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Dewey’s Formal Steps of Instruction
Dewey’s Formal Steps of Instruction

Dewey’s Formal Steps of Instruction

On pp. 201-204 of How We Think, John Dewey wrote:

“In the recitation the teacher comes into his closest contact with the pupil. In the recitation focus the possibilities of guiding children’s activities, influencing their language habits, and directing their observations. In discussing the significance of the recitation as an instrumentality of education, we are accordingly bringing to a head the points considered in the last three chapters, rather than introducing a new topic. The method in which the recitation is carried on is a crucial test of a teacher’s skill in diagnosing the intellectual state of his pupils and in supplying the conditions that will arouse serviceable mental responses: in short, of his art as a teacher.

“The use of the word recitation to designate the period of most intimate intellectual contact of teacher with pupil and pupil with pupil is a fateful fact. To recite is to cite again, to repeat, to tell over and over. If we were to call this period reiteration, the designation would hardly bring out more clearly than does the word recitation, the complete domination of instruction by rehearsing of secondhand information, by memorizing for the sake of producing correct replies at the proper time. Everything that is said in this chapter is insignificant in comparison with the primary truth that the recitation is a place and time for stimulating and directing reflection, and that reproducing memorized matter is only an incident — even though an indispensable incident — in the process of cultivating a thoughtful attitude.

“But few attempts have been made to formulate a method, resting on general principles, of conducting a recitation. One of these is of great importance and has probably had more and better influence upon the ‘hearing of lessons’ than all others put together; namely, the analysis by Herbart of a recitation into five successive steps. The steps are commonly known as ‘the formal steps of instruction.’ The underlying notion is that no matter how subjects vary in scope and detail there is one and only one best way of mastering them, since there is a single ‘general method’ uniformly followed by the mind in effective attack upon any subject. Whether it be a first-grade child mastering the rudiments of number, a grammar-school pupil studying history, or a college student dealing with philology, in each case the first step is preparation, the second presentation, followed in turn by comparison and generalization, ending in the application of the generalizations to specific and new instances.

“By preparation is meant asking questions to remind pupils of familiar experiences of their own that will be useful in acquiring the new topic. What one already knows supplies the means with which one apprehends the unknown. Hence the process of learning the new will be made easier if related ideas in the pupil’s mind are aroused to activity — are brought to the foreground of consciousness. When pupils take up the study of rivers, they are first questioned about streams or brooks with which they are already acquainted; if they have never seen any, they may be asked about water running in gutters. Somehow ‘apperceptive masses’ are stirred that will assist in getting hold of the new subject. The step of preparation ends with statement of the aim of the lesson. Old knowledge having been made active, new material is then ‘presented’ to the pupils. Pictures and relief models of rivers are shown; vivid oral descriptions are given; if possible, the children are taken to see an actual river. These two steps terminate the acquisition of particular facts.

“The next two steps are directed toward getting a general principle or conception. The local river is compared with, perhaps, the Amazon, the St. Lawrence, the Rhine; by this comparison accidental and unessential features are eliminated and the river concept is formed: the elements involved in the river-meaning are gathered together and formulated. This done, the resulting principle is fixed in mind and is clarified by being applied to other streams, say to the Thames, the Po, the Connecticut.

“… In each account, there is the sequence of (i) specific facts and events, (it) ideas and reasonings, and (ia) application of their result to specific facts. In each case, the movement is inductive-deductive.”

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