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Dewey's Laboratory School: Lessons for Today

reviewed by B. Jeannie Lum - 1999

coverTitle: Dewey's Laboratory School: Lessons for Today
Author(s): Lauren N. Tanner
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080773618X, Pages: , Year: 1997
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Laura Tanner states her intentions about her new book, Dewey’s Laboratory School: Lessons for Today: "its concern is now: what we can learn from Dewey and his staff as we wrestle with the same problems that they worked out." She achieves this goal by identifying some of the common pedagogical concerns and educational problems in schooling that Dewey and his colleagues faced in the earlier part of this century and their relevance in helping us understand and think about current reforms in school administration, curriculum development, and teacher professionalization. Yet, I believe, the success of her account is in the balanced manner in which she has reconstructed Dewey’s insights linked to teachers’ experimental efforts at the Laboratory School; in effect, revitalizing Dewey’s philosophy and practices for challenging problems confronting us in schools today.

Tanner engages in a multidisciplined assessment of problem identification that renders Dewey’s concepts meaningful for a wide audience -- scholars, researchers, teachers, administrators, policy makers, and students. She carefully examines some of Dewey’s principal ideas about curriculum design and integration, community and school relations, the interconnectedness between student interest-discipline-motivation, teacher autonomy, character education, administrative and faculty relationships, clarifying what Dewey intended by availing us with accounts from some of his more remote and seminal pieces. Importantly, she shows how the Laboratory School activities functioned directly in the experimental working out of some of his essential ideas. Tanner is meticulous in her explications, presenting a collective voice of interpretation -- Dewey’s self-critique, the Laboratory School staff and teachers’ reflections on their practices, modern day theorists, and her own expertise in curricular studies.

One of the things that Tanner assumes is that the problems that Dewey and his staff tackled are the same problems we encounter today. This begs the question of the applicability of Dewey’s thought for the present and future, its limitations and possibilities. While we might speak of these problems in a familiar language, we should be cautious about their meaning and the appropriateness of old solutions for new problems: for example, the contrasts between such issues as multi-cultural education, parent education, mainstreaming, teacher autonomy, and their contemporary counterparts diversity, school partnerships, inclusion, teacher empowerment. While Tanner attempts to negotiate Dewey’s position about these issues, in some cases, it may be well enough to see them as separate as the historical circumstances influencing their formation. Dewey addressed certain problems in education from a certain philosophical perspective and, as well, defined the problems of his time given the historical and intellectual climate at the turn of the 20th century. Educational research since the 70's has taken a revolutionary turn in our ways of thinking about education that includes a critique of the ideological and political nature of knowledge construction and values in schooling. Assessment of the value of a Deweyian reform agenda for the 21st century needs to take these critical strides over the past few decades into account.

Whether we take the lessons lost as today’s lessons to be learned depends on continued efforts to be clearer in our definition of ends and clearer in deciphering the fit between intended aims, means, and educational outcomes. Tanner takes a giant leap forward in this direction in our understanding Dewey’s ideas in action. She provides an intelligent extension of Dewey’s theory in unique ways: 1) the interpretive connections she makes between Dewey’s philosophical ideas, the psychology of thinking and learning, and curriculum design; 2) the piecing together of a stage level developmental approach to discipline based on the intrinsic connection Dewey makes between interest and discipline and places this in contrast to dominant cognitive psychological views about moral development, 3) the highlighting of generative methods in the pedagogy of discipline and learning (i.e., redirection, suggestion, purposeful doing), and 4) the redefinition and reorganization of faculty & administrative roles based on pedagogical principles necessary for a good education. Tanner clearly positions Dewey as a major contender on critical issues of reform. Theoretically, these initiatives provide an opportunity for scholars to take another look at Dewey’s educational philosophy and its extensions in the classroom, in particular, the deep nature of reflective practice. Practically, the 25 features of a Dewey School listed at the end of her book offer a coherent reform agenda providing educators with some basic Deweyian guidelines for implementation in school restructuring today.

The book sets an example of the kind of integrated research Dewey would no doubt approve, infusing conceptual analysis into reflective thoughtfulness about the everyday practices involved in the teaching-learning process. It is an excellent resource for use in either undergraduate or graduate teacher preparation programs and is a must reading for Dewey scholars and advocates across the disciplines. Tanner’s book is timely and should prove to be an invaluable contribution in revitalizing conversations about teacher professionalization and educational policy for the new century.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 3, 1999, p. 676-678
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10330, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 1:42:25 AM

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About the Author
  • B. Lum
    University of Hawaii
    B. JEANNIE LUM is an associate professor in philosophy of education at the University of Hawaii. She is coeditor with Keith Leher, Nicholas D. Smith and Beverly A. Slichta of Knowledge Teaching and Wisdom (Philosophical Studies Series, 67, Kluwer, 1996).
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