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One hundred years since Dewey: Back to the future for educational research?

Marilyn McMeniman
Faculty of Education
Griffith University
This paper is an edited version of the keynote speech delivered at the Annual Research Forum of the Queensland Institute for Educational Research in August 1997.

John Dewey was what we call a 'grand theorist' - he painted with a broad brush on a big canvas - what he painted would be called by today's politicians 'the big picture'. Dewey (1897/1959; 1904/1974; 1933/1974; 1938) did not confine himself to one paradigm or one discipline - rather he drew on many in an effort to understand and help others understand what teachers and learners do during the process of learning and what this means potentially for the education of teachers.

Dewey was a generous man - in his breadth of vision and in his treatment of all paradigms. My personal view is that we have lost sight of such generosity in contemporary attitudes to educational research with increasing specialisation and with savagely competitive paradigms - it is not unusual for researchers to sneer at any paradigm that is not their own, and even to seek to destroy its credibility verbally or in writing, to refuse to contemplate the possible advantages of bringing paradigms together, and, in many cases, to thoroughly confuse the public when we engage in public brawling about the one best way to do things.

The obsession in some cases with the supremacy of one paradigm over another has led to what I call the tyranny of false dichotomies. The most famous dichotomy in the first language field is that of phonics versus wholistic methods in reading instruction. Although nearly three decades have passed since Chall (1967) showed how the polarisation of code theories versus meaning theories represented a false dichotomy and that both bottom-up (code) theories and top-down (meaning) theories were important in learning to read, many practitioners and theoreticians adhere in purist form to one or the other theoretical position (Mather, 1992). Despite this polarisation, cognitive researchers are 'nearly unanimous in favoring direct teaching of phonic decoding skills to achieve automaticity, but with the skills being exercised in the service of comprehension' (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1992, p. 529).

The false dichotomies in my own field of second language teaching and learning almost ripped the heart out of the second language field for a decade. If you were concerned with accuracy in language, you could not be concerned with fluency; if you were concerned with structure or syntax, you could not be concerned with communicative ability and so on. Eventually, teachers spoke up to educational researchers and finally their voice was heard - 'if students don't know how the system works, how can they use the language for their own purposes?' It is the complementarity of these bipoles (not their dichotomisation) that is critical in the language learning process. We do not always get everything right in educational research and we often ignore the warning signs when things are patently wrong.

Dewey gave us the lead. Meaning is constructed by the learner; practice must be intelligent; knowledge is not the same as knowing; all learning is anchored in what is already known; learning occurs through social interaction; and the mere accumulation of information is meaningless.

If we look at much recent educational research, we are still in Dewey's orbit. Applied cognitivists and constructivists write about meaning residing within the learner; Vygotsky views learning as occurring through social interaction with more knowledgeable others; and a host of researchers detail the importance of context in learning. Theoretically we have moved back (some might say forwards) to the original Deweyan vision. For many decades, teacher education drove a wedge between formal inquiry and practice with practice reduced to a number of solvable problems with readily identifiable and teachable solutions. In both Dewey's terms and today's terms that is a case of putting 'knowledge telling' before 'knowledge transforming' and has the dangerous effect, I would argue, of making the profession vulnerable to a charge of teaching to mere recipe knowledge. Teaching is far too unpredictable for that.

The influence of Dewey on the education of teachers is as powerful today as earlier. In the area of teacher education, we are all researching the essential Deweyan question of approximately a century ago - how can student teachers develop the 'knowing' of effective classroom teaching?

The parallels of Dewey's work with that of recent educational researchers are strong. For example:

Although different words, that is, different symbols, are used the same concepts are involved. Depending on which paradigm you use, Dewey's terms fit easily with Schön (1983; 1987), Vygotsky (1978)[1], Shulman (1987a; 1987b; in press) Collins, Brown & Newman (1989) and others.

So Dewey is with us, but in what capacity? Have we, in a century's research, merely come full circle? Theoretically, perhaps, yes. Procedurally, I would suggest we have moved far in terms of ways in which educational researchers have been able to investigate these theoretical ideas and, in some cases, intervene very positively in teaching and learning processes. In this way, researchers have pressed beyond Dewey in research methodologies which go to the heart of what Dewey saw as critical in learning, and that is an understanding of the interaction between student and teacher that results in learning.

One of the major methodological breakthroughs has been the use of research methods such as think-aloud protocols and video stimulated-recall techniques through which the thinking processes/mental tactics of a learner can be made accessible in a comprehensible and usable way to others. This methodology itself engages the learner in metacognitive activity - thinking about the way in which one thinks. Learning strategies of effective learners, for example, are now made explicit: learners can be taught how to learn better and how to ex ert control over their own thinking processes.

Good teaching includes teaching students how to gain control over their own learning, including how to motivate themselves, indeed, how to become strategic in their own learning. In a recent study of students of French as second language, Corbeil (1989) used think-aloud protocols to show how the more successful students monitored every interchange between a student and the teacher in the classroom, covertly responded themselves, and tried to learn from the feedback provided by the teacher to the student who was called on. Less successful students thought only about their own turns to perform. Bereiter and Scardamalia (1992, p. 526) comment that the implications of this are radical in that:

... there may not be any such thing as passive receptive learning; or at any rate, not such that it can be a factor in educational planning. It may be that none of the major cognitive objectives of a curriculum can be achieved unless the students are trying to achieve them ...
The aim of assisting inefficient writers can be realised through the use of modelling and scaffolding. Consider, for example, the following account from the first language literature (Biggs and Telfer, 1987, pp. 165-166) where the 'teacher' allows the students access to his own cognitive processing through modelling and, secondly, through scaffolding, enables the students to become more strategic in their writing:
At a recent writing conference, a curriculum expert, Garth Boomer, was asked to give a talk to a large group of Year 12 students and teachers on essay composition. The scenario, freely adapted, went something like this:
Mr Boomer enters the assembly hall of a large city school, where he finds 250 Year 12 students and the teachers from several city schools.

'Well, I'll let you have the bad news first. We're here for a talk on essay writing...' (groans from audience)...'The good news is that we're going to change places. I'm going to do the writing and you're going to give me the topic...' (instant reaction of pleased surprise).

'OK, then, what's the topic?'... Mr Boomer stands in front of overhead projector, light showing a large blank area behind him, felt pen poised in hand. Suggestions for essay topics, mostly facetious, some quite funny, are shouted out.

The first one mentioned is chosen because, 'You students don't always get to choose your topic so neither do I'. Why is a banana bent? is written on the transparency.

'Good. We've got the topic. Now I go into what I call "incubation." Let's all do it. For the next five minutes you write down all the things that occur to you that you think might - don't have to, just might - go into the final essay, and I'll do the same. Then we'll swap notes.'

Mr Boomer switches off the overhead projector and in the next five minutes jots down some thoughts on the bentness of bananas. He then confers with the group, discussing what might go in and what might go out. A structure for the essay begins to emerge.

'Right. Don't know about you, but I'm ready to have a go at the first paragraph...', and thinking aloud, he writes down the first few sentences, with some misspellings (deliberate). 'First to get something down. We'll clean it up later.' He then goes back and edits it out loud, slashing here, adding there, changing the tense of one sentence, leaving spelling corrections and punctuation until last because 'we don't want to derail our train of thought with mechanical stuff like that'. All redrafting, editing and correcting is done aloud, explaining the thinking behind each change.

After the first paragraph is done, the students are asked to 'predict' each sentence by writing down their own. They find as they go through the essay, that their 'predictions' begin to foreshadow Mr Boomer's composed sentences more closely ... they are beginning to model their writing on what 'real' writers do.

Afterwards, several students told him that was the first time they had realised what good writers do. They thought text came out clean, in finished form, the first time; if it didn't it couldn't be any good. The idea of using paper as a means of examining their thinking, to see what they really did think about the topic, had never occurred to them.
In an article on helping language learners think about learning, Wenden (1986) provides transcripts from adult learners of second language to show that learner beliefs about how language is learned determines what they do to help themselves learn second language. Wenden (1986) advises that it is important that the students be given opportunities to think about their learning process, so that they may become aware of their own beliefs and how these beliefs can influence what they do to learn. Furthermore, it is considered useful to expose students to alternative views. The point of departure for this can be the unearthing of strategies students already use through interviews, questionnaires, verbal reports or think-aloud protocols.

If the evidence is mounting that what the student does is actually more important in determining what is learned than what the teacher does, why is it that only teachers use journals and only teachers write about and talk about the latest findings relating to language learning? Why not let the learners in on the act. Why do we not make all our students aware of what precisely are the processes underlying the language skills? Why do we not unlock this knowledge from the heads of effective and proficient learners and make it accessible to all students? Why do we not talk with learners about language learning and discuss ways in which they can help themselves learn, including how to reflect on their own performance to see how it could be improved? The evidence from the motivation literature is that when learners feel in control, the quality of learning is enhanced (McMeniman, 1989).


The issue of sharing knowledge of the learning process with learners leads to the issue of sharing such knowledge with parents and care-givers. Now we can move beyond educational research partnerships that involve teachers, students and academics to those that embrace parents and caregivers as well.

Sharing professional knowledge is something teachers and educators do poorly. Generally speaking, we are not very good at articulating our theoretical knowledge and research findings to the wider community. This is hardly surprising. All professions use language which is unique to that profession and it is important that professionals understand the concepts that are used within the profession. Indeed it is one of the hallmarks of a profession that there is a shared body of knowledge unique to the profession.

However within the teaching profession, there are competing conceptualisations of what it is to be literate, for example, and it is these competing notions that have enormous potential to confuse the public. No matter that many people seek second opinions from doctors, lawyers and engineers and find it acceptable that contrary opinions exist on the most expeditious way to proceed with a particular problem. Where education is concerned, many members of the public find conflicting methodologies on how to teach students to read, for example, unacceptable.

We need urgently to make better use of the media. We should deliberately promote the knowledge, for example, that bottom-up processes and top-down processes are both important in learning to read. Surely in an age of communication, we could do a good job of putting a package together for parents and others to show them the role they play in emergent literacy and how students learn to read. We spend tens of thousands of dollars on nature programs showing how, over days and months with time release photography, a rose is born. Can we not duplicate this by showing a child learning to read at key points over 18 months and showing parents how the child's developi ng capabilities can be represented on, for example, a set of diagnostic criteria? We have been so spectacularly unsuccessful in convincing parents that we do possess the specialist knowledge to enable students to read and write effectively, it must be time for some radical change in presentation.

It is my contention that people do not change their beliefs by fiat or decree, that is, by being told constantly by experts that this is the way they should think. People change their beliefs and behaviours when they are involved to some degree in a process that is delivering the goods. There needs to be much greater involvement by parents in programs such as Support-a-reader. This is as much a learning program for parents as for students. I believe that we can, and must do a much better job of socialising parents into our own professional understandings of learning and assessment.


Since Dewey, we have been engaged in a century-old journey of exploring how learners learn through making their own journey. These journeys in themselves have become reflective tools. As educational researchers, our methodologies have become increasingly refined. Through simulated-recall, discourse analysis, think-aloud protocols, personal journal writing, use of metaphors and other techniques we not only gain useful and insightful data, but also provide learners with useful tools for reflection on their own learning. I think Dewey would be impressed. Now, if only we can become more tolerant of each other's paradigms and pull our parental partners into the research act, what more might we be able to achieve?


Anderson, J. R. (1990). Cognitive psychology and its implications (3rd ed.). New York: Freeman.

Bereiter, C. & Scardamalia, M. (1992). Cognition and curriculum. In P. Jackson (Ed.), Handbook of research on curriculum (pp. 517-542). New York: Macmillan.

Biggs & Telfer, R. (1987). The process of learning (2nd edn). Sydney: Prentice-Hall.

Chall, J. S. (1967). Learning to read: The great debate. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Collins, A., Brown, J. S. & Newman, S. E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching crafts of reading, writing and mathematics. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning and instruction: Essays in honour of Robert Glaser (pp. 450-494). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum.

Corbeil, G. (1989). Adult second language learners: Fostering high levels of constructive processes in response to corrective feedback. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Ontario: University of Toronto.

Dewey, J. (1897/1959). My pedagogic creed. In M. S. Dworkin (Ed.), Dewey on education: Selections (pp. 19-32). New York: Teachers College Press.

Dewey, J. (1904/1974). The relation of theory to practice in education. In R. Archambault (Ed.), John Dewey on education: Selected writings. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Dewey, J. (1933/1974). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. In R. Archambault (Ed.), John Dewey on education: Selected writings (pp. 230-259). Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & education. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Dixon-Krauss, L. (1996). Vygotsky in the classroom: Mediated literacy instruction and assessment. New York: Longman.

Ethell, R. G. (1997). Reconciling propositional and procedural knowledge: Beginning teachers' knowledge in action. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Griffith University.

Garrison, J. (1997). Dewey and Eros: Wisdom and desire in the art of teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.

Mather, N. (1992). Whole language reading instruction for students with learning disabilities: Caught in the cross fire. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 7, 87-95.

McMeniman, M. (1989). Motivation to learn. In P. Langford (Ed.), Educational psychology: An Australian perspective (pp. 215-237). Melbourne: Longman Cheshire.

Oxford, R. L. (1990). Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know. Boston: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

Revans, R. W. (1982). The origins and growth of action learning. Bromley: Chartwell-Bratt.

Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

Schön, D. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

Shulman, L. S. (1987a). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1-22.

Shulman, L. S. (1987b). Learning to Teach. American Association of Higher Education, 5-9.

Shulman, L. S. (in press). 'Just in case ...': Reflections on learning from experience. In J. A. Colbert, P. Desberg & K. Trimble (Eds), The case for education: Contemporary approaches for using case methodology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychology processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wenden, A. (1986). Helping language learners think about learning. ELT Journal, 40(1), 3-12.

Wertsch, J. V. (1985). Vygotsky and the social formation of mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


  1. Other references to Vygotsky include Dixon-Krauss (1996) and Wertsch (1985).

Author details: Professor Marilyn McMeniman was the invited keynote speaker for the Annual Research Forum of the Queensland Institute for Educational Research. She has an international reputation as a specialist in second language learning. She is currently Dean, Faculty of Education, Griffith University, Brisbane, Queensland.

Please cite as: McMeniman, M. (1997). One hundred years since Dewey: Back to the future for educational research? Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 13(2), 4-13. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer13/mcmeniman.html

[ Contents Vol 13, 1997 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 28 Mar 2005. Last revision: 28 Mar 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer13/mcmeniman.html