D is for John Dewey: His Approach To Education

John dewey education

John Dewey is often seen as an advocate of learning by doing, rather than learning by passively receiving. he believed that every child was active, inquisitive, and wanted to explore. how to capitalize these units?

dewey created the laboratory school that was allied with the university of chicago. children were encouraged to learn through experience, clarify key points, and apply lessons for practical results.

philosophy and background

dewey referred to his philosophy as instrumentalism, rather than pragmatism, although the two are related. instrumentalism sees the value of an idea or tool in its use as an instrument to get results. With this in mind, learning should be relevant and rewarding, rather than just theoretical.

Education must also prepare students to participate fully and actively in shaping their future society. traditional education, he believed, viewed children as empty, passive receptacles to be filled with ideas. this helped support the existing order.

The progressive education for which, rightly or wrongly, he became known, saw in school an opportunity for children to develop as individuals and citizens. they may even be able to find their true calling. wrote:

“discovering what one is capable of doing and ensuring the opportunity to do it is the key to happiness.”

Dewey’s views generated controversy. Backed by humanists, his writings spread far and wide. He traveled the world, lecturing in places like Europe, China, and Japan.

Some progressive educators interpreted their ideas to children with full license. this provided arguments to the traditionalists and generated criticism from the author himself.

John’s views, however, continue to appeal to those seeking to translate philosophy into practice. for example, people who focus on project work, active learning, workshops, simulation, and community-based learning.

this is how k marks. smith has described john’s contribution. mark’s article can be found on infed, an excellent site that provides information on informal education. you can find the original piece at:


“John Dewey’s importance to informal educators lies in several areas.

“First, his belief that education should engage with and broaden experience has remained an important aspect of informal education practice.

“Second, and related to this, Dewey’s exploration of thought and reflection, and the associated role of educators, has continued to be an inspiration. We can see it at work, for example, in the models developed by writers like David Boud and Donald Schön.

“Third, his concern for interaction and learning environments provide a continuous framework for practice.

“Finally, his passion for democracy, for educating so that everyone can share a common life, provides a solid basis for practice in the associative environments in which informal educators work.”

Dewey’s educational views continue to polarize opinion. some critics see him as a “liberal” whose ideas subverted schools in the United States.

(Others argue that his philosophy was never really implemented in mainstream education). john wrote an enormous amount of material on many topics including psychology, philosophy, aesthetics, and democracy.


John was born in 1859, in Burlington, Vermont. His father was Archibald Sprague Dewey, whose ancestors had lived in New England for more than 200 years.

archibald grew up on a farm and became the owner of the burlington general store. he also loved literature. Lucina, John’s mother, grew up in a middle-class environment. Her father was a local judge and all of her siblings graduated from college.

John was the third child in the family and was named after his older brother John Archibald, who died in 1859 from a domestic accident. Lucina held strict religious views and also insisted that her three children, all boys, continue her education.

burlington had a relatively cosmopolitan community and was home to the university of vermont. Both factors influenced John’s future. He enjoyed learning about different cultures, while also gaining insight into his work as a newspaper delivery boy and at the local sawmill.

John was an average student in school. Although his father wanted him to become an engineer, it may have been the proximity of the university that allowed John to move on to academia. Enrolling at the age of 15, he graduated in 1879 with a major in philosophy from the University of Vermont.

John’s birthplace in 186 s. willard street, burlington, vermont.


John spent the next several years teaching; First at a high school in Pennsylvania, then at Lake View Seminary in Charlotte, Virginia. Upon returning to Burlington, she took on another teaching role.

during this time, he wrote an article called metaphysical assumptions of materialism which was later published in the journal of speculative philosophy.

Upon enrolling at Johns Hopkins University in 1882, he studied for his Ph.D., which he earned in 1884. John spent much of the next 45 years in academia, teaching at the University of Michigan, followed by the University of Chicago and finally the University of Colombia.

John married Alice, his first wife, in 1886. They had six children, only four of whom survived to adulthood. the deweys also adopted a boy, sabino, whom they met in italy.

Alice became director of the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, but a dispute over the school caused them to leave Chicago.

John went to Columbia University, where he worked until he retired as a full-time faculty member in 1930. However, he was later named Columbia Professor of Philosophy Emeritus-in-Residence and held that position until he was eighty.

Alicia died in 1927 and married his second wife, Roberta, in 1946. He continued to write, travel, and lecture until his death in 1952. The United States Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor on the date of his birthday on October 21, 1968.

the laboratory school

Dewey wrote on many topics, including philosophy, psychology, and aesthetics, but the one we’ll focus on is education. john began studying philosophy, but soon became interested in psychology.

He was particularly drawn to the works of William James, elements of which he fused with his developing views on education.

America was shifting to a different kind of economy, and, John argued, traditional schooling would not produce active and creative citizens. So how might students develop skills to shape their future lives? she believed that education should be linked to the experience of the child.

Students are much more likely to embrace mathematics, for example, if they can see how it applies to their daily lives. wrote in my pedagogical creed.

“I believe that school should represent actual life, a life as real and vital to the child as the one he or she leads at home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.”

john had the opportunity to test his ideas at the laboratory school at the university of chicago. Alice, his wife, was the principal, and the curriculum was based on real-life problems.

(It’s worth noting that the school was created to experiment with various modes of learning, rather than being a prototype for all schools.)

peggy hickman gives a great overview of the approach used in school in an article she wrote about john dewey. she wrote:

“…teachers were required to present real-life problems to children and then guide students to solve the problem by providing a hands-on activity to learn the solution…

“cooking and sewing should be taught in school and be a routine. reading, writing, and mathematics were to be taught in the daily course of these routines. building, cooking and sewing had these school components and these activities also represented everyday life for the students.

“Students had to measure things and be able to read to do these things. for example, if a student couldn’t read, here was how they would be taught to become literate.”

“The child would experience school as part of a community. this would help the child learn to share and communicate with others. the problems would be presented to the child and by trial and error the child would be able to solve the problem.

“The teacher’s responsibility was to be aware of where each child was intellectually and to provide appropriate problems for the child to solve. dewey wrote a book about his findings from the dewey school called school and society.”

what became known as the dewey school arose because the university of chicago offered john the chair of the department of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy. he set up the school as part of his work and it operated for 7 years.

Most of the kids came from the Hyde Park area of ​​Chicago, and at its peak, it had over 100 students. many were from reasonably well-to-do families, and there were no African-American students. Dewey learned a lot from school, much of which translated into his writing.

However, the experiment ended when Chicago President William Rainey Harper failed to consult John before merging the school with the College for Teachers. the transition proved difficult and eventually led to the Deweys leaving.

Alice found the experience particularly depressing. James Scott Johnston gives an account of the events at the laboratory school in his book Research and Education: John Dewey and the Quest for Democracy.

The laboratory school survived, however, and lives on to this day. below is an excerpt from their website. you can discover more through the following link.


By combining his views on education with observations in the laboratory school, John produced a succession of books. these included: my pedagogical creed, the child and the curriculum, and the school and society.

The last two books were based on his lectures and expounded his educational beliefs. she later expanded these theories into books such as how we think and democracy and education.


many years later, in 1938, he published experience and education. Based on a series of lectures, this book reviews and refines his views.

dewey reiterated the link between real life experience and education. he remained critical of traditional methods that viewed children as passive beings, but he also criticized some progressive pedagogues.

He believed that some of his views had been misinterpreted, applied haphazardly, or not subject to scientific measurement. on the other hand, some would argue that his writing can sometimes be dry and difficult to decipher.

However, Dewey’s work remains an inspiration to many, so let’s explore the principles behind his views on education.


Great educators make learning real, relevant, and rewarding. This tradition was well established in Europe by thinkers such as Pestalozzi, Froebel and, later, Montessori.

dewey was one of the first to promote this approach in the united states, however, and is considered a giant in the field. These are some, though not all, of the principles found in his work.

people can learn by participating in relevant learning experiences

great educators ask questions like:

“what does the person want to learn? How can we set clear goals? How can we be clear about his responsibilities and mine to achieve goals?

“How can I make learning enjoyable and effective? How can I provide them with practical models, ideas and tools? How can I help them achieve their image of success? How can I help the person develop their potential? ”

Great educators also recognize that people learn in different ways, known today as multiple intelligences.

Dewey’s approach covered many of these issues. he believed that students could learn a lot by participating in relevant experiences.

The Encyclopedia of Education at provides an excellent overview of John’s philosophy of education. here is an excerpt that you can find at:

state university

“the starting point in dewey’s philosophy and educational theory is the world of everyday life… (however) dewey was careful in his writings to make clear what kinds of experiences were most valuable and useful . some experiences are merely passive affairs, pleasurable or painful but not educational…

“An educational experience, according to Dewey, is an experience in which we establish a connection between what we do with things and what happens to them or to us as a result; the value of an experience lies in the perception of relationships or continuities between events…

“it is this natural way of learning from experience, by doing and then reflecting on what happened, that dewey made central to his approach to education.”

people can develop their problem-solving skills, clarify learning, and apply lessons in their daily lives

Dewey believed that learning by doing allowed students to develop their problem-solving skills. they could then clarify the learning and apply it in their future lives.

nowadays this is considered obvious. expect firefighters, lifeboat crews, paramedic teams, and all manner of trainees to hone their skills in real-world situations. they don’t spend all day sitting in classrooms listening to abstract theories.

dewey underscored this point by writing:

“only in education, never in the life of a farmer, sailor, merchant, doctor, or laboratory experimenter, does knowledge primarily mean a repository of information removed from doing.”

inspired many educators to explore and develop the concept of experiential learning. Let’s move on to another principle in John’s work.

people can follow their vocation and develop the habit of lifelong learning

A person’s vocation is their calling: it is what they are here to do. they can follow their vocation, express it through various vehicles and do valuable work.

dewey criticized the concept that vocational training is used to serve industry. students were being groomed for jobs they could be trapped in for life.

He had a very different vision of what a vocation entailed, and he also believed in lifelong learning. dewey wrote in democracy and education:

“Put in concrete terms, there is a danger that vocational education will be interpreted in theory and practice as business education: as a means to ensure technical efficiency in future specialized activities…

“It is a conventional and arbitrary vision that assumes that the discovery of the work to choose for adult life is done once and for all on a certain date.”

“the dominant vocation of all human beings at all times is to live – intellectual and moral growth…

“Preparation for vocations (should) be indirect rather than direct; that is, through participation in those active occupations that are indicated by the needs and interests of the student at the moment…

“Only in this way can there be an authentic discovery of personal aptitudes on the part of the educator and the educated so that the appropriate choice of a specialized career in later life can be indicated.

“in addition, the discovery of capacity and aptitude will be an ongoing process as growth continues.”

people can take responsibility, think for themselves and play an active role as citizens

Dewey stated in my pedagogical credo: “I believe that education is the fundamental method of progress and social reform.”

Schools could accomplish this in a number of ways.

could encourage students to take charge of their learning and make informed decisions.

could allow students to practice some form of democracy within their own institutions.

could play a more active role in the wider community.

Dewey wanted students to develop critical thinking that he felt would provide security against forces that might want to impose a dictatorship.

He also warned against the pressures that prevent people from following their vocation. wrote in democracy and education:

“in an autocratically administered society, it is often a conscious object to prevent the development of freedom and responsibility; a few plan and order, the rest follow instructions and are deliberately confined to narrow and prescribed channels of effort.”

“Education would then become an instrument to perpetuate without change the existing industrial order of society, instead of operating as a means for its transformation. the desired transformation is not difficult to define formally.

“means a society in which each person must be engaged in something that makes the lives of others more worth living and, consequently, makes the ties that unite people more perceptible, thereby that breaks the barriers of distance between them. ”

“but it does mean that we can produce in schools a projection of the kind of society we would like to realize and, by shaping minds accordingly, gradually modify the broader and recalcitrant features of adult society.”


Dewey believed that it was essential for schools to encourage students to think for themselves. then they would be more likely to become active citizens who could help shape a better society.


so what have been the effects of john dewey’s work?

peter senge is the author of the fifth discipline: the art and practice of the intelligent organization. A recognized authority on organizational development, he acknowledges the groundbreaking work done by John Dewey.

I was at a conference where senge began his keynote address by saying:

“The art of developing a learning organization goes back to Dewey. provided the framework that can be summarized as: “the learner learns what the learner wants to learn.”

“Great organizations encourage people to keep in the habit of learning. they focus on learning that allows both the person and the organization to continue to develop.”

Dewey’s views have had a profound impact on educational systems. have provided the philosophical foundation for learning by doing, project work, simulation, and many forms of experiential education.

Dewey continually pointed out, however, that some experiences were more valuable than others. teachers need to be able to intellectually justify educational activities, rather than just letting people do their own thing.

Many of his ideas have become an accepted part of educational and training events around the world.

He cared about people and the future of humanity. as we mentioned at the beginning, when considering the potential of each person, he wrote:

“discovering what one is capable of doing and ensuring the opportunity to do it is the key to happiness.”

John dedicated his work to allowing many more people to enjoy this opportunity. he remains one of the most influential educational thinkers.

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