John Dewey
(1859 - 1950)

  1. How does Dewey believe we learn best?

    Perhaps the following quote can sum up John Dewey's attitude and belief about how we learn best:

    An ounce of experience is better than a ton of theory simply because it is only in experience that any theory has vital and verifiable significance. An experience, a very humble experience, is capable of generating and carrying any amount of theory (or intellectual content), but a theory apart from an experience cannot be definitely grasped even as theory. It tends to become a mere verbal formula, a set of catchwords used to render thinking, or genuine theorizing, unnecessary and impossible. (Dewey, 144)

    Dewey classifies "experience" as that which we think and act upon and perceive through our senses, sort of like the carrying out of an experiment, and the mental act of reasoning about its outcomes--without accepting any duality or dichotomy between the person involved and his environment. Person and environment are inextricably connected and influence one-another.

    He sees experience as having active and passive elements combined. Active in the sense that it is a "trying" or experimenting; and passive in the sense that one is undergoing the consequences of what they have experienced. Reflection, as thinking and reasoning, is the method/process by which an experience becomes "educative" or learned and meaningful. He states that:

    When we experience something we act upon it, we do something with it; then we suffer or undergo the consequences. We do something to the thing and then it does something to us in return: such is the peculiar combination. The connection of these two phases of experience measures the fruitfulness or value of the experience. (Dewey, p. 139)

    The "active" portion of experience, what Dewey calls "experience as trying" implies that a change takes place. This "change" is only meaningful if it is consciously connected with the returning consequences that flow from the experience. We learn something when a thoughtful change is made within us for better or worse.

    Dewey used the analogy of the attitude of a spectator versus that of participant to convey what he wished to say about how we learn. Bluntly put, he described a spectator's attitude as being one of indifference to whatever he or she is observing because a spectator takes no action to affect an outcome of an event. He believed that we learned when we were active participants in our learning. He reasoned that participants have the tendency to act to assure better, and avert worse consequences. When we are participants we show concern and interest about what we are involved in. Interest, the aims of our actions, concern and purpose are necessarily connected and allow us to be motivated to learn from our experiences. In short, we learn best when we are engaged in and see a purpose for our learning something that changes and adds to the quality of our existence. Dewey especially emphasized what he saw as the value that our learning contributes to improving our society's collective existence. He would also say that we learn best when people work cooperatively in group settings in a way that decreases barriers to free discussion and exchange of ideas-more social learning-which helps to transform and improve the collective experience.

    In conclusion, students should be occupied with learning for real reasons or ends that they themselves find relevant, and not just with something that is to be learned because it is imposed by the external adult world. Dewey thought that learning best occurred when it was self-directed and facilitated by a teacher (akin to Vygotsky's idea of scaffolding within the zone of proximal development) who helps a learner access appropriate resources for that which he wishes to learn. He also felt that learning should be connected with life outside of the school, as close as possible, so as not to make learning seem something alien to everyday existence. When connections could be made between experiences, the power of reasoned reflection could be brought to bear upon them and, thus, create relevant knowledge for the learner.

  2. What does Dewey believe we learn?

    In essence, Dewey believed we perceived and made "connections between things" when we learned from our experience. This implies that by making connections we integrate our experiences and build meaning for ourselves through the reconstruction and reorganization of all our experience. He stated that this allowed us to increase "…ability to direct the course of subsequent experience…" (Dewey, p. 76). We interpret this to mean that we gain power to affect change and improve the quality of our life. He claimed that this was desirous for making improvements to our society as a whole.

    To this end, Dewey seems to value most the learning we do which allows us to function in a social consciousness with others. In Democracy and Education, he does speak about topics that we might define as educational subject matter - History, Geography, Science - but not as isolated subject matter. Instead, they are tools for understanding our social setting. As he states in My Pedagogic Creed, "Education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience; that the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing."

  3. Describe the historical and social context that Dewey came out of.

    Dewey is firmly placed within the flow of philosophical discussion that was predominant in the mid-19th century, but he also represents a turn or new direction that also reflects the times he was living in. Especially in period of time where he develops and writes Democracy and Education, he is representative of a larger movement of American political expression.

    Born in 1859, Dewey went to public schools and ultimately graduated from the University of Vermont in 1879. The experience at UV was important for several reasons - first, because he was introduced to evolutionary theory, and second, because he was introduced to formal study of philosophy. As it happened, the theory of natural selection and adaptation stayed with him, but the Scottish realism that was predominant at the university didn't - Dewey rejected its theories, but credited his philosophy instructor, H.A.P. Torrey, with inspiring him to continue his philosophical exploration.

    It's important to understand how current the debate over evolutionary theory was at the time. Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859, and his Descent of Man was published in 1871; Darwin died in 1882. The entire discussion of selection and adaptation, in both natural and social settings, is concurrent with much of Dewey's thinking about education.

    Dewey did graduate work at Johns Hopkins University, and it was there that he encountered both Hegellian philosophy and some of the budding concepts of psychology (Freud, who lived 1850 to 1939, is a contemporary of Dewey's.). Dewey worked for some time in the vein of Hegel, but increasingly moved away from the idealist notion of knowledge being largely the product of a dialectic, toward something much more constructed. By 1903, Dewey was working much more in a philosophical school of thought known as pragmatism.

    Dewey spent 1884 to 1904 teaching at educational institutions in the Midwest - University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, and the University of Chicago. While not directly cited, this period of time and place is important for understanding Dewey as an American philosopher because of the rising Progressivist movement of the time. Progressivism is generally understood to be a concern for reforms intended to improve the quality of life for the common working person, and to limiting the socially and poltically destructive effects of corporate influence. As the United States transitioned from being a nation of small farmers to one of corporations and consumers, plenty of abuses were seen: the corrupt Grant administration, corrupt city political organizations such as New York's Tammany Hall, and unionization of Midwestern meatpackers all played a role in the roots of progressivism.

    Dewey's Democracy and Education has to be described as progressive in its nature. Published in 1916, it's easy to see the text being useful for such progressive causes as women's suffrage (achieved in 1920, and which Dewey championed). Because its emphasis is so much on the creation of good participants in a society, and because Dewey believed that a society most conducive to active participation is a democracy, his theories are distinctly American in nature (Compare this to Hegel's German Idealism, which arrived at the conclusion that the ultimate expression of social development is a monarchy, and the contrasts become stark.)

    From 1904 until 1930 (and really, until his death in 1950), Dewey taught at Columbia University, and it was there that much of his most noted work was published. Importantly, his writings were often initially published in mainstream publications like The New Republic and Nation, before being expanded into larger books, and his exposure to the larger public led him to speak widely, throughout the United States and the world - he made several famous visits to Turkey and the Soviet Union.

    Throughout this time, Dewey consistently espoused the idea of education facilitating democracy. In Democracy and Education, he stated it as follows:

    "Democratic society is peculiarly dependent for its maintenance upon the use in forming a course of study of criteria which are broadly human. Democracy cannot flourish where the chief influences in selecting subject matter of instruction are utilitarian ends narrowly conceived for the masses, and, for the higher education of the few, the traditions of a specialized cultivated class. The notion that the "essentials" of elementary education are the three R's mechanically treated, is based upon ignorance of the essentials needed for realization of democratic ideals."

    It is this establishment of education as not just a social good, but THE social good, that is Dewey's lasting contribution to field of educational theory.

  4. How can Dewey's theories be applied to the classroom?

    Dewey's theories have been applied to the classroom in many ways up to the present day. Mainly, the utilization of "hands-on" activities in learning science, mathematics, and social studies have served to make learning more concrete and less "abstract" to the learner, thereby improving the learning experience by making it more memorable and relevant to their lives. Dewey, being a proponent of socialization in learning, would also favor the use of what present-day teachers refer to as cooperative grouping strategies. Utilizing students' impulse to play for achieving learning goals is also common in primary grade classrooms; examples of this include role-playing, drawing, and other art activities.

  5. How does (or can) technology enhance the application of these theories?

    Dewey would most likely see the pros and cons that come with our ubiquitous information age.

    On the one hand, he would probably see the value of the World Wide Web, computer networks, email, instant messaging, and Tapped-In for facilitating communication and collaboration amongst disparate and geographically-separated groups of people. Perhaps he would also see the value of using multimedia to illustrate and expose learners to ideas-new and old-that would otherwise be beyond the reach of their everyday experience. Further, instant access to information on a broad scale, via the Internet, could lend itself to having a democratizing-effect on what used to be considered privileged information for the elites of society.

    On the other hand, Dewey already warned us nearly eighty years ago not to confuse a glut of information with knowledge. He understood that for information to become knowledge, it had to be processed (or reasoned about) and connected to prior experience for it to become any semblance of knowledge. He might also perceive the paradoxical effect that some of our present technology has on people. For example, an individual can remain holed-up in their own private domain, connected to their computer, isolated for days on end without having any contact with the outside world and its other inhabitants.

    For Dewey, then, it seems likely that he would have judged technological tools is a similar manner to how he judged other educational tools - is it useful to the path that the learner has chosen to follow, does it help further the social good of creating engaged, enabled participants in the larger society, and does it facilitate social interaction? If the tool met these criteria, then it would fit in Dewey's vision; otherwise, it would be marginalized as injurious to the social good.



Page authored by Eric Ellis and Trenton Szakall

Return to the main page