At the core of John Dewey’s pragmatism and progressivism is Dewey’s contrarian view of “scientific”—the warranted assertion . For Dewey, and in the context of teaching and learning, a warranted practice would be based on a substantial, diverse, and appropriate body of evidence, including how theory looks in the unpredictable real world.
Although the term “best practice” is much sullied, the rightful use of that term certainly approaches Dewey’s vision for education—how we practice in daily teaching what we are able to know from a range of evidence from experimental/quasi-experimental quantitative research to classroom-based action research.
However, Dewey’s faith in scientific education as warranted practice suffered from his own skepticism about prescriptions, templates, and mandates; Dewey viewed education as a perpetual experiment and refused to dictate for any classroom what he discovered as warranted for his classroom.
As a result, in the early twentieth century and throughout the history of universal public education, progressivism has been rarely practiced but often vilified and misunderstood.
Even during the accountability era when prescriptions and mandates have become the norm, some have sought ways to promote “best practice” in the Dewey tradition of warranted practices—offering what teachers should increase and decrease in their practice.
But probably the best example of Dewey’s warranted practice emerged in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of the National Writing Project (NWP) and the call to teach writing authentically, to merge the practical experiences of writing with writing instruction.
Former NCTE president Lou LaBrant wrote:
By the term “creative writing” we are, however, emphasizing the degree to which an individual has contributed his personal feeling or thinking to the sentence or paragraph. This emphasis has been necessary because too frequently the school has set up a series of directions, to this extent limiting what we may think of as the creative contribution: the teacher names the topic, determines the length of the paper, and even sometimes assigns the form. For the purposes of this paper I shall, perhaps arbitrarily, use the term “creative writing” to include only that written composition for which the writer has determined his own subject, the form in which he presents it, and the length of the product. (p. 293)
As a true progressive, LaBrant made this argument in 1936—about four decades before the rise of the NWP and workshop approaches to writing instruction.
Not to be hyperbolic, but no one listened to LaBrant, and despite a brief bit of momentum by the NWP, the accountability era effectively killed authentic writing instruction.
Thus, the 5-paragraph essay, writing templates, prompted writing, and scoring rubrics have mostly dominated writing instruction in the U.S. for about a century.
Throughout, however, a substantial body of evidence from researchers, scholars, and practitioners has concluded that the 5-paragraph essay approach to teaching writing remains efficient but corrosive to writing goals in the following two ways:
- The 5-paragraph essay approach to teaching writing produces bad writing and (even worse) bad (and lazy) thinking—the entire world of expression and thought reduced to making grand claims supported by three points.
- And despite advocates’ claims that the 5-paragraph essay is an entry point or foundation for authentic writing, the evidence shows most students never make the transition.
Ironically, Dewey’s resistance to templates and prescriptions resulted in his being mostly ignored but also was a harbinger for the enduring allure and negative consequences of templates and prescriptions.
Many English teachers are not writers themselves, and have had little or no experiences as students in writing workshops or authentic writing experiences.
The 5-paragraph essay approach to teaching writing, then, is efficient and lends itself well to assigning writing, responding to writing, and grading writing—all of which have supplanted both authentic writing goals and Dewey’s call for warranted practice.
During the accountability era, teachers are under enormous and ridiculous pressure to have students score well on very bad tests, and are increasingly placed in classroom environments that do not allow authentic practice. Often, when teachers embrace efficiency over authentic, warranted practice, we should not blame the teachers as much as the larger contexts within which they work with little to no professional autonomy.
As a public school teacher throughout the 1980s and 1990s in South Carolina where we embraced accountability, standards, and tests early and with missionary zeal, I taught in and struggled under these reduced circumstances.
But I also contend that we can commit to warranted practice, we must commit to warranted practice—and the consequences will be positive for students and likely even within the reductive world of standardized test scores.
Instead of templates and prompts, I invite students to investigate and interrogate a wide variety of texts, to read like writers.
With each text, we try to determine the type of writing, developing genre awareness and building a toolbox of names for types of writing. Next, we identify the conventions that define that type of writing before asking how the writer both conforms to and also writes against those conventions.
We stress that writing is about purposeful decisions—not rules, or templates.
We also begin to highlight what modes (narration, description, exposition, persuasion) the writer incorporates, where and why.
We also identify the focus of the piece (I do not use “thesis”) and explore how the writer’s craft accomplishes that.
Instead of introduction, body, and conclusion, we analyze openings and closings as well as claims, evidence, elaboration (explanation, synthesis/connection, transition).
And again, we are building the students’ writer’s toolbox—but I do not do the writer’s work for the student in the reductive ways the 5-paragraph essay does.
Ultimately, the 5-paragraph essay fails as warranted practice because templates eradicate all the decisions writer make, and students are simply practicing how to be compliant—not to be writers.
The practitioner’s voice calling for authentic writing instruction reaches back a century, and we remain in a contentious battle between traditional and efficient practice versus authentic and warranted practice.
Today, those of us calling for the long overdue end to the 5-paragraph essay and arguing instead for warranted practice are echoing LaBrant from 1947, lamenting:
A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods. (p. 87)
This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. …[L]et us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)
 See from Dewey ‘s Epistemology: An Argument for Warranted Assertions, Knowing, and Meaningful Classroom Practice, Deron R. Boyles:
In place of such a traditional account, Dewey crafts a new version of epistemology—one that has as a key element the notion of warranted assertibility.22
Warranted assertions replace justification in the traditional syllogism while at the same time imploding the syllogism itself. Where justification served a correspondence theory of truth in the traditional account of knowledge, warranted assertions merge truth and inquiry together in such a way that correspondence to an external world is no longer the point. The point, instead, is the interdependency of truths and the processes of inquiry: the temporal satisfaction of solved problems in a world that is not set apart from the knower’s use(s) of the world or place(s) in that world. In this way, idealists and realists are misguided when they describe epistemology as way of determining knowledge.23 “Knowledge” is not the focal point of epistemology for Dewey: “knowing” is. “Knowledge” represents the end of inquiry but, according to Dewey, it is also often supposed to have a meaning of its own—disconnected from inquiry. The result is that inquiry is subordinated to the fixed end called “knowledge.”24 By “knowing” Dewey means inquiry in a world that is not static. He means inquiry into things “lived” by people. He means experimenting with solving problems such that the action entailed in the solving of problems is inquiry itself and warranted in the assertions made about the solved problem when it is solved (where “solved” is understood as temporal and a portal to further inquiry). Accordingly, in the “living” of life, problems will be faced and solved—often in serendipitous ways—such that achieving “justified true belief” (as traditional epistemology expects) is not useful. As Dewey put it:
[Warranted assertion] is preferred to the terms belief and knowledge [because] it is free from the ambiguity of these latter terms, and it involves reference to inquiry as that which warrants assertion. When knowledge is taken as a general abstract term related to inquiry in the abstract, it means “warranted assertibility.” The use of a term that designates potentiality rather than an actuality involves recognition that all special conclusions of special inquiries are parts of enterprise that is continually renewed, or is a going concern.25