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  • Writer's pictureDeerness Valley Nursery

Thoughts on Children and Childhood, Part 2: John Dewey

Who was John Dewey?

He was born in Vermont in 1859. Originally he was a student of philosophy, then after marrying Alice Chipman, he began to study education. She was interested in social problems and their relationship to education, and together they began to investigate the best ways to support education.

What did he do?

In the US, as here in the UK, children’s education was rigid, formal and traditional, and Dewey studied and investigated “progressive education”. This is a more democratic, child-centred education. I suppose “progressive” here means “progress from the old way”.

Dewey’s research sought to answer questions we still ask today, such as:

What’s the best way to introduce children to subject matter?

Should we educate children in age groups, or have multi-age classes?

How should we choose what is taught and in what order?

His research about children, and how they learn, was extensive and still affects the education system today.

Why is he important?

Working in the USA he spread the same messages as Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget were in Europe. These messages included that children learn best from doing, education should involve real-life material and experiences, and should encourage experimentation and independent thinking.

He also valued teachers and the long-term effects of their work with children on the individuals and on society. He believed that teacher’s responsibilities included making sense of the world to children, and that teachers should be teaching children to live in society. He believed in encouraging teachers to have confidence in their skills and abilities.

He worked with parents to help them to understand that they need to accept change, and find ways to encourage children to be socially responsible within the changes not to “bemoan the departure of the good old days… if we expect merely by bemoaning and by exhortation to bring them back.”

He encouraged discussion around what makes any experience worthy of being called “educational”, saying that experience is not education alone, and he is the one we should credit for “hands on, minds on” discussions. He believed that quality education is to know children well, to build their experiences on past learning, to be organised, and to plan well including observing and documenting learning.


“True education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself.”

“The school life should grow gradually out of the home life… It is the business of the school to deepen and extend [the child’s] sense of the values bound up in home life.”

“I believe, finally, that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life.”

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