Progressive education can fail to build upon past frameworks of student knowledge, according to Dewey, because of its scattered syllabus, based on student whims of the moment, while a student was still gaining self-knowledge and self-mastery.
Progressive education has some other inherent structural problems, such as the difficulty of evaluating and assessing the learner. If the student sets the terms of the learning process, how can the teacher evaluate whether the student is right or wrong? Students may also have very unbalanced interests. Dewey's dislike of dualism may be linked to his opposition of pure progressive education -- what about a student who does not like math, for example, and would not learn her multiplication tables unless compelled, preferring to use the time to do striking and brilliant art? The teacher could miss a critical window of learning opportunity, and it is necessary to learn certain basic skills to function on our society. Dewey would stress that the teacher show the girl how to learn about math through using art supplies, for example. In Dewey's model, students may learn different skills in different ways -- not all students learning to read would be reading from the same book, for example, but the teacher still imposes some structure upon the student in the progressive learning format. The role of a progressive teacher is purely a facilitator, while in Dewey's classroom; the teacher has a more active role in learning about the student and guiding the student to reach certain self-directed goals.
Perhaps the most important argument in favor of Dewey's approach as opposed to the progressive approach, is that quite often it is necessary to do unpleasant things to learn a task that one has high aptitude in -- for example, learning a language is boring at the beginning, even for a student interested in geography, because it involves a great deal of memorization, and a student in a progressive classroom might resist this task. But with a good teacher, the student can eventually flourish, and build upon his or her existing knowledge in French culture or Spanish music to attain a greater level of mastery over the study of these nations and expand on his or her innate desire to learn more about the world.
Learning about Dewey has created a profound shift in the way I view alternative approaches to education. It is easy to think that alternative education is simply a very easy approach to education, and does not teach student's basic skills. That is not necessarily the case in Dewey's classroom. Dewey demands that all students have levels of competence in both the sciences and the humanities, as part of his anti-dualistic stance towards the divide between these two disciplines. He has a clear and highly skilled role for the place of a master teacher who must be intensely involved in understanding the student body. Dewey's classroom also demands a high level of creative thought and interaction between students and teachers, even if a student may have different tasks for the day than the person at the desk beside him.
I have also begun to wonder if Dewey would even be entirely opposed to standardized testing, or 'No Child Left Behind' legislation. At first I thought he would be absolutely opposed, given the structured requirements for NCLB. However, Dewey acknowledged that basic skills were necessary for an individualized classroom to function effectively. How can a child who cannot add do science experiments or a child with an interest in animals learn about them without being able to read and write? While Dewey would likely envision a different form of national accountability than standardized exams, he would demand that some sort of monitoring system is required to ensure that students gain grounding in basic skills, given the vital role that an educated electorate plays in the functioning of American democratic society.
Neill, James. "John Dewey, the Modern Father of Experiential Education."
Experiential Learning. January 26, 2005. November 20, 2008. http://wilderdom.com/experiential/ExperientialDewey.html
Neill, James. John Dewey: Philosophy of education. Experiential Learning. January 26, 2005. http://wilderdom.com/experiential/JohnDeweyPhilosophyEducation.html