Dewey, John 1859-1952

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

It is fair to say that the philosopher John Dewey, who was born before the Civil War in 1859 and died in 1952 just before the Eisenhower administration, has had the greatest single impact on American education of any scholar in


history. Dewey, more than anyone else, is associated with the alternative to traditional education known as child- or learner-centered education. Dewey's contribution to education was part and parcel of his contribution to shaping the intellectual life of the time in which he lived.

Dewey took the discipline of philosophy more seriously than most, borrowing five hundred dollars from an aunt after graduating from the University of Vermont in 1897 to pursue a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University— this at a time when most philosophers at colleges were ministers with seminary degrees. Dewey's first academic job was at the University of Michigan, which was headed by a family friend. He spent 10 fruitful years in Ann Arbor, laying the groundwork for an approach to philosophy that he was able to apply to education in 1894 when he moved to the newly founded University of Chicago. Dewey was lured away from Chicago in 1904 and spent the remainder of his long career at Columbia University, retiring from that institution in 1930 but continuing to serve as an active professor emeritus until shortly before his death in 1952 at the age of 92.

There are at least three key ideas associated with John Dewey's approach to education that continue to resonate with progressive or, in current usage, constructi-vist U.S. educators. In fact, all three of the great reform movements in U.S. education, in the 1930s, 1960s, and 1990s, highlighted variations on these three themes: Individualism, the notion that it is up to the individual child, with guidance from the teacher, to make sense of his or her own experience; readiness, the notion that the child will learn when he or she is ready to learn; and pragmatism, the notion that the worth of learning lies in its instrumental value.

Individualism has repeatedly been central to reform efforts as a reliance on the pedagogy of personal experience, a belief that individuals must be the instigators of their own learning. The teacher, according to this view, works within the students' own experiential workspace as it were. The goal here, it should be emphasized, is a specific type of conceptual learning, the type that individual students induce from their own particular or discrete experience. The teacher, it is thought, in this child-or learner-centered approach, can at best only indirectly influence the inferential process of induction, pointing out to the learner patterns in particular data that become concepts and suggesting names for these patterns in a facilitative rather than a controlling way.

The second tenet of reform-oriented education in the United States is a corollary to the first: This is the need for the teacher to be watchful in fulfilling the facilitative role often described as being a guide on the side. Because student need is thought to drive the process of induction, of rethinking personal experience, teaching is an opportunistic enterprise that depends on attentive-ness to student needs. This idea, that students learn best when they are ready to learn, became in important cur-ricular principle in 1966: Jerome Bruner's notion of the spiral curriculum, the idea that the way to handle differences in students' readiness to learn is to spiral back on important content that thus reappears throughout the elementary and middle school years. This principle derived from Dewey explains why curriculum content in the United States is organized in a block rather than hierarchical way as is the case in other countries, especially those where students perform better on international measures of achievement. Student achievement, particularly in mathematics and science, appears to be enhanced in countries where the content priorities at each grade level are made clear.

The third tenet, pragmatism, is part and parcel of the way Americans view knowledge. The key idea behind pragmatism is deceptively simple; the value of knowledge is a function of its usefulness or relevance. In the hands of Dewey-oriented educational progressives, this view of knowledge shifted the evaluative focus from content-oriented outcomes to so-called child- or learner-centered outcomes. In U.S. education, this process involves the substitution of measures of content knowledge for those that are thought to tap directly into student thinking processes. The issue here, a clear legacy of John Dewey, is whether process is viewed as being in service of content (the traditional view) or whether the opposite holds, namely, that content is viewed as being in service of process.

John Dewey enjoyed a long and fruitful career: His collected works, thirty-seven volumes in all, are divided into The Early Works, 1882–1898 (five volumes), The Middle Works, 1899–1924 (fifteen volumes), and The Later Works, 1925–1953 (seventeen volumes). The bulk of Dewey's writing on education occurred in the first half of his career; his mature work in philosophy mostly dates from the second half of his career. One important debate, which goes beyond the scope of this entry, relates to the extent to which changes in his philosophical views after mid-career render many, if not most, of his earlier educational views obsolete. The specific issue is whether Dewey abandoned his earlier emphasis on inductionism in education, which he shared with William James, and adopted instead a more complex, realist view of learning and teaching derived from the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914). In brief, this view of learning assigns a major role to what can best be described as creative intelligence in the discovery of new ideas in the disciplines. Teaching thus is largely about getting students to look with ideas, not for ideas, as is the case in the early 2000s in the common alternative to traditional education.



Dewey, J. (1916). Essays in experimental logic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, J. (1986a). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The later works, 1925–1953, Vol. 8 (pp. 105–352). Carbondale: Southern University Press. (Original work published 1933)

Dewey, J. (1986b). The need for a philosophy of education. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The later works, 1925–1953, Vol. 9 (pp. 194–204). Carbondale: Southern University Press. (Original work published 1934)

Dewey, J. (1986c). Logic: The theory of inquiry. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The later works, 1925–1953, Vol. 12. Carbondale: Southern University Press. (Original work published 1938)


Prawat, R. S. (2003). The nominalism versus realism debate: Toward a philosophical rather than a political resolution. Educational Theory, 33(3), 275–311.

Prawat, R. S., & Schmidt, W. H. (2006). Curriculum coherence: Does the logic underlying the organization of subject matter matter? In S. J. Howie & T. Plomp (Eds.), Contents of learning mathematics and science: Lessons learned from TIMSS. Lisse, Netherlands: Routledge/Falmer.

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