John Dewey: Experience and education

By Richard McCance

For the educationalists out there, this may be a simple refresher but for those not familiar with this important educational philosopher I hope this is a helpful introduction to some very relevant ideas.

In Democracy and education (1916) John Dewey set out his argument for a philosophy of education based on the growth and development of the individual within the complex social relations of a functioning democracy. In this seminal text Dewey established himself as a leading philosopher of education in the long tradition of pragmatism. Just over twenty years later, he revisited the question of the ideal education for humanity with Experience and education (1938/1963). Here he addressed the interpretations, misrepresentations and criticisms of his original philosophy as well as the many challenges to its realization.

In clarifying his new education, Dewey outlined a distinction between what had conventionally been understood as a traditional approach to education and what he intended by introducing a new, progressive model. In articulating this distinction between the established, conventional education and one that would better serve the needs of a modern, democratic society, Dewey underscored the need for balance, stressing that it is not an either/or dichotomy between “development from within” or “formation from without” (p. 17). Importantly however, he also argued that it is not simply a rejection of precedent nor an inclination to abstraction or whimsy. Ultimately, any new philosophy of education must be based on positive reasons for change rather than simply an outright rejection of the old.

Dewey’s distinction between traditional schooling and that of a new or progressive approach has as its fundamental division the role of individual experience. Traditional schooling, with its clear function of teachers as transmitters of a static body of knowledge grounded solely in the past, is recognized as a distinct experience separate from other forms of social organization or institutions. While reference is often made to family, a wider society with specific ideals of freedom, democracy and agency is also illustrated. Dewey outlines a new philosophy based on individuals’ social experience of education where every individual is able to contribute towards a growing notion of utopian society with humanity at its full potential.

This new institution of social organization is a partnership between the holders of that wider, conventional and historic body of knowledge with recurring generations of unique individuals in need of understanding of that knowledge but also not yet mature enough to grasp its meaning for themselves.

Dewey challenges us to consider what this new progressive education means in terms of an educational experience within the institution of schooling. Any mere rejection of all things traditional as representing indoctrination or imposition is insufficient and unwarranted without a clear purpose or a positive reason for change. Indeed freedom and permissiveness can be as dogmatic and didactic as structure and prescription if not based on a critical examination of the principles underlying change. What, for example, is meant by ‘freedom’ and under what conditions can the idea of ‘freedom’ be realized? More importantly, what are the social factors at work in the formation of individual experience such that any type of freedom can be achieved?

A coherent and articulated justification of intended experience as a principle to progressive education is called for. Questions of organization, methods, materials, and social relationships therefore arise. Dewey focused on the criteria of experience by arguing for continuity of experiences that are worthwhile and in accordance with democratic ideals. Traditional education, by the nature of its physical and social setting with supremacy of specialization, conformity and perpetuation, cannot be responsive to this ideal experience. Coercion and indoctrination prevail over freedom and agency.

Progressive education as a social experience does call for modification of emotional and intellectual attitudes and habits. It also needs to be dedicated to the growth of capacity, arousal of curiosity and strengthening of initiative. It is here where teachers’ professional judgment is necessary in regulating the objective conditions in which individual experience operates. This is done through an understanding of history and our collective, social experience, and with a consideration of what is happening in the mind of the individual learner. In this way an experience of learning can be created that is conducive of broader understandings, sympathetic to the individual and encouraging of interactions in which a disposition to continue to learn is developed and increasingly applied to new situations.

In this progressive approach, teachers must recognize the importance of any experience where individual freedom is not in conflict with some form of social control. Accordingly, this cannot be based on any imposition but must be built from mutual confidence. In planning for shared experience, a balance is needed between the necessary imposition of maturity, tradition, and precedent and an understanding that gives rise to continuous development of individual autonomy. This experience must be inclusive and comprise a flexibility to permit individuality, personal growth, and freedom while at the same time it must build a capacity to understand the meaning of history, society and individual agency.

This interaction and balance as social process must be through mutual accommodation, consent, and adoption. It must also be founded on knowledge that enables a selection of experiences towards a social organization where all can contribute. Here the teacher acts as advisor rather than by command in order to facilitate cooperation and interaction sanctioned by mutual confidence. This creates community where consent and commitment to ‘rules’ are integral, not seen as an imposition from outside.

The nature of freedom within this social organization must then be understood. Dewey specified that it is a freedom of intelligence, observation and judgment. It is also a freedom with a worthwhile purpose, a moral freedom. It is no artificial uniformity or obedience but a freedom to think as much as a freedom of thinking. Nevertheless, it is not simply freedom as an end in itself. There is a shared cooperative activity at the heart of the normal order of things that this freedom must regard.

With any form of freedom with power the role of reflection is essential. Dewey called for a “union of observation and memory” (p. 64) as a form of self-control. In this sense we see a freedom ordered by intelligence as opposed to circumstance or reaction. This freedom must remain conscious of avoiding accidental circumstances or the illusion of freedom as well as succumbing to direction from external forces outside of ones command. Freedom without a solid basis in knowledge of history, society and self leads to freedom lacking intelligent judgment.

As with the nature of this freedom, its purpose must be evident and accepted. For Dewey, this purpose is to establish freedom with power for social intelligence. How this arises and functions as an educational experience is paramount. Dewey acknowledged that genuine purpose starts with impulse and that impulse constrained will lead to desire. However, he also recognized the importance of overriding immediate execution of impulse and desire through a careful observation of objective conditions and circumstances. This observation allows for a judgment of the significance of deliberate and consequential actions as well as a transformation of impulse to purpose. It is this judgment of significance based on both personal observation and wider social experience that creates a reciprocal purpose beyond individual desire.

Aligning with social constructivist theories of learning, Dewey maintained that subject matter and materials for learning be derived from the outset so that they fall within the extent of ordinary life-experience. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the teacher to establish a well-ordered progression of experience with these materials towards organization and extension to further subject matter. In this way the promise and potentiality of new experiences will stimulate new observations and judgments to expand capacity for further growth. New experiences as novelty or in isolation are insufficient for development as are simple, generic skills. Experience and subject matter need to be relevant to the present, intellectually connected to the past, and consistently focused on the future.

Here Dewey drew a sharp distinction between traditional schooling and a progressive approach. Traditional education is overly focused on the past, narrowly attentive to a specific future and almost entirely devoid of dedication to the individual learner’s present condition. While the knowledge delivered in conventional schools is appropriately grounded in the past, it remains largely outside the present experience of learners. Teachers need to appreciate how present social dislocations, inequities and challenges have arisen, while the reactionary stance that the business of education is solely about transmitting cultural heritage must be overcome.

Progressive education, on the other hand, cannot simply rely on experience of the present condition or a loose articulation of some intended future. Teachers must be mindful of the potential of new situations in building knowledge as a criterion for selecting and arranging the conditions that influence students’ present experience. The past needs to be used in this approach as a means to understand the present and as a way of forming the future.

Moreover, experience that does not lead to the unfamiliar will encounter no problems, yet problems stimulate thinking. Growth depends upon the existence of challenge which needs to be overcome through the exercise of intelligence. It is this growth in judgment and understanding that is essential for the capacity to define purpose as well as the ability to select and organize further knowledge gathered towards realization of that purpose. For Dewey, this is exemplified in the scientific method of analysis and synthesis with ideas, hypotheses, observation and revision as essential elements.

Finally, Dewey made clear that he was not arguing for acceptance of his ideas nor was he concerned with justifying them. However, he did acknowledge that as he wrote his book there was a profound discontent with education, a discontent that continues to this day. While he argued against viewing this dissatisfaction as an either/or dichotomy, he signaled the dangers of inadequately conceived improvisation or spontaneity in addition to the authoritarian excesses of rigidity and archaism. Ultimately, Dewey called for a sound philosophy of experience. He advocated for the potential of education intelligently directed toward the opportunities inherent in that everyday experience. And he offered a pathway towards an intelligent society with agency, freedom, and power.

Dewey, J. (1963). Experience and education. New York: Collier.


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