Educating through experience… John Dewey: The Modern Father of Experiential Learning

Education is life itself
– John Dewey

An American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer whose ideas have been highly significant in education, John Dewey (1859—1952) is lauded as the greatest educational thinker of the 20th century.

Dewey’s key interest in the philosophy of education reflects from the time he worked as a high school teacher to developing a belief in an empirically based theory of knowledge which evolved as his many prolific works on education, The School and Society, to name a few. Dewey’s educational theories were presented in My Pedagogic Creed (1897), The School and Society (1900), The Child and Curriculum (1902), Democracy and Education works and initiation. The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools was one of Dewey’s first initiations. This is where he was able to actualize his pedagogical beliefs which provided material for his first major (1916) and Experience and Education (1938).

John Dewey 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.

Experiential Education

Experiential education is a process that occurs between a teacher and student that infuses direct experience with the learning environment and content. The term is mistakenly used interchangeably with experiential learning.  The Association for Experiential Education regards experiential education “as a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills and clarify values.” Many will find a relationship between experiential education and Educational progressivism. The former is the philosophy and the latter is the movement it informed (some might suggest it is still a current movement).

John Dewey was the most famous proponent of experiential education, perhaps paving the course for all future activities in his seminal Experience and Education, first published in 1938; a book that was not actually about experiential education, but about Dewey’s curriculum theory in the context of historical debates about school organization. Dewey’s fame during that period rested on relentlessly critiquing public education and pointing out that the authoritarian, strict, pre-ordained knowledge approach of modern traditional education was too concerned with delivering knowledge, and not enough with understanding students’ actual experiences. This is strange, because schools were not very well-formed during Dewey’s era (i.e., they were not yet “modern traditional education.”) Dewey’s work went on to influence dozens of other influential experiential models and advocates, including Foxfire, service learning, Kurt Hahn and Outward Bound, and Paulo Freire.

Dewey on Democracy in education…

Dewey’s recurrent and intertwining themes of education, democracy and communication are effectively summed up in the following excerpt from the first chapter, “Education as a Necessity of Life”, of his 1916 book, Democracy and Education: an introduction to the philosophy of education.

“What nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life. This education consists primarily in transmission through communication. Communication is a process of sharing experience till it becomes a common possession.”

For John Dewey, education and democracy are intimately connected.

According to Dewey good education should have both a societal purpose and purpose for the individual student.  For Dewey, the long-term matters, but so does the short-term quality of an educational experience.

Therefore, as educators we are responsible for providing students with experiences that are immediately valuable and which equip the students to contribute to society.

Why do so many students hate school???

It seems obvious, but usually an ignored question…said Dewey.

Dewey emphasized that the traditional teaching’s concern with delivering knowledge needed to be balanced with a much greater concern with the students’ actual experiences and active learning.

He was the most famous proponent of hands-on learning or experiential education, which is related to, but not synonymous with experiential learning. His theory of experience continues to be much read and discussed not only within education, but also in psychology and philosophy.

Dewey believed that an educator must take into account the unique differences between each student.  Each person is different genetically and in terms of past experiences.  Even when a standard curriculum is presented using established pedagogical methods, each student will have a different quality of experience.  Thus, teaching and curriculum must be designed in ways that allow for such individual differences.

For Dewey, education also a broader social purpose was to help people become more effective members of democratic society!  Dewey argued that the one-way delivery style of authoritarian schooling does not provide a good model for life in democratic society.  Instead, students need educational experiences which enable them to become valued, equal, and responsible members of society.

Many people then had misunderstood Dewey’s experiential education to progressive education. Progressive education, according to Dewey, was against traditional education methods.  In progressive education, freedom was the rule, with students being relatively unconstrained by the educator.  The problem with progressive education, said Dewey, is that freedom alone is no solution.  Learning needs a structure and order, and must be based on a clear theory of experience, not simply the whim of teachers or students.

His Philosophy

John Dewey was an educator, but he was first and foremost a political philosopher. He saw weaknesses in both the traditional and progressive styles of education. He explains in length his criticisms of both forms of education in his book, “Experience & Education”. In essence, he did not believe that they met the goals of education, which he defined as obtaining the freedom of thought. Interestingly and paradoxically, Dewey did not actually believe in freedom of thought in any kind of absolute sense, although some experiential educators are not aware of this aspect of his philosophy. Dewey advocated that education be based upon the quality of experience. For an experience to be educational, Dewey believed that certain parameters had to be met, the most important of which is that the experience has continuity and interaction.

Thus, Dewey proposed that education be designed on the basis of a ‘Theory of Experience’. In this respect, Dewey’s theory of experience rested on two central tenets – continuity and interaction.   

Continuity refers to the notion that humans are sensitive to (or are affected by) experience. In humans, education is critical for providing people with the skills to live in society.  Dewey argued that we learn something from every experience, whether positive or negative and ones accumulated learned experience influences the nature of one’s future experiences.

Interaction builds upon the notion of continuity and explains how past experience interacts with the present situation, to create one’s present experience. Any situation can be experienced in profoundly different ways because of unique individual differences e.g., one student loves school, another hates the same school.

Dewey also categorizes experiences as possibly being mis-educative and non-educative. A mis-educative experience is an experience that stops or distorts growth for future experiences. While a non-educative experience is an experience where a person has not done any reflection and so has obtained nothing for their mental growth that is lasting (“Experience & Education,” John Dewey). It is also important to note that John Dewey didn’t write a book called “experiential education.”

This is important for us as educators to understand.  Even as we cannot control students’ past experiences, we can try to understand those past experiences so that better educational situations can be presented to our students.  Ultimately, all a teacher has control over is the design of the present situation.  The teacher with good insight into the effects of past experiences which students bring with them better enables him/her to provide quality education which is relevant and meaningful.

His Influence

Dewey went on to influence many other influential experiential models and advocates. Many researchers credit him with the influence of Project Based Learning (PBL) which is best defined as instruction relating questions and technology relative to the students’ everyday lives to classroom projects. Students form their own investigation of their own group which allows students to develop valuable research skills. The students engage in design, problem solving, decision making, and investigative activities. It allows students to work in groups or by themselves and allows them to come up with ideas and realistic solutions or presentations. Students take a problem and apply it to a real life situation with these projects, which places students in the active role of researchers. Dewey’s views continue to strongly influence the design of innovative educational approaches, such as in outdoor education.

Dewey examines his theory of experience in light of practical educational problems, such as the debate between how much freedom v/s discipline to use.  Can we as educators use his approaches as useful guides to help solve such issues in our schools?

Throughout, there is a strong emphasis on the subjective quality of a student’s experience and the necessity for the teacher of understanding the students’ past experiences in order to effectively design a sequence of liberating educational experiences to allow the person to fulfill their potential as a member of society. Are we as educators doing that…?

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