John Dewey on education, experience and community

John Dewey on education, experience and community. Arguably the most influential thinker on education in the twentieth century, Dewey’s contribution lies along several fronts. His attention to experience and reflection, democracy and community, and to environments for learning have been seminal.

(This ‘John Dewey’ page is due to be extended).

John Dewey - picture from wikimedia commonsJohn Dewey (1859 – 1952) has made, arguably, the most significant contribution to the development of educational thinking in the twentieth century. Dewey’s philosophical pragmatism, concern with interaction, reflection and experience, and interest in community and democracy, were brought together to form a highly suggestive educative form. John Dewey is often misrepresented – and wrongly associated with child-centred education. In many respects his work cannot be easily slotted into any one of the curriculum traditions that have dominated north American and UK schooling traditions over the last century. However, John Dewey’s influence can be seen in many of the writers that have influenced the development of informal education over the same period. For example, Coyle, Kolb, Lindeman and Rogers drew extensively on his work.

John Dewey’s significance for informal educators lies in a number of areas. First, his belief that education must engage with and enlarge experience has continued to be a significant strand in informal education practice. Second, and linked to this, Dewey’s exploration of thinking 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 such as David Boud and Donald Schön. Third, his concern with interaction and environments for learning provide a continuing framework for practice. Last, his passion for democracy, for educating so that all may share in a common life, provides a strong rationale for practice in the associational settings in which informal educators work.

Key texts: There is rather a lot of material to choose from here. Three key ‘educational’ texts that seem to appeal most strongly to informal educators are:

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. An introduction to the philosophy of education (1966 edn.), New York: Free Press. Classic discussion of education for democracy (‘sharing in a common life’) that includes an important reconceptualization of vocational learning. It remains (for me at least) an infuriating book to read. At times ideas are not expressed with the clarity they deserve; there is repetition; and not enough signposting for readers. But… there is gold in these hills.

Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think. A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process (Revised edn.), Boston: D. C. Heath. Brilliant, accessible exploration of thinking and its relationship to learning. Dewey’s concern with experience, interaction and reflection – and his worries about linear models of thinking still make for a rewarding read. The book’s influence lives on in the recent concern with experience and reflection in writers like Boud, Kolb and Schön.

Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education,New York: Collier Books. (Collier edition first published 1963). In this book Dewey seeks seeks to move beyond dualities such as progressive / traditional – and to outline a philosophy of experience and its relation to education.

To approach Dewey’s concern with experience and knowledge in more detail:

Dewey, J. (1929) Experience and Nature, New York: Dover. (Dover edition first published in 1958). Explores the relationship of the external world, the mind and knowledge.

Biographies: There have been a couple of excellent and fairly recent intellectual biographies:

Campbell, J. (1995) Understanding John Dewey. Nature and co-operative intelligence, Chicago: Open Court. Good, new, general introduction to Dewey’s work. Campbell, as his subtitle suggests, focuses on the evaluative power of intelligence not as an individual possession but as a possession of the group.

Ryan, A. (1995) John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, New York: W. W. Norton. Clear and fair-minded evaluation of Deweyian liberalism.

Websites: Visit the Center for Dewey Studies, Carbondale. It gives details of his collected works; and access to the John Dewey Internet discussion group. You can also hear Dewey talk. Center for Dewey Studies. There is also a useful short guide to his publications and access to other sites on a Colorado site. You can get the full text of Democracy and Education. John Dewey Links.

Acknowledgement: picture of John Dewey is reproduced here on the understanding that it is in the public domain – Wikipedia Commons copyright expired

© Mark K. Smith 2001

First published May 8, 1997.