In his treatise Experience and Education, Dewey (1938/1997) goes to greatlengths to combine a few of his core ideas into a new philosophy of education.He separates himself from the “Either-Or… contrast between traditional and progressiveeducation” (p. 17).
Instead, he takes as a starting point “that the fundamentalunity of the progressive philosophy is found in the idea that there is anintimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience andeducation” (Dewey, 1938/1998, p. 115). He then changes the point of emphasisby adding, “If this be true, then a positive and constructive development of itsown basic idea depends upon having a correct idea of experience” (Dewey,1938/1977, p. 20).
This is, then, the main goal of the work: to properly explain the”correct idea of experience” and elucidate its central importance to Dewey’s theoryof education.To begin, Dewey (1938/1997) aligns himself somewhat with the progressivemodel, though with a significant caveat. He points out thatthe general principles of the new education do not of themselves solve anyof the problems of the actual or practical conduct and management of progressiveschools. Rather, they set new problems which have to be workedout on the basis of a new philosophy of experience. (pp. 21–22)He adds another challenge when he says:We may reject knowledge of the past as the end of education and therebyonly emphasize its importance as a means.
When we do that we have aproblem that is new in the story of education: How shall the young becomeacquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potentagent in appreciation of the living present? (Dewey, 1938/1977, p. 23)Thus, Dewey seeks not only to define an educational experience but also to alignit with a cultural history and use this combination of elements to teach childrenhow to live in the world that surrounds them. This discussion of past and presentalso sets the stage for Dewey’s larger idea that education creates a continuumthat links experiences—past, present, and future. However, in his typically pre-20cise style, Dewey starts at the beginning by offering his definition of a true orwhole or educative experience.
In order to define experience for his purpose, Dewey (1938/1977) first gives examplesof “mis-educative” experiences, which he defines as any that have “theeffect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience” (p. 25), addingthat “an experience may be such as to engender callousness; it may producelack of sensitivity and of responsiveness” (pp. 25–26). Such experiences may beeffective at teaching a skill, and/or they may be enjoyable, but that is not worththe cost of the consequences.
Dewey (1938/1977) further notes that “traditionaleducation offers a plethora of examples of experiences of the kinds just mentioned”(p. 26). In short, one of the failures of traditional education is that the experiencesit creates do not expand the individual, but constrict growth of thinkingand feeling.According to Dewey, progressive education, on the other hand, has gained favorbecause of its democratic and humane methods. He asks if there is a good reasonto prefer this, and answers “yes,” if we believe that “mutual consultation andconvictions reached through persuasion, make possible a better quality of experiencethan can otherwise be provided” (Dewey, 1938/1997, p. 34).
He stressedthat providing the opportunity for a better quality of experience is of utmost importance:”In a word, we live from birth to death in a world of persons and thingswhich in large measure is what it is because of what has been done and transmittedfrom previous human activities” (Dewey, 1938/1977, p. 39). Learning from experienceis thus seen to be hugely significant—a fundamental building block ofsociety. Dewey continues, “there are sources outside an individual which giverise to experience… No one would question that a child in a slum tenement has adifferent experience from that of a child in a cultured home” (p. 40).
And thus,a primary responsibility of educators is that they not only be aware of thegeneral principle of the shaping of actual experience by environing conditions,but that they also recognize in the concrete what surroundings areconducive to having experiences that lead to growth. Above all, they shouldknow how to utilize the surroundings, physical and social, that exist so asto extract from them all that they have to contribute to building up experiencesthat are worth while. (Dewey, 1938/1977, p. 40)21This statement brings Dewey to one of his more profound ideas about experience.
Since we know that exterior factors set up and create different experiences,he warns against any new educational system that ignores them. He alsowarns against the opposite, saying that one of the great mistakes of traditionaleducation is that it “paid so little attention to the internal factors which also decidewhat kind of experience is had” (Dewey, 1938/1977, p. 42). What is vital is the interactionof “both factors in experience—objective and internal conditions” that together”form…a situation” (Dewey, 1939/1977, p.
42). In other words, “an experienceis always what it is because of a transaction between an individual…and hisenvironment” (Dewey, 1938/1977, p. 43).
Again using a negative example tomost clearly make his point, he notes:The trouble with traditional education was not that educators took uponthemselves the responsibility for providing an environment. The troublewas that they did not consider the other factor in creating an experience;namely, the powers and purposes of those taught. It was assumed that acertain set of conditions was intrinsically desirable, apart from its ability toevoke a certain quality of response in individuals. This lack of mutual adaptationmade the process of teaching and learning accidental… Responsibilityfor selecting objective conditions carries with it, then, the responsibilityfor understanding the needs and capacities of the individuals who are learningat a given time. (Dewey, 1938/1977, pp. 45–46)Traditional education is a one-size-fits-all experience, and that just doesn’t work.
The importance of the interaction of the individual and the objective is the crux ofDewey’s definition of experience; thus, the individual must be at the center of thecurriculum.Progressive education is strong on the idea of responding to the unique needs ofthe individual, but Dewey (1938/1977) now comes to his final big test for the progressives—organization:22It thus becomes the office of the educator to select those things within therange of existing experience that have the promise and potentiality of presentingnew problems which by stimulating new ways of observation andjudgment will expand the area of further experience. He must constantly regardwhat is already won not as a fixed possession but as an agency andinstrumentality for opening new fields which make new demands upon existingpowers of observation and of intelligent use of memory.
Connectednessin growth must be his constant watchword. (p. 75)Dewey reiterates here that organization and selection of subject matter is not alwaysa strong point for progressive education but that if progressive schools aregoing to be effective, it must be. Freedom and improvisation can and should beused to take advantage of spontaneous opportunities but must not take the placeof organization and methodology. Only through careful organization can truegrowth be achieved. He puts this most simply and authoritatively when he says:…experiences in order to be educative must lead out into an expandingworld of subject-matter…This condition is satisfied only as the educatorviews teaching and learning as a continuous process of reconstruction ofexperience.
This condition in turn can be satisfied only as the educator hasa long look ahead, and views every present experience as a moving forcein influencing what future experiences will be. (Dewey, 1938/1977, p. 87)In closing, Dewey (1938/1977) expresses confidence in an educational systembased on “intelligently directed development of the possibilities inherent in ordinaryexperience” (p. 89).
Throughout his writing, Dewey goes to great pains to bescientific and also to formally rebuke various tenets of both traditional and progressiveeducation. He defines his words carefully, and he links his core conceptsin an impressive—though sometimes maddeningly dense—way. But at theheart of it all, his message is relatively straightforward. Experience is the basis ofall progress, be it personal, cultural, or societal.
The environment defines the natureof our experience, and our individuality (shaped by the sum of our experiences)shapes our response to a given experience at a given time. Education,therefore, will be most effective and most capable of fulfilling the progressive ide-23als of teaching for democracy and humanity if it is a carefully organized, subjectmatter-based continuum of well-designed opportunities for individuals to haveeducative experiences. It may be a mouthful, but for Dewey, all parts of thatelaborate potion are necessary for the success of a forward-looking school thatteaches children to live in their world and shape the future of our society.
ReferencesDewey, J. (1998). Experience and education. West Lafayette, IN: Kappa Delta Pi.(Original work published 1938)