John Dewey - The Child and The Curriculum

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“Any genuine teaching will result, if successful, in someone's knowing how to bring about a better condition of things than existed earlier.” (John Dewey; American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer; 1859–1952.)
“Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” (John Dewey; American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer; 1859–1952.)

John Dewey - Foundations of Multicultural Curriculum

John Dewey was born in 1859 in the small New England village of Burlington Vermont. His experiences in school contributed to his child-centered education philosophy. The elementary school Dewey attended had no grade levels for younger students, and instruction focused on the basics, using repetitive drills. In the upper grades, his English teacher's grammar explanation consisted of: "There is a rule against that". He attended college at the University of Vermont, where he learned about a more Continental philosophy that questioned the foundations of his Scottish education. His wife who he met and married during this period sparked his interests in early education, feminism, socialism, and the labor movement. (Peterson, 2010).

Carmichael (1971) observed that the world might have changed more during the time period of John Dewey's life, than any comparable time in history. These changes included the abolition of slavery, distribution of electricity, transportation by automobile, start and end of two world wars, and rise of many new revolutionary ideas. As a philosopher, logician, and educator, Dewey's views on man and society contributed to these movements in the twentieth century.

The Child and The Curriculum, John Dewey 1902

John Dewey recognized that "children's development and learning were anything but rational and orderly, he and his followers advocated a child-centered and community-centered curriculum to give students experiences that make rigorous intellectual demands in the contexts of democratic social living" (Lipton & Oaks, 2007).

John Dewey's book, The Child and The Curriculum, looks at the process of education from both perspectives – child and curriculum. Dewey leads the reader to view the curriculum, what the child must learn, from the child's present state of mind. He also considers the teachers point of view as the vehicle that imparts and delivers the curriculum.

Dewey understood that the structure of a child's mind is far different from that of an adult. A child does not have a framework in which to classify and place all the information he is receiving. The child is still developing both the context and the framework to process information about the world around him. The child's interests lie in the world of persons and relationships as opposed to that of facts and laws.

Dewey identified three factors in the fundamental divergence between the child and the curriculum. The child's experience is narrow and personal, but the world is vast extending both in space and time. He sees a unity, wholeheartedness, where the curriculum is specialized, and divided. The child’s life is practical and focused on emotional bonds; the curriculum is an abstract principal of logical classification. These factors are summarized in the following table:

Divergence Factors
Child Curriculum
World View Narrow, personal Extends in space and time
Perspective Unity, wholeness Specialized, divided, categorized
Focus Emotional bonds, practical skills Abstract principles, logical classification

The struggles the child faces when confronted with the curriculum he must learn become clear when considered from both perspectives. If a middle ground is not established, Dewey identifies the key negative impacts to learning that will result:

· There is no organic connection with what he has already experienced. Today this is called prior knowledge, or context. Without this connection there is nothing to link the knowledge to, it becomes a rule, only to be learned and recited. The child becomes accustomed to accumulating and reciting facts.

· The child has no internal motivation, no need or desire to learn the material. The interest and motivation are to avoid scolding or ridicule.

· There is no quality of experience when information is presented in this external ready-made fashion. Without the delight of discovery the connection is not locked in, the material becomes commonplace, flat, just stuff to be learned.

John Dewey with the assistance and support of his wife Alice developed and tested these ideas in the University of Chicago Laboratory School. John was the director and Alice the principal of the school. These philosophical educational doctrines that he concisely expressed in this book shaped the direction of American education.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Consider the cultural diversity of today’s society. The ideas identified by Dewey a century ago form the rationale and requirement for a multicultural curriculum. Look at your curriculum through the eyes of your students. Do all your students have the experiences, the background knowledge, to relate to the lesson you are teaching? Are you allowing students to make discoveries by making connections themselves, or are you simply conveying information? Are all the math manipulatives neatly organized on your shelves and never touched, or are they well worn from use every day? Do you use the funds of knowledge students from other cultures bring to your classroom? Does the student attending Chinese School on Saturdays teach the class to count to 10 in Chinese? Then with your students do you explore the origins of our Arabic number system?

John Dewey knew from both the personal experience, and active research, that the curriculum and the child must meet on the child's terms. This book explains how and why curriculum must provide the opportunity to explore, experience, and connect information, so the child truly understands and internalizes the abstract principles, the logical classifications, the space and time, constructing the worldview that is specified by the curriculum.


Carmichael, L., & Dewey, J. (1971). The Child and the Curriculum and The School and Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lipton, M., & Oaks, J. (2007). Philosopy and Politics. Teaching to Change the World (p. 86). New York, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Peterson, P. E. (2010), John Dewey and the Progressives, Saving Schools From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning (pp 37 – 50). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


Mary Snow UNM College of Education