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The educational situation: as concerns the elementary school

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In 1894, when John Dewey came to Chicago, US educational leaders were reshaping the elementary school, high school, and college, institutions initially aimed at different social groups, into three 'levels' of a more integrated K-16 system. At the same time, Dewey's fellow reformers were furthering the 'new education' by advocating activity-based, cooperative subjects, including nature study and manual arts for the elementary school curriculum. In The School and Society (1899), Dewey addressed the two problems of how to integrate practical co-operative activities with academic subject matters and how to connect the subject matters and learning methods of the three educational 'levels' to provide continuity throughout the curriculum and between it and out-of-school experience. The School and Society, one of the best known of Dewey's early educational writings, argued that the success of 'new education' was 'inevitable', because it was 'part and parcel of the whole social evolution'. Dewey noted that the opportunities children previously possessed for practical learning in home and neighbourhood production had been eliminated once production moved to urban factories. The earlier common schools had merely added a layer of literacy and numeracy to the base of practical thinking abilities formed outside of school. Schools in the industrial city, however, simply had to provide these opportunities themselves. Dewey's conception of experience-based practical learning to form habits of inquiry and co-operation securing democratic life was a masterful synthesis of the 'new education', and The School and Society became an educational classic inspiring educators for a century. The Educational Situation (1902), by contrast, has received little attention. The tone is decidedly less upbeat. Far from proving 'inevitable', Dewey says, the 'new education' has come up against unanticipated obstacles because it is not an 'organic part' of the 'educational whole'. The institution, he says, remains structured by mechanical features of school organization and administration that determine educational experience 'even on its distinctively educational side'. The new education will fail unless educators can put in place a new organizational and administrative structure that both conforms with the external realities of industrial society and supports new experienced-based learning activities. The three chapters of The Educational Situation analyse the difficulties inherent in fundamental structural change, and propose structural reforms for the elementary school, high school, and college. In chapter 1, which originally appeared in 1901 as a separate essay and is reprinted here, Dewey carefully delineates the interplay between organizational and administrative structures and curriculum. His analysis of the problem of curriculum change anticipates the contemporary work of such scholars as John W. Meyer, Robert Dreeben, and 388 j. dewey Larry Cuban-and defines an issue which, arguably, has not been explored as systematically in the 100 years that have followed the publication of The Educational Situatio. Leonard J. Waks

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: July 1, 2001

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