A century later, John Dewey’s travels to China influence a new generation

UChicago Laboratory Schools host colloquium on anniversary of founder’s seminal visit

A year after traveling across China together, a group of 10 students recently shared their distinct journey of retracing the steps taken by pioneering educator John Dewey a hundred years earlier.

The high schoolers—from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the UChicago Charter Schools, and from Lab’s Beijing partner high school, RDFZ—spoke with educators, policymakers and scholars during the Centennial Colloquium on Dewey: Then & Now. They discussed how even though they could learn facts from newspapers and academic texts, the conversations with peers around the ideas and ideals of the Laboratory Schools founder taught them so much more.

“To have a truly global education, you have to have experiences. I think that there are ways in which you can learn about a culture and learn about a country and history, but until you go it doesn’t really connect. There’s something really solidifying about being there and standing there,” said Gershon Stein, a junior at the Laboratory Schools, during the discussion moderated by Prof. Emeritus Larry Hickman, who served for more than 20 years as director of the Center for Dewey Studies at Southern Illinois University.

The students underscored how the ideas of Dewey and his landmark trip through China continue to resonate. To mark its 100th anniversary, Lab brought together at the colloquium senior Chinese officials, teachers and students, and internationally known policymakers, philosophers and practitioners.

During three days in May, more than 250 people reflected upon Dewey’s role in education and his relevance today in the United States and China. Speakers included James Heckman, Nobel laureate and the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at UChicago; and Shi Zhongying, director of the Mingyuan Institute of Education and a professor of education at Tsinghua University.

“The conference brought together leaders from around the world to discuss the ideas of John Dewey and his global influence, as well as to see how his philosophies of education are being practiced at the Laboratory Schools,” said Laboratory Schools Director Charlie Abelmann. “Building from the ideas of our founder, we are teaching students the skills to reflect upon real-world experience, discuss, and respectfully debate their ideas with peers and educators. This is learning by doing in action.”

The conference was designed to deepen international connections in the area of pre-collegiate education, with Dewey’s seminal two-year trip to China serving as a starting point. As Dewey and wife Alice traveled through China, he gained what some have called “superstar” status, with people flocking to his lectures or reading in books and newspapers translations of the talks, and then widely applying his philosophies of education.

The centennial is fueling new interest in Dewey and his impact around the world. Tied to the colloquium, Peking University Press published John Dewey’s Educational Thought in China, a text on Dewey’s influence on educational thought in that country. Chinese scholars also are planning to host similar colloquia in China.

“It’s exciting that Lab is known as The Dewey School. We can take a leadership role in raising important issues about education in the world today,” Abelmann said.

During the colloquium, educators from the U.S. and China visited Lab classrooms to see the Schools’ internationally regarded program, one that embodies Dewey’s ideas on learning by doing, being child-centered and helping young people develop into meaningful contributors to a democratic society. The speakers, panelists and presenters came from institutions across the U.S., including UChicago, Princeton University and Texas Tech University, and from across Asia, including Peking University, Beijing Normal, Tsinghua University and Hong Kong University.

“This effort reaffirms Lab’s history as a convener of original thinkers and an international leader in education. For example, how our art teachers created a cross-cultural, cross-world art project that allowed students to explore a complicated relationship between two nations. Their lesson plans will inspire others,” Abelmann said.

The Laboratory Schools thank the following for their generous support: Jun Zhou of Jefferson Education Group for his generous support of the colloquium on Dewey; Fushun Li who provided the exhibition Dewey’s Lectures in China, 1919–1921, drawings by Fushun Li in Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of John Dewey’s Historic Trip, and for the accompanying book, John Dewey’s Educational Thought in China—In Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of John Dewey’s Lecturing in China (Peking University Press, 2019); Demay Education and HnR for their sponsorship of John Dewey: Art as Experience; and Mingyuan Institute of Education for its partnership.