Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Educational Theory: Herbart, Dewey, Freire, and Postmodernists

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_314

Three Revolutions in Educational Theory

In the nineteenth century, we learned with Johann Herbart that motivation depended on our intellectual apparatus. Then, we built the teaching of thinking into a lesson that started with a scientific or moral issue. The students, since they had a good intellectual apparatus, a good mind, would be able to follow the lesson. Motivation to study would appear in so far as the students themselves used the intellectual apparatus. The teacher would give the matter, in a logical or historical form, and the students, naturally, learned this form. There was the supposition that the mind was a logical thing and the matters of the lessons should be showed in a logical or historical way.

The great revolution in teaching by the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century was a revolution made by John Dewey. He developed several critiques of old pedagogy. The main critique was that the intellectual apparatus didn’t work alone. The intellectual apparatus, Dewey said, actually depended on motivation. Lessons constructed in a logical and/or historical way needed to be changed. The lessons should be put in a psychological way. So, Dewey took once more a theme from Comenius and Rousseau. Lessons should start with the problems of the world – problems that brought interest and motivation for the children. The teachers, of course, could show the logical and sequence of an issue, but they should know that the child learns this only after a translation of the topics in a psychological way.

This revolution was a potent event. It quickly put Herbart in the past. Of course, a lot of teachers continued doing things in the way Herbart had fixed, but the new books about pedagogy started to tell new things. They told that the child thinks! The books said “the way a child thinks is not wrong, but the child thinks a different way.” Logical and historical ways of teaching should be under the control of the psychological and sociological way of teaching. Dewey and Kilpatrick made a great contribution to teachers and the beginning of the twentieth century: they brought the child forward to become the central point of the school and of teaching. Then, educational theory could gain force from the new psychology and sociology. If Herbart epitomizes the nineteenth century as a century of collective education, so we can say that Dewey epitomizes the twentieth century as a century of pedagogy – philosophy of education and science of education together.

But the twentieth century didn’t see only this. The twentieth century, mainly after the Second World War, watched the emergency in the scene of the Third World. In several countries, a close colonial-type relation with the metropolitan country came to an end, and in the democratic world, the welfare State appeared like an ideal. As a consequence, I see the important appearance of poor and “odd” children inside schools and with this a third moment in the educational theory in the world in the twentieth century: the pedagogy of Paulo Freire.

Paulo Freire didn’t disagree with Herbart about teaching as something that should be done in a collective fashion. He also agreed with Dewey, of course, about motivation, psychology, and sociology. But the new ingredient inserted by Freire into the games of educational theory was the political ingredient.

Freire said that pedagogical action should be a political action but a specific political action: action to make humans free. Dewey also wanted this. But Dewey believed that education and social democracy walked together. For Dewey the concept of education only made sense in a democracy. Paulo Freire on the contrary, thought of education in a situation without democracy. He thought of education in a place without democracy and thought of education as being like a motor to achieve social democracy. So then, with Freire, educational theory finished a cycle – the modern age in educational theory.

What I wanted to show is that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there were three revolutions in education theory. The first revolution: pedagogy became a science of education with Herbart. The second revolution: pedagogy should be linked to social and psychological life problems with Dewey. Finally, the third revolution: pedagogy would depend on political perspective in order to help the poor people.

But, before the end of the twentieth century, the twenty-first had already started. A new and fourth revolution in pedagogy is in course: the postmodern educational theory.

The Postmodern Age and the Narrative Turn

I think that two books are the protagonists of this new movement: in 1979 the publication of The Postmodern Condition by Jean François Lyotard and in the same year the publication of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by Richard Rorty. I do not believe that Herbart would understand these books. I don’t know if Paulo Freire read these books. But I imagine that Dewey would have liked these books. These books didn’t come to tell us that Herbart, Dewey, and Freire were wrong. They came out to say that educational theory could become more open and free.

My friend Michael Peters likes Lyotard. I also like Lyotard, but I think that Lyotard and Rorty are in agreement in several points, at least in those points that I would take to make educational theory.

Very briefly, what Lyotard and Rorty said in those books is the following.

Lyotard reminds us that a lot of people already did not believe in metanarratives. Therefore, it was useless that we, the philosophers of education, continue to tell metanarratives to teachers. The teleology of Adam Smith, Hegel, or Marx is a thing of past. They could no longer support all or any educational theory. When I read Lyotard I didn’t think that his book implied that Herbart or Dewey or Paulo Freire need be given up but that they need to be read without the foundationalist perspective that we are accustomed to read.

Rorty also reminds us that a lot of peoples did not believe in metanarratives and a lot of philosophers in the pragmatist movement could be used to show that real and technical motifs exist in philosophy which discredit metanarratives. But Rorty, in a stronger way, showed me that Herbart or Dewey or Paulo Freire could be used in a new way to make education. They loved to tell stories about education and loved to talk about books that could make us pay attention in stories, movies, novels, comic books, and music about educational situations. Therefore, I understood that we need rather a cultural appeal to teachers than a new or old educational theory.

Might I be talking about “cultural studies,” as Giroux and others are doing? Might I be talking about “counternarratives,” as Peter McLaren and others are doing?

Giroux and McLaren’s books are to be appreciated. They continue the critical perspective learned from Marxism and that is useful both in the Third and the First World. But what I understand as a postmodern educational theory is another thing. In a lot of places in the Third World and in several places in the First World, the training of teachers – poor or rich – is done with educational theories. But what I don’t see in such training of teachers in educational faculties is work with culture: novels, classics, tales, movies, comic books, pictures, and so on. Teachers in various parts of the world are trained in educational theories, in a good or bad way, depending on the country and the university. I believe that is wrong. Better educational theory would say that Herbart, Dewey, and Paulo Freire can be read and must be read, but this is useless without Henry James, Nabokov, Machado de Assis, Julia Roberts, Plato, Donald Duck, Ben Hur, Hilary Clinton, The Simpsons, Umberto Eco, Celine Dion, and Caetano Veloso. Our teachers, in a world that asks for narratives without metanarratives, do not know tales, films, comic books, and so on. For economic reasons in several places and because of the overwhelming value given to educational theories in other places, our teachers forget the main thing in the school: the culture.

In Brazil, in several universities, in the faculties of education, a lot of teachers who train teachers for elementary and high school don’t know our best writer, Machado de Assis (now translated into English). Is this a situation specific to Brazil? No! There are several studies that show that our teachers who train teachers have no love of culture. That is the problem: in a postmodern age, if we want to tell stories that can help the different peoples be close – the ideal multicultural of the postmodern age – then we should have good stories from the several cultures in our hands. But our faculties of education are occupied with educational theories and, so, don’t bear in mind the narrative turn of our age (see Martin 1993, pp. 124–143).

The Educative Process in a Comparative Ways

Now, I will try to put what I said into a systematic form, comparing the educational process of the educational theories that I quoted. I will put this in a frame below.

Herbart educational theory (three steps)

Dewey educational theory (three steps)

1. Lesson of yesterday

1. Survey about concern of the students

2. Lesson of yesterday linked to lesson of today. Presentation of the new matter. Theories and examples of questions and answers

2. List of the problems about the concerns of the students. Hypothesis about the problems with suggestion of readings

3. Exercise with new questions

3. Ideal experiments or experiments in laboratory

Freire educational theory (three steps)

Educative and pragmatic action in the age of narrative turn (three steps)

1. Survey about common words and issues of community

1. Presentation of cultural, cross-cultural, ethics, and political problems with movies, novels, tales, comic books, music, and so on

2. List of the words and issues of the community. Making problems: making “normal” problems in political problems. Discussion of solutions

2. Relations between the problems above and the problems of the students’ life. Presentation of theories and philosophies (as narratives) about the problems

3. Political action

3. Action: cultural, social,, and political. This action can be the making of other narratives (including narratives with metaphors) and other problems

In the Herbart educational theory, the teacher leads the process. The student pays attention and works on the exercise. The student does the exercises following the models given by teachers. Dewey changed this. In the educational theory of Dewey, the main concern is the students. Furthermore, Dewey insisted on the formulation of problems and hypotheses. Dewey wanted the learned to act like scientists. Freire put the educational process in the hands of militant “teachers.” He wanted the “students” as men and women with ability to think political problems and start political action (see Ghiraldelli Jr. 1990).

In my idea about an educational theory in postmodernity, the teachers are teachers and the students are students. The teachers lead the educational process, but they should be very sensitive about the problems of our age, and they should be very able to realize that the problems can’t be given without means like the movies, tales, novels, comic books, music, and so on. Then, the educative work is a process of identification between the problems of life of student and the problems shown by means of the cultural material. The teachers supervise, in the end, the production of political, social, and cultural action. This action can be a production of a text, of course. The text made by students can be a normal text but can be a metaphorical text. In this case, the teacher should pay attention to the metaphors. Metaphors, as Rorty says, are indicative of opportunity to invent new rules and new rights in democracy (Ghiraldelli 1999).

Interpretations in the Educational Theory in the Age of Post-narrative Turn

The problem about this new way to see educative action that I am proposing is in the interpretation. If we see “the reality” by means of the narratives, then what is the correct interpretation?

I would prefer that the teachers didn’t follow this line of reason. Of course, we must agree about several things. But the main idea in educative action in the age of the post-narrative turn is that we, the teachers, should know the narratives very well. The main aim in this new way in which we construct the training of teachers is that all narratives should be pointed toward the end of cruelty. So, interpretation needn’t be a special key to find the truth of the narratives. But, interpretation needs a key to drive the students in the identification of cruelty, and, more than this, we must put into the work a strong hand against the cruelty.

I am not thinking about a method of training teachers to be greatly learned – this was the aim of the nineteenth century. I am not thinking about a method of training teachers to be trainers of scientist – this was the aim of the twentieth century. I am not thinking about a method of training teachers to be political militants – this was the aim of several peoples in the twentieth century. I want to train teachers to be people that believe that a demon can’t be a good professor. The demon would be a good teacher if knowledge held only technical aspects (of learning, science, politics), because the demon can be an intelligent animal. But in a new perspective, the important thing is the end of the cruelty, and this, the demon can’t wish (in a meeting of philosophers in Brazil, in homage to Deleuze, all the philosophers present agreed that the new problem of philosophy was cruelty).

However, some objector might say: you want a kind of teaching with good intentions, and with this I agree, but if the teaching is given by stories, we are in the field of relativism.

This text isn’t a technical text of philosophy of education. So, I will avoid a great discussion about objectivity. But I think that all people who are thinking about relativism should pay attention to the words of Davidson:

Should we then agree with Hans-Georg Gadamer when he says that what the text means changes as the audience changes: “a text is understood only if it is understood in a different way every time”?. I think not. There can be multiple interpretations, as Freud suggests, because there is no reason to say one rules out others. Gadamer has in mind incompatible interpretations. It is true that every person, every age, every culture will make what it can of a text; and persons, periods and cultures differ. But how can a significant relativism follow from a truism? If you and I try to compare notes on our interpretation of a text we can do so only to the extent that we have or can establish a broad basis of agreement. If what we share provides a common standard of truth and objectivity, difference of opinion makes sense. But relativism about standards requires what there cannot be, a position beyond all standards. (Davidson 1993, p. 307)

If we pay attention in the words of Davidson, we will see that relativism is a ghost. Do we believe in ghosts? People that believe in ghosts can’t understand anything beyond Herbart, Dewey, and Freire. But people that don’t believe in ghosts can understand very well a new way to think about the training of teachers in the next century. I call this “training of the training of teachers in an age of the post-narrative turn.”

What Davidson says is the following. All and any people in our age, in a democracy, admit that “difference of opinion” makes sense. Difference of opinion needs common standards that we share – this is our intersubjectivity. But relativism requires all and any position to be a different position and to be equivalent at the same time. This would eliminate our common standard that we share and would become the “difference of opinion” a logically impossible thing.

I think that Davidson’s argument is enough in our case. Teachers, students, and cultural means and work have several things in common. These commonalities allow our educative conversation and, of course, our development toward knowing if our problems are better understood with a Disney story or a Henry James story. Then, in my conception of the new educational process, or in our new educational theory, there is no place for the fear of “cultural industry,” as it appears in the old Frankfurt School. Cultural programs that show us “reality” have different viewpoints, as we have different viewpoints. But, although we have our differences, we can understand each other, of course.

My arguments here do not jettison Herbart, Dewey, and Freire. I think that Freire and Herbart would not understand my position concerning relativism, but they would accept my love of narratives. Dewey would not have problems with my position on relativism, I think, but, perhaps, he would say that “reality” is a thing more real than the books, movies, tales, and music can tell us. I think not. “Reality” in education is a cultural reality. Is it a postmodern educational theory? That is what I believe.


  1. Davidson, D. (1993). Locating literary language. In R. W. Dasembrock (Ed.), Literary theory after Davidson. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Ghiraldelli, P., Jr. (1990). Historia da Educacao. Cortez: Sao Paulo.Google Scholar
  3. Ghiraldelli, P., Jr. (1999). Richard Rorty – a filosofia do Novo Mundo em busca de mundos novos. Petropolis: Vozes.Google Scholar
  4. Martin, B. (1993). Analytic philosophy’s narrative turn: Quine, Rorty, Davidson. In R. W. Dasembrock (Ed.), Literary theory after Davidson. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press.Google Scholar

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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de JaneiroSeropédicaBrazil