Volume: 9, Issue: 2


Tolstoy, Dewey and Korczak: Their Lives, Educational Ideas, and Practices
Лим, Би [about]

KEYWORDS: Dewey, Tolstoy, Korczak, comparison, education philosophy, biography, child-centered educator, progressive educator

ABSTRACT: This paper compares and contrasts the educational philosophies of three influential educators, Leo Tolstoy, John Dewey and Janusz Korczak, through their life experiences and their beliefs. Although the three are similar in their child-centered approach to education, each had his own reasons for choosing such an approach and differed in their reasons for being progressive educators.


Leo Tolstoy, John Dewey and Janusz Korczak (“TDK”) were influential figures in pushing for progressive, child-centered education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even though their theories are not widely practiced in education today, their ideas remain powerful and relevant to every educator who believes in democratic education and social justice. Their belief that there is no “one size fits all” curriculum and pedagogical theories remain true today. The recent Common Core Standards, with its more general guidelines and explicit goal of preparing students for college and career-readiness, are aligned with the ideas of TDK. All three lived in different times and came from different background, but Korczak studied Tolstoy and Dewey, both of whom were influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Ultimately, there are more similarities than differences among the three because they challenged the status quo of education practices in an attempt to create a better society, which they believed could only result from educating the young.

TDK’s Lives and Times

Even though they all wrote about education, Tolstoy was a university dropout, while Dewey received a PhD in Philosophy from Johns Hopkins and Korczak was a trained doctor/ pediatrician. Their life experiences and society had tremendous influence on how they viewed education. It would be difficult to examine their ideas and practices without first discussing their lives. Tolstoy (1828-1910) was born to an aristocratic family and grew up in Tsarist Russia, fought in two wars and toured Europe before he started his schools in 1859 to educate serfs, who were only emancipated in 1861. Korczak (1878-1942), a Jew who grew up in a middle class Polish family, also personally experienced war as a military doctor during the Russo-Japanese war and WWI. Because of their experiences, both wanted to create a better society, which they believed could only come from properly educating the young. Tolstoy, however, had no interest in a democratic Russia; the artist in him felt that art (literature) should be enjoyed by the masses, and he set about educating the illiterate peasants. Dewey (1859-1952), being an American, did not fight in any war but had a deep belief in democracy, which drove his views on education and society. Among the three, Korczak was the most dedicated to his “children” because not only did he start an orphanage, which doubled as a school, he also sacrificed his life to them by accompanying them to the Treblinka extermination camp in 1942.

All three put their theories into practice in their respective schools, although with differing lengths: Tolstoy’s school at Yasnaya Polyana and 13 others in the region (1859-1862) was the shortest, as he decided to focus more on his fiction writing and family life after three years, as Blaisdell (2000) noted. He did return to teaching later in life, but not full time like before. Dewey lasted longer at his Lab School in Chicago (1894-1904), but he eventually left as well after disagreement with the adminstration at University of Chicago. Both remained involved in education, albeit via policy reforms and writings. Korczak was the one who persisted in his personal involvement, and he spent over 20 years running Children’s Republic (1919-1942), two orphanages catering to jewish children, until his death. Incidentally, Dewey was the only one of the three who decided that he wasn’t suited to teaching even though he was the most prolific educational philosopher of his time. Blaisdell (2000, p.13) said that Dewey “did not concern himself as Tolstoy did with individual students or individual schoolrooms.” Whereas Korczak was at the other extreme where he dedicated his life to providing not just a school but a home for his students, and he made the ultimate sacrifice of dying with them in the extermination camp during WWII. 

TDK’s Educational Ideas

From the beginning, Tolstoy was an iconoclast because he did not like what he saw in European schools when he toured them in 1860. Moulin (2008, p. 347) noted that Tolstoy felt these schools “killed the creativity and innate curiosity of children and relied on fear, rather than the natural incentive of the joy of learning.” Tellingly, he inscribed on the door of his free school at Yasnaya Polyana “Come and Go Freely” (Blaisdell, 2000, p. 1). He wrote in his diary after a school visit in Kissingen, Germany, “It is terrible! Prayers for the king; blows; everything by rote; terrified, beaten children” (Simmons, 1968, p.2). He believed in personal choice, and by extension, every child’s innate curiosity and desire to learn. He didn’t believe in mandatory schooling, unlike Dewey who considered education for the masses as the primary way to advance democracy. Similarly, Korczak viewed children as the foundation for a better world if they were brought up in a “human-oriented and democratic spirit” (Hartman, 2009, p.13). Moreover, Tolstoy’s view was that educators should not impose what they thought to be important on the students. Like Dewey and Korczak, Tolstoy believed in a child-centered learning that was inquiry-based, experiential and relevant, but his philosophy was individualist to the core, without regard to its impact on the larger community. 

Dewey, on the other hand, arrived at his progressive philosophy through a different route, as evidenced by the first sentence in his My Pedagogic Creed: “I believe that all education proceeds by participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race” (1897, p.77). His child-centered approach to education is a means to an end, which is a democratic society. He further stated that “educational process has two sides - one psychological and one sociological” (Dewey, 1897, p. 77). These two are inseparable, and to get the greatest societal good out of education, the psychological needs of each child have to be addressed. Dewey said that “the school life should grow gradually out of the home life” (1897, p. 78), as the two are intertwined. This view is different from Tolstoy’s, who felt that teachers should not impose moral standards or social norms on their students because those were the family’s responsibilities (Simmons, 1968). Tolstoy’s focus was on teaching the peasant children how to read and write so they could enjoy art and literature, not to create a better society. Because his experience showed him that using a child-centered approach was the best way to teach them, he decided that was the best pedagogy.

Although Dewey shared many of the similar pedagogical philosophies as Korczak, the former was driven by education as a means to an end, which was to spread democracy. Korczak, by contrast, was a pure humanist in that he based his pedagogical beliefs from a children’s point of view, and he wanted to create a better democratic society for these children who were powerless. He rightly pointed out that “children deserve respect, trust and kindness” even though they were at the adult’s mercy for every need (Korczak, 1929, p. 31). His Children’s Republic was modeled after a co-operative, self-governing society where children were active participants in meting out justice and creating rules of governance (Engel, 2008). Of the three, he was the one who viewed progressive, humanistic education as a means to itself; that is, the most appropriate way for adults to interact with children. As Engel pointed out, Korczak wanted his schools to be a place where “children experienced the conditions and laws of social relationships necessary to create a democratic, self-governed community” (2008, p. 119). He provided the children not just with a school, but with a home as well because the two could not be separated (Lewowicki, 2000).

Another area where TDK shared similar beliefs is in the benefit of physical exercise and practical/vocational training. Dewey thought that mind and body were the same, and exercise of both was crucial. Tolstoy thought the same as well and stressed the benefit of practical skills such as cooking, carpentry, and weaving to train the body but also to teach chemistry, geometry, and algebra. Both Dewey and Tolstoy felt that individuals should be self-sufficient, while cooperating with others within a community (Edwards, 1992). As for Korczak, he didn’t specifically discussed the subjects that were taught in his Children’s Republic, but he believed that a school should be a miniature version of a real society, or better yet, where “idealized social relations could be practiced and lived” (Engel, 2008, p. 119).

TDK’s Educational Practices

Unlike Rousseau (1712-1778), whose pedagogy was influential to later educational philosophers but was not based on observations, TDK’s practices were rooted in their actual experiences with children (Blaisdell, 2000). Because Tolstoy viewed teaching as an art, he had no methodology or prescriptions on how to be a good teacher. He treated each student individually and did not generalize his educational ideas. As he wrote in 1874, “The question of...what to teach and how to teach received an even greater meaning for me; only by solving it could I be convinced that what I taught was neither injurious nor useless.” Of the three, he was the only one who published his own ABC Books, a complete curriculum for beginning students. They contained sections on reading, writing, national sciences and arithmetic, as well as exercises on spelling and punctuation, and examples from real life (Simmons, 1968). Ironically, despite his insistence of teaching as an art that could not be learned easily, his belief in practical work, his insistence on freedom of learning, and his methods of teaching reading through stories rather than rote memorization influenced later progressive educators like Dewey and Korczak. The distinction should be made regarding Tolstoy’s students, who were generally older, illiterate children of peasants who were grateful for a chance to attend school, to Dewey’s students, elementary age children who had a choice of schools to attend. This was in many ways true of Korczak’s children as well even though they were orphans.

Like Tolstoy, Dewey did not give specific instructions on how or what teachers should do, but a set of guiding principles to allow teachers the freedom of creating their own methods (Knoll, 2014). Dewey’s Lab School was also an experiment because he believed that educational practices should be a continuous process where methods that did not work get discarded, new ones were tried out, and effective ones were promoted. This school was a “laboratory” where experiments and innovation would be practiced, in conjunction with University of Chicago’s Department of Education. The Lab School went through numerous major modifications within the first 2 years: 1) the teachers became subject matter experts rather than generalists; 2) mixed-aged classrooms became same-aged ones; 3) the administration became centralized into the principal rather than cooperative among teachers, and 4) the curriculum became socially-focused and problem-based rather than free-form (Knoll, 2014). Ironically, for someone who had such a significant influence on American education philosophies, Dewey considered himself a failed teacher and abandoned teaching to become a psychologist and philosopher. Even though the Lab School carried out many of his practices, he was not involved in the day to day operations. His ideals of teaching through practical experiences, or having an occupation, were hard to implement in practical terms because students rebelled against having to learn academic subjects after a morning of working in carpentry, weaving or cooking. This was especially true as the students got older.

Korczak did not write specifically about the curriculum used in his Children’s Republic, the latter was constructed in his orphanages, one of which was for Jewish orphans, and the other for Polish children. However, he described in detail the Court of Peers (guided by Code of Peers), the Judicial Board and the Children’s Parliament that he implemented to create a facsimile of a real society in his schools. The Court of Peers was staffed by children who were picked by lottery to judge their peers every week. Children and adult (even Korczak) could be brought to the Court for any infractions, and its chief responsibility was to defend the timid and the hard working because they suffered the most in any society (Engel, 2008). Both Dewey and Korczak, unlike Tolstoy, viewed the education as an essential tool to create a democratic society based on people working together and cooperating. Dewey wanted to achieve this through his curriculum; i.e., teaching certain occupations and relevant learning, whereas Korczak achieved it by allowing children to be “adults” in their own school with a system of self-governance and peer review.


Among educational philosophers, TDK were considered progressives because they turned the prevailing conventional teaching practices on their head. They all advocated for no corporal punishment, experiential rather than rote learning, practical training rather than theoretical studies, and continuous experiments and observations rather than philosophical theories. Nevertheless, their life experiences helped mould their pedagogy. Tolstoy came of age in Tsarist Russia where illiterate serfs were the majority of the population. Being an aristocrat and an artist who dropped out of university, his primary education goal was to teach the peasants how to “enlighten” them and not to create a democratic society. Whereas Dewey grew up in America where such a society was highly priced, and this was what drove his educational philosophy. By contrast, Korczak grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in occupied Poland and personally experienced two wars as a medical officer. He wanted independence for Poland and was involved in many progressive groups fighting for social justice. Being influenced by Dewey and Tolstoy, as well as other educators such as Montessori, Korczak carried his child-centered approach to education even further. He believed that children “differ but little from adults” and should be “treated as partners and friends” (Lewowicki, 2000, p.40). He never married; instead he devoted his life to the orphans in Warsaw, dying with them in Treblinka.

Today, Dewey is considered the father of progressive education in the U.S. and well known among American educators. Tolstoy’s contribution to education has largely been eclipsed by his fame as a novelist, and rightly so because he decided to focus on his literary career and family life after 3 years of running his school. Korczak is widely remembered in his native Poland (its government declared 2012 the Year of Korczak). He is well regarded abroad as well for his educational philosophy and his work with children. The irony, however, is that many of the ideas espoused by these venerated educational philosophers are not widely practiced today. The implementation of a child-centered, individualistic approach to mass education is never easy, but today’s educators should take TDK’s pedagogies to heart if they want to become an effective teacher, and especially so if they want to promote social justice and equity in the classroom.


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