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Philosophy of Education

Consider any media representation of a teacher (film, tv, literature) and discuss critically how ‘the good’ of education is represented. Reflect critically on how this agrees or goes against your developing ideas of what it is to be an educator.

 “What nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life. This education consists primarily in transmission through communication.” (Dewey,1916, p.19).

The above view is that of John Dewey, American philosopher and pioneer of progressive education. In studying Dewey’s philosophical system, both in its theoretical form and its practical applications, I sensed a shift in my understanding of what it means to be an educator, and indeed of what characterises the ‘good’ in education. The last occasion that such a stimulus opened my horizon of understanding in this domain was my engagement with Être et Avoir (2002), the fly-on-the-wall French documentary portrayal of a single-classroom school in the heart of the Auvergne. In this reflective task I will consider the importance of ‘experience’ and the principles of interaction and continuity in Dewey’s philosophy. These concepts and principles will then be drawn through my examination of the educational approach taken by Georges Lopez, the teacher whose daily experiences and exchanges form the material of Nicolas Philbert’s 2002 documentary.

A snapshot of the school community in Être et Avoir (2002). Video Credit: You Tube

Before proceeding any further, it should be noted that examination of ‘the good’ of education presupposes tacit acknowledgment on the reader’s part that what follows carries subjective weight. However, to this should be added the fact that while opinions may vary regarding the details of what this ‘good’ entails or how it may be qualified, the fundamental sense of the term here relates to the social and democratic foundations of Dewey’s theory and practice. Central to my reflection is the fact that the ideas of community and democracy central to Dewey’s work present a version of educational ‘goods’ that is both (a) internal and (b) external. While Dewey claimed that ‘the object and reward of learning is continued capacity for growth’ (Dewey, 1916, p.173), a statement which gestures to internal reward, the occupation-centred nature of his theory demonstrates the acknowledgment of ‘external’ good or reward as linked – on the more pragmatist and fundamental level – to survival. This latter observation is reflected at the very outset of Dewey’s seminal 1916 work, namely in the title of Chapter One: ‘Education as a Necessity of Life’, a position underscored by statements such as the following: ‘The primary ineluctable facts of the birth and death of each one of the constituent members in a social group determine the necessity of education.’ (Dewey,1916, p.8). While the problematic nature of extrinsic value and reward has been discussed by many philosophers, as has its link to questions of equity (See Dunne, 2005), the ‘external’ good of education as pertinent to present discussion, relates in a general sense to issues of survival and flourishing in the context of democratic community.

For Dewey, and for Georges Lopez, experience is key in the daily education of school pupils. Such experiences are facilitated through ‘occupations’, a range of activities, each of which ‘marshals energy for the accomplishment of a goal’ and maintains ‘a balance between the intellectual and practical phase in experience.’ (Boisvert, 1998, p.101) Gardening, sewing and cooking exemplify these occupations and all draw on an awareness of environment that informs much of Deweyan theory. Aside from the problem-solving educational opportunities of these ‘occupations’ and their potential to provide a platform for cross-curricular discussion (or what may now be termed ‘integration’), Hildebrand notes that by engaging the child’s interest in this practical manner, the teacher ‘lays down a motivational foundation for more abstract curricular lessons to be introduced later’. (Hildebrand, 2008, p.132) The significance of such external or objective aspects lays the foundation for Dewey’s Principle of Interaction, according to which a just balance should be struck between the internal or subjective elements of experience and the external or objective aspects. (See Giles, 1987, p.88) Equally important is the Principle of Continuity, which negates previously held views of experience as ‘a series of fits and starts’ (Hildebrand, 2008, p.129) arguing instead that ‘every experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after.’ (Dewey, in Carver and Enfield, 2006, p.56). The ‘good’ of a child’s education is thus shaped by the continuous series of experiences encountered, and the manner in which these offer engagement with external or objective elements of the environment. Central to all of these principles and experiences is communication, the principal vehicle for learning.

Democracy, Community, Experience and Education: The legacy of John Dewey as outlined by A.G. Rud, Dean, College of Education, Washington State University. Video Credit: You Tube.

In Être et Avoir we encounter a small group of students whose educative experiences touch on some of the ‘occupations’ mentioned above. In one scene, their teacher, Lopez, guides his pupils through the preparation and cooking of the traditional French crêpe. Ingredients are measured, poured and spilled by all, from four to twelve-year olds. Laughs are exchanged and tips shared as the delicacies are flipped on the pan with varying levels of skill and experience. Later, we witness two of the four-year olds tackle the photocopier, negotiating how best to produce satisfactory copies for Msr. Lopez. Disagreements arise but the pupils navigate buttons and pages, emerging with a final product and friendship intact, despite the broken machine. The communication that Dewey identified as prerequisite for all positive educational experiences is key to classroom life. In one scene, Lopez facilitates the resolution of a playground dispute by inviting the two pupils involved to sit and work through their feelings and frustrations. Openness is encouraged as Julien and Olivier confess to triggers of hurt and disappointment. With reciprocal understanding expressed, the scene closes with tears of hope and commitment to improved behaviour. Fair democratic behaviour is something advocated by Lopez with emphasis placed on the responsibility to peers as members of a community. Community engagement extends beyond the classroom however, and the scenic rural surroundings serve more than an aesthetic purpose in the film. Lopez maintains open channels of communication with parents and is keenly aware of the family backgrounds of his pupils. The cattle farming expertise of Julien is neatly woven into conversation, and Lopez takes time to engage individually with his pupils as he feels necessary. For Dewey, such a personal approach was vital in order to know the children as individuals and understand how their habits and interests derive from their own homes and communities. (Hildebrand, 2008, p.130).

Dewey’s principles are evident throughout the film. Lopez draws consistently on the knowledge and experiences at his pupils’ disposal in a manner that instills confidence and motivation (continuity). Moreover, the interaction with external objects and environment reflects a school community whose methods of learning present not only happiness and growth, but also an evolving sense of identity that is shaped and informed by surrounding society. The teacher I strive to be is one for whom the ‘good’ of the education, is as good as the commitment to such values.

‘Democracy and Education’: Among the stimuli for my reflective task were the above: An old visual favourite of the Cradle of Democracy, namely the Parthenon at Athens, and a well-used DVD of Philibert’s 2002 film. Image Credit: Amy Devlin-Fox.


Être et Avoir (2002) Directed by Nicolas Philibert. [DVD]. France: Les Films du Losange.

Boisvert, R. (1998) John Dewey: Rethinking our Time, Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Carver, R. & Enfield, R. (2006) ‘John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education is Alive and Well.’ Education and Culture, 22(1), pp.55-67.

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education, New York: Macmillan.

Dunne, J. (2005) ‘What’s the Good of Education?’ in Carr, W. The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Philosophy of Education, pp.145-160.

Giles, D.E. (1987) ‘Dewey’s Theory of Experience: Implications for Service-Learning.’ Service Learning General. Paper 151.

Hildebrand, D. (2008) Dewey: A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford: One World Publications.

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