April is Democracy in Education Month!

April 2016 In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the publication of John Dewey’s seminal work, Democracy and Education

John Dewey (1859-1952) was arguably the greatest thinker that America has produced. He thought deeply, wrote prolifically in the fields of philosophy, psychology, journalism, aesthetics, politics, and education, and was actively involved in the public arena. He was a founder of the New School for Social Research, the NAACP, the ACLU, and a host of academic and professional organizations.

But he is probably most frequently associated with his writings on education, and can be considered the ‘patron saint’ of progressive education. Dewey thought and wrote about education, but he wasn’t much involved in the implementation of his ideas. His thoughts and books were subsequently interpreted by a great many educators during the past century, who were inspired by his thoughts to create hundreds of schools, many more programs at existing schools, and by countless teachers in the way they approach the work they do in classrooms.

There have been, and still are, a wide variety of schools, programs, and approaches that call themselves “progressive.” Because of this, the term “progressive education” is therefore not very helpful at best, or misleading at worst.

Democracy and Education is therefore refreshing because it articulates principles that are unambiguous, and describes situations that are remarkably relevant today; and some of them point the way to how we, at Peak, can move forward. Not bad for a work written 100 years ago.

About the title, and Dewey’s focusing this work on the question of democracy. While the term ‘democracy’ may not be much used in public discourse today, it certainly was when the book was written and published. In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson was about to bring the United States into what was called the European War (WWI) in order to “make the world safe for democracy.” Threatened not only from abroad, many feared democracy was also being undermined by the industrial nature of our economy and society, and the huge and growing inequity between the living conditions of the wealthy few and the masses of workers in the sweatshops, mines, and factories. John Dewey made it his life work to strengthen our democracy and democratic institutions, and he looked to the schools to be at the front lines of this endeavor. He argued that schools and education in America should above all reflect and sustain a democratic way of living.

Dewey’s conception that education is fundamentally a method of improving society was influenced by his relationship with the social reformer Jane Addams during the time that he was at the University of Chicago (1894-1904). Along with Ellen Gates Starr, Jane Addams established and ran Hull House, a model that inspired over 200 other Settlement Houses across the U.S., whose mission was to provide social and educational opportunities to immigrants and other working class people: children and adults, men and women.

Dewey had his detractors. Most people in the educational establishment liked things just the way they were – with rigid rules about what should be taught and how that knowledge should be drummed into the heads of students. There were also those reformers in the field of education that said, “We are now in the modern, scientific, industrial age and we need efficiency.” These ‘efficiency’ proponents believed that just as we should set standards and measure output in mills, mines, and factories, we should set standards and measure output in schools. These folks continue to have perhaps a far greater influence on schooling than John Dewey.

But thanks to Dewey and the progressive educators who followed him, approaches to teaching and learning that are key to the mission of The Peak School have been created and developed over the past century.

What follows is a selection of the many topics Dewey covers in Democracy and Education, and how the principles he articulated are relevant to what we do at Peak.

What exactly is education?

In discussions about education and learning now, one often hears about such things as the mind/body connection, neuroscience, and multiple intelligences. Dewey’s thoughts were not just more elemental – they were concerned with the social interchange between teacher and learner. A great deal of learning occurs in the real world; people become a community or society by sharing and communicating “aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge.”

Dewey advocating bringing the kind of learning experiences one encounters in the wider world into the classroom. In this conception of education, both the teacher and the student learn and grow. As Dewey puts it:

Communication is a process of sharing experience till it becomes a common possession. It modifies the disposition of both the parties who partake in it.

How is this manifest at The Peak School? Certainly it is part of Personalization in the classroom. But I think equally important are the roles of teacher-as-coach and Base Camp advisor, which are characterized by the relationship that is built between teachers and students, where the shared experience leads to a change in both.

Principle #1: Education is an exchange between teacher and learner, wherein both grow from the experience.

Teaching: what it is and is not

Closely connected to that first principle is the recognition that the student, regardless of the age and level of learning, has been continually experiencing life, responding to stimuli, and making connections; and not just waiting to be enlightened by a teacher. Dewey rejected traditional attitudes about teaching; it is not, “pouring knowledge into a mental and moral hole which awaits filling.”

The value of teaching is not the transfer of knowledge; it is stimulating the desire to learn and supplying the conditions that insure growth.

I believe this is applied to what we do at Peak in two ways. First, it demands a tone of decency and respect by the teacher towards the student. And second, it gives firm foundation to our de-emphasis on knowledge accumulation while valuing student’s passions and interests and helping them acquire the skills to learn more about them.

Principle #2: The value of education is not how much knowledge a student accumulates, it is rather the desire in the student to continue learning and having the skills to pursue that.

The role of schooling in educating students and improving society

In Democracy and Education Dewey is very clear about one social purpose of schooling:

The school environment [must] see to it that each individual gets an opportunity to escape from the limitations of the social group in which he was born, and to come into living contact with a broader environment.

In 1916, Dewey was specifically referring to the assimilating force of the American public school for the enormous waves of arriving immigrants, and in doing so bolstering our American democratic society.

I think this applies to us here at Peak – our students must “escape the limitations” of their privileged social group. They need to know of and empathize with the experience of “other” populations, locally and globally, if we are to fulfill the mission of the school. This directs us to renewed efforts to recruit both from the Hispanic population in Summit County and international students, and we must also include the experience of others in our curriculum at all levels.

Principle #3: Schooling is an opportunity to engage with people from different backgrounds in a safe environment that would lead to an improved society at large.

The importance of guiding students in their development

There are progressive educators – for example those at Free Schools, Sudbury Schools, or advocates of unschooling – who believe that the growth and development of students should be completely natural and not be directed by school staff. Dewey is not one of them. He believed that educators should guide students in their development, although he rejected the notion current at the time that students needed to be controlled in a rigid environment.

He had a profound belief in the innate motivation of individuals towards positive interaction with others, and encouraged educators to give students the opportunities to interact with each other. He advocated for creating learning conditions that took advantage of “the social sense that comes from sharing in an activity of common concern and value.” He believed this would help students better understand the meaning in what they were learning.

Obviously, this speaks to the value of having students work together to solve problems; a notion that seems self-evident but was in fact revolutionary. This concept was enhanced two years later with the publication of “The Project Method” by one of Dewey’s colleagues at Teachers College.

The use of projects, and students collaborating on them, is an example of a practice initiated by progressive educators and now a common element in institutions of all kinds, and one used very effectively at The Peak School.

Principle #4: Students learn best when engaged in cooperative activities with others, and should be guided by teachers towards these activities.

Interdisciplinary approaches; a direction for Peak’s OE program

While Dewey rarely was specific about how to implement his principles, in Democracy and Education he provided some examples of thinking about curricular approaches, and one of them seems particularly intriguing to me.

All of us at Peak – students, parents, and teachers – value our OE program. I have been thinking of ways to expand it, and I want to do that in a way that connects the outdoor learning with our indoor learning. In this book, Dewey notes the “complementary nature between Geography and History.” He wrote about the “interdependence of the study of history, representing the human emphasis, with the study of geography, representing the natural,” and if we separate the two history becomes a list of dates, places, and events, and nature become an accidental setting for human development.

I think this provides an excellent framework with which we can integrate OE with our Humanities – both History and Literature – as well as our STEM curriculum.

Principle 5: When appropriate, integrate disciplines to enhance meaningful learning.

In the classroom: why subject matter and approach are critical

A recent survey of our Upper School students revealed that they only occasionally saw the connections between what they are learning in their classes and their lives outside of school. Similarly, they infrequently learned about the life experiences of people whose backgrounds were different than their own. I think we need to address this. We can find some direction from Dewey, who writes that basic skill acquisition should not be the end result of education, because it does not “concern with the deepest problems of common humanity.”

He said we must “present situations where problems are relevant to the problems of living together, where observation and information are calculated to develop social insight and interest.”

This seems to be worth incorporating in all the courses we teach as part of our Scope and Sequence in all fields.

Principle 6: Ask real world questions and solve problems in all classes that are designed to raise the social awareness of students.

Externally imposed aims in education

Dewey opposed the notion that education was a preparation for life, and that aims should be determined by those in authority to direct the knowledge and skills that will be taught to students so that they will be best prepared for the future. He believed, instead, that education was part of life, that schools should provide the environment for students to engage with ideas and with other students and their teachers, and that learning the skills necessary to be successful in those encounters are much more valuable than aims determined by outside authorities.

He wrote that when aims and methods are imposed upon teaching/schooling, they do not stimulate intelligence and “render the work of both teacher and pupil mechanical and slavish.”

I would say that Peak’s commitment to student participation in Forum, Choices, and hiring committees; taking on the responsibilities of forming and running clubs; and in general empowering students can be traced to Dewey’s assertion that students learn lessons of life by living them.

Principle #7: Education is engaging with life; not preparing for it.

The liberal vs. the utilitarian argument, and its importance for democracy

There has been much debate these past few years about the value of a liberal [expansive] education vs. a utilitarian education. In other words, how much should an education prepare one for a job or career?

Dewey recognized that we must develop the capacity in students so they are able to choose a career and be successful after school. But he argued that we do a disservice to young people if we prepare them too narrowly:

Industry at the present time undergoes rapid and abrupt changes through the evolution of new inventions. New industries spring up, and old ones are revolutionized. Consequently an attempt to train for too specific a mode of efficiency defeats its own purpose. When the occupation changes its methods, such individuals are left behind with even less ability to readjust themselves than if they had a less definite training.

We further handicap individuals by not providing them a broader education because, as Dewey wrote, “No one is just an artist and nothing else” – they will also be members of a family and of various communities, etc.

I happen to agree with both of those arguments, and therefore I am a strong proponent of our graduates going to liberal arts institutions, and better able to “embrace their roles as local and global citizens.”

But I am more inspired by Dewey when he goes further, and challenges us to think about the aims of education beyond the individual; and the reason he dedicated so much of his life’s work to strengthening democracy in America. He wrote that in return for giving each person the opportunity to develop his or her distinctive capacities, democracy demands a social responsibility of everyone. And schools play a critical part in communicating this to students:

Most of all, the present industrial constitution of society is, like every society which has ever existed, full of inequities. It is the aim of progressive education to take part in correcting unfair privilege and unfair deprivation, not to perpetuate them.

Not long after writing Democracy and Education, Dewey wrote that to revitalize a complacent American public, schools would have to become “the dangerous outposts of a humane civilization” and “begin to be supremely interesting places.”

I like to think of The Peak School as one of those “dangerous outposts.”


Steven Coleman, Head of School

The Peak School


The Peak School seeks to ignite a passion for learning; to develop students of diverse talents and backgrounds who think critically and act with integrity; and to graduate compassionate, confident, capable students who will embrace their roles as local and global citizens.

Caroline Santinelli