Reading John Dewey

John Dewey is arguably the greatest philosopher of education the world has seen. Unfortunately, for most of us, his stilted, formal prose causes unpleasant flashbacks to the dreary tomes of Philosophy 101. But he’s worth reading–and listening to–despite the pain.

Here, for example, are Dewey’s thoughts on “method”–that is, how to teach–from My Pedagogical Creed, which he published in 1897 ( (edited slightly to try to make it just a bit more readable):

I believe that the active precedes the passive in the development of the child nature; I believe that conscious states tend to project themselves in action.

I believe that the neglect of this principle is the cause of a large part of the waste of time and strength in school work. The child is thrown into a passive, receptive or absorbing attitude. [My italics] The conditions are such that he is not permitted to follow the law of his nature; the result is friction and waste.

I believe that ideas also result from action and devolve for the sake of the better control of action. What we term reason is primarily the law of orderly or effective action. To attempt to develop the reasoning powers, the powers of judgment, without reference to the selection and arrangement of means in action, is the fundamental fallacy in our present methods of dealing with this matter. As a result we present the child with arbitrary symbols. Symbols have their place as tools for economizing effort; presented by themselves they are a mass of meaningless and arbitrary ideas imposed from without.

I believe that what a child gets out of any subject presented to him is simply the images which he himself forms with regard to it.

I believe that if nine-tenths of the energy at present directed towards making the child learn certain things, were spent in seeing to it that the child was forming proper images, the work of instruction would be indefinitely facilitated.

I believe that much of the time and attention now given to the preparation and presentation of lessons might be more wisely and profitably expended in training the child’s power of imagery and in seeing to it that he was continually forming definite, vivid, and growing images of the various subjects with which he comes in contact in his experience.

Tortured writing aside (“ideas result from action and devolve for the sake of the better control of action…”–yikes!), I think this passage says a number of vital things about education (and I think they apply to adult education as well as to childhood education, despite Dewey’s focus on the latter).  Here is my quick and breezy summary for those who don’t enjoy close reading of the classics:

  1. People naturally learn by doing (“active precedes passive”).
  2. Forcing people to learn passively is unnatural, wasteful, and painful.
  3. The purpose of anything you want to teach is ultimately to help the learner to do something they can’t do now (“better control of action”).
  4. The attempt to separate out what is being taught from what you expect learners to do with it is the central problem in education.
  5. When you teach “symbols” (think “definitions of terms,” for example) separate and apart from their practical use, they are arbitrary and meaningless from the learner’s point of view.
  6. In the end, people learn through their own experience, not from what you tell them, so focus on giving them a meaningful experience in the domain in which you want to educate them rather than on telling them everything you wish they could know.

Today as in 1897, if we could adhere to these basic principles, education would be in a much better state.

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