Old Ideas Made New Again, pp. 5 of 10


To Dewey, experience was key to education (Dewey, 1938). Acquiring a body of knowledge is not unimportant, but it is not an end in itself. Knowledge, Dewey argued, is a means for dealing with the present and with the future, not simply something to be acquired and stored. Nor, Dewey argued, can we say that students should acquire knowledge simply because it may be useful in the future. Now, he would have said, is not merely preparation for the future.  We always live in the present. Having gained information does not assure that such information will be used in meaningful and effective ways. Only by extracting meaning now will learners be prepared to use what they have learned in the future.  In Dewey’s words: “If I were asked to name the most needed of all reforms in the spirit of education I should say: 'Cease conceiving of education as mere preparation for later life, and make of it the full meaning of the present life.'” (http://www.biography.com/people/john-dewey-9273497#teaching-career&awesm=~oFj5B46PQV42pK)

And experience in itself is not necessarily educational (or as Dewey would say “educative”).  It’s the quality of the experience that matters – and therein lays the challenge.  Dewey discussed two criteria of effective educational experiences: continuity and interaction.  By continuity he meant that the educator must see the direction the experience is moving toward.  One experience affects the next. “Every experience is a moving source. Its value can be judged on what it moves toward and into” (Dewey, 1938, p. 38). An educational experience must be conducive to continued growth and also must be relevant to the individuals involved. Thus gaining subject matter begins with the learners, and expands through an orderly process the educator can guide, in the direction of greater organization; that is, the process moves toward a body of knowledge. The organized knowledge of the subject matter expert is not the starting place but the goal that the educator guides the learner toward.

This brings us to the second criterion: interaction.  The educator must take into account both the external setting that can arouse curiosity, set up the desire and create a purpose to learn. At the same time, the educator must take into account the notion of continuity; that is, the possible ways that what is learned from one experience impacts future experiences. The educator must also understand the needs, desires, purposes and capacities of the individual and how these are likely to interact with the setting. 

Finally, although not one of the criteria of the educative experience, it should be remembered that experience is a social process in which the teacher is not so much the boss as the leader of the groups’ experiences. School, Dewey wrote, is a form of community, and to learn the child participates in the life of the community (Dewey, 1897/1964). But it is not simply a matter of learning though social interaction. Remember, Dewey was concerned with social reform and the betterment of society. Specifically, he was concerned with social reform in a democratic context. Therefore, school must help learners develop a social consciousness. To quote Dewey: “the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction” (Dewey, 1897/1964, p. 437). Individuals are social and school is the process of socializing young people into society or, as Dewey put it, “…all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the [human] race” (Dewey, 1897/1964, p. 427). Education is about helping the individual perceive him/herself as part of a social group, to know what his/her own activities mean in social terms.  Education should help young people develop as concerned citizens who take an active role in bettering society.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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