Pioneers: Chris Athey and John Dewey

Estelle Martin
Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Here, we look at two progressive educators whose work exerts a major influence on current early years thinking and practice: Chris Athey and John Dewey.

Key points

  • During the 1970s, Athey set up the Froebel Early Education Project (1973-78). The project included research associates, such as Tina Bruce and Professor Cathy Nutbrown
  • Athey promoted schemas and the constructivist approach to children’s learning and development
  • Dewey is associated with ‘progressive’ education in America
  • He promoted the view that children learn through experience and that education should be based on real-life situations

Note: This article was first published in the August 2008 issue of eye


ALTHOUGH THIS month’s pioneers, Chris Athey and John Dewey, lived many years apart, both have had, and continue to have, a marked influence on the development of early years practice, both in the UK and abroad.

Chris Athey

Athey was a principal lecturer in education at the Roehampton Institute of Higher Education, now known as Roehampton University. She taught both Primary and Higher education, training and educating teachers and continuing professional development for early childhood educators. During the 1970s Athey set up the Froebel Early Education Project (1973-78). the research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, through which Athey received a Leverhulme fellowship.

Thee publication Extending Thought in Young Children (1990) has become a seminal work on the development of schema theory in the UK; evidence from the research project supported the understanding that parents and practitioners shared in the observation of the children’s development and learning.

Thee Froebel research project included a number of research associates, such as Tina Bruce, now professor in early childhood studies at Roehampton University. Bruce has also written about schemas in child development and the role of educators. Professor Cathy Nutbrown has also worked with Athey and published widely regarding the place of schemas in the development of children’s thinking and learning skills (1994, 1998).

Froebel Early Education Project

The project’s research focused on various aspects of children’s development. It involved two groups of children; one group, from a disadvantaged background, and a control group of children from a socio-economically advantaged background. During the two-year project the two groups of children were provided with nursery education, while researchers made systematic observations. The project aimed to:

  • Identify and document the development of children’s thinking.
  • Document and analyse the sequence of children’s behaviour from early motor to symbolic representations and thinking.
  • Identify relevant curriculum content and experiences that facilitate children’s forms of thinking, through nursery provision.

Details of the project and its research findings are documented by Athey in her book Extending ought in Young Children: A Parent –Teacher Partnership (1990, updated 2007). This book enables practitioners to read in greater detail about schema theory – how it can inform current practice, planning curriculum experiences for children and the theoretical understanding that underpins quality early childhood care and education.

Influence on contemporary research and practice

The approach taken by Athey is to continue to review and evaluate the pedagogy that comes from the principles of Froebel education. ese are associated with child-centred learning and rich learning environments that enable children’s active construction of their own learning in relationship with others.

Athey invites us to consider the constructivist approach to children’s learning and development and to consider what this looks like in contemporary practice – for example, in how we observe children and interpret their representations of experience and meaning making.

Observing shemas in children can inform practitioners’ responsive planning of the learning environment, allowing them to extend and enrich children’s interests and to develop thinking skills. Athey asserts that the most important findings from the Froebel research project were connected to understanding children’s schemas through naturalistic observations.

For Athey, schemas are those patterns of behaviour and thinking in children that exist and evolve, and which may be represented by actions, language and symbolic play. The repeated nature of behaviours can show a pattern, which may reflect a child’s interest in a concept or the properties of materials/objects they are using.

Adults, parents and practitioners, in their unique relationships with children, have an opportunity to provide relevant and interesting, materials and experiences, for the child to build on the schemas that have been identified. This will lead to deeper understanding. A child may exhibit clusters of schemas and identifying these can assist in relevant and responsive planning for future activities and resources.

Schemas can be multi-layered and, therefore, developmental – several schemas may be developing at the same time, which means thinking develops through making connections and making sense of experiences and ideas. This development should be supported by a curriculum that enables children to develop their schemas/ways of thinking by responding to the world through active participation, and through the powerful medium of play.

Athey builds and extends the theory of schemas, as named by constructivist psychologist Jean Piaget, by revealing that schemas are complex, multi-layered and represented in different ways.

The research identified a sequence in the way children explored and used schema. First, the physical actions that are repeated but carry no significance; second, the schema symbolise something; third, the child can make functional relationships and connections between different events and objects; and finally the schema supports thought – when the child is able to internalise and integrate the range of elements within an idea or concept (schemas), which can then be extended.

Types of schema identified include: Rotation, trajectories, transporting, enveloping, connecting and transforming, among many others. Schema theory can be identified as the journey from perception to integrating experience and thinking. This involves an interplay between rich learning environments, experiential learning, and the patterns of repeated behaviours (the schema) that can be recognised by responsive adults who interact with the child and who acknowledge the child as an active constructor of their own learning.

The way practitioners observe and interpret the child’s evolving schemas can support their interests, motivations and thinking. Providing opportunities for the child to practise and master actions and build on experiences through activities that are meaningful will facilitate development of children’s thinking and learning in a holistic way. Observing and analysing the repeated behaviours and actions of children may reveal patterns, that can then be identified as schema and incorporated in responsive planning for a meaningful curriculum for young children.

The influence of Athey’s work continues to be seen across the world. She has demonstrated the importance of research in leading to a deeper understanding of children’s thinking and learning, and the benefits of observing children in new and interesting ways.

Research can also lead to evaluating existing theory and extending and building on those foundations for future practice and new theory. Athey built on Piaget’s stage theory stating that schemas are manifested through a range of perceptual, active experiences in children’s relationships with other children, and their representations of that experience; through observation of patterns of behaviours rather than appearing at set points or stages. Her work will continue to influence the way children are seen and the ways in which we observe and interpret what we see in young children’s learning and development.

John Dewey (1859-1952)

Dewey is associated with ‘progressive’ education in America. He was an eminent educationalist and philosopher who started teaching in 1884. He was born in Vermont and educated at the University of Vermont – after gaining his doctorate he was appointed to the University of Michigan. While he was professor of philosophy he spent time consideringeducational principles and how to improve education.

He moved to Chicago following his marriage to Alice Chapman, who was also interested in social issues and education in society. While lecturing in philosophy, psychology and educational theory at the university, they established a laboratory school together.

Dewey promoted the view that children learn through experience and that their education should be based on real-life situations. He promoted the idea that both teachers and parents should encourage independent thinking and experimentation, to nurture both a child’s curiosity and their dispositions to learn.

These ideas were seen as progressive, at the time, but continue to have resonance with more modern educational approaches. He believed that teaching was not just about transmission of facts and assessment; he advocated the importance of learning being an active experience that was situated in the community and culture of each particular child/learner. He also stressed the importance of social interaction and believed the school should reflect and be connected to the people in the community.

He is referred to as pragmatist, which refers to his philosophical approach to education, which he believed involved learning from real-life experience in an active, rather than passive, way. Therefore, education involved adapting and learning about the wider world through interacting with it in a meaningful social context.

Dewey contributed a tremendous amount of ’literature to share his ideas about education and the process of learning. In one of his publications, My Pedagogic Creed (1897) he asserts: ‘The child’s own instinct and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education.’ This promotes a child-centred pedagogy and reminds us that planning the curriculum should start from the child. It is also a reflection of the European pioneers of the time, like Montessori and Piaget, who were advocates of this approach to young children’s learning.

Dewey also posed questions about the process of learning and teaching, particularly about how children should be educated. How should they be encouraged to think? Should we have mixed age classes? He was searching for ways to improve the educational experience and his thoughts and ideas have subsequently influenced practice and understanding about how people learn.

Can you recognise any of these questions in relation to the foundation stage?

  • How can children develop their own interests?
  • How can children be supported to work in ways that match their age and stage of development?

These questions reflect Dewey’s thoughts regarding how children were being educated and about schooling generally. He was an advocate of the need for democratic principles permeating educational experience, believing that education should be connected with the community:

  • How does your setting and your personal practice connect with the community?
  • How do you connect with the child’s home life?

Dewey believed that observation was vital if we are to ascertain what children are interested in, and what kinds of experiences they may need developmentally. The role of observation has a long history in education and practitioners can learn to have confidence in different approaches to observing their children. This is important because the knowledge practitioners have about individual children enables responsive planning that responds to personalised developmental journeys – something else that Dewey advocated for children.

He saw teachers as being more than able to develop a curriculum that develops from the child’s interests and experiences, knowing that each child is central in providing such an environment. Dewey was concerned with ways that teachers develop reflective practices and often reflected on the role of the educator. The practice of continued professional development, which has grown in recent years and is an important part of quality processes in early childhood education in the UK, stems from the principles of educators, such as Dewey.

Key questions/reflections

  • How do staff in your setting share reflections on their own practice ?
  • How does your planning enable children to follow their interests and extend their learning and development?

Both Dewey and Athey are advocates of the close observation that enables accurate interpretation of children’s experiences and development. Dewey and Athey both advocate reflective activities that allow practitioners to consider their own individual theories and beliefs in relation to how children learn, and how that is developed in schools and nursery settings. Each invites us to continue to read about other theories, to reflect on our own, and to consider that research projects are vital in helping early childhood care and education to continue to evolve in the best interests of all our children.

Reading and resource list

Athey C (1990) Extending Thought in Young Children: A Parent- Teacher Partnership. PCP: London

Athey C (2007) Extending Thought in Young Children: A Parent- Teacher Partnership (2nd ed). PCP: London

Mooney CG (2000) Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget and Vygotsky. Redleaf Press: St Paul, Minnesota, USA

Nutbrown C (1994) Threads of Thinking: Young Children Learning and The Role of Early Education. Sage Publications: London

Nutbrown C(1998) Threads of Thinking: Young Children Learning and the Role of Early Education (2nd ed). Sage Publications: London

Palmer J et al (2001) Fifty Major Thinkers on Education: From Confucius to Dewey. Routledge: London

Pollard A (2002) Readings in Reflective Teaching. Continuum: London

Pound L (2005) How Children Learn. Step Forward Publishing: London

Keep up to date with Early Years!

Sign up for our newsletter and keep up to date with Early Years education, process and events! We promise we won't spam you!