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Experiential Learning

John Dewey:
Philosophy of Education

James Neill
Last updated:
26 Jan 2005

Introduction to John Dewey's Philosophy of Education

Education is life itself.
- John Dewey

John Dewey (1859-1952) believed that learning was active and schooling unnecessarily long and restrictive.  His idea was that children came to school to do things and live in a community which gave them real, guided experiences which fostered their capacity to contribute to society.  For example, Dewey believed that students should be involved in real-life tasks and challenges:

  • maths could be learnt via learning proportions in cooking or figuring out how long it would take to get from one place to another by mule

  • history could be learnt by experiencing how people lived, geography, what the climate was like, and how plants and animals grew, were important subjects

Dewey had a gift for suggesting activities that captured the center of what his classes were studying.

Dewey's education philosophy helped forward the "progressive education" movement, and spawned the development of "experiential education" programs and experiments.

Dewey's philosophy still lies very much at the heart of many bold educational experiments, such as Outward Bound.  Read more about John Dewey, father of the experiential education movement.

John Dewey: Philosophy of Education Resources on the Web

Summary of Dewey's Biography

(adapted from the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia (1991) - Columbia University Press)

  • Born 1859, Burlington, Vermont, USA.  Died 1952.
  • American philosopher and regarded as the foremost educator of his day.
  • Major books include
    • "Democracy and Education" (1916)
    • "Logic" (1938)
    • "Experience and Education" (1938).
  • Had a profound impact on progressive education
  • Rejected authoritarian teaching methods.
  • His educational theories were permeated by his primary ethical value of democracy.
  • Regarded education in a democracy as a tool to enable the citizen to integrate his or her culture and vocation usefully.
  • To accomplish these aims, Dewey said radical reform was need of both pedagogical methods and curricula.
  • He lectured all over the world and prepared educational surveys for Turkey, Mexico, and the Soviet Union.

Summary of Dewey's Philosophy of Instrumentalism

  • Dewey's philosophy was called instrumentalism (related to pragmatism).
  • Instrumentalism believes that truth is an instrument used by human beings to solve their problems.
  • Since problems change, then so must truth.
  • Since problems change, truth changes, and therefore there can be no eternal reality.