Thorndike won. Dewey Lost: The Most Important 4 Words about the US Education System

January 27, 2020 at 7:00 am 5 comments

One cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward L. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost.
— Ellen Condliffe Lagemann

I mentioned that “Thorndike won and Dewey lost” on Twitter a couple months ago. I realized that some education researchers didn’t know this story. I first learned about it in Lagemann’s intriguing book, An Elusive Science.

Lagemann explains that Dewey was the pioneer at Chicago and Columbia, and recruited faculty and administrators that supported his perspective. But Thorndike came later and replaced those faculty.

Unlike Dewey, Thorndike favored the separation of philosophy and psychology. Despite considerable disdain for educators and an extremely imperialistic view of psychology, which he thought supreme for studying and controlling human affairs, Thorndike formulated ideas that were more suited to translation into formulas for educational practice. A conservative person whose prose was clear, to the point, humorless, and colorless, Thorndike was about as different from Dewey as two men could be. (p. 56-57)

Five years after Dewey left Chicago, Charles Hubbard Judd took his place. While Judd and Thorndike were rivals, they had similar views about the role and definition of school.

Over the years, Judd also recruited a faculty that was as supportive of his views as the Dewey group had been supportive of the views of their chief. (p. 68)

Although both thought experimentation was necessary in education, Dewey saw the school as the laboratory of education, whereas Judd saw the school as primarily the place for the implementation of real laboratory findings…Whereas Dewey saw teachers and researchers as more alike than different, wanting both to be skilled students of education, Judd believed that the improvement of education required the professionalization of education, which, in turn, necessitated tha teachers and researchers fulfill distinct roles. (69-70)

Audrey Watters has written a great blog post about the tension:

Ed-tech has always been more Thorndike than Dewey because education has been more Thorndike than Dewey. That means more instructivism than constructionism. That means more multiple choice tests than projects. That means more surveillance than justice.

If you do Web searches on “Thorndike won. Dewey lost,” you’ll find many relevant essays and papers. Dewey (wikipedia page) believed in educating the student, meeting them where they were, and helping them to develop in their community through teacher-driven innovations in the classroom. Thorndike (wikipedia page) was about administrative systems: grades, teacher requirements and credentialing, preparing students for vocations, testing (Thorndike is best known in psychology for his work on measurement), and teachers implementing what researchers invent. The US education system favors the latter.

I like David Labaree’s paper “How Dewey Lost: The Victory of David Snedden and Social Efficiency in the Reform of American Education” which summarizes why Thorndike won.

The pedagogically progressive vision of education — child-centered, inquiry based, and personally engaging — is a hothouse flower trying to survive in the stony environment of public education. It won’t thrive unless conditions are ideal, since, among other things, it requires committed, creative, energetic, and highly educated teachers, who are willing and able to construct education to order for students in the classroom; and it requires broad public and fiscal support for education as an investment in students rather than an investment in economic productivity.

But the administrative progressive vision of education — as a prudent investment in a socially efficient future — is a weed. It will grow almost anywhere.

When I look at computing education interventions, I see a lot informed by Dewey. Caring teachers, researchers working in partnership with practitioners (RPPs), and developers want students to engage and learn. That’s great, and as Audrey Watters has suggested, technology may be a way of making Dewey’s vision work in US classrooms today. But there’s likely a reason why Thorndike won.

It wasn’t luck. The US school system is built following Thorndike’s vision because his vision was more in concert with US values. I’m not an expert on how US values have driven the US education system, but I can guess at some of the factors. The US system is driven by the promise of compulsory education for all, a belief in rugged individualism, and the value for a capitalistic society.

  • We have a mission to educate everyone. When there’s a trade-off between increasing quality somewhere versus making sure that we can provide something for everybody, the most common choice is for the something for everybody.
  • We like our image of Americans as settlers/pioneers. No “hothouse flowers.” We’re “weeds” that can rise up to handle adversity. We want our education system to be small, minimalist, and local.
  • Education is expensive. States increase their investments only if (on paper at least) they can offer the same thing to everyone. The top goal in US education is to prepare workers, over a goal to prepare citizens. Our education decisions are dominated by economics.

Few students get access to computing education today (as I described in this blog post). The biggest barrier is that we’re too busy and resource-limited providing all the students the classes they need to meet current school requirements. See the principal in Miranda Parker’s dissertation who chooses to keep choir (which helps many students to get the credits they need to graduate) over CS (which only a few students might take). See the education faculty I talked about in my recent CACM blog, who are far too busy meeting state requirements for mathematics and science teachers to fit in CS which isn’t required to be taught pre-service. CS is something new that only a few students get excited about— that might be something Dewey would like since he values individuals finding their interests, but not Thorndike who values the education as a system for everybody.

The lesson is that if we want to get computing education in front of US students, we need to figure out how to make it work within Thorndike’s system. We have to be efficient. We have to do it with few resources. We have to fit into existing models. Alternatively, we can try to move the US education system into a more Dewey-like model — but we have to realize how big a shift that is. Thorndike won almost 100 years ago. The US education system has a century of ingrained views that align with Thorndike.

I wish I could argue for a more progressive view, but in the end: Thorndike won. Dewey lost.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mike Byrne  |  January 27, 2020 at 2:18 pm

    I think there is yet another economic reason that Dewey lost. The Dewey model requires a much less common, and therefore expensive, skill set. School districts don’t want to spend the money. Even without looking up anything I’d be willing to bet schools in Scandinavia are more Dewey-like, because the culture there is that spending on teachers is more OK. The Thorndike model won because it costs less to implement.

    I will challenge one claim, though: “Thorndike is best known in psychology for his work on measurement.” Depends a lot on where in psychology you are. In my branch, he’s best known for the identical elements theory of transfer. In Ed Psych, it’s probably measurement.

  • 2. orcmid  |  January 27, 2020 at 4:27 pm

    Discouraging. I would not be surprised to learn that this permeates post-secondary education and institutions, including the preparation of teachers.

    I lack the imagination to envision something sustainably disruptive.

  • […] little maintenance for well over a decade? Schools are under-resourced, as I talked about in the Thorndike vs Dewey blog post. It’s great to have educational software that just keeps going without maintenance. Maybe […]

  • […] vision of what we want, Logo and MACOS. Both ran up against the reality of school in the US, where Thorndike won and Dewey lost. Now, how do we help every student, in real school […]

  • […] Dewey vs. Thorndike,或各種教育理念間的拉鋸。可以參考 Guzdial 教授寫的 Thorndike won. Dewey Lost: The Most Important 4 Words about the US Education System。Teaching machine […]


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