John Dewey was a leading proponent of the American school of thought known as pragmatism, a view that rejected the dualistic epistemology and metaphysics of modern philosophy in favor of a naturalistic approach that viewed knowledge as arising from an active adaptation of the human organism to its environment. On this view, inquiry should not be understood as consisting of a mind passively observing the world and drawing from this idea that if true correspond to reality, but rather as a process which initiates with a check or obstacle to successful human action, proceeds to active manipulation of the environment to test hypotheses, and issues in a re-adaptation of organism to environment that allows once again for human action to proceed. With this view as his starting point, Dewey developed a broad body of work encompassing virtually all of the main areas of philosophical concern in his day. He also wrote extensively on social issues in such popular publications as the New Republic, thereby gaining a reputation as a leading social commentator of his time.

Even before the constructivist theories of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky were widely known, Dewey was talking about how children learn best when they interacted with their environments and were actively involved with the school curriculum. He rejected much of the prevalent theory of the time – behaviourism – as too simplistic and inadequate to explain complex learning processes. He argued that rather than the child being a passive recipient of knowledge, as was presumed by many educators of the time, children were better served if they took an active part in the process of their own learning. He also placed greater emphasis on the social context of learning. At the turn of the 20th-Century, these were radical ideas.

John Dewey Theory of learning by doing

John Dewey and other pragmatists are convinced that students or other persons who are learning must experience reality as it is. From John Dewey’s educational point of view, this means that students must adapt to their environment in order to learn. The John Dewey Education Theory shows that the great thinker had the same ideas about teachers. His view of the ideal classroom had many similarities with democratic ideals. Dewey posits that it isn’t just the student who learns, but rather the experience of students and teachers together that yields extra value for both.

Reformation of the Educational System

Children learn better when they interact with their environment and are involved in the school’s learning plan, according to John Dewey. He rejected most of the theories that were popular at the time, such as behaviourism, and dismissed these as being too simplistic and insufficiently complex to describe learning processes. In those days, at the end of the 20th century, it was assumed by many people that children were passive recipients of knowledge. The John Dewey theory, however, directly opposes this.

Dewey argued that education can only truly be effective when children have learning opportunities that enable them to link current knowledge to prior experiences and knowledge. This was a ground-breaking idea in those days. Particularly the part related to experience learning, where children come into contact with their environment, was revolutionary.

Educational Experiment John Dewey

The above shows that John Dewey was a great advocate of progressive educational reform. He was convinced that the educational system was flawed and that it should focus on learning by doing. He and his wife Harriet therefore started their own experimental primary school: the University Elementary School. It was part of the University of Chicago, and the goal was to test his own theories. His wife was fired however, as a result of which Dewey resigned.

Over 25 years later, in 1919, Dewey founded The New School for Social Research in collaboration with his colleagues Charles Beard, James Harvey Robinson and Wesley Slair Mitchell. This too was a progressive, experimental school that encouraged the free exchange of ideas in the field of arts and social sciences.

His revolutionary ideas soon bore fruit. In the twenties of the previous century, Dewey gave a lecture on educational reform in schools all over the world. He was very impressed by experiments in the Russian school system. This taught him that students particularly had to focus on interactions with the present. The John Dewey theory, however, doesn’t reject the value of learning about the past.

John Dewey Theory Applied in the Classroom

Particularly in those days, between the two world wars, it was common that desks were set up in rows in the classroom and the students wouldn’t leave their chair all day. This was what John Dewey meant with the fact that children were viewed as passive recipients of knowledge. They really had no say in the learning process whatsoever and they certainly couldn’t indicate whether they liked to learn more on a specific subject. John Dewey was also very clear about how things could be improved. These ideas are no longer radical today, but at the beginning of the previous century, his view of education clashed with the policy and view of most schools.

Interdisciplinary Curriculum

The John Dewey theory recommends an interdisciplinary curriculum, or a curriculum that focuses on connecting multiple subjects where students can freely walk in and out of classrooms. In this way, they pursue their own interests, and build their own method for acquiring and applying specific knowledge.

In this setting, the teacher has a facilitating role. According to John Dewey, the teacher should observe the student’s interests, follow the directions, and help them develop problem-solving skills.

As stated, it was common in those days that the teacher stood in front of the group of students and provided information all day long. The students’ task was to absorb the information and test this in the form of an exam or other written test. John Dewey’s ideal describes an entirely different function of the teacher. According to Dewey, the teacher should only provide background information and have the students work together in groups on the concept. This should start conversation and discussion, and give rise to valuable collaboration. Although the written exam would continue to play an important role, particularly presentations, projects and other evaluation techniques are used to keep track of the progress.

Critical Reception and Influence

Dewey’s philosophical work received varied responses from his philosophical colleagues during his lifetime. There were many philosophers who saw his work, as Dewey himself understood it, as a genuine attempt to apply the principles of an empirical naturalism to the perennial questions of philosophy, providing a beneficial clarification of issues and the concepts used to address them. Dewey’s critics, however, often expressed the opinion that his views were more confusing than clarifying, and that they appeared to be more akin to idealism than the scientifically based naturalism Dewey expressly avowed. Notable in this connection are Dewey’s disputes concerning the relation of the knowing subject to known objects with the realists Bertrand Russell, A. O. Lovejoy, and Evander Bradley McGilvery. Whereas these philosophers argued that the object of knowledge must be understood as existing apart from the knowing subject, setting the truth conditions for propositions, Dewey defended the view that things understood as isolated from any relationship with the human organism could not be objects of knowledge at all.

Dewey was sensitive and responsive to the criticisms brought against his views. He often attributed them to misinterpretations based on the traditional, philosophical connotations that some of his readers would attach to his terminology. This was clearly a fair assessment with respect to some of his critics. To take one example, Dewey used the term “experience,” found throughout his philosophical writings, to denote the broad context of the human organism’s interrelationship with its environment, not the domain of human thought alone, as some of his critics read him to mean. Dewey’s concern for clarity of expression motivated efforts in his later writings to revise his terminology. Thus, for example, he later substituted “transaction” for his earlier “interaction” to denote the relationship between organism and environment, since the former better suggested a dynamic interdependence between the two, and in a new introduction to Experience and Nature, never published during his lifetime, he offered the term “culture” as an alternative to “experience.” Late in his career he attempted a more sweeping revision of philosophical terminology in Knowing and the Known, written in collaboration with Arthur F. Bentley.

The influence of Dewey’s work, along with that of the pragmatic school of thought itself, although considerable in the first few decades of the twentieth century, was gradually eclipsed during the middle part of the century as other philosophical methods, such as those of the analytic school in England and America and phenomenology in continental Europe, grew to ascendency. Recent trends in philosophy, however, leading to the dissolution of these rigid paradigms, have led to approaches that continue and expand on the themes of Dewey’s work. W. V. O. Quine’s project of naturalizing epistemology works upon naturalistic presumptions anticipated in Dewey’s own naturalistic theory of inquiry. The social dimension and function of belief systems, explored by Dewey and other pragmatists, has received renewed attention by such writers as Richard Rorty and Jürgen Habermas. American phenomenologists such as Sandra Rosenthal and James Edie have considered the affinities of phenomenology and pragmatism, and Hilary Putnam, an analytically trained philosophy, has recently acknowledged the affinity of his own approach to ethics to that of Dewey’s. The renewed openness and pluralism of recent philosophical discussion has meant a renewed interest in Dewey’s philosophy, an interest that promises to continue for some time to come.