John Dewey: Experiential Learning and the Failure of Progressive Education

For better or for worse, John Dewey’s philosophy of education has defined many the terms of the continuing debate as to the best way to educate the youth of America. When Dewey came to prominence, American education was still relatively rigid and formulaic, and based upon students sitting at their tasks, and passively receiving the knowledge of a teacher. Learning the classics and ‘reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic’ still held sway. Dewey changed all of that. “In the 1920’s 1930’s, John Dewey became famous for 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” (John Dewey, the Modern Father of Experiential Education,” 2005). He also demanded that educational material become more practical and pragmatic, suiting students’ individual interests and the needs of modern life and the modern economy. Dewey’s influence can be seen all over American education today, spanning from science fairs to Outward Bound programs to competitions where economic students in high school create ‘mock’ stock market portfolios to track.

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However, Dewey’s educational philosophy, when put fully into action might seem radical even today. For example, Dewey suggested that math could by the teacher conducting a cooking class, or “figuring out how long it would take to get from one place to another by mule,” while “history could be learnt by experiencing how people lived, geography, what the climate was like, and how plants and animals grew” (Neill, “John Dewey: Philosophy of Education,” 2005). Dewey’s notion of experiential learning is critically linked to his notion of individualism. Not only should education be experiential, it should build on the past experiences and interests of the student, and should consist of meaningful, experiential assignments designed for that particular student. For example, a budding Emeril might like to learn math through cooking, while a student excited by geography might be excited about measuring the distance between different places on a map. A good education is based on continuity and interaction — building upon the student’s existing aptitudes, interests, and inclinations, and using them to teach the student something new.

The question occasionally arises as to whether Dewey should be classified as a ‘liberal’ or a ‘conservative.’ On one hand, Dewey’s educational philosophy did place him in conflict with many educational theorists of his day. He was an innovator. Also, his philosophy was fundamentally, intensely democratic: For Dewey, education serves broader social purpose, which 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” (Neill, “John Dewey: Philosophy of Education,” 2005). He opposed the ‘dualism’ of the sciences and technical skills being opposed to the humanities, and advocated an integrated approach to learning. American education was too grounded in the European tradition of teaching knowledge for knowledge’s sake, like the classics of Greece and Rome, and not enough in the needs of American society with a focus on the future.

His democratic spirit does not necessarily mean that Dewey would support all liberal initiatives today. He would likely support giving families school vouchers or tax credits to pay for private educational opportunities, when families found that public schools did not cater to their child’s individual needs. He supported having vocational education for some students, and creating elite schools for other students with different aptitudes, like magnet schools. Dewey was also not a supporter of the progressive educational movement of his day. He believed that it was necessary for a teacher to provide a directive and guiding force upon a student’s education. A good teacher had insight into a student’s past experiences, and even though a teacher could only exist in the present moment of teaching, he or she could strive to relate learning to the student’s past framework of knowledge and interests. But “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” (Neill, “John Dewey: Philosophy of Education,” 2005). Progressive education can fail to build upon past frameworks of student knowledge, according to Dewey, because of its scattered syllabus, based on student whims of the moment, while a student was still gaining self-knowledge and self-mastery.

Progressive education has some other inherent structural problems, such as the difficulty of evaluating and assessing the learner. If the student sets the terms of the learning process, how can the teacher evaluate whether the student is right or wrong? Students may also have very unbalanced interests. Dewey’s dislike of dualism may be linked to his opposition of pure progressive education — what about a student who does not like math, for example, and would not learn her multiplication tables unless compelled, preferring to use the time to do striking and brilliant art? The teacher could miss a critical window of learning opportunity, and it is necessary to learn certain basic skills to function on our society. Dewey would stress that the teacher show the girl how to learn about math through using art supplies, for example. In Dewey’s model, students may learn different skills in different ways — not all students learning to read would be reading from the same book, for example, but the teacher still imposes some structure upon the student in the progressive learning format. The role of a progressive teacher is purely a facilitator, while in Dewey’s classroom; the teacher has a more active role in learning about the student and guiding the student to reach certain self-directed goals.

Perhaps the most important argument in favor of Dewey’s approach as opposed to the progressive approach, is that quite often it is necessary to do unpleasant things to learn a task that one has high aptitude in — for example, learning a language is boring at the beginning, even for a student interested in geography, because it involves a great deal of memorization, and a student in a progressive classroom might resist this task. But with a good teacher, the student can eventually flourish, and build upon his or her existing knowledge in French culture or Spanish music to attain a greater level of mastery over the study of these nations and expand on his or her innate desire to learn more about the world.

Learning about Dewey has created a profound shift in the way I view alternative approaches to education. It is easy to think that alternative education is simply a very easy approach to education, and does not teach student’s basic skills. That is not necessarily the case in Dewey’s classroom. Dewey demands that all students have levels of competence in both the sciences and the humanities, as part of his anti-dualistic stance towards the divide between these two disciplines. He has a clear and highly skilled role for the place of a master teacher who must be intensely involved in understanding the student body. Dewey’s classroom also demands a high level of creative thought and interaction between students and teachers, even if a student may have different tasks for the day than the person at the desk beside him.

I have also begun to wonder if Dewey would even be entirely opposed to standardized testing, or ‘No Child Left Behind’ legislation. At first I thought he would be absolutely opposed, given the structured requirements for NCLB. However, Dewey acknowledged that basic skills were necessary for an individualized classroom to function effectively. How can a child who cannot add do science experiments or a child with an interest in animals learn about them without being able to read and write? While Dewey would likely envision a different form of national accountability than standardized exams, he would demand that some sort of monitoring system is required to ensure that students gain grounding in basic skills, given the vital role that an educated electorate plays in the functioning of American democratic society.

Works Cited

Neill, James. “John Dewey, the Modern Father of Experiential Education.”

Experiential Learning. January 26, 2005. November 20, 2008.

Neill, James. John Dewey: Philosophy of education. Experiential Learning. January 26, 2005.