John Dewey Education Theory

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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the school of general education in America, like that of other industrialized countries across the world, ceased to fulfill the enormous demands of economic, political, social, and cultural progress. The majority of educational time in primary and secondary schools was spent on reading, writing, counting, and studying the "foundations" of natural and other sciences (Cremin, 2001). The school had to be modified in order to maintain interaction with life. It became vital to foster children's interests, initiative, activity, independence, ability to work together and cooperatively, and clear grasp of social structure and life (Cremin, 2001). One of the major proponents of the necessity of making positive and constructive changes in the sphere of education was John Dewey. He promoted his ideas about the necessity of constructivism in the school system and stated that it was the only chance to change and positively alter educational system.

Social tension, instability, uncertainty of the future prompted Dewey to search for ideas that, he said, "reconstructed" the philosophy and made it operational, helping people survive in a radically changing world (Darling, 1994). Renewed by Dewey's ideas, pragmatism was called instrumentalism, which, according to the author's intention, was to be a method of detecting and interpreting the most serious conflicts encountered in life, using the method of moral and political diagnosis (Darling, 1994).

Based on functional psychology, evolutionary biology of Charles Darwin and the pragmatic views of W. Jams, Dewey proceeded to develop a theory of knowledge that challenged dualism, opposing the mind to the world (the universe) and thought action (Darling, 1994). Thought, in his opinion, is not a collection of sensory impressions or a product of consciousness; it is just an intermediary instrumental function of the intellect, evolved from the need for survival and well-being of man. This theory emphasized the need to expose thought to action by an action, in case it would lead to knowledge. Dewey's activities in the field of education were aimed at developing pedagogical applications of instrumentalism and their experimental verification. Thesis: John Dewey’s theory has become a revolution in the sphere of education. Its ideas were aimed to be implemented in the constructivism school system; however, democratic ideas of Dewey did not find wide practical implications and support in traditional constructivism school system.

Prerequisites and conditions of development of Dewey’ theory

In the period of Dewey’s life and work, educational system required urgent changes and updating. The program of school reform, put forward by Dewey, contained his criticism of the existing practice of school education. This criticism dictated problems of his psychological, pedagogical, philosophical-pedagogical and methodical research. Dewey tried to make changes not only in the process of education, but alter and update the aims of education, provided to children. He was sure that education of those times had a wide range of drawbacks, which explained the lack of proper knowledge of schoolchildren and their inability to implement the received knowledge in practical settings. He supposed that the biggest drawback of the school came from the impossibility for the child to use the experience he acquired outside the school in the educational establishment. Dewey asserted that the child had no opportunity to apply knowledge, received at school, in everyday life. Thus, Dewey opposed formal education as a “forced discipline". The inert tradition of the modern school fosters the desire and readiness to act on orders, conformance, aversion to doubt and experimentation in children. With various disguised compulsions, insinuated bribes, pedagogical "solemnities," the freshness of youth and natural curiosity of children are forced to fade. Schooling becomes a craft to use the helplessness of youth (Cremin, 2001). Children are sent to school for the development of their discipline, but the school is the only place, where it is difficult to acquire discipline. However, while criticizing the school, Dewey hoped to get rid of the exploitation of man, class struggle, economic oppression and wars by means of education. He firmly believed that "palm of the world" was in the hands of teacher (Cremin, 2001).

According to Dewey, the school should be the germ of social life, imbued with the spirit of art, history and science, not separating the teaching of culture from special education. Our society will become more worthy and harmonious if the school imbues a member of its small free community with the spirit of serving society and equips it with the means for creative self-activity. According to Dewey, school is a social center. Therefore, Dewey's goal is to turn the school into a kind of society. He was sure that person acquires goals, beliefs, motives and knowledge only in the process and communication. These things cannot be obtained by transferring them to each other. Communication, ensuring the participation of a person in the public spheres of consciousness, gives emotional and intellectual results: development of the personality and its abilities.

John Dewey’s theory of education

Prior to discussing the theory of John Dewey, it is necessary to shed some light on the basis of his teachings and origin of his ideas. The basis of Dewey doctrine was pragmatism, the founders of which were C. Pearce and W. Jams. The essence of this philosophy lies in a special relation to human action, which has become the axis, around which all the basic educational and philosophical concepts were formed. Since the action, as the main form of human life, has an expedient character, the question of finding the most convenient and fruitful path to the goal arises. Ideas and theories are tools for the reorganization of the environment. The reliability of this philosophical concept is considered from the point of view of the usefulness of the ideas for achieving the task. In other words, Dewey wanted to underline that the ideas for the transformation of educational system should be useful and productive and lead to the visible and effective outcome. John Dewey is the author of his own pedagogical theory, which he himself called instrumental pedagogy or instrumentalism. Below is the outline and briefly characterization of the main points of his pedagogical theory.

Experience is more important than systematized knowledge.

Experience is closely related to the implementation of actions, and not to the study of objects. Thinking becomes a tool for solving problems. Its occurrence promotes mental activity, aimed at finding effective solutions to the problems that prevent body from normal functioning (Dewey, 2015). Dewey asserted that learning should come in hand with experienced knowledge. Only when studying the world around the child will show a desire for further knowledge. Dewey pointed out that all previous education systems were designed to provide students with a vast amount of general information without applying them in practice (Dewey, 2015).

Things that bring the bottom line are valuable.

According to Dewey's theory, education and training are carried out via assimilation of theory, but in the process of accomplishing practical tasks. These tasks help people study surrounding world, but work in one team (Dewey, 2015). Only in this condition the school will be able to bring up children, adapted to real life conditions. Dewey considered that the most important scientific disciplines are history and geography, because they are closely connected with nature and social life of society (Dewey, 2015).

The interests of the child are the basis of the educational process.

The interests of the child should be used and forwarded on the right path, which can bring fruitful results. The quality and quantity of lessons and practical tasks should be defined by pupils, but not curriculum (Dewey, 2015). Training gives its results only when something happens inside the child, however, teachers are not always able to control it.

Orientation of teachers and instructors on the future professional and pedagogical activity in society.

The essence of practical work lies in acquisition of specific knowledge, but also in participation of the school in social activities. In the process of practice, students learn a lot about the professions that will help develop certain skills, learn to respect other people's work, and work for the benefit of society (Dewey, 2015).

Continuity of education.

John Dewey proposed the concept of lifelong learning for people of all ages. The society must be in the process of continuous training and retraining. Life is constantly evolving, so education must respond to changes of the world (Dewey, 2015). If this task is not carried out, the society will face problems without being ready to address them.

Play activity.

According to Dewey, there is a necessity to include games and playing into the educational process. Materials used in the game must be approximated to real conditions, direct and natural, as far as the living conditions of children. The game should be used at schools and bring a variety of educational activities. Role plays are significant for all ages: they promote self-expression and development of imagination (Dewey, 2015).

Activity of the teacher.

Dewey said that the main task of the teacher is a good, versatile knowledge of his subject. It gives him the opportunity to build his educating process in a way that can make professional activities the most effective. The sequence of introduction of the subjects depends upon teacher and his ability to organize education process (Dewey, 2015).

Dewey recommended teachers to pay maximum attention to the needs of children and build school education based on the interests of children solely. However, in this case, the rejection of systematic training was inevitable. In its turn, it led to a decrease of the role of scientific knowledge, and therefore, application of this theory in the educational process was not as effective as the author hoped. The main idea of John Dewey pedagogy was that the child should not be taught the basics, but also prepared for an independent life in society, provided with the opportunity to apply his knowledge in social activities. This idea has not lost its relevance nowadays, because a person must be able to adapt to innovations, apply acquired knowledge and skills in new situations in a modern ever changing world.

Constructivism theory of education

The education theory of John Dewey can be considered and at the same time opposed to the theory of constructivism. His theory belongs to the so-called social constructivism due to his insistence on the necessity to teach children how to adapted and live in society.

Constructivist theory of education was elaborated by a famous Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Constructivist theory is based on a number of approaches to the education and upbringing of children. These approaches come from that ideas that knowledge, values, intelligence, thinking, autonomy, independence and other characteristics of a person cannot be delivered to a person from outside, but must be constructed by the child himself in the process of his active growth. The latter occurs in the process of interaction with the material, social and cultural environments. Piaget distinguishes two main processes of education. The first one is assimilation, when the child perceives information from his environment and interprets it in accordance with his previous knowledge and experience (Piaget, 1950). The second process is accommodation. It presupposes modification of knowledge on the basis of contradictions and lack of available knowledge (Piaget, 1950). As a result, the child gets new experience, therefore, development takes place.

The child's own contribution to his thinking can be clearly seen on the numerous examples of misconceptions, which children naturally could not learn from adults (Piaget, 1950). These ideas have been constructed in the efforts to understand their impressions and comprehend their experience. Considering the world of children's ideas, it becomes clear that the thinking process of children is different from that of older companions or adults. In accordance with this, constructivist approach states that children can take little from the teachings, provided by adults, that is, from direct instruction at schools (Piaget, 1950). They can do more for their development, when they gain knowledge themselves through their own efforts. As a result of active interaction with the surrounding world, children improve their thinking abilities, while their knowledge becomes more differentiated and correlated with reality. However, this progress in thinking is children’s own merit, but not the merit of parents or educators. The latter can only support this development in such a way that they create a particularly rich environment or the surrounding world. In this surrounding children will be able to receive diverse impressions for subsequent reflection and develop their rich creative potential (Piaget, 1950). In this case, constructivist theory is talking about the entire spectrum of child development: cognitive, emotional, social and moral.

Dewey’s theory in constructivism school system

After the discussion of the constructivist theory of Piaget, many educators and theorists try to oppose it to the ideas of Dewey and define whether it is possible to achieve Dewey’s goals in the constructivist environment (Duffy & Jonassen, 2002). Constructivism school system is the one, based on tests and constant check of knowledge to demonstrate how well children have accepted and learnt material, presented in class. In other words, this school system is based more on the individual and independent learning and check of knowledge, received through personal experience (Duffy & Jonassen, 2002). Constructivism presupposes that the role of a teacher lies more in checking student’s progress and knowledge, which he obtained in his surrounding world and after his personal education.

Dewey, in his turn, does not exclude the importance and role of the teacher in the process of education. More than that, he underlines that only wise practice of a teacher may contribute to the development of child’s experience (Duffy & Jonassen, 2002). Dewey stats that teacher should instruct how to implement knowledge in real life through approaches and gaming.

It should be also noted that modern constructivism school system is based on the new standards, connected with the concept of "performance-based assessment" however, it starts accounting for the idiosyncratic learning. Children have to gain knowledge based on their own experience in the process of interaction with the environment and each other and then present their knowledge for assessment (Duffy & Jonassen, 2002). Incorporation of assessment into the process of education is one of the major principles of the constructivist system. Many schools have adopted standards for the students and children to demonstrate their knowledge in different ways. Applying it to the theory of Dewey, who insisted that the choice of disciplines and assessment means should be done by children, his theory did not find wide practical application in traditional and constructivism schools.

Advantages and disadvantages of John Dewey’s theory in traditional school system

The pedagogy and theory of John Dewey has had a significant impact on the development of the theory and practice of education in the United States, but also on many other countries of the world. A special role in this recognition was attributed to the personality of Dewey and his fruitful philosophical and pedagogical creativity during the Chicago and Colombian periods and a huge amount of scientific publications. This allowed Dewey to become popular and influential person in the sphere of American education, but take leading positions in the world pedagogical culture of the XX century. However, Dewey's pedagogical ideas and methods could not be fully realized in practice, both in the US and in other countries. Established social regimes and conservative education systems of the leading European states, often prevented the democratic ideas of the American reformer from spreading, as they contradicted traditional education and state's strict control over the education system. Moreover, Dewey’s theory and principles of children’s education prevented reproduction of traditions, which blocked wide dissemination of his pedagogy.

Dewey's philosophy of education, although not universally accepted, had its considerable impact on the pedagogical tendencies in different countries as well as on the development of a democratic social and pedagogical movement (Frank, 2017). His pedagogy was some kind of a special cultural text, while the pedagogical cultures of other countries were open to translate this text and adapt it to their educational systems. In the countries with established democratic institutions and strong academic traditions, Dewey's ideas were corrected and interpreted without jeopardizing the established order (Frank, 2017). However, his ideas were not completely accepted by either of the existing leading educational systems of the world. The only country, the educational system of which is more or less appropriate for Dewey’s theory, is the USA with its democratic approach; however, it did not completely accept this theory. It used some ideas of a famous theorist through providing children with the freedom to choose subjects and giving them opportunity to implement their knowledge in life experience (Frank, 2017).

Dewey’s theory in globalized society

Dewey's pedagogy played an important role in the process of modernization of education systems of many countries, such as Turkey and China at the beginning of the XX century. These countries together with other developed and progressive states tried to enthusiastically perceive the pedagogy of activity, which develops the spirit of cooperation and habit of working (Frank, 2017). These transformational changes took place in crucial historical moments, when new nations were born, the old systems collapsed and a new school for a new society was created.

The system of education, proposed by Dewey may be described as "life is education" and can be applied into the systems of many nations, especially in globalized society, where development of new technologies and relations between people and nations contribute to focusing on practice and developing collaboration.

The major approaches of Dewey were implemented in schools included strengthening the democratization of the preschool education system in China and the Netherlands; improvement of primary schools in Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan; improving the teacher's training model in Japan; the introduction of a research component into university education and development of elective courses in USA, Japan, China; changes in the content of pedagogical education and the organization of pedagogical practice of students in the laboratories. It proves that application of Dewey’s views is possible in globalized schools and society; however, his ideas are not always perceived and interpreted correctly. Thus, many teachers from the US schools ignored Dewey's emphasis on the pedagogical component in the teacher training system and attributed the authorship of the project method of education to him. In case of negative results and consequences, Dewey was accused of all the errors of his innovative approach.

Judging from the information, presented in this section, it is possible to conclude that the relevance of Dewey's democratic and pedagogical approaches is preserved in the globalized society and modern constructivism school systems. His ideas are humanistic and anthropological. His philosophy of education competes with many others to support the creation of more perfect mechanism of consistent leadership of education, taking into account the interests and needs of the child and peculiarities of his growth. It ensures the harmonious individual development of the person as a social being, active citizen, flexible and creative personality. The depth and openness of Dewey's philosophy of education can serve a guarantee that future generations will also view Dewey's educational legacy as a powerful voice in the debates about educational reform.


The 90s of the previous century were marked by the development of innovative technologies, focused on the involvement of children in the educational process.

In the 2000s, the reevaluation of educational values took place and the role of the teacher in educational process has also been reconsidered. Educational theorists and leading educators called for the transition from the informative forms of education to the methods, involving problem-soling and use of personal experience of pupils. More and more countries have started to search for the education methods, which would involve direct participation of pupils in the process of education and entrust children with the power to choose the ways and methods of education, which would have become the most appropriate for them. In this period, the ideas and theory of John Dewey were traduced. He insisted on the necessity to rely on the experience of children and necessity to pay more attention of practice, which would have taught pupils to implement their knowledge directly. Although, democratic ideas of Dewey have not found absolute support of the leading European nations, modern schools implement some ideas and stages of education, proposed by Dewey. The major advantage of his methods is that they are able to activate and use interests and capabilities of pupils. Dewey’s theory is possible to implement in constructivism school system, however, it should be somewhat reconsidered and provide pupils with less democracy.


Cremin, L. (2001).The transformation of the school: progressivism in American education, 1876-1957. New York, NY, Vintage Books

Dewey, J. (2015). Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. NY: Columbia University

Darling, J. (1994). Child-centred Education and Its Critics. London: Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd.

Duffy, T.M. & Jonassen, D. (Eds.), (2002).Constructivism and the technology of instruction: A conversation. Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Frank, J. (2017). “The Significance of Dewey’s Democracy and Education for 21st-Century Education”. The Journal of the John Dewey Society. 33 (1): 32-45

Piaget, J. (1950). The Psychology of Intelligence. New York: Routledge.

May 24, 2023

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