John Dewey – Experience & Education

A personal reflection on John Dewey’s “Experience & Education” by Kevin Jenson

Everyone is learning, all the time. Whether or not this learning leads to positive results depends upon internal as well as external factors that vary for every student. John Dewey’s book Experience & Education liberated my idea of education from its confined location in a school classroom and brought the importance of learning into every area of life. As I try to develop a unique model of education, this book showed me how an education institution or facilitator can play a valuable role in the learning experience. In particular, it fascinated my mind with the meta-narrative of the learning experience – that is, the learning that takes place because of the structure of the learning experience, in spite of (or as a complement to) the best efforts of the teacher.

Practically speaking, every student that enters my classroom will leave learning something. This could be that they hate school, that I am a terrible teacher, that the girl in the front row is cute, that texting unseen is easier with a keypad, that they really miss their favorite, music, that pencils do not come sharpened, or, as Dewey warned, that the gap between the subject matter they are supposed to learn is too wide. There is nothing within their current realm of experience of life that can help them cross over to the “cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past” (Dewey, p.19). Really anything could be included as the topic most students learn except what Dewey defines as the subject-matter of education: “…bodies of information and of skills that have been worked out in the past” (p. 17). It is my job as a teacher to help students cross over this gap between the knowledge of the past and their experience of the present to develop their ability to shape the future. Because of my interest in the Great Books method of learning (even more ancient subject matter) this concept will continue to be of vital importance to my process of creating a unique learning environment. I hope to begin developing some mastery of this skill as I progress through the Master of Education program at CSU.

Without intentional effort on the part of the teacher to align the students present experience with the intended outcomes, it is quite possible that students will learn everything but what they are supposed to. Students are always learning something, but it is not always what I think I am teaching. Once again, students are always learning, and it is my challenge as an educator to help them direct this process for their own good. One example Dewey gives of this type of unintended learning was the method of teaching through drills and rote memory. While teachers believed their students were mastering content, students were learning something else: they were learning that education was boring, and that they needed to look outside of themselves for the right answers to situations they encountered (Dewey, p. 27). Students were learning not to appreciate education and to confine their experience of thinking to predefined sets of information. They were unfortunately not learning how to extend their education beyond the walls of the classroom. This made the experience of so-called education seem irrelevant for these and many other students, including myself.

It is this particular kind of experience that may give the educated person a disadvantage of the uneducated. “The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning” (p. 48). If the learning experience stifles this desire in a student, they may be better off exercising personal judgment and learn as much as possible through the experiences of life that they are given. In my own experience, much of the learning that took place in the college classroom has vanished leaving only traces of an experience that I did not enjoy. On the other hand, the lessons I learned outside the classroom (while avoiding homework) through trying to start businesses and organizations, as well as the lessons I learned through indulging my personal curiosity continue to shape my life to this day. Unfortunately this meant that as my GPA began to suffer, my experience of learning actually improved! Fortunately, this also gave me a passion for creating a learning experience that does not force this type of contradiction.

Dewey helped me to understand that the value of an education program is in its ability to purposefully create a valuable experience of learning. The experience of education exists in all learning environments and every aspect of life can be a learning environment. Whether this experience empowers students to become learners or whether it produces dependent, who do not know how to acquire answers for themselves is often overlooked. Dewey used his book as a critique against two opposing types of learning environments that both proved to be disempowering to the learning potential of students. He says, “[the educator’s] …ability to influence directly the experience of others and thereby the education they obtain places upon him the duty of determine g that environment which will interact with the existing capacities and needs of those taught to create a worth-while experience” (p.45). Much of the book is spent critiquing both traditional and progressive schools for their failure to create worthwhile learning experiences. The first, he said stifled learning through too much organization and the second through a total lack of organization.

When I first read through the book at the beginning of the semester, I recognized something of the importance of finding this balance. However, it was not until I tried to redesign a theoretical version of a college that offered this type of a balanced experience that I realized the difficulty and complexity of Dewey’s ideas. This experience taught me the significance of what Dewey had to say about finding the balance between freedom and structure. As a solution to this problem, Dewey outlined a criterion for a worthwhile learning experience as that which helps a student to grow continually in a particular direction. Finding this balance has been both a challenge and a reward as I seek to design a structure that maximizes the curiosity and creative ability of students by providing some kind of stable context in which they can pursue learning.

My experience with Dewey’s ideas of social control have also proved difficult to understand and even more challenging to implement. It is easy to design a structure around the advice and theories of a few experts, but it is very difficult to design a system that changes to reflect the “moving spirit of the whole group” (p.54). Even now looking at this idea, I find it difficult to imagine those who control an institution relinquishing their power to the broader group of academics that comprise its existence. It will still probably be some time before I can develop a plan that is “flexible enough to permit free play of individuality of experience and yet firm enough to give direction toward continuous development of power” (p.58). In the classroom, I think that social and constructive methods of learning we looked at in my 620 class like the Socratic method, case studies, and other forms of group dialogue allow the greatest freedom for individual expression in a shared experience of learning.

This brings up another key point I took from the book: the experience of learning is inherently social (p. 58). Because of this fact, individuals must give up some aspects of free expression for the benefit of participating in the learning experience as a whole. This also means that some people will find the process of education more accessible because of their social conditioning.  Part of my consideration of social justice must be how to make learning accessible for those that have not received the advantage of ‘proper’ social conditioning to learn. One example of social conditioning may be that my participation in the discussion boards is moderated by civility and simplicity. As the behavior of others is moderated similarly, a healthy culture of discussion and exploration develops and as a group we explore ideas from many different angles that would have been unavailable to us as isolated learners. In this way, I think that many of the best ideas I will take away from this course grew out of the discussion boards.

It may be something of a stretch to say that I have learned through socializing with John Dewey, but as his ideas are present in the book, our interactions have come to influence my theories of education in ways that I did not recognize at first.  I read the book Experience & Education early in the semester. Coming back again at the end to the ideas that I had highlighted and noted, I noticed that I now had terminology like “learning contracts” to describe Dewey’s idea of having students participate in developing the plan for their studies instead of simply doing what the professor had decided. I also had a much broader background on the history of education and the socio-cultural implications of various models that have been tried in the United States. Although my understanding of the field has matured, this has only served to deepen the value of what was written in the book so many years ago. The context of the content has increase the value of the content.

In some ways my experience with the book has also deepened its mystery and my curiosity to explore further what Dewey meant when he said things like, “Failure to give constant attention to development of the intellectual content of experiences…may in the end merely strengthen the tendency toward a reactionary return to intellectual and moral authoritarianism” (p. 86). For now, this idea once again drives me back to the primary challenge that I have as an educator to take the current experience level of my students and design learning experience around them that provides the structure and direction they need to develop their intellectual understanding of the experience. As students progress through their course of education, it is important that these experiences not only lead to intellectual development, but that they build upon each other. “Connectedness in growth…” (p.75), Dewey says, is an important factor for the teacher to consider. It will be interesting to see how my understanding of this book builds upon itself as I continue to analyze my experience with different educational environments.

Although much of my experience with structured education environments has not been very empowering, I did have one teacher who was able to use the experience of learning to enhance the intellectual process in a connected way that both challenged and empowered his students. One of the last courses I took in my undergraduate program was designed by the instructor to place students in teams that would function as real-world teams would relative to the subject matter. He made the challenge accessible through the order of presenting content and tasks. Dewey might have had someone like him in mind when he said, “It is the educator’s responsibility to see equally to two things: first, that the problem grows out of the conditions of the experience being had in the present, and that it is within the range of the capacity of students; an, secondly, that it is such that it arouses in the learner an active quest for information and for production of new ideas” (p. 79). In addition to making the problem accessible, this teacher also challenged his students to push the boundaries of their assignments to perform to their maximum ability as if the simulated experience carried the weight of a real world experience. The simulated environment provided the safety net needed to struggle, but also the freedom to creatively succeed.

Because this teacher understood the intersection of education and experience, I remember much of what I learned from his very difficult and enjoyable class. As I continue to develop my skills as an educator I hope that I can begin designing experiences of education that are equally effective for helping my students encounter and engage with the knowledge and skills they want to acquire.

As I turn to the Master of Education program to help me acquire this skill, I recognize the role that John Dewey has already begun to play in my present experience of education. Having been one of the opening voices to my encounter with the knowledge and skills of teaching, he has had a rather heavy influence on my developing theories and opinions. If it were not for my past struggles with poorly designed experiences of education, I may not find his work to be so accessible. However, because I have learned so much through experience, I find that this book has mostly been useful in helping me to critically analyze and organize what I inherently knew. In many ways, it has also pushed my ideas beyond what I have experienced and even begun to help me develop solutions to problems I did not fully comprehend before reading the book.

Experience & Education has successfully stoked my curiosity and interest in developing my skill at designing more intentional learning experiences for my students. Perhaps, as Dewey would suggest, I will learn this most effectively through experience – either positive or negative. A program may provide this experience, or I may have to find it for myself. Ironically, as I have begun to try this by seriously analyzing John Dewey’s ideas, my own experience with learning may have already begun to prove his point.


Dewey, J. (1997). Experience & Education. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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