Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Dewey (1859 - 1952) – Habits, practical and problem-based learning

John Dewey was a philosopher with a deep interest in politics and education. Dewey spoke out against communism as well as the right-wing threat in US politics, including what he saw as reactionary Catholicism. He was a typical American liberal believing in a secular approach and reform in education, moving it beyond the limitations of traditional ‘schooling’. Did you know that Dewy headed up the commission that investigated Trotsky in Mexico? He also took an interest in finding out about how schools operated with trips to Japan, China, Mexico, Turkey and the Soviet Union. 

As a philosopher he was what is called a ‘pragmatist’, a school of philosophy that picked up on ideas from the German idealism of Kant (Dewey’s doctoral dissertation was on Kant) and Hegel, and later emerged from Pierce and James in the 19th century. 

Education and society

As befits an American with strong democratic beliefs, he saw education as leading towards the enhancement of and authentic participation in a democratic nation. His reflections on the nature of knowledge, experience and communication, combined with his views of democracy and community, led to an educational theory that started with a broad based vision of what education should be, an identification of educational methods and a practical view of its implementation. He practised what he preached through his own elementary ‘Laboratory School’.

Schools – realisation through practice

That schools had become divorced from society was one of his basic claims. He was refreshingly honest about their limitations and saw schools as only one means of learning, ‘and compared with other agencies, a relatively superficial means’. In fact, he was keen to break down the boundaries of school, seeing them as a community within a community or an ‘embryonic society’. Schools are necessary but must not get obsessed with streaming, testing and not be overly academic in the curriculum. They must reflect the real world, not sit above and apart from society. 

His Pragmatist beliefs led him to believe that schools should create real-life, learning opportunities that could be put into practice, by engaging in occupational activities, as practised by the rest of society. He was keen on ‘occupational’ learning and practical skills that produced independent, self-directing, autonomous adults. In his model school, the students planted wheat and cotton, processed and transported it for sale to market. It was about fulfilling the potential of the many, not the few.

Problem based learning

John Dewey, like Socrates, was a philosopher first and educational theorist second, and like Socrates, his progressive educational theory has been simplified to the level of caricature. It is often assumed that he favoured an extreme version of student-centred or discovery learning but this was not in fact the case. In Democracy and Education (1916) he presents a sophisticated interplay between teachers and students, where the teacher must not simply present the subject matter but pay attention to efficacious methods of instruction and meet the developmental needs and interests of learners 

He is best known for his scientific or problem-solving approach to learning, presented in How we think (1910).  In line with his view that science, experimentation and practice lay at the heart of learning, for both a person and society, he encouraged innovation and abhorred dogmatic principles and practices. For Dewey, exposure to certain types of learning experiences are more important than exposure to others but his concrete advice is often absent.


Dewey was not, as some assume, a full-on progressive and had little time for Rousseau’s free approach to the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Structure and teaching were important. Perhaps his most important contribution to education is his constant attempts to break down the traditional dualities in education between theory and practice, academic and vocational, public and private, individual and group. This mode of thinking, he thought, led education astray. The educational establishment, in his view, seemed determined to keep themselves, and their institutions, apart from the real world by holding on to abstract and often ill-defined definitions about the purpose of education. Aghast at the teaching of religion in schools he also thought that high-end social theories such as neo-Darwiniasm, capitalism and socialism were inappropriate and was against those who believe in dogmas and ideologies.

Habit and practice

Dewey, like Pierce and James, in Human Nature and Conduct (1922) saw ‘habit’ as a fundamental mover in learning. Not the mechanical reinforcement of habit, not the exercise of pure reason but the active formation of emotion and reason in tandem, an active process with biological, cognitive and moral components. He is a post-Darwinian thinker, who sees in habit a flow of given, learnt and social dispositions. Education is a social function and habits are social functions. In Democracy and Education (1916), he promotes diversity of interests, pluralism, experimentation and freedom of thought, where changes in social habit are also important to overcome the barriers of class, race and geography.

Communication  and dialogue fuels democratic social action and move individuals towards growth with democracy and science providing degrees of consensus, to encourage this type of growth.


Many criticise Dewey as being a man of his day, subjecting himself to uncritical, faithful adherence to science and capitalism. Critics suggest that this is not truly diverse and pluralistic, as it does, as mIll noted, lead to the tyranny of the majority. He was, despite his pragmatic bent, also non-specific on many aspects of teaching and learning. leaving is somewhat in the dark on detail.


Dewey is a child of the Enlightenment, a believer in social progress, a progressive thinker, not a traditionalist. His reputation was and continues to be global, although his practical influence tended to be at the academic and policy level. He forced us to see education as not the teaching of a fixed canon but a dynamic process in dynamic democracies. There is much to be gained by seeing pragmatism as a way of eliminating faddish and non-evidence-based practice in teaching and learning. Their belief that biology, emotion and reason guide inquiry is also useful, along with the focus on habits obvious in Pierce, James and Dewey.

His pragmatic ethos also aligns him with those modern thinkers who support a rebalancing of education away from the overly academic, towards more vocational skills, such as Shank, Caplan, Sandel and Goodhart. Interest in experiential learning, through Kolb and others, has its origins in Dewey. His views on schools and how they relate to a modern, democratic society are also of lasting interest, going back to his ideals of the role of education in creating autonomous citizens in the context of a greater good. Those who see a more active role for schools in their community can benefit from a re-reading of Dewey, as he raises important issues about the relevance of education, the destructive institutional practices and the lack of practical, pragmatic, vocational and life-skills teaching.


Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. An introduction to the philosophy of education (1966 edn.), New York: Free Press.

Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think. A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process (Revised edn.), Boston: D. C. Heath.

Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education, New York: Collier Books. (Collier edition first published 1963).
Dewey, J. (1929) Experience and Nature, New York: Dover. (Dover edition first published in 1958).
Campbell, J. (1995) Understanding John Dewey. Nature and co-operative intelligence, Chicago: Open Court.
Ryan, A. (1995) John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, New York: W. W. Norton. 

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