John Dewey on Education: Theory & Philosophy

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  • 0:01 John Dewey and…
  • 0:40 Dewey's Theory of Education
  • 2:17 Dewey's Progressive Outlook
  • 3:24 The Concept of…
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Theresa Spanella

Theresa has taught college Writing for 15 years and is two classes from completing a doctorate in Education

John Dewey, lauded as the 'Modern Father of Experiential Education,' was a forward educational philosopher whose ideas still influence education today. His approach of learning by doing is practiced in classrooms around the world and has changed the way educators present knowledge and students learn.

John Dewey and Experiential Education

John Dewey was born in Vermont in 1859. He was an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer who has long been considered one of the founders of a theory he referred to as instrumentalism, also called pragmatism. Instrumentalists believed that in order to be considered correct a theory must be successfully applied. In other words, instrumentalism is a belief that practice and theory are linked. Dewey applied his pragmatic beliefs to education, and his ideas forever changed the landscape of education. His impact even earned him the name 'The Modern Father of Experiential Education.'

Dewey's Theory of Education

Dewey's thoughts on education, originally published in his 1938 work Experience and Education, analyzed both traditional and progressive education. Traditional education's focus was more on curriculum and heritage, defining a student's learning path for them; a progressive education focused on the student's interest rather than that of the instructor or subject. In Dewey's opinion, neither of these schools of thought were sufficient. Dewey believed that traditional education was too strict and progressive education too spontaneous. He believed that traditional education left little regard for the learner's interests and progressive education was too individualized.


Not being fully pleased with either philosophy, Dewey proposed a new educational theory, which highlighted the role experience plays in education. According to Dewey, powerful educational experiences are a result of two fundamental principles: continuity and interaction.

Continuity refers to how experiences, both past and present, influence the future while interaction refers to how one's current situation influences their experiences. Dewey combined these two principles, stating that one's present experiences are a direct result of how their previous experiences interact with and influence their present situation. Simply put, Dewey stated that human experiences- past, present, and future- influence the capacity to learn. He once said that: 'Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is, not a preparation for life; education is life itself.'

Dewey's Progressive Outlook

Dewey believed that traditional education, in its rigid requirements of standards and conduct, encourages learners to be docile and obedient, producing an environment where learners are encouraged to listen and learn but not necessarily to think for themselves. He valued the opportunity progressive education provides learners to think and grow but believed that progressivism forced younger generations to enact adult standards, producing an environment where learners would be encouraged to think on their own without understanding the reasoning behind their thinking.

Dewey rejected both theories and, instead, proposed that educators recognize the relationship between experience and education. He wrote, 'There is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education.' Recognizing that not all experiences were educational, Dewey challenged educators to begin providing learners with experiences that resulted in growth and learning, believing that these experiences would someday result in growth and creativity in learners' future experiences. In other words, a good experience now would impact future decisions and experiences. This is what Dewey called the continuity of experience.

The Concept of Experiential Education

Dewey argued that education should focus on the quality of the experience more than it focused on the information being presented. In order to be considered a quality experience, he said that the experience must have continuity with their past and future experiences and interaction between the student's individual perceptions and a lesson environment. Continuity would propel learners to continue learning while interaction would meet the learner's needs.


His solution was experiential education, an education philosophy based on the idea that learning occurs through experience and requires hands-on activities that directly relate to the learner's life. In experiential education, learning occurs through actually doing something and then reflecting on- and learning from- the process. It combines active learning with concrete experience and reflection. Service learning, adventure learning and workplace internships are all examples of experiential education.

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