Early Childhood Education

Dewey, John (1859-1952)


A leading representative of the progressive movement in the United States and a founder of the philosophical school of Pragmatism, John Dewey was one of the most influential American educational reformers of the last century.

Dewey was born and educated in Vermont. He held several teaching positions between graduation from the University of Vermont in 1879 and entrance to Johns Hopkins University in 1882. After receiving a Ph.D. in 1884, Dewey became a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, where he married Alice Chipman after she received her doctorate in 1886.

Dewey developed his reputation as a pragmatic innovator while heading the Department of Philosophy, Psychology, and Pedagogy at the University of Chicago between 1894 and 1905. His 1896 establishment of its Laboratory School for children aged four to twelve years, with its curriculum based upon themes and projects, helped pioneer the movement known as Progressive Education. Dewey resigned from the University of Chicago in 1904, apparently because of disagreements with its administration. He was then a professor in the Philosophy Department of Columbia University until retirement in 1930.

Dewey’s concepts became widely recognized through his books, which included School and Society (1899), The Child and the Curriculum (1902), Democracy and Education (1916), The Quest for Certainty (1929), and Knowing and Education (1949). After his first philosophical essay in 1882, he had about 150 publications. In addition to articles in professional journals, he contributed to Harper’s, The Nation, and other popular magazines. He was active in many professional organizations, as an officer and a conference participant. Dewey also traveled and lectured in Europe, Japan, and China.

John Dewey had a significant influence upon today’s preschools. When the subprimary class at the University of Chicago Laboratory School opened in 1896, it was for children aged four to six years and based upon Friedrich Froebel’s original system. It was not called a kindergarten because many American kindergartens had adopted structured activities and abstract symbolism during the previous two decades. Dewey credited Froebel with recognizing that individuals are coordinated units from birth onward, taking in experiences from the outer world, organizing them, and relating them to their inner life. His vision of this laboratory class for young children was to test the validity of using activities related to home and community-oriented themes. He took an active role in the kindergarten and child study associations and was elected president of the National Kindergarten Association (1913-1914).

A major contribution to early childhood education was Dewey’s mentoring of Patty Smith Hill, beginning in the early 1890s and continuing after she took a position at Teachers College in 1904. When she formed the committee that evolved into the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), he was a supporter. His students included many pioneers in early childhood education, including Lawrence Kelso Frank, Lucy Gage, and Alice Temple.

John Dewey believed that democratic child-centered classrooms and interaction with their communities would prepare the youngest citizens for living in a democratic society. He established the basic principles of today’s early childhood education and of the importance of student-centered education at all grade levels.

Further Readings: Cuffaro, Harriet K. (1995). Experimenting with the world: John Dewey and the early childhood classroom. New York: Teachers College Press; Dewey, John (1934). Art as experience. New York: Penguin Putnam; Dewey, John (1944). Democracy and education. New York: Free Press; Dewey, John (1938). Experience and education. New York: Collier Books; Dewey, John (1929). Experience and nature. La Salle: Open Court; Dewey, John (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath; Lascarides, V. Celia, and Blythe F. Hinitz (2000). History of early childhood education. New York: Falmer Press, pp. 215-225; Tanner, Laurel N. (1997). Dewey’s school, lessons for today. New York: Teachers College Press; Weber, Evelyn (1984). Ideas influencing early childhood education: A theoretical analysis. New York: Teachers College Press.

Dorothy W. Hewes