John Dewey. Experience and Education (Notes)

This short book by John Dewey (91 pages), written two decades after ‘Democracy and Education’ (Dewey’s most comprehensive statement of his position on educational philosophy), is described on the cover as:

‘The great educational theorist’s most concise statement of his ideas about the needs, the problems, and the possibilities of education – written after his experience with progressive schools and in the light of the criticisms his theories received.’

This book describes in some measure the education system I was working in pre-National Curriculum (in the UK), when education was based more on personal experience (i.e. progressive education) than the transmission of knowledge. Dewey describes the latter as traditional education, which sought to prepare the young for future responsibilities and success in life through the transmission of information and skills that had worked in the past and was static in books or the heads of teachers. Pupils were expected to be docile, receptive and obedient.

For Dewey progressive education opposes traditional education as follows:

‘To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation of a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.’ (p.19/20, my bold)

A Wikipedia article has interpreted progressive education as having the following qualities:

  • Emphasis on learning by doing – hands-on projects, expeditionary learning, experiential learning
  • Integrated curriculum focused on thematic units
  • Strong emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking
  • Group work and development of social skills
  • Understanding and action as the goals of learning as opposed to rote knowledge
  • Collaborative and cooperative learning projects
  • Education for social responsibility and democracy
  • Integration of community service and service learning projects into the daily curriculum
  • Selection of subject content by looking forward to ask what skills will be needed in future society
  • De-emphasis on textbooks in favor of varied learning resources
  • Emphasis on lifelong learning and social skills
  • Assessment by evaluation of child’s projects and productions

Would Dewey have approved of this list? He points out that introducing progressive education is not necessarily straightforward and comes with its own problems. Neither traditional, nor progressive education is completely satisfactory. For example, in relation to progressive education, all experiences are not equally educative; some experiences are mis-educative.  Everything depends on the quality of experience. Dewey believed that what was needed was a new philosophy of experience, which references what is to be done and how it is to be done. Dewey thought this a harder task for progressive education than for traditional education.

In Chapter 3, Dewey discusses the criteria of experience that need to be considered to determine whether an experience is educationally worthwhile. He points to two key principles, continuity and interaction. ‘The principle of continuity of experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after’ (p.35). Experience must lead to growth, and the direction of growth must be specified. It is the educator’s role to draw on past experiences of experts as well as her own,  to determine the conditions that will lead to worthwhile growth, without engaging in imposition, and to bring about a particular kind of interaction. By interaction, Dewey means the interplay between the objective and internal conditions in an experience, which ‘taken together, or in their interaction, … form what we call a situation’. (p.42)

The principles of continuity and interaction intercept and unite. They are the longitudinal and lateral aspects of experience. ‘An experience is always what it is because of a transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment…’ (p.43). The educator must therefore take account of the learner’s past and possible future experiences, his personal needs, desires and capacities, to select the conditions necessary for growth, such that the learner wants to go on learning.

Central to Dewey’s educational philosophy is that education is essentially a social process (p.58). As such educators must consider community activity, social organisation and social control, i.e. ‘the conduct of the interactions and intercommunications which are the very life of the group as a community’. Social control is normal in group activities, such as games, where rules are understood and applied. Social control in these circumstances is not experienced as restriction of personal freedom. Social organization within progressive education allows for all individuals to make a contribution, but progressive education is not a ‘free-for-all’. One of the most important lessons of life, says Dewey, is that of mutual accommodation and adaptation.

In Chapter 5, Dewey considers the nature of freedom. The only freedom of importance for Dewey is the freedom of intelligence, i.e. freedom of observation and judgement, and intellectual and moral freedom. Dewey writes: (p.62)

‘Let me speak first of the advantages which reside in increase of outward freedom. In the first place, without its existence it is practically impossible for a teacher to gain knowledge of the individuals with whom he is concerned. Enforced quiet and acquiescence prevent pupils from disclosing their real natures. They enforce artificial uniformity. They put seeming before being. They place a premium upon preserving the outward appearance of attention, decorum, and obedience. And everyone who is acquainted with schools in which this system prevailed knows that thoughts, imaginations, desires and sly activities ran their own unchecked course behind this façade.’ (p.62)

Increased freedom does not mean that there is no time for quiet reflection. Nor does it mean that there is no self-control. ‘The ideal aim of education is creation of power of self-control.’ But freedom of movement is important for physical and mental health, and intellectual growth. The educator must consider how much freedom and what quality of freedom is needed for growth.

Dewey believed that the learner should be actively involved in determining the purpose of his education in cooperation with the educator. A genuine purpose always starts with an impulse, which if obstructed converts into a desire, and it is up to the educator to see that this is taken advantage of, but also that immediate action is postponed until observation and judgment have intervened, and consequences have been considered. Forming a purpose is therefore a complex intellectual operation, a co-operative enterprise between teacher and learner, which involves 1). Observation of surrounding conditions; 2). Knowledge of what has happened in similar situations in the past; 3). Judgment which puts together what is observed and what is recalled to see what they signify (p.69). Purposeful action requires intelligent activity, as opposed to overemphasis on activity as an end.

In  the penultimate chapter of his book (Chapter 7), Dewey considers progressive organization of subject matter, which, he believed, should all fall within the scope of ordinary life-experience. Not only does the educator have to find the material for learning within experience, but more importantly has to develop this into a fuller, richer and more organized form. As such the educator must first discover learners’ existing experiences and start from there. ‘It thus becomes the office of the educator to select those things within the range of existing experience that have the promise and potentiality of presenting new problems which by stimulating new ways of observation and judgment will expand the area of further experience.’(p.75). Dewey believed that this was harder to do in progressive education than in traditional education, because this ruled out a single course of study, and also because the organized subject-matter of the adult and the specialist cannot provide the starting point. (p.83). A key concern for the educator is connectedness in growth, looking to the past, but even more to the future. ‘…. experiences in order to be educative must lead out into an expanding world of subject-matter…..’ (p.87). To do this educators must be familiar with scientific method. The scientific method, says Dewey, is the only authentic means at our command for getting at the significance of our everyday experiences of the world in which we live.

Dewey finishes his book by reiterating his view that education must be based on experience and that we need a sound philosophy of experience to understand what education is. If progressive education has failed it is because educators have failed to fully understand its standards, aims and methods, and have failed to put the basic principles of progressive education, as described by Dewey in this book, into practice.

‘The educational system must move one way or another, either backward to the intellectual and moral standards of a pre-scientific age or forward to ever greater utilization of scientific method in the development of the possibilities of growing, expanding experience.’(p.89)

But for Dewey the key issue is not of old versus new, or of traditional versus progressive. The key issue is the question of what anything whatever must be to be worthy of the name education.

John Dewey’s Experience & Education, is the book that has been selected to be discussed at the next meeting of the Philosophy of Education Reading Network On Tuesday 21st September on Zoom.  The discussion will be opened by Professor Deron Boyles. Distinguished professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at Georgia State University. In preparation for this discussion, Professor Boyles has posed the following questions:

  • Dewey is addressing two audiences in the book—which ones and why?
  • Dewey’s idea that “means and ends” are conjoint often confuses readers. Why does this confusion exist? Why is it so important to Dewey that means and ends be understood together and not separate?
  • Even educators who express their interest or desire to “be Deweyan” in their teaching often run into problems. Dewey gives a clue at the top of p. 19 when he talks about “devices of art.” What does he mean?

References

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. Simon and Schuster

International Center for Educators’ Styles. Dewey’s Philosophy on Experience and Education. (This provides a more comprehensive summary of the book, than I have in this post)

Internet Archive. Full Text of Experience and Education – John Dewey. (This is very useful for word searching, such as for the words ‘means and ends’ which Professor Doyle wants us to discuss on Tuesday).