John Dewey on Schools as Social Institutions


The much lamented separation in the schools of intellectual and moral training, of acquiring information and growing in character, is simply one expression of the failure to conceive and construct the school as a social institution, having social life and value within itself. Except so far as the school is an embryonic typical community life, moral training must be partly pathological and partly formal. Training is pathological when stress is laid upon correcting wrong-doing instead of upon forming habits of positive service. Too often the teacher’s concern with the moral life of pupils takes the form of alertness for failures to conform to school rules and routine. . . Any conditions that compel the teacher to take note of failures rather than of healthy growth give false standards and result in distortion and perversion. Attending to wrong-doing ought to be an incident rather than a principle. The child ought to have a positive consciousness of what he is about . . . [Bold added]

John Dewey, Moral Principles in Education

It’s startling how John Dewey continues to sound so current. Notice how Dewey’s conception of the school as a social institution and the necessity for a focus on positive and healthy growth parallels our model of schools as ecosystems and the PERMA idea of positive psychology that I discussed earlier.

In our crazed school culture of high stakes testing, our focus is primarily on a child’s–and teacher’s–deficiencies, and we can see the effect that this has on schools: distortion and perversion. Environments of backstabbing and bullying.

Teachers relate well to the reality that all too often we are largely alert only to “failures to conform to school rules and routine,” and that this is the majority of the character education that we would purport to deliver. This lack of true guidance and modeling of character by the adults that children spend the majority of their time with serves only to widen achievement gaps. I have called this failure to provide explicit guidance and nurturing on matters of values and social needs the inevitable result of our “hidden curriculum.”

What should we focus on in schools? On what children are interested in and do well. On what adults are interested and do well. And celebrate those strengths and interests, while tackling the greatest of challenges with those strengths. It is only through the strength of a community that healthy growth is promoted.

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2 thoughts on “John Dewey on Schools as Social Institutions

  1. One of the things I love about Dewey is that he offers an alternative to the competitive model, where students are ranked in opposition to each other. His philosophy is healthy for individual students, but also for school communities, since it fosters a sense of respect and inclusiveness.

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  2. Yes, definitely, and I think that sense of respect and inclusiveness is so central to our model as well, because when we are discussing relationships in a school ecosystem, we're talking about morality and social relationships as Dewey did. It's always great to be reaffirmed by an intellectual great from the past, ain't it?

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