John Dewey (1859-1952)
“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself”
John Dewey lived by his words and truly dedicated his life to education. He understood the connection between teaching, learning, education, and social life. John Dewey believed that education and democracy are two sides of the same coin, and democracy is built on the lifelong process of education. Therefore, besides being renowned as an educator, philosopher, and psychologist, he was also known as a social critic.
Ever since his first pedagogical article “My Pedagogic Creed,” John Dewey’s work, philosophy, theories, and ideas have been known and used worldwide. He perceived education as a development of thoughtful, critically reflective, and socially involved individuals. His idea that theoretical teaching and practical solution to problems should go hand in hand had an enormous impact on pedagogy and education, especially among teachers in the US.
John Dewey’s pedagogical philosophy was not just about learning by doing. According to his pragmatic movement, the truth lies in the practical situations that work. Dewey’s idea as a functionalist, inspired by Charles Darwin, is that the person’s behavior is developed as an adjustment to his/her environment.
Generally speaking, his entire work and influence on education lie in the idea that we learn and grow as a result of our experiences and interactions with the world. Thanks to his philosophy, teachers across the globe use the concept of inquiry, defining problems, and testing hypotheses as a way to come to a satisfactory solution. Thanks to his ideas, educators prepare students to take an active role in shaping their future society.
John Dewey was born on October 20, 1859, in Burlington, Vermont, and died on June 1, 1952, in New York. He is known as one of the most famous American philosophers, educators, social and political theorists, a cofounder of pragmatism (beliefs are guides to actions and should be judged against the outcomes rather than abstract principles), a creator of functional psychology, and an educational reformist.
In 1879, Dewey graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont, where he enjoyed studying philosophy under the tutelage of H.A.P. Torrey. Five years later, he got a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University and started his teaching career in philosophy and psychology at the University of Michigan. Slowly, his interests were directed toward experimental psychology and pragmatism. Dewey’s advanced study of child psychology encouraged him to develop a philosophy of education that would meet the needs of a transforming democratic society. He joined the University of Chicago as head of the philosophy department, where he continued to develop his progressive pedagogy in the University’s Laboratory School, before a disagreement with the administration caused him to move to New York’s Columbia University, where he spent most of his career and wrote some of his most famous works.
John Dewey’s work and contribution to education continued even after his retirement. He was an active member of many educational associations and an international educational consultant, proving once more that education was his life’s legacy.
“If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”
Dewey was a strong advocate for progressive educational reform and the basic educational principle of learning through doing. His theories spanned from philosophy, psychology, and sociology to education. Therefore, Dewey’s research in educational psychology was influenced by his philosophical and psychological theories.
As a firm believer in learning by doing, he developed and studied new educational methods and curriculums in his Laboratory School in Chicago. He even encouraged parental participation in the educational process. Being pragmatic, he thought students should not be passive recipients of established knowledge, but active doers and thinkers. He described traditional schools with concrete learning by passive reception as “medieval,” because he believed children are not listening creatures. He understood children’s interests in activities, communication, and exploration.
Dewey’s idea was to incorporate traditional subjects with the potential and interests of the student. This idea resulted in perceiving learning as a sense of need followed by intellectual work like defining, testing, reflection, and understanding, rather than a mechanical process that could be solely measured by standardized tests without the role of emotion or experience in learning.
John Dewey was against the belief that all the important questions and ideas in education have already been answered. He firmly believed that all ideas and questions are open to reinvention and advancement and that all subjects could be enriched with new knowledge, perceptions, and opinions.
The best way to understand his educational theory is through his experimental school, where he put his theory to the test and:
- Encouraged children’s collaboration and support
- Acknowledged that authority (modern knowledge and skills) is a pedagogical condition for children’s development
- Gave chores and activities to children similar to the work done in their social life (woodwork, cooking, sewing…) to help them gain “life skills.”
- Discarded gender roles regarding them as stereotypical (girls participated in crafting equally to the boys, who cooked in classes as much as the girls)
- Divided children by age to assign activities suitable for their development
- Used practical learning techniques combined with plenty of learning recourses
- Enabled conditions for children to work together and acquire social interest and moral knowledge
- Set a goal to interest children to be “hungry” for knowledge
- Created individuals with good judgment, able to participate in the community to realize the common good.
We might say that in every field of his research, the subject of education was at the top of his list. All we have to do is highlight his educational goals and use them in practice.
Dewey’s theory of education and the concept of learning by doing was a true turning point in educational practice. His belief that individuals learn and develop as a result of their know-how and interactions with the world was a breakthrough compelling people to acquire new concepts, ideas, practices, and understandings. We should consider John Dewey’s ideas about education as our classroom assistant if we want to create students who can shape the future. Here’s what we can do as teachers to help Dewey’s ideas and beliefs come to life:
- Continue to mediate student’s life experiences and social interactions
- Increase student’s interactions and communications in the classroom by encouraging them to work in a group, where they can share their ideas and opinions and work with the perceptions, ideas, and experiences of other students
- Give priority to shared activities as an important tool for learning and progress
- Give students real-life problems as an educational experience
- Engage students in everyday classroom activities so they can develop ideas, analyze their work, and increase their intellectual insight into a particular and meaningful situation
- Pay attention to student’s emotional responses or their so-called “aesthetic” experiences: dramatic, convincing, unifying, or transformative experiences that invigorate and fascinate students
- Create situations for active learning and inquiry, giving students a chance to discover information and ideas by themselves in a teacher-structured environment
- Let students put their knowledge into good use by explaining and solving problems and by concluding the validity of ideas and theories
- Provide explicit instruction when necessary and when appropriate
- Assist students to reflect on their experiences in a way that helps them adjust their habits of action (experiences should include an “active phase” where a student does something and an “undergoing” phase where a student observes the effect of those actions)
- Guide and help students to develop skills for democratic activity by identifying and appreciating differences
- Encourage students to open up new points of view, rather than closing off their own beliefs and habits
- Engage students as much as we can for more positive learning outcomes
- Create problem-solving activities and let students figure out the answers themselves
- Design more engaging assignments that go beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic
- Combine subjects and activities, and let the students find meaningful links and correlations between them (combine art and history, science and methods of investigation…)
- Create projects that will interest students, like shop and art projects, lab experiments, field trips, creative games, storytelling, debates, and discussions
- Teach students how to cooperate in problem resolution
- Help students accept responsibility, become leaders, and help others.
There’s so much we can use from John Dewey’s educational theories and ideas. The most important thing is to start with the basics and build from there. We can begin with learning by doing, introduce everyday real-life problems, and provide hands-on activities to find solutions. Also, we need to combine as many learning resources as possible in dealing with practical learning. It’s our responsibility as teachers to follow Dewey’s advice and attract students to want more knowledge, which, according to him, is the only way democracy can work as a lifeform. We must not forget the social side of his theory and create students who will think for themselves, future leaders capable of shaping a healthy society.
- See our other articles on famous educators.