Friday Lesson: John Dewey

A Summary of John Dewey’s Experience and Education from Steven Simpson’s Genuine Learning, Genuine Freedom: An Educator’s Reflections on the Philosophy of John Dewey
©2010, Steven Simpson & Wood ‘N’ Barnes Publishing

    “Currently I am writing a book about the educational philosophy of John Dewey.1 I’d like to present a list of eleven concepts gleaned from “Experience and Education” in the next several Friday Lessons. I include them in my university experiential education course. I am planning to use them as the opening chapter of my book about Dewey. In fact, because these Friday Lesson blogs may end up as a chapter in a book, I would welcome any constructive criticism. If readers disagree with my interpretation, or if they think that I’ve missed an important lesson from “Experience and Education,” I ask them to contact me through this Wood ‘N’ Barnes website.” —Steven Simpson

The following is a list of 11 key points from Experience and Education. For those not familiar with Dewey, it may whet their appetite. For others, it is a quick refresher course of some basic components of Dewey’s philosophy of education. Most experiential educators will find much of this information common sense and common knowledge. That should not be surprising. It is, after all, a slice of the philosophical foundation of the profession.

Point No. 1. It is not enough for experiential education to point out the weaknesses in traditional education; it must offer a viable alternative. A new educational system cannot be based on criticism of the old way of doing things; it must be based upon its own strengths and its own explicit philosophy.2

While the eleven points are not in a particular order, this is a good one to mention first. John Dewey was adamant that the tenets of progressive education, including experiential education, cannot be built around a distaste of the textbooks, lectures, examinations, and the excessive structure of some traditional education. Basing a new educational philosophy on a rejection of the current predominant perspective does two things that are detrimental to quality education. First of all, it throws the baby out with the bathwater. Traditional education has strengths, and rejecting it wholesale loses many important things, not the least of them the wisdom of the ages. Secondly, an educational perspective based upon a rejection of another perspective tells the educator what not to do, but not what to do. Krishnamurti described it as the difference between mere revolt and intelligent revolt. Mere revolt is a renunciation of the status quo without a clear knowledge of something better. Intelligent revolt is an attempt to replace the status quo with an identified, preferred alternative.3

Dewey noted that a traditional approach to education can function without an explicit philosophy, but anything questioning traditional education cannot. “Because progressive schools cannot rely upon established traditions and institutional habits, they must either proceed more or less haphazardly or be directed by ideas which, when they are made articulate and coherent, form a philosophy of education… Education reformers and innovators alone have felt the need for a philosophy of education. Those who adhered to the established system needed merely a few fine sounding words (e.g., culture, discipline, our great cultural heritage) to justify existing practices.”4

    1 The working title of the book is Genuine Learning, Genuine Freedom and the tentative publication date is October, 2011.
    2 Experience and Education, pp. 20-21.
    3 Krishnamurti, J., Education and the Significance of Life. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1953, p. 10.
    4 Experience and Education, pp. 28-29.

©2010, Steven Simpson & Wood ‘N’ Barnes Publishing from the work in progress, Genuine Learning, Genuine Freedom: An Educator’s Reflections on the Philosophy of John Dewey.

To be continued…

This lesson is compliments of Steven Simpson, PhD, the author of Leader Who Is Hardly Known and coauthor with Dan Miller and Buzz Bocher of The Processing Pinnacle.

Thanks for joining us for Friday Lessons.

3 Responses to “Friday Lesson: John Dewey”

  1. Happy to see Steve moving EE forward with a more modern interpretation of Dewey. This is going to be a great series of points and I look forward to exploring them and reflecting upon the foundations.

  2. Jay Roberts says:


    I think you are right about Dewey’s pragmatist desire to offer a viable alternative to traditional education. You may choose to offer this in another one of your points but I think the key to the first chpt in Experience and Ed (for me) is his immediate criticism of “either:or” thinking. We have to remember who is writing to with Exp and Ed which came toward the end of his career. He is, as much, writing to Progressives who misinterpreted his work to mean “child centered” as he was to traditionalists. This is where the either:or comes in. He wants to explicate a form of education that seeks to integrate, not fragment and dichotomize. And, of course, his main notion in this form of integration is “experience.” It is not child centeredness OR fact based learning, it is BOTH. And experience holds the key. Looking forward to reading more!

  3. Steve Simpson says:

    Thanks to Michael and Jay for their comments. I agree with Jay that Experience and Education is a criticism of either/or thinking and a warning to experiential educators not to take things too far (i.e., an abandonment of the things in traditional education that are effective). In the upcoming Friday lessons, I may not make this point as strongly as I could have. However, the chapter of the Dewey book that I currently am working on has the working title “What’s Wrong with Experiential Education?” The chapter looks at contemporary educators who are critical of the ideas of John Dewey. My sense is that while some of these writers genuinely do not like Dewey’s views on education, most of them are critical of the extremes that some experiential educators have taken Dewey – extremes that Dewey himself warned against.

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