Support, Opportunities, and Engagement: 3 Claims that John Dewey Would Make About Learning During the Covid-19, 2020-2021 School Year

by | Jun 7, 2021 | 0 comments

Looking at Learning through A John Dewey Lens 

Such happiness as life is capable of comes from the full participation of all our powers in the endeavor to wrest from each changing situation of experience its own full and unique meaning. ~ John Dewey

When many educators hear the words: reformer, progressive, whole child, etc. their minds are immediately drawn to the profound work of John Dewey, Columbia University Philosophy Professor. A cofounder of pragmatism, a philosophy that embraced utility and action, Dewey’s thoughts on education centered on engagement and interaction for both the teacher and the student. This post focuses on what we believe Dewey would glean from this incredible school year to advance teaching and learning in a post-pandemic era. 

Our Favorite John Dewey Quote 

The quote above centers on the happiness that is found when we uncover “unique meaning” in what we experience, no matter how challenging. His claim is that if we are fully invested in what is occurring and we “wrest” from the changes and challenges, we will learn and grow. In fact, we will be happy. It is actually our struggle during times of change and the outcomes thereafter that lead to our contentment. The paradox is that many believe that happiness is a derivative of comfort, and the opposite is true. 

Can We Find Happiness Because of What We Learned During Covid19?

Over the past school year, two words that we have not often heard associated with one another are Covid and happiness. And, although we won’t follow Alice down the rabbit hole regarding the meaning and history of happiness, we do want to identify that happiness, in this context, is a state of being that occurs when someone experiences meaningfulness and worthy contribution. 

For more on the concept of happiness, visit the Greater Good Magazine for tons of information and resources.

Now that we are emerging from Covid19 in a post-vaccinated society, we wanted to reflect on the past school year through the lens of a renowned education reformer, John Dewey. Our hope is that we can find happiness and success from what we’ve learned. If we can, then we will make significant strides in education. 

Forced Change Due to a Crisis 

This year was challenging on many levels. Covid19 either disrupted your life, or worse yet, imposed devastating outcomes. As for the educational workforce, everyone within the system experienced significant challenges through forced change. At TheSchoolHouse302, we consider forced change to be beyond the realm of our control and something that we must respond to  accordingly using resilience and flexibility. 

Forced change is beyond the realm of our control; we must respond and adapt to it in order to continue to effectively teach and learn. ~ TheSchoolHouse302 @TSH302 Click To Tweet

Change happens all the time. It can be foreseeable or not, welcome or forced. Changes in education often come from the Federal Government or from an outside interest group. But a change due to a pandemic is something that no one expects or sees coming. The bottom line is that regardless of where the change comes from, schools and school personnel must change to the degree equivalent to the strength and potency of the change itself. The problem with Covid and the educational community is the degree of change that is required. The difficulty of this school year wasn’t due to another change initiative but to the dominance that Covid possessed. We aren’t talking about new standards or legislation on high quality early learning services, we were, and still are, dealing with a complete upheaval to how we traditionally operate schooling. 

Educators worked hard through the end of the 2019/2020 school year in the best possible way to educate students to the best of our ability given the unprecedented worldwide reaction to the virus. But, once teachers and leaders realized that there was a strong possibility of not returning to in-person learning in 2020/2021, mindsets had to shift to embrace the virtual learning reality.

As the primary place where students learn became off limits because of social distancing, whether completely, partially, or intermittently, school buildings were no longer the center of where learning needed to take place. This forced change had incredible ramifications, many of which were cause for absenteeism, increased rates of failure, and learning loss. However, amid the challenges of the forced change, there exists the triumph of a year whereby many of the educational values that John Dewey espoused were put into place and embraced faster than had we not experienced a crisis.  

Let’s be clear, we could all easily fall back into our traditional way of doing things if we are not intentional or if we fail to reflect on what we’ve learned during these trying times. We look to the educational vision of a man who was born in 1859, but that vision, albeit more than a century old, is often absent from today’s student experience. We are now able to ask ourselves: what are the claims that John Dewey would make about the post-pandemic educational system that we should embrace for the advancement of teaching and learning? 

3 Claims that John Dewey Would Likely Make About Teaching and Learning as the Result of Covid19

John Dewey Claim #1: 21st Century Schools are the Central Hubs of Our Community

One glaring truth that emerged from Covid19 is that schools are the centers of our communities. We could argue that churches and other organizations were once a central space to reach the community, but, throughout Covid19, schools were the community institutions that were used to reach, communicate, support, feed, and aid our students and families. 

This is primarily due to the simple ease of connection that schools have with every child. The incredible community centers and outreach programs throughout Covid often needed a place to reach the greater community, and one way to quickly get in touch with people was through school communication systems all the way down to teacher rosters and district pupil services.  

Dewey claimed that a critical responsibility of education is to provide a social service that will lead to social progress. During Covid, schools shifted quickly to include social and emotional learning, prioritized standards, mental health centers, medical resources, and more. Faster than ever, schools realized Dewey’s vision for re-imagining what a classroom looks like and provides for students. 

Next Steps From What we’ve Learned from Covid19: 

Similar to the efforts of 211, which combines and harnesses community resources, schools can also be a conduit of resources and services within the community. The stark reality is that many students are suffering both mentally and emotionally and have very specific needs that the school itself is not necessarily equipped to handle. Schools are fundamentally places of learning and any responsibilities beyond that need extensive support. This is not to say that schools cannot serve these students, actually it’s just the opposite. 

Schools can curate the potential services within the community and create a system to connect families to services as needed. With a synthesized list of community services, counselors and other support staff will know where to send families for the help they need. Anything from flu shots to food drives, schools that know the available resources become the hub that Dewey intended the school to be. 

John Dewey Claim #2: Meaningful Student Engagement and Learning Must Take on Many Forms and be Evaluated Routinely and Often 

The amount of problem solving and concerted effort to educate students throughout Covid was simply amazing. It’s important to note that these weren’t necessarily new efforts but that the intensity of the efforts were significantly elevated. This is also not to say that it was all a success but the level of experimentation and risk-taking taught us what to do and not do faster than ever before. The review of student performance data and other sources of information to evaluate what works, what doesn’t, and what to try next is an outcome of the pandemic that we hope educators will stick to for the future of schooling.

Whether it was making sure that students attended classes by reviewing work samples or trying new and dynamic virtual tools, educators increased the frequency and review of data to determine if students were learning and engaged. One key realization during Covid that Dewey would agree with is that schools cannot take for granted that a student’s “presence” equals engagement and learning. New products and features of in-person and virtual learning need to include evidence and subsequent data analysis.  

Next Steps from What We’ve Learned from Covid19: 

Student engagement was a central aspect of Dewey’s work. Students need to be meaningfully engaged in learning and the meaning of the lesson. The challenge is in separating the activity from the teacher–the practicality of instruction and the task of the student. At the end of the day, marking period, semester, and year, it really comes down to whether or not the students learned and progressed through a series of tasks to get there. 

Because Covid19 was so bizarre and the obstacles were so high, we witnessed teachers repeatedly trying new things until they settled into what made sense for students. Learning was the primary objective and teachers embraced this idea due to a setting that was so different. This effort to learn and take risks on the part of the teacher as well as the demonstration of grace as it pertains to grades are two key ingredients for success moving forward.  

John Dewey Claim #3: Teachers Deserve and Need Robust Support and Learning Opportunities

In a short amount of time, teachers’ knowledge and expertise regarding technology and various platforms skyrocketed. Pre-covid, many schools were doing great work in regard to providing technology to staff and students, capitalizing on various learning tools, and supporting the technology with a solid infrastructure. But schools were very patient with staff and willingly measured progress slowly with no real rush. Early adopters soared, while school administrators supported and approved our instructors who needed more time.

Covid eliminated the freedom of a casual timeline, and teachers were forced to learn the tools and do so fast. Granted, it was frustrating and unrelenting, but the growth was amazing. From tools like Seesaw for interactive learning to various Google platforms, teachers revolutionized their classroom in zero time flat. Much of what we saw was that our early adopters and subject matter experts pumped out learning opportunities to catch others up.  

Next Steps from What We’ve Learned from Covid19:

Differentiate professional learning (PL) is not a new concept but one that needs to take hold in every school and district. Teachers’ skill sets vary and PL needs to be offered in a variety of different formats and times. Every school should be equipped with one room dedicated to learning new technologies. Handing over tech to teachers and expecting transformational teaching in the classroom without support is an unacceptable practice. Teachers should have the opportunity to identify the challenges and struggles they are facing from classroom management to engaging instructional practices and receive PL in real time. We wrote about this concept, comparing a learning culture to a teaching culture, in Passionate Leadership. What we learned from Covid19 that Dewey would love to know is that we can speed up not only the learning of our students but that of our teachers. 

We herald John Dewey’s prgressive ideas and his thoughts on teaching and learning. The notion of learning as a process that requires active participation is not anything new as we type these words, but the question in front of us today is how well are we doing it across every system? Dewey professed that we can find happiness amid every situation, and we believe that we can transform education through the challenges overcome throughout Covid19. The spirit of reaching every child and transforming our practices to bend toward the needs of every student will guide us and serve us well for centuries to come. A forced change may be exactly what education needed and now we must move forward with what we’ve learned.  

Stay tuned for more nuggets of wisdom, podcasts, books to read, and the best resources for leading better and growing faster in schools. Follow us at to join thousands of leaders who get our content each month. Send this to a friend. 

As always, let us know what you think of this with a like, a follow, or a comment. Find us on Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, & SoundCould. And, again, if you want one simple model for leading better and growing faster per month, follow this blog by entering your email at the top right of the screen.

TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple by maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.

Joe & T.J. 
This episode was brought to you by GhostBed, a family-owned business of sleep experts with 20+ years of experience. With 30K+ 5-star reviews, you can’t go wrong with GhostBed. Their mattresses are handcrafted, and they come with a 101-night-at-home-sleep trial. For a limited time, you can get 30% by using our code — SH302 — at checkout. And, even if you tell someone about GhostBed, you can earn a $100 referral reward. Go to today and use SH302 at checkout.

No one knew what the devastation of a pandemic would bring in the long run–first graders not knowing how to walk the halls properly or how to manage their materials at a desk. We’ve heard incredible stories of students being oddly possessive of classroom supplies in the younger grades–markers and erasers–trivial things that are readily available. And we’re witness to students up-and-leaving a room without asking in the upper grades–something that they did without asking when they learned from home.  

It’s fascinating to see the skills that are typically taught in schools, yet never captured in any accountability rating or report card, now starkly missing from our students in ways that require tons of attention. This, among other strange byproducts of time away from school, dramatically impacts culture, our well-being, and our abilities. Because we are challenged by such new and different problems in schools these days, we can quickly lose our sense of purpose in what we do. Purpose is such a strong indicator of groundedness that when it’s not clearly defined can bring misery.  

So, as we look within ourselves, we want to approach introspection the best way that we know how, effectively working toward finding our solid ground. Instead of just thinking about ourselves and dwelling on our work or lives, we offer very succinct prompts to begin your professional introspective analysis. 

       Consider the following reflection prompts: 

      •  I know my purpose at work each day.
      •  My purpose at work directly corresponds with my daily activities.

The answer to the first prompt may seem simple and intuitive at first, such as, “Of, course, I know my purpose, I teach. I’m a teacher. My purpose is to impart knowledge.” But, work beyond surface responses that don’t provide the specificity that truly reflects your inner definition of the purpose behind your work. You might come to something like “My purpose is to change lives” or “I plan to influence the system to be more innovative than education typically is.” The grander the statement, the better. Next, ask yourself the second prompt…if your purpose no longer matches your daily activities, you need to reclaim your ground. 

Reclaim Your Ground: Empowerment

No matter what happens, it is within my power to turn it to my advantage.  ~ Epictetus

Once you clearly identify your solid ground, you need to reclaim it. There is serious power in taking control of the things that you can. Despite all of the challenges in schools for teachers and leaders, there are several elements of schooling that we directly impact and that are within our control. A few that we work through in our school leadership training are as follows:

  • Visiting classrooms 
  • Planning with high-yield instructional strategies 
  • Increasing student engagement
  • Empowering teacher leaders 
  • Creating a winning culture
  • Clarifying the vision of the school
  • Praising others and using feedback cycles for school improvement 

The next step is to identify a process goal within a particular area that we can control for the day or week. If classroom management is a challenge, then that can become a clear area of focus. Danielle Doolan, team member of The Career Contessa, which “…helps working women be more fulfilled, healthy, and successful at worktell readers this: 


Process goals are the specific actions we take to increase our chances of achieving our outcome goals. These are the behaviors and strategies that we implement that help us set a path to achieve our desired result. Process goals are 100% controllable.”

This is of vital importance as you work to reclaim your ground. Process goals require specific actions. Those actions are under our direction and control. Determining the specifics of what you work on each day creates a greater sense of calm, connectedness, and confidence (The Three Cs of Empowerment). 

  Consider the following reflection prompts: 

      • I feel connected to my work.
      • I see the results of my efforts.

Take the time to think about your responses. If you feel connected and you are seeing results, what is contributing to your success? Name it so that it can be repeated. However, if you are reading this and you find yourself disconnected and frustrated, start by identifying a couple goals that you would like to achieve this month and be sure to identify the actions you need to take to reach success. 

With the clarity of our purpose in mind and process goals for taking action, we are ready to bloom. 

Thrive in Your Ground: Blooming

Attach yourself to what is spiritually superior, regardless of what other people think or do. Hold to your true aspirations no matter what is going on around you. ~ Epictetus

Identifying, finding, and claiming your solid ground will provide the necessary foundation to thrive in work and life. We approach thriving and this journey of development from a different angle than your typical school leadership training. The reality is that we don’t see the effects of all of our decisions right away. Development takes time and is actually a practice of redundancy and habit formation. Thriving can actually seem uneventful at first for those who love to start and try new things. Setting and starting activities and initiatives is fun, but the real work is in the day-to-day activities that will bear the fruit of our labor. 

This pursuit and drive forward flourishes in what Jim Collins describes as The Hedgehog Concept versus what he explains to be the work of the fox. The fox, “[is] scattered, diffused, and inconsistent, while the hedgehog understands that driving toward a concrete destination is what really works.” Thriving is focused and consistent; something that many of us struggle with in a time when so much has changed and so much is still uncertain. Disillusionment is born from doubt, skepticism, and suspicion about which direction we’re going and why. We get back on track when we find our inspiration and we rekindle our passion. 

Consider the following questions regarding how your purpose is congruent with you developing and growing in your role–thriving for the future.

       Consider the following reflection prompts: 

      • I’m inspired by the people with whom I work. 
      • I am passionate about my daily purpose.

We find inspiration in the people with whom we work, not just because they’re doing the work but because they want to get better at it. In all of our findings, readings, and trainings, we’ve realized that the most passionate people are inspired by the company they keep and the strategies they use as a team to improve. We call that a learning culture and a performance culture because it’s based on continuous improvement and a desire to do whatever we can to find success. We also recommend that leaders measure purpose and other aspects of school culture so that we can lead from a point of our strengths and work on the areas that require our attention. 

Assessing School Culture with REPSS

In our book, Building A Winning Team, we developed TheSchoolHouse302 Reputable, Effective, Perception Survey for Schools (REPSS) to measure a school’s culture using the perceptions of the staff. This process can create greater levels of clarity, trust, accountability, support, growth, and innovation in schools–all indicators of highly supportive, effective, and caring cultures.

This month we are completely focused on the purpose aspect of the survey because it sets the stage and tone for the other areas. You’ll find some of the reflection questions throughout the blog post and below as well. Take a few minutes to respond to the questions/prompts to fully unveil your purpose and consider the power in knowing the aggregate answers that your school community might post if they took this survey together. What might you do with that data as someone who wants to lead better and grow faster? After all, if things aren’t as good as they should be…or could be…then we have work to do. 


Reputable, Effective, Perception Survey for Schools


  • I know my purpose at work each day.
  • My purpose at work directly corresponds with my daily activities.
  • I feel connected to my work.
  • I see the results of my efforts. 
  • I tell a positive story about my workplace. 
  • The school brand communicated to the public is the same as the culture I experience as a professional. 
  • Our school’s core values are so clear that I know what is expected of me on a daily basis.
  • I find the work I do rewarding. 
  • I’m inspired by the people with whom I work. 
  • I am passionate about my daily purpose. 

As always, let us know what you think of this with a like, a follow, or a comment. Find us on Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, & SoundCloud. And, again, if you want one simple model for leading better and growing faster per month, follow this blog by entering your email at the top right of the screen.


TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple by maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.


Joe & T.J. 


This blog post was brought to you by GhostBed, a family-owned business of sleep experts with 20+ years of experience. With 30K+ 5-star reviews, you can’t go wrong with GhostBed. Their mattresses are handcrafted, and they come with a 101-night-at-home-sleep trial. For a limited time, you can get 30% by using our code — SH302 — at checkout. And, even if you tell someone about GhostBed, you can earn a $100 referral reward. Go to today and use SH302 at checkout. 


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