To celebrate its 40th year, TERC hosted a symposium entitled “Science Education for a Thriving Democracy.” Our work includes more than science education, of course, but TERC researchers all share a commitment to educational work that supports and encourages teachers and learners to be whole-hearted, creative, and reflective participants in democratic society. Though we draw on the ideas and designs of a variety of thinkers, many of us at TERC find the work of John Dewey to be a rich source of ideas, challenge, and inspiration.
John Dewey (1865-1952) thought and wrote in an era of wars, mass immigration, social unrest, and globalization. He had a deep commitment to democracy as a process of daily life, and to philosophy as a tool for understanding and improving social, as well as individual, growth. An early leader in experimental psychology, Dewey brought his project of radical reconstruction to every branch of philosophy— ethics, logic, aesthetics, social psychology, and more. He put his principles on the line by engaging with organizations working for peace and for social and economic justice. Though people sometimes think about him as primarily a philosopher of education, it might be better to say that he saw education as a key concern of philosophy; it shows up in most of his works, one way or the other, and occasionally takes center stage, as in the classic Democracy and Education (1916).
Since 2003, a group of TERC researchers has been meeting roughly once a month to read Dewey. We often share chocolate (and an occasional celebratory glass of wine), check in on each other’s lives, argue, joke, and think together. This long-running symposium, or philosophical feast, has changed its participants—and perhaps through us, changed TERC a little bit as well. Fifteen years on, four core members of the group share about the Dewey group, and how this long-running conversation has affected their work and outlook.
Although I took quite a few philosophy courses as an undergraduate in the early 1950’s, Dewey was never mentioned. (He was still alive but out of favor then.) I became interested in science education and joined the Education Development Center as an academic chemist in the late 1960’s. There at the Elementary Science Study project, the spirit of Dewey’s progressive educational views was palpable, but I didn’t recognize it at the time. It was only when I began a serious career as an educator interested in informal science activities at museums that I began to appreciate how relevant Dewey was to our work.
In November 2003, I gave a lunch talk at TERC on “Dewey and Museums.” Somehow, that talk led to a conversation with Brian Drayton and the beginning of the Dewey reading group. In the ensuing 15 years the group has read all of Dewey’s major works (some more than once), as well as countless essays, shorter pieces, and some books about Dewey’s work.
Dewey’s overall approach to philosophy—that experiences are our primary and only source of knowledge; that aspects of our existence (such as mind and body or thought and action) are not separate entities but associated; and that making meaning of our lives is a never-ending process that requires both constant inquiry and reflection—has contributed significantly to my work. It informs both the practical aspects of how I understand data gathered from qualitative evaluation work and my continuing efforts to associate education in a democracy with social justice issues.
Dewey’s ideas about experience, existence, and inquiry are also expressed frequently in TERC’s projects; for example, in Kids Network, in which students collected real data and interacted with scientists; in Chèche Konnen, in which middle school children chose and carried out a research project of interest to them; or in Ricardo Nemirovsky’s museum exhibit that allowed children to embody mathematical formulae through physical actions.
When I first came to TERC, I was too caught up in the details of my project work to feel the need for a “philosophy.” Luckily, I was surrounded by inquiring minds who introduced me to a kaleidoscope of names— Piaget and Duckworth, Bruner and Papert, Vygotsky, Hawkins, and … Dewey? I’d heard about Dewey from a childhood mentor, but all I had were snippets about “experience” and “learning-by-doing.” I got little further until the late ’90s when Joni Falk and I were researching how middle-school science teachers understood and enacted inquiry.
Wondering what “inquiry” meant anyway, I came across a quote by Dewey about a persistent issue in science education (in “Science as Subject-matter and as Method”):
One of the most serious difficulties that confronts the educator who wants… to do something worthwhile with the sciences is their number and the indefinite bulk of the material in each… There is at once so much of science and so many sciences that educators oscillate, helpless, between arbitrary selection and teaching a little of everything.
Written in 1910, this statement seemed so penetrating, so full of implication, and so pertinent to issues arising from the standards movement that I had to find out more. The more I read Dewey on education, and on inquiry, the more I realized that I was on the shores of a broad continent of ideas, mapped out by a radically curious and purposeful explorer. It was about that time that I had the encounter with George Hein which led to the founding of TERC’s Dewey reading group.
The years of Dewey immersion have been a remarkable gift, or rather a gift basket. Dewey always invites the next question, always asks about consequences, always dares to think aloud. His radicalism is ever- surprising, and his combination of idol-smashing and meaning-making is relentless. The Dewey group has given me an experience of inquiry in company, mutual education through dialogue—as I think he would have liked. My thinking, my writing, and my own inquiries have come to be flavored and retuned by this long engagement with Dewey and with some friends.
The writings of John Dewey have been a steady presence in my work at TERC. Traditional science education has often characterized scientific inquiry for students as a list of steps in “the scientific method.” Yet, even to those of us at TERC who advocate an inquiry practice that is more closely aligned with how science is actually done, Dewey would offer a more profound way to capture the essence of inquiry. He would say, “Let students use ideas as hypotheses, observe the consequences they produce when acted upon, and reflect on the ideas, activities and consequences to extract meaning … and to serve as the ‘capital stock for intelligent dealing with further experiences'” (Logic: The Theory of Inquiry).
Thanks to the Dewey reading group, this Deweyan perspective has increasingly become a way of life for me. Using ideas as hypotheses can ensure that I approach events with an open mind, and I try to be a careful observer. This practice is often aspirational, of course; for example, sometimes I find myself observing without really seeing. Regularly digging deeper into Dewey with colleagues serves its purpose by causing me to pause, reflect, and make sense of the world again.
Perhaps most important is Dewey’s emphasis on the relevance of education to building and maintaining a democratic society and to the improvement of social conditions. How opposite Deweyan thinking is to our current national climate! For example, Dewey wrote, “The undisciplined mind is … prone to assertion. It likes things undisturbed, settled, and treats them as such without due warrant” (Democracy and Education). Notes I wrote in the margin of the relevant chapter that day listed, “conservatism, patriarchy, high-stakes testing, religion.” Our conversations have always been as wide ranging as this.
I suspect I am a dilettante of philosophy, and perhaps of religion and mathematics as well. All three fields offer the promise of surprising and fundamental realizations that underlie and govern the possibilities of our lives together. Each has been an object of intense scrutiny and has left records for us to ponder.
I want to know something of these fields, because I believe that deep principles can be found to guide our thinking and our actions. Because those fields are so fundamental, each of us chooses (knowingly or not) a point of view and a depth of exploration. In the case of mathematics the choice is mostly about how far to go; there is good agreement regarding fundamentals, relatively few areas are in dispute, and even esoteric fields are rigorously connected back to fundamentals.
However, in the cases of philosophy and religion I find scores of points of view, often obscure, contradictory, and elaborated to baroque sophistication. The pageantry can be enjoyable, but why would I choose to align myself with one rather than another? I look for points of view that are at least mostly in agreement with the deepest values I have been able to discover so far and that offer insights that feel important. (So much the better if those insights are challenging and demand action and deeper study.)
Dewey’s philosophy and his writings are grounded in the real and practical. He outlines his view of the role and value of philosophy and traces the development of Western philosophy through the ages, shining a penetrating spotlight on outmoded notions. As he follows through the implications of his views, he leads us to see the crucial role of the ways we live together, which are both the sources of our understanding and our opportunities for productive action: if we were isolated we would hardly know or understand anything, and it is basically only together that we can do anything good.
This fall, the Dewey reading group is starting its second reading of Experience and Nature . If you are at TERC or can get here on a lunch break from time to time, you are welcome to join us. Or maybe you’ll find a different feast to join or host. A great virtue of a reading circle like ours is that it is not project-related, though it may nourish some project work; nor is it “professional development” in the usual sense. Such groups are free, social, unpredictable, and undertaken for their own sake, for the mere delight of the thing, and for serious, growthful play. Most of all, they feed the imagination, and John Dewey would be glad to hear it—and glad to join in.
Dewey, John. (1910). Science as subject-matter and as method. Science, 31, 121-217.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: Macmillan.
Dewey, John (1925). Experience and nature. McCutchen Press.
Dewey, John. (1938) Experience and education. New York, Macmillan.
Dewey, J. (1938). Logic: the theory of inquiry. Oxford, England: Holt.
Photo credit: John Dewey, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the artist's daughters, Muriel Woolf Hobson and Dorothy Woolf Ahern