BOOK REVIEW: EXPERIENCE AND EDUCATION (1938) by John Dewey. New York: Collier Books (Collier Books first edition 1963)

How I wish I’d read John Dewey’s Experience and Education when I was thirty instead of now at sixty-seven. He speaks directly to lessons I’ve struggled to learn by speculation, trial, and error. In 1916 his Democracy and Education sparked revolutionary experiments in progressive education. In 1938, reflecting upon both these experiments and the charges of his critics, he published this condensed statement of his core ideas. In just ninety-one pages, his pithy book articulates the failures of traditional education and the promise of progressive education founded upon the experience of individual learners and of collections of learners—in concert with the experience, knowledge, and wisdom of their teachers. Dewey’s cogent style makes his philosophy, including general guidelines for launching it, accessible to any willing reader. 

In Experience and Education, he argues that traditional education predates the scientific method, neglects the experience of learners as learners, offers no framework for connecting learning experiences, and hence does not prepare students for addressing life in a changing world. Progressive education, on the other hand, employs the scientific method as an exact model for structuring each learning experience by grounding it in the prior experience and knowledge of each learner. Well-orchestrated learning experiences build one upon the other and create a natural continuum—an expanding spiral—for each learner and for groups of learners. Part of the learning involves connecting each new lesson to lessons learned before. Learners learn to employ purposefully their intelligence, passion, intuition, and experience as they face new experiences in a shape-shifting world.

The scientific method, Dewey explains, (1) is always driven by a leading idea being tried out: an hypothesis. (2) Science tests its hypotheses “by the consequences which they produce when they are acted upon.” (3) The method “demands keeping track of ideas, activities, and observed consequences.” Scientists reflect upon their observations and write down their reflections as part of their learning experience. They look back over how the current experience relates to prior experiences “so as to extract the net meanings which are the capital stock for intelligent dealing with further experiences” (86-87). Dewey urges teachers to employ this same process for structuring each and every learning experience in our schools.

Structuring progressive learning is more difficult than structuring traditional education because progressive teachers must understand their students’ knowledge, experiences, and inclinations, and must use that information to create engaging, meaningful lessons for their particular students. A progressive lesson Dewey-style must begin with an impulse from within the learner. For example, suppose this thought about a friend occurs to Mary in her science class:  “I wonder why Tamika can’t reconcile her religious convictions and evolution.” Such an impulse can’t be met immediately, Dewey explains, so it becomes a desire. For a learning experience to be productive, the student must then transform the desire into an end-view, a purpose. A thoughtful end-view enables purposeful action. 

“The formation of purposes,” says Dewey, “. . . is a rather complex intellectual operation. It involves (1) observation of surrounding conditions; (2) knowledge of what has happened in similar situations in the past, a knowledge obtained partly by recollection and partly from the information, advice, and warning of those who have had a wider experience; and (3) judgment which puts together what is observed and what is recalled to see what they signify. A purpose differs from an original impulse and desire through its translation into a plan and method of action based upon foresight of the consequences of acting under given observed conditions in a certain way” (68-69).

Mary’s impulse, “I wonder why Tamika can’t reconcile her religious convictions and evolution,” becomes a desire to understand what, in Tamika’s world, is probably the complex interplay of religion, science, family values, societal norms, school culture, and Tamika’s individual perspective. Mary’s thought arises as her eleventh-grade science class studies evolution and someone claims that evolution as a widely accepted scientific phenomenon does not necessarily have to conflict with one’s religious beliefs. Mary voices her thought to the class, saying, “My best friend’s religious beliefs don’t allow her to believe in evolution.”

The teacher might say, “That’s a fascinating issue, Mary, and a volatile one. Who else wonders about this conflict? Does anyone believe as Mary’s friend does? Is the question a science question? True, as John mentioned the other day, some respected physicists are discovering patterns in their study of subatomic particles that they claim must be the product of a creator. But questions regarding a supreme being, God, Allah, and other names, are the domain of theology rather than science. Why is that?” A student might  respond: “Because the scientific method can’t prove or disprove the existence of a supreme being, a creator.”

“That’s right, Alice . Still, what investigative process might we use to study Mary’s issue and learn the nature of her friend’s conflict? Let’s divide into study groups and for fifteen minutes devise a plan for studying this issue without making assumptions or judgments in advance, though of course we need to formulate a hypothesis. One question to consider is, ‘What part of the issue is perhaps a matter of science, and what parts are definitely not matters of science? How might we approach each?’”

In this progressive teacher’s class the students learn more about the domain of science as against other domains, such as theology and sociology, and about the investigative methods appropriate to each. While rightly they don’t pursue the non-science parts of the question in the science class, they do rightly learn why not and, as well, learn ways to pursue non-science questions on their own or in other classes. Imagine the power of Dewey’s ideas to engage students in transformative, memorable lessons that over time add up to knowledge and wisdom.  

I’m dumbstruck by the challenge—and necessity—of choreographing each and every learning experience—in any subject—so my particular students, not generic students but a particular collection of diverse individual human beings, dance with passion and purpose from their first self-generated impulse to their newfound knowledge and wisdom about the past, present, and future. My intention is to contemplate Dewey’s book each day. It takes a lifetime to grasp such core truths and to apply them successfully. I award this treasure chest five stars.  

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

–Reviewed by Dick Harrington, Faculty, English (Emeritus), Piedmont Virginia Community College, VA

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