Back to Dewey
By Jennie Ferris, Teaching and Learning Services.
He is among the key educational philosophers of the late 20th Century, and until recently, I confess that I had only read about John Dewey and his ideas, and had not actually read his work itself. When I finally read Experience and education, I was impressed by how the themes, questions and challenges that he addresses remain relevant today, 75 years after the book was first published.
Dewey is categorical when it comes to the question of experience: “It is not enough to insist upon the necessity of experience, nor even of activity in experience. Much depends upon the quality of the experience which is had” (pp. 27-8). He recommends an organic connection between education and personal experience, but cautions that education and experience cannot be directly equated to one another, as not all experiences are equally educative. After proposing a philosophy of education “of, by, and for experience” (p. 29), he articulates the situated nature of experience – how it relates to the past and impacts the future, and how the environment and its level of authenticity can be expected to impact the nature of the experience and its usefulness.
He advocates for the learners’ involvement in forming the purposes that direct their activities in the learning process, and challenges instructors to “arous[e] in the learner an active quest for information and for production of new ideas” (p. 79). Educators are encouraged to select issues “within the range of existing experience that have the promise and potentiality of presenting new problems which by stimulating new ways of observation and judgment will expand the area of further experience” for students (p. 75). This is consistent with Vygotsky’s idea of the zone of proximal development – a concept introduced just a couple of years before Dewey wrote this book. Dewey goes on to note the importance of building in time for genuine reflection after these experiences.
Finally, I was struck by the simple elegance of one of his concluding thoughts: “The educator should view teaching and learning as a continuous process of reconstruction of experience” (p. 87).
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. Toronto: Collier-MacMillan.