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John Dewey is one of America’s greatest philosophers, and one who took a particular interest in the theory of education. In none of his works is this more clearly set out than in his most famous text Experience & Education, released in 1938 towards the end of his life, in which he described society as having primarily two competing forms of education which he termed “traditional” and “progressive”, the distinguishing feature being that traditional schools place an emphasis on “formation from without” for the student, and progressive schools on “development from within”. Dewey ultimately concluded that neither school is adequate solely on its own terms since neither fully applies the principles of a carefully developed philosophy of experience.

In this article we look at what this means in practice and the conclusion which Dewey reached on how best to structure a child’s education, based on what he believed the true aim of education should be, namely the freedom to succeed in whichever intellectual or practical affair they go on to choose, and to acquaint the child with the previously established body of human knowledge such that by this means they can fully appreciate the present and reasonably prepare for the future.

To begin, let us compare and contrast how Dewey set out the key principles of traditional vs progressive education.



Imposition from authority

Cultivation of individuality

External discipline

Free activity

Learning from texts and teachers

Learning through personal experience

Acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill

Acquisition of skills as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal

Preparation for a remote future

Making the most of the opportunities of present life

Static aims and materials

Acquaintance with a constantly changing world

Having laid out the schools thus, Dewey puts forth his main principle of education: that all genuine education comes about through experience, but that not all experiences are educative. Indeed some experiences are explicitly mis-educative if they lead to the arresting or distorting of future experiences by, for example, landing the student in a rut or fixed way of thinking, or promoting the formation of a slack or careless attitude. Again, experiences may be so disconnected from one another that while each is agreeable or even exciting within itself, they are not linked cumulatively together towards the child’s growth, with the result that energy becomes dissipated and the student becomes scatter-brained. The consequence of this disintegrated approach is an inability for the student to best control their future experiences and thus a failure to prepare them for later life.

With this in mind, let us first look at the limitations of education by means of the traditional school. In learning-by-rote, disillusioned students may lose the impetus to learn because of the way learning is experienced, associating the learning process with ennui and boredom. How many students, Dewey asks, by acquiring special skills by automatic drill find their power of judgement and capacity to act intelligently in new situations limited? Furthermore, the fixed curricula passed down over so many generations may be so foreign to the children’s lives outside of school that they will come to think they have no power of control over the latter and a certain passivity or helplessness may result.

In attacking the traditional school like this, Dewey argues that while students in these schools certainly do have experiences, they are defective from the perspective of connecting with future experience. They are neither sufficiently applicable to the student’s life to prepare them for the future, nor sufficiently agreeable to foster a continued love of learning and development. The negative associations a student may form with the material they learn can also leave them unable to use that material to better appreciate the richness and variety of life in the present.

Now we have seen the defects of the traditional school let us now turn our attention to the progressive school and the limitations therein. The more seriously and sincerely it is held that experience is a “development from within”, the more tempting it is to eschew plans for deciding on subject matter, methods of instruction, social organisation, and material equipment. The result can be a form of “planless improvisation”, and that while the child’s experiences may be highly agreeable, they are not sufficiently amalgamated in a cumulative way to build the child’s intellectual and technical skills to give them the best chance to succeed in future academic, social and vocational life.

Whilst the traditional school benefits from having its organisation and order passed down over many years, engrained in custom and routine, this is also the source of much of the artificiality of the traditional school and its unnecessary complexity. Nevertheless there is a certain empirical method to the traditional school, where certain beneficial features and methods of education have been found over the years and incorporated into custom and established routines, even if it is in an overly rigid way with the limitations described above. By contrast the progressive school faces the far more difficult task of defining its own methods based on a coherent theory of experience, where positive direction is afforded to the selection and organisation of appropriate educational methods and materials. It is only in this way that the school can prepare the student for the future and help them maximally appreciate the present.

John Dewey - One of America’s, and the world’s, leading educational philosophers.

John Dewey - One of America’s, and the world’s, leading educational philosophers.

Dewey then goes on to formulate explicitly his philosophy of experience in order to relate it to the practice of education. I will not go into this here although I advise picking up the text if this is of interest (it is a short book and very clearly written, especially for a philosopher!), but at bottom it comes down to habit. A habit, as Dewey defines it, is any action which as a result modifies the one who undergoes it, while this modification affects, whether we want it to or not, the quality and nature of subsequent experiences. For after all, a person is changed by their actions and experiences, at least to some degree, and so it is necessarily a somewhat different person who then enters into subsequent experiences. This way of describing a habit is somewhat wider than the traditional way of using the word as a more or less fixed way of doing things. It also covers the formation of attitudes, both intellectual and emotional, our basic sensitivities, and all the ways of meeting and responding to the various conditions we meet in living.

The next step is to apply this definition of habit-forming to maximise the capacity for growth in the student. This may be growth in a particular specified direction, for example if the student is working towards a particular vocation, or it may be growth in a more general sense where the objective is moral and intellectual development, a capacity and love for self-study, and the maximisation of the number of paths that may be open to a student later in life. It is the business of the educator to see in what direction an experience is heading, to be on the alert to see what attitudes and habitual tendencies are being created, and to judge which attitudes are conducive to continued growth in the desired direction and which are detrimental.

Dewey further highlights that an experienced educator must also be cognizant that the present experience is shaped by the cumulation of, and differences in, previous experiences of each individual student. He cites an example of an over-indulged child in whom an attitude has been set up to make them adverse to and comparatively incompetent in situations which require effort and perseverance. If this is not explicitly addressed by the educator it can leave the child in a way which limits their later capacity for growth.

Dewey is adamant that the future must be taken into account at every stage of the educational process. This is badly misunderstood, he argues, in the traditional school where it is assumed that the mere acquisition of a certain amount of knowledge and skills in Arithmetic, Calculus, Geography etc will automatically prepare the student for later life, under circumstances entirely unlike those in which they were acquired. After all, who among us has not on occasion looked back at their school time and wondered what has become of the knowledge they were supposed to have amassed during these years. The trouble, Dewey says, is that these skills were learnt in isolation, in a way that is disconnected from the rest of experience and in a way that is not available under the actual conditions of life. As Dewey says:

What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worthwhile. . . if he loses desire to apply what he has learned, and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur.

In the final chapters of his book Dewey goes on to talk about the nature of Freedom in the student and how this is linked to helping the child find purpose and develop self-control, ultimately bringing all these ideas together into how an educator can achieve the progressive organisation of subject matter tailored to the specific needs of the individual student. I highly recommend this short and insightful work to all educators and interested parents looking for a new way to think about what education should aim to achieve and the means by which it can do so.

Written by William Brooke, Director of Witherow Brooke

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