Ruminations on Dewey’s Education and Experience

I just finished John Dewey’s Education and Experience. Dewey’s main argument, as I understand it, is that education should be based in the life experiences of students. Educators should understand students’ current life experiences and facilitate opportunities for building on these experiences. These opportunities should be cooperatively created and, indeed,¬†facilitated by the educator, not imposed by him or her. Rather than expecting students to adhere to a rigid set of externally-imposed guidelines, these cooperatively-created opportunities should enable exploratory freedom within thoughtful frameworks of progressively-increasing rigor. Dewey is clear that he thinks this is a much, much more difficult way to educate than traditional education, but believes that it more closely adheres to the ideals of a democratic society than more authoritarian methods.

Several things occurred to me as I was reading this book. First, Dewey gave the address on which the book was based in 1938 – over 75 years ago. Progressive educators at the time were reacting against rigidly structured education systems that seemed to stifle the natural desires of students to learn. This can lead one to either hope or despair; one either sees hope in the enduring power of progressive thought applied to a similar contemporary confrontation, or despairs that even with the best efforts of progressive educators over three-quarters of a century very little seems to have changed. No matter which view one takes, there is no denying that the questions and conversations about how best to educate have been around for a long time and are likely not amenable to quick fixes. A good deal of hard work, presumably of the sort that Dewey prescribes, will be necessary to effect change in a very old system.

Second, the purpose of education – the why of education – is deeply embedded in this argument. What is education about for Dewey? Nothing less than the ability and desire of students to continue learning throughout their lives: “The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning. If impetus in this direction is weakened instead of being intensified…. the pupil is actually robbed of native capacities which otherwise would enable him to cope with the circumstances that he meets in the course of his life” (Dewey, 1938/1963, p. 48). Education should be about helping students mature to self-actualization, though I don’t think Dewey actually used this phrase. Education is the dynamic interplay between exploration and educator guidance, the connections formed and nurtured in cooperative learning spaces, and the development of self-regulated and self-motivated learners.

Third, themes of connected learning run throughout this book. Most obvious is the connection between educator and student that is fundamental to Dewey’s conception of cooperative creation of meaningful experience-building activities. Educators need to know enough about their students, to understand their students well enough, and presumably to care about their students enough to facilitate these experiences. Connection among students in a class is also part and parcel of Dewey’s philosophy, with the cooperative aspect taking center stage in activity formation. Perhaps most importantly from Dewey’s perspective is the connection of new educational experiences to prior student experiences and the opportunities created for students by these connections. Thus, even in an age that predated most forms of electronic communication, Dewey believed connected experiences to be at the core of good educational practice.

Which leads us back here, to 2014, to ask ourselves what lessons we might take from Dewey’s eloquent statement of education’s purpose. One might argue that the ability to connect has expanded significantly since Dewey’s day, especially with the advent of the internet. Very good – but what does this mean? Are we getting better at working cooperatively with our students to foster learning experiences that build on their prior experiences? We might be getting better at quantifying the prior experiences of our students – if proponents of “big data” are to be believed – but are we putting this toward the creation of meaningful experiences? Are we providing students the freedom to co-create their own learning experiences on the way to self-actualization? Or are we still rigidly defending curricula to be mastered in an order and logic that we (or, perhaps worse, textbook publishers) decide is correct, without input from our students or reflections on their past experiences? In short, are we any closer to achieving the goals for which Dewey advocates because of our greater ability to connect today?


Reference: Dewey, John. (1963) Education and experience. New York: Collier Books. (Original work published 1938)