John Dewey Theory of Learning By Doing explained

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John Dewey Theory: this article provides a practical explanation of the John Dewey theory. Next to what it is, this article also highlights the importance of learning by doing, the reformation of the educational system, this theory applied in the classroom and the vision of Democracy and Society. After reading, you’ll have a basic understanding of this change management theory. Enjoy reading!

What is the John Dewey Theory?

John Dewey is one of the big names in the history of educational theories. John Dewey was influential in countless fields and had lots of ideas concerning educational reform. His collection of views, philosophies and radically different ideas on education have been combined in the John Dewey theory.

In many countries, the modern educational system looks the way it does thanks to John Dewey. His approach to schooling was revolutionary for his time and proves to be fundamentally important for modern education to this day. John Dewey probably gained the most publicity thanks to his role in the studies into progressive education.

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Progressive education in essence is a vision of education that emphasises the necessity of learning by doing. According to the John Dewey theory, people learn best through a hands-on approach.

As a result, the philosophies and views of John Dewey are placed in the educational philosophy of pragmatism.

John Dewey Theory of learning by doing

John Dewey and other pragmatists are convinced that students or other persons who are learning must experience reality as it is. From John Dewey’s educational point of view, this means that students must adapt to their environment in order to learn.

The John Dewey Education Theory shows that the great thinker had the same ideas about teachers. His view of the ideal classroom had many similarities with democratic ideals. Dewey posits that it isn’t just the student who learns, but rather the experience of students and teachers together that yields extra value for both.

Reformation of the Educational System

Children learn better when they interact with their environment and are involved in the school’s learning plan, according to John Dewey.

He rejected most of the theories that were popular at the time, such as behaviourism, and dismissed these as being too simplistic and insufficiently complex to describe learning processes.

In those days, at the end of the 20th century, it was assumed by many people that children were passive recipients of knowledge. The John Dewey theory, however, directly opposes this.

John Dewey argued that education can only truly be effective when children have learning opportunities that enable them to link current knowledge to prior experiences and knowledge.

This was a ground-breaking idea in those days. Particularly the part related to experience learning, where children come into contact with their environment, was revolutionary.

Educational Experiment John Dewey

The above shows that John Dewey was a great advocate of progressive educational reform. He was convinced that the educational system was flawed and that it should focus on learning by doing.

He and his wife Harriet therefore started their own experimental primary school: the University Elementary School. It was part of the University of Chicago, and the goal was to test his own theories. His wife was fired however, as a result of which Dewey resigned.

Over 25 years later, in 1919, Dewey founded The New School for Social Research in collaboration with his colleagues Charles Beard, James Harvey Robinson and Wesley Slair Mitchell. This too was a progressive, experimental school that encouraged the free exchange of ideas in the field of arts and social sciences.

His revolutionary ideas soon bore fruit. In the twenties of the previous century, Dewey gave a lecture on educational reform in schools all over the world. He was very impressed by experiments in the Russian school system.

This taught him that students particularly had to focus on interactions with the present. The John Dewey theory, however, doesn’t reject the value of learning about the past.

John Dewey Theory Applied in the Classroom

Particularly in those days, between the two world wars, it was common that desks were set up in rows in the classroom and the students wouldn’t leave their chair all day. This was what John Dewey meant with the fact that children were viewed as passive recipients of knowledge.

They really had no say in the learning process whatsoever and they certainly couldn’t indicate whether they liked to learn more on a specific subject. John Dewey was also very clear about how things could be improved. These ideas are no longer radical today, but at the beginning of the previous century, his view of education clashed with the policy and view of most schools.

Interdisciplinary Curriculum

The John Dewey theory recommends an interdisciplinary curriculum, or a curriculum that focuses on connecting multiple subjects where students can freely walk in and out of classrooms.

In this way, they pursue their own interests, and build their own method for acquiring and applying specific knowledge. In this setting, the teacher has a facilitating role. According to John Dewey, the teacher should observe the student’s interests, follow the directions, and help them develop problem-solving skills.

As stated, it was common in those days that the teacher stood in front of the group of students and provided information all day long.

The students’ task was to absorb the information and test this in the form of an exam or other written test. John Dewey’s ideal describes an entirely different function of the teacher.

According to Dewey, the teacher should only provide background information and have the students work together in groups on the concept. This should start conversation and discussion, and give rise to valuable collaboration. Although the written exam would continue to play an important role, particularly presentations, projects and other evaluation techniques are used to keep track of the progress.

John Dewey & Psychology

During his period at the University of Michigan, John Dewey published two books: Psychology, and Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning the Human Understanding.

Although he was still a philosophy professor there, he and his colleagues began to reformulate psychology, emphasising the mind and behaviour. The ideas on psychology in the John Dewey education theory
also differ strongly from the standards at that time.

Their new psychology style, called functional psychology, focused on action and application. They reasoned that it went against the traditional concept of stimulus-response.

Although he didn’t deny the existence of stimulus and response, he didn’t agree that these were separate, individual events. He developed the idea that there is a certain form of coordination that enhances stimulation through past results.

John Dewey’s Vision of Democracy and Society

John Dewey believed that democracy is an ethical ideal and not just a political structure. He considered participation rather than representation as the essence of democracy.

Furthermore, he insisted on the interaction and harmony between democracy and the scientific method. He saw an increasingly larger and critical research community, drawing on their pragmatic principles and convictions.

The Role of Women in Society

John Dewey also had a controversial view of the role of women in society for his time. He was convinced that the woman’s place in society was determined by a woman’s environment rather than by biology. He noted that women are perceived based on their gender too much.

According to the John Dewey theory, this gender qualification must be removed. Subsequently, the view of women will change, because the generalisations about women have turned out to be incorrect.

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Now It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Are you familiar with the explanation of the John Dewey theory? Which elements of his contributions do you recognise in everyday life? Which other great thinkers preceded Dewey in his vision? How do you think the educational system would have developed if thinkers like Dewey hadn’t shared their vision? What’s your vision on education during Covid-19?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Dewey, J. (1989). The Later Works of John Dewey, 1949-1952: 1949-1952, Essays, Typescripts, and Knowing and the Known (Vol. 16). SIU Press.
  2. Dewey, J. (2014). John Dewey. The Middle Works, 1899–1924.
  3. Schilpp, P. A. (1939). The Philosophy of John Dewey.
  4. Shook, J. R. (2000). Dewey’s empirical theory of knowledge and reality. Vanderbilt University Press.

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Published on: 12/06/2019 | Last update: 02/22/2023

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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