Social Justice via Educational Technology: What would John Dewey Do

What would John Dewey do surrounded by educational technology in today’s classrooms? To paraphrase Joe Hill (Unionsong.com, n.d.), a song about another union leader from the time that Democracy and Education was published, let’s dream we see John Dewey this day alive as you or me. Say we, but John, you’re 63 years dead. I never died, says he. I never died, says he.

 From a textual analysis of the more than 136,261 words in Democracy and Education, the terms “educational technology”, “instructional technology”, “information and communication technologies”, and “computers” do not appear. The following is a table of some of the terms that reoccur in the text:

Words related to themes in the text and “educational technology” Number of occurrences
democracy 12
democratic 40
education 636
educate 25
communication 35
communicate 13
social 536
media 4
society 146
science 199
scientific 99
instruction 83
curriculum 36
technical 69
human 206
personal 129
evaluate 3

Clearly, frequency of word use does not directly suggest the importance of a concept in a long essay. And a document that is over 100 years old is not likely to make use of ideas in the same way one uses them today.

In this discussion, educational technology is understood as “the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological processes and resources” (AECT, 2004).

Professor Dewey expresses the importance of communication in education and in life by noting that

Society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication. There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication. … The communication which insures participation in a common understanding is one which secures similar emotional and intellectual dispositions—like ways of responding to expectations and requirements.

So obvious, indeed, is the necessity of teaching and learning for the continued existence of a society that we may seem to be dwelling unduly on a truism. But justification is found in the fact that such emphasis is a means of getting us away from an unduly scholastic and formal notion of education. Schools are, indeed, one important method of the transmission which forms the dispositions of the immature; but it is only one means, and, compared with other agencies, a relatively superficial means. Only as we have grasped the necessity of more fundamental and persistent modes of tuition can we make sure of placing the scholastic methods in their true context.

Recognizing that schools are only one method for transmission and communication, Professor Dewey continues that

Persons do not become a society by living in physical proximity, any more than a man ceases to be socially influenced by being so many feet or miles removed from others. A book or a letter may institute a more intimate association between human beings separated thousands of miles from each other than exists between dwellers under the same roof. Individuals do not even compose a social group because they all work for a common end. … If, however, they were all cognizant of the common end and all interested in it so that they regulated their specific activity in view of it, then they would form a community. But this would involve communication. Each would have to know what the other was about and would have to have some way of keeping the other informed as to his own purpose and progress. Consensus demands communication.

Transmission and communication at a distance may also support the development of a community. Communication via electronic means may have educative purposes and outcomes.

Not only is social life identical with communication, but all communication (and hence all genuine social life) is educative. To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience. One shares in what another has thought and felt and in so far, meagerly or amply, has his own attitude modified. … All communication is like art. It may fairly be said, therefore, that any social arrangement that remains vitally social, or vitally shared, is educative to those who participate in it.

Proximity and homogeneity of the learners is not necessarily a requirement for learning. Professor Dewey writes that

A society which is mobile, which is full of channels for the distribution of a change occurring anywhere, must see to it that its members are educated to personal initiative and adaptability. Otherwise, they will be overwhelmed by the changes in which they are caught and whose significance or connections they do not perceive. The result will be a confusion in which a few will appropriate to themselves the results of the blind and externally directed activities of others.

He envisions that free and accessible communication is the hallmark of a democratic society.

An undesirable society, in other words, is one which internally and externally sets up barriers to free intercourse and communication of experience. A society which makes provision for participation in its good of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible readjustment of its institutions through interaction of the different forms of associated life is in so far democratic. Such a society must have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control, and the habits of mind which secure social changes without introducing disorder.

The ability of educational technology to allow the learner to explore their interests is foreshadowed by Professor Dewey –

To be informed is to be posted; it is to have at command the subject matter needed for an effective dealing with a problem, and for giving added significance to the search for solution and to the solution itself.

He also cautions about the future of the applications of the electrical science –

The great advance of electrical science in the last generation was closely associated, as effect and as cause, with application of electric agencies to means of communication, transportation, lighting of cities and houses, and more economical production of goods. These are social ends, moreover, and if they are too closely associated with notions of private profit, it is not because of anything in them, but because they have been deflected to private uses:—a fact which puts upon the school the responsibility of restoring their connection, in the mind of the coming generation, with public scientific and social interests.

Professor Dewey also cautions on the value of communication –

Normal communication with others is the readiest way of effecting this development, for it links up the net results of the experience of the group and even the race with the immediate experience of an individual. By normal communication is meant that in which there is a joint interest, a common interest, so that one is eager to give and the other to take. It contrasts with telling or stating things simply for the sake of impressing them upon another, merely in order to test him to see how much he has retained and can literally reproduce.

He also warns of the seductive nature of media –

… such media have no fixed saturation point where further absorption is impossible. The more that is taken in, the greater capacity there is for further assimilation. New receptiveness follows upon new curiosity, and new curiosity upon information gained.

And the benefits of media –

Every step from savagery to civilization is dependent upon the invention of media which enlarge the range of purely immediate experience and give it deepened as well as wider meaning by connecting it with things which can only be signified or symbolized.

To close with a paraphrase of our song,

And standing there as big as life and and smiling with his eyes, John says, What they forgot to kill, Went on to organize, Went on to organize.

John Dewey ain’t dead, he says to me, John Dewey ain’t never died, Where learners and teachers are in class, John Dewey is at their side, John Dewey is at their side

From San Diego up to Maine in every class and school, Where learners and teachers organize, Says he, You’ll find John Dewey, Says he, You’ll find John Dewey

I dreamed, I saw John Dewey last night, Alive as you and me, Says I “But John, you’re sixty-three dead”, “I never died” says he, “I never died” says he


Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) (June 1, 2004).   The Definition of Educational Technology. Retrieved from http://ocw.metu.edu.tr/file.php/118/molenda_definition.pdf

youtube.com (2010).  Joan Baez Live @ Woodstock 1969 Joe Hill .Written by Phil Ochs.  Retrieved from Joan Baez Live @ Woodstock 1969 Joe Hill.mpg

Reed, D. and Widger, D., producers. (July 26, 2008 – August 1, 2015). The Project Gutenberg EBook of Democracy and Education, by John Dewey [EBook #852]. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/852/852-h/852-h.htm

Unionsong.com (n.d.) Joe Hill: A song by Alfred Hayes, Music by Earl Robinson©1938 by Bob Miller, Inc. Retrieved from http://unionsong.com/u017.html


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