John Dewey: What Psychology Can Do, Part I

Given that I recently made the big decision to alter my career path from aspiring doctor to aspiring teacher and educational reformer, I thought it wise and prudent to end my feigning textbook interest with the inner workings of the human body and start reading up on the great educational philosophers of the twentieth century.

I first encountered the writing of twentieth century American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer  John Dewey in a Philosophy of Education class I took two semesters ago.  Of the half dozen or so educational movers and shakers (or maybe not cause I’ve tragically begun to realize just how often our society fails to listen and learn from the most intelligent within it)  I studied in that class, he struck a chord within me.  Indeed, if I remember correctly my first post on this blog was a series of John Dewey quotes, that I found most fascinating and revelatory, and wanted to share with the rest of the world.

For the past two weeks or so, I have been reading a compilation of some of his writings and now I would like to share some of his ideas with you.  Since a philosopher’s writing can get quite tedious and complex,  I will try to do this to the best of my ability.

I will begin with his essay entitled “What Psychology Can Do” which attempts to explain the role of psychology in educational practice.

He begins by making the fairly obvious statement that the value of any theory is based on its real world application.  If it works well, it is valuable.  If it fails to live up to par in practice, it is effectively useless, no matter how much it was cheered and championed beforehand.  This relation of theory to practice sums up the relationship between psychology and education.  A knowledge of psychology or specific aspects of psychology is as useful to education as is revealed in practice.  Education is a rational process and needs to be grounded in both psychology and experience.  In order to be efficient and productive it is necessary for educational practice to be a rational experience.  This is the role of the educational psychologist: to recognize what type of psychology, if any, is most likely to enrich educational practice, thereby making a given educational experience an exercise in rationality and reason.

He goes to on to answer why psychology should have any role in educational practice.  Firstly, Dewey contends that the study of psychology holds high value for the educator in that, due to its logical and reflective nature, it makes him less likely to make student’s amassment of mere facts and figures the highest priority in his teaching style.  “Facts and things” are worth nothing lest they are subject to the inherently reflective and critical nature of human intelligence.  Put most simply, it is the quality not the quantity of knowledge that is most important to Dewey, and this quality is akin to the reflective power of the human mind and its ability to connect bits of knowledge and discern their greater meaning.  By this definition, psychology, as a discipline, is all about the quality.  It is an abstract science that engages in distillation and reflection to determine the complicated nature of human consciousness.  This high order of thinking is of necessity in a quality teacher.

Dewey’s second reason for asserting that psychology should have a role in educational practice is its value for teacher training.  Why should it have paramount value in the training of our educators?  It is for the simple reason that the educational dilemma is one with distinctly ethical and psychological roots.  It is a dilemma that must be solved by men and women who possess a clear knowledge of what is best for the human mind and what methods and devices will bring out the best of what human nature has to offer this world.  Psychology and ethics represent to education what anatomy and pathophysiology represent to medicine.  The two former are fields of study which seek to rationally explain human nature just as the two latter are fields of study which explain the workings of the human body.  How are you going to be a great educator of human beings unless you understand human nature itself and apply methods by which you can assure a positive and natural growth of mind and character?  It seems to be common sense, right?  And yet we all encounter those teachers who just completely turn us off and we wonder why.  Well, this is part of the reason.

Next Post: Opinion on Dewey’s Thoughts so far And……Dewey’s Three Resources Available in the Work of Education Other than Psychology: Native Tact and Skill, Experience, Authoritative Instruction in Methods and Devices


I write to dialogue. So please, let's engage each other in some dialogue.

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