Friday Lesson: John Dewey, 3

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, in 11 parts.

©2010, Steven Simpson & Wood ‘N’ Barnes Publishing

Point No. 3. Not all experiences are educative. Some are aimless activity.

I sometimes ask my university recreation students whether the recreation activities that they lead need to be educational. Typically their answer is that the activities don’t need to be educational, but usually are. The primary goal is for the participants to have fun, and any learning that occurs is a welcome, but secondary, result. From a Deweyian perspective, these students are describing “aimless activity,” not education.1 With no playfulness an educational experience is boring; too much play and it ceases to be education.2 For an activity to be education, Dewey wrote, “Attentive care must be devoted to the conditions which give each present experience a worthwhile meaning. Instead of inferring that it doesn’t make much difference what the present experience is as long as it is enjoyed, the conclusion is the exact opposite.”3

Two of the conditions that help make an experience educationally meaningful are 1) predetermined goals and 2) facilitated reflection (i.e., processing or debriefing). Predetermined goals give the action clear purpose from the very beginning. They direct the experience toward worthwhile outcomes. Without predetermined goals, students may not derive much meaning, because the activities do not have much meaning.

Sometimes, however, even experiences with significance or meaning do not translate into learning. This is because the meaning goes unnoticed by the students. Only through reflection are the lessons of the experience made explicit. In Experience and Education, Dewey did not offer details about how to promote quality reflection, but frequently alluded to its importance. He wrote, “To reflect is to look back over what has been done so as to extract the net meanings which are the capital stock for intelligent dealing with further experience. It is the heart of intellectual organization and of the disciplined mind.”4 Educators must help students develop the skills to be more observant during their experiences, then use those observation skills to link the current experience with the knowledge and memories of the past—“a union of observation and memory” that discerns meaning. The experience alone is not enough. “We have to understand the significance of what we see, hear, and touch.”5

To be continued…

    1. Experience and Education, p. 84
    2. For me, play has purpose. I am a professor of recreation and a strong advocate of play. But one of the reasons that I like play is that it does not carry the burden of responsibility of education, the burden that the participants have to learn something in order for the experience to be successful. Any day of the week I’d rather play with my daughter than teach her something. I’d rather play than go through a facilitated education session, and so would my daughter, but that doesn’t mean I don’t make learning a high priority for both of us. While this is not a theme to be addressed in this book, a good question for the recreation profession is the extent that recreation programming should be educational and the extent that it should be purely playful and fun.
    3. Experience and Education, p. 49
    4. Experience and Education, p. 87
    5. Experience and Education, pp. 64, 68.

©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.

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.

One Response to “Friday Lesson: John Dewey, 3”

  1. Great stuff.
    These foundational ideas of pre-determined goals and purposely processing are what gives the industry it teeth.
    Steven you have helped to determine a rallying cry to show what Quality experiential Education looks like. With a field as broad as EE can be, many of us do things amazing, yet we can always learn more.
    Your last three posts have ignited me to re-read much of my Dewey stuff.,
    Looking forward to the book!

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