John Dewey: Psychology and Social Practice

This is a sort of summary and interpretation some of the first 12 pages of educational theorist and philosopher John Dewey’s work, Psychology and Social Practice.

The contemporary school practice is defined by two deeply rooted assumptions regarding the relationship between child psychology and adult psychology.  One involves the perception that, unlike the adult, the child is incapable of being the director of his or her own moral and intellectual development.  Therefore, even though our educational system would best serve the child by allowing him to be the director of his own learning, he is instead taught to be docile, submissive, and alert to teaching methods and materials which are forced upon him.  The other is a presupposition of similarity where, actually, the recognition of fundamental difference between child and adult is most compelling for educational purposes; I am speaking of the recognition that the ultimate necessity for the child is growth while that of the adult is specialization.  What do I mean by these two terms?   The growth of a child involves the formation of habits which stem from his or her interaction with the surrounding environment.  The specialization of an adult consists of the acquisition of specific skill sets whose worth is measured by their application to technical endeavors.  With respect to the educational setting, children should be engaged in activities, lessons, and projects which promote growth and not specialization, because growth is congruent with their psychological needs.  Unfortunately, our present school system fails to respect this key distinction, and, as a result, the same strategies used to educate adults are mistakenly used to educate children.

            Dewey contends that the application of our knowledge of child psychology in educational practice is a matter of ethical significance.  Consider this analogy.  The old humoral theory of disease, devised by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates and widely accepted until the nineteenth century, said that all illness derived from imbalance between four bodily fluids or humors.  These four humors were yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood.  For centuries, this theory was accepted scientific knowledge, and wholesale treatments based on restoring the balance between these four humors such as bloodletting and purging were a direct result of this theory’s application to medical practice.  Now imagine if we lived in an America where we still used these ancient treatments, conveniently ignoring our vast bodies of medical knowledge.  It would be inhumane.  It would be unethical.  It would be ignorant.  It would be illogical.  It would be downright absurd.  But with respect to child psychology and its relative non-application to educational practice, this is exactly the sort of world we live in today.  Children are treated as mere passive objects to be molded upon by external forces, rather than as complex, independent, unique and personal beings who need to be active participants in the learning process.  Any practice or pedagogical fad that does not conform to the recent developments in child psychology and resultant knowledge of how children learn and function is purely arbitrary and consequently detracts from the proper development of the child.  Consider this illuminating quote,

“Symbols in reading and writing and number are, both in themselves and in the way in which they stand for ideas, elements in a mechanism which has to be rendered operative within the child.  To bring about this influence in the most helpful and economical way, in the most fruitful and liberating way, is absolutely impossible save as the teacher has some power to transmute symbols and contents into their working psychical equivalents; and save as he also has the power to see what it is in the child, as a psychical mechanism that affords maximum leverage.” (Dewey 11-12)

In other words, facts are useless in and of themselves.  The memorization of every state capital in social studies class as well as learning how to the find the area of a parallelogram in geometry class are useless in and of themselves.  These formulas, these capital cities stand for something greater than themselves, and must be treated as such when incorporated into the teaching process.  The knowing of the fact and the knowing of the process cannot be the end in and of themselves.  Just as the energy from sunlight must be transformed into chemical energy in order so that the plant may continue living and prosper, facts and formulas and processes must be transmuted into a form that conforms to the psychological needs of the child.  It is the teacher’s job to facilitate that transformation.  However, this does not mean that education should be reduced to the exercise of mere instant gratification.  The goal is not to place agreeability with the child above the necessity of learning.  This would be the result of ignorance, on the teacher’s part, of the larger mechanism at play here.  Remember, the goal is the growth of the child.  To reduce the meaning of the phrase “conform to the psychological needs of the child” to mean “satisfy his immediate impulse” would be treating the concept of growth in a superficial and ultimately irresponsible manner.

Works Cited

Dewey, John. Psychology and Social Practice. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1901. eBook.


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