John Dewey

“John Dewey” from Learning Theorists in Wikibooks  is used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

John Dewey

“John Dewey is considered by many to be the most influential educational theorist in the twentieth century” (Finnan, 2006, p. 83). He has contributed seminal works in the field of psychology, philosophy and education. Dewey is known in the education field for his ideas on experience and reflection, democracy and education, motivation of students, the nature of freedom in learning, and pragmatism. He believed education should be active and practical; students should learn in order to help them at home, in their communities, or in their work life (Dewey, 1952).

While many agree that Dewey has made a huge impact in the education field and is still relevant today, few are able to articulate why. Few schools resemble the schools Dewey designed in terms of their organization, or application of his teaching methods (Finnan, 2006). Dewey’s original writings are rarely read by students; they are not even read by education students. Many of his ideas, such as progressive education, are misunderstood by both its supporters and its opponents. Reasons for this include his writing style and the changing of his position on many topics (Finnan, 2006).

Dewey’s writing style can be hard to comprehend. He takes his time expressing his ideas and explores many related topics before completing his thought. He was also extremely prolific. Dewey was born in 1859 and died in 1952. In his lifetime, he wrote nearly 700 articles and 40 books (Hill, 2006). As he matured, his beliefs and thoughts evolved, and at times, changed. This added to the misinterpretations and misunderstandings of his work (Perricone, 2006).

Dewey’s influential works in the field of education philosophy include: Democracy and Education (1944), Experience and Nature (1929), Art and Education (1927), Art and Experience (1934) and Experience and Education (1938). But perhaps Dewey’s theory on progressive education and the importance of experience is his most influential contribution to the field of education. “Above all,

Dewey believed in the power of actual experience” (Deblois, 2002).

Background Influences

During his formative years, John Dewey was influenced by two prominent theorists: Hegel and Darwin. Dewey was introduced to Hegelianism by a professor he studied under at Johns Hopkins University, George Sylvester Morris, a German-trained Hegelian. Hegelianism is a branch of idealism in which Hegel held “that every existent idea or fact belongs to an all-embracing mind in which each idea or situation (thesis) evokes its opposite (antithesis) and these two result in a unified whole (synthesis), which in turn becomes a new thesis” (Guralnik, 1999).

Eventually Dewey’s beliefs evolved from Hegelianism to Darwinism. Darwinism emphasized empirical data and experimentation in the logic of knowledge. “Dewey’s idealism, with its categories of the organic whole, and development viewed as a passage from ‘contradiction’ to ‘syntheses’ gave way to the evolutionary and biologically conceived notion of growth as a process of ‘conflicts’ and ‘resolutions’” (Perricone, 2006, p. 21). Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species would greatly influence Dewey and his later works (Perricone, 2006).

Dewey was introduced to the importance of the scientific method by Darwin’s works. In Experience and Education, Dewey states that the scientific method is an excellent way for students to learn because of its use of empirical data and experimentation in the logic of knowledge. He states that there are three reasons why the scientific method is an important method for teaching: students create a hypothesis, students then test the hypothesis and learn from consequences, and the methodology of intelligence is used since students must keep track of ideas, activities and consequences (Dewey, 1952).

Dewey, influenced by Darwin, sees man as adaptive and as a problem-solving animal. Dewey relates learning as an individual process intertwined and heavily influenced by the environment. The need to survive in the environment provides the impulse, the instrumental value, to learn and to grow intellectually (Perricone, 2006). He is heavily prejudiced by Darwin’s conceptualization of the ever-altering nature of our world; Dewey believes the school’s ultimate duty is to prepare students for life, which entails constant change (Finnan, 2006).

John Dewey’s Influence

Dewey is one of the founders of both pragmatism thought and progressive education (Deblois, 2002). His influences include many of the ideas and concepts used by progressive educators and outcome-based education practitioners, including outcome-based education, standard-based education, lifelong learning, critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and meaningful learning (Deblois). His devotion to transforming schools into democratic institutions dedicated to addressing social inequities, and understanding how to deal with a world which is constantly changing still resonates with parents and new educators today.

Many parents want schools to challenge their children and prepare them for an unknown, changing future. Dewey’s ideas of curriculum, teaching, and school organization are still widely referenced today in education coursework. New teachers inspired by Dewey enter into the profession with hopes of changing the system. These teachers believe in Dewey’s thoughts on how schools can initiate change and transformation in society (Finnan, 2006).

Hands-on learning, outdoor education, and community learning service programs were ideas taken from Dewey’s book Experience and Education (Deblois, 2002).

Dewey founded the University of Chicago Lab Schools, and his work influenced one of the oldest national school reforms models, the Accelerated Schools (Finnan, 2006).

Many educational theorists were influenced by John Dewey. Dewey abhorred standardized exams, such as IQ tests. He believed these tests did not reflect how learners actually learned: through experiences (Dewey, 1952). Howard Gardner’s theory on multiple intelligences was influenced by Dewey’s work (Deblois, 2002).

“Piaget echoed Dewey’s thoughts on experience-based conception of development through the process of equilibration” (Glassman, 2004). Piaget’s theory on instrumentality in which individuals learn by solving problems they encounter in their environment was influenced by Dewey’s belief in the need of instrumentality to learn (Glassman, 2004).

Coyle, Kolb and Rogers’s work on the development of informal education was influenced by Dewey’s original works (Glassman, 2004).

Experience and Education

One of Dewey’s most influential works and a major contribution to education philosophy is his book, Experience and Education, originally published in 1938. Dewey wrote this work in part because he wanted to set the record straight on his thoughts on what progressive education should be, and what it should not be. Many criticisms of progressive education mounted, and because Dewey was one of the founders of this new education theory, the criticisms were directed toward him personally.

Critics of progressive education argued that progressive schools were given free rein in education. One criticism was that this “anything goes” approach to education resulted in education chaos, in which standards of learning were neither identified nor achieved, creating an environment counterproductive to learning. Some traditional educators argued that progressive schools ignored significant knowledge that was essential to participating in a democratic society. Critics also believed that progressive education instruction created habits in students which resulted in undisciplined students.

Furthermore, these undisciplined students would be unleashed into the world without the tools to continue learning throughout their lives and be unprepared to contribute to society in adulthood. If students did not learn a common core of knowledge about our culture, country, and shared history, the glue that binds and stabilizes our society would not be created, critics argued (Deblois, 2002).

Dewey begins Experience and Education with a discussion of what is required of an educational theory. He states that many schools that practice progressive education are not applying a new theory of education; they are merely reacting against the shortcomings and criticisms of traditional education theory. In order for progressive education to be a legitimate theory, the theory must be able to stand on its own and answer questions on how students should learn, how can the teacher help the learning process, and how can new concepts of teaching and learning be applied in the real world. A theory, he argues, should explain what must be done and how it is to be done (Dewey, 1952).

Dewey then discusses the shortcomings of the traditional theory of education and explains how progressive education theory can address these shortcomings and answer the questions stated above. In short, he explains the importance of experience in the learning process, and how teachers and parents can and should help guide students in the learning process (Dewey, 1952).

Criticisms of Traditional Education Theory

Traditional education, Dewey states, is primarily concerned with teaching students information and skills that have already been worked out in the past. They assume that the future will be just like the past; therefore, the skills and knowledge that were of use in the past will help students succeed in the future. He identifies this assumption as a major flaw in traditional education. Dewey believes the world is constantly changing, and students need to learn critical thinking skills and problem-solving skills in order to deal with these changes. Traditional education treats students as docile, nonactive receptive entities that learn only from books and teachers. Knowledge is taught as a finished product. Students cannot learn essential problem-solving skills if they are taught that all problems and answers to these problems have already been worked out (Dewey, 1952). “If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow” (Dewey, 1944, p. 167).

Dewey stressed the importance of active learning; students must be engaged in the learning process. In traditional education, conduct is strictly enforced, automatic drills are used to transfer knowledge, and students’ power of judgment and intelligence are impeded, creating the wrong kind of experiences to promote learning. They rendered the students insensitive to ideas and caused students to associate learning with boredom (Dewey, 1952).

Progressive Education

The main tenet of progressive education theory is that education is based on personal experiences of the learner. Teachers are the mature person who provides guidance to the students to facilitate learning. The instructor’s main function is to arrange for the kind of experiences that engage students and promote further experiences.

Dewey states that quality experiences are necessary. Quality experiences are experiences that lead to more experiences; Dewey refers to these types of experiences as the experiential continuum. Quality experiences must also lead to intellectual growth, which arouses curiosity and strengthens initiative. Again, Dewey criticized traditional education practices because the type of experiences promoted did not lead to the continuity of new experiences or aroused curiosity or initiative (Dewey, 1952).

Students should understand why they are learning. Instrumentality of learning is paramount in progressive education. Students should not learn in isolation. Dewey stresses that education is a social process in which everyone should participate. Schools should be involved in their local community so that students learn how to participate in the community. Teachers are also required to know the students in order to identify their needs and capacities so that they can arrange classroom experiences that will help the students cope with real-life situations.

Teachers must recognize what surroundings are conducive to promote quality experiences. Traditional education did not allow teachers to affect the learning environment. Desks were arranged in rows and students were to sit still and sit up straight. This arrangement encourages passivity in students. Progressive education requires the teacher to arrange the learning environment to promote active student learning. Students may move around the room from workstation to station, actively working on and solving problems. The classroom setting is arranged so that students have freedom of movement. Physical freedom of movement lends itself to freedom of intelligence. This requires teachers to put more thought into lesson planning and arranging the learning environment (Dewey, 1952).

A major criticism of progressive education is the lack of rules. Dewey addresses this by discussing the use of rules and their function. Teachers create rules for the students to follow, but these rules are not used as social control mechanisms as they are used in traditional education classrooms. Teachers should not act as a dictator in the classroom but as a leader of the group. The rules are created to increase students’ freedom and limit the situations in which the teacher must exercise authority. Games have rules so that players know how to conduct the game and ensure everyone plays fair, and so should the learning environment, Dewey argues. The rules are also designed so as to encourage participation from all students.

Dewey argues that progressive education is more democratic, more humane, and has less rigid rules than traditional education. Progressive education promotes freedom of students both physically and intellectually. It encourages participation and promotes better, more enjoyable learning experiences that are more democratic; both teachers and students have influence on learning and the learning environment (Dewey, 1952). For these reasons, many people are in favor of progressive education. Then why are so few schools in the United States designed and organized with Dewey’s ideas?  Finnan (2006) states that “attitudes and beliefs become more conservative when education is seen as part of a societal threat or problem” (p. 90). Although many educational policies are still made at the local level, the federal government, through the No Child Left Behind Act, influences standards at an unprecedented level. These rigid standards, which require students to pass standardized tests, create an environment that opposes progressive educational practices and theory (Finnan, 2006).


Deblois, R. (2002). John Dewey in a new century: Constructing meaning from real experiences. Independent School, 61(4), 72-77.

Dewey, J. (1944). Democracy and education. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Dewey, J. (1952). Experience and education. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Finnan, C. (2006) Enacting curriculum and teaching theory in contexts of countervailing thought.Curriculum & Teaching Dialogue, 8(1/2), 83-98.

Glassman, M. (2004). Running in circles: Chasing Dewey. Educational Theory, 54(3), 315-341.

Guralnik, D.B. (1999). Webster’s new world dictionary of the American language (2nd edition). Cleveland, OH: William Collins Publisher.

Hill, J. (2006). Brush us on your Dewey…start quoting him now, or John Dewey for teaching artist. Teaching Artist Journal, 4(1), 4-11.

Perricone, C. (2006). The influence of Darwinism on John Dewey’s philosophy of art. Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 20(1), 20-41.