 12).

Tenets of the Philosophers Argument Critiqued

Progressive education as described by Dewey should include socially engaging learning experiences that are developmentally appropriate for young children (Dewey, 1938).

Learner-centered educators believe that Dewey’s work is supportive of many of their beliefs about how students learn (Schiro, 2013). In learner-centered classrooms, one can see much of John Dewey’s social learning theory and educational beliefs in action. He viewed the classroom as a social entity for children to learn and problem-solve together as a community. Children will be seen learning-by-doing in these classrooms and they will be solving problems through hands-on approaches. (Morgan K. W., 2017)

As Slaughter (2009) points out “our world today has become the electronic world” (p. 16). With technology driving the social lives of students, its use is an effective way to promote student engagement, resulting in a passion for lifelong learning.

Through the use of tools such as cell phones, texting, instant messaging, chat rooms, and wikis, teachers can instruct students using the tools that they are already comfortable with, to most effectively disperse information and academic content (Slaughter, 2009).


His philosophy that children, not content, should be the focus of the educational process, has left a lasting impression on educators who share in his beliefs and philosophies about education and how children learn most effectively (Schiro, 2013).

It is fair to say that progressivism now more than ever is needed in our schools. With the many uses of technology and the global connections that are readily available student-centered learning is what is expected to continue. Even within the Jamaican landscape and the change in curriculum we now see the drive for critical thinking, project-based activities to be done by the students. Give them the basic thought and they will come up with the ideas. Most time working in groups and carrying through. These bring out their creativity and prepare them to compete well globally.

Progressivism is alive and well and will carry on way through the 21st century. All principles though must be guided by the teacher who will facilitate the process.


  1. Barnes, M. (2013).Five steps to create a progressive, student centered classroom: retrieved from classroom/
  2. Board of Education (1931) Report of the Consultative Committee on the Primary School. (The Hadow Report). London: HMSO.
  3. Carey, S. & Evans, R. (1989) 'An experiment is when you try it and see if it works': a study of grade 7 students' understanding of the construction of scientific knowledge, International Journal of Science Education, 11, pp. 514-529.
  4. Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan
  5. Essays, UK. (November 2018). Philosophy Of School Curriculum. Retrieved from education-essay.php
  6. Internet Encyclopaedia of Psychology A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource February 23, 2019
  7. Michael Littledyke (1996) Ideology, Epistemology, Pedagogy and the National Curriculum for Science: the influence on primary science, Curriculum Studies, 4:1, 119-139, DOI: 10.1080/0965975960040107
  8. Schiro, M. S. (2012). Curriculum theory: Conflicting visions and enduring concerns. (2nd Ed.). Los Angeles: Sage Publications
  9. Skilbeck, M. (1982) Three educational ideologies, in T. Horton & P. Raggatt (Eds) Challenge and Change in the Curriculum. Milton Keynes: Open University Pres
  10. Slaughter, T. (2009). Creating a successful academic climate for urban students. Techniques, 16- 19.
  11. Wheatley, G. H. (1991) Constructivist perspectives on science and mathematics learning, Science Education, 75, pp. 9-21
  12. Williams, M.K. (2017). John Dewey in 21st Century: Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education: University of West Florida.
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