In his treatise Experience and Education

In his treatise Experience and Education, Dewey (1938/1997) goes to great
lengths 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 progressive
education” (p. 17). Instead, he takes as a starting point “that the fundamental
unity of the progressive philosophy is found in the idea that there is an
intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and
education” (Dewey, 1938/1998, p. 115). He then changes the point of emphasis
by adding, “If this be true, then a positive and constructive development of its
own 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 theory
of education.
To begin, Dewey (1938/1997) aligns himself somewhat with the progressive
model, though with a significant caveat. He points out that
the general principles of the new education do not of themselves solve any
of the problems of the actual or practical conduct and management of progressive
schools. Rather, they set new problems which have to be worked
out 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 thereby
only emphasize its importance as a means. When we do that we have a
problem that is new in the story of education: How shall the young become
acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent
agent in appreciation of the living present? (Dewey, 1938/1977, p. 23)
Thus, Dewey seeks not only to define an educational experience but also to align
it with a cultural history and use this combination of elements to teach children
how to live in the world that surrounds them. This discussion of past and present
also sets the stage for Dewey’s larger idea that education creates a continuum
that links experiences—past, present, and future. However, in his typically pre-
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cise style, Dewey starts at the beginning by offering his definition of a true or
whole or educative experience.
In order to define experience for his purpose, Dewey (1938/1977) first gives examples
of “mis-educative” experiences, which he defines as any that have “the
effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience” (p. 25), adding
that “an experience may be such as to engender callousness; it may produce
lack of sensitivity and of responsiveness” (pp. 25–26). Such experiences may be
effective at teaching a skill, and/or they may be enjoyable, but that is not worth
the cost of the consequences. Dewey (1938/1977) further notes that “traditional
education 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 experiences
it creates do not expand the individual, but constrict growth of thinking
and feeling.
According to Dewey, progressive education, on the other hand, has gained favor
because of its democratic and humane methods. He asks if there is a good reason
to prefer this, and answers “yes,” if we believe that “mutual consultation and
convictions reached through persuasion, make possible a better quality of experience
than can otherwise be provided” (Dewey, 1938/1997, p. 34). He stressed
that 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 things
which in large measure is what it is because of what has been done and transmitted
from previous human activities” (Dewey, 1938/1977, p. 39). Learning from experience
is thus seen to be hugely significant—a fundamental building block of
society. Dewey continues, “there are sources outside an individual which give
rise to experience… No one would question that a child in a slum tenement has a
different 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 the
general principle of the shaping of actual experience by environing conditions,
but that they also recognize in the concrete what surroundings are
conducive to having experiences that lead to growth. Above all, they should
know how to utilize the surroundings, physical and social, that exist so as
to extract from them all that they have to contribute to building up experiences
that are worth while. (Dewey, 1938/1977, p. 40)
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This 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 also
warns against the opposite, saying that one of the great mistakes of traditional
education is that it “paid so little attention to the internal factors which also decide
what kind of experience is had” (Dewey, 1938/1977, p. 42). What is vital is the interaction
of “both factors in experience—objective and internal conditions” that together
“form…a situation” (Dewey, 1939/1977, p. 42). In other words, “an experience
is always what it is because of a transaction between an individual…and his
environment” (Dewey, 1938/1977, p. 43). Again using a negative example to
most clearly make his point, he notes:
The trouble with traditional education was not that educators took upon
themselves the responsibility for providing an environment. The trouble
was that they did not consider the other factor in creating an experience;
namely, the powers and purposes of those taught. It was assumed that a
certain set of conditions was intrinsically desirable, apart from its ability to
evoke a certain quality of response in individuals. This lack of mutual adaptation
made the process of teaching and learning accidental… Responsibility
for selecting objective conditions carries with it, then, the responsibility
for understanding the needs and capacities of the individuals who are learning
at 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 of
Dewey’s definition of experience; thus, the individual must be at the center of the
curriculum.
Progressive education is strong on the idea of responding to the unique needs of
the individual, but Dewey (1938/1977) now comes to his final big test for the progressives—
organization:
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It thus becomes the office of the educator to select those things within the
range of existing experience that have the promise and potentiality of presenting
new problems which by stimulating new ways of observation and
judgment will expand the area of further experience. He must constantly regard
what is already won not as a fixed possession but as an agency and
instrumentality for opening new fields which make new demands upon existing
powers of observation and of intelligent use of memory. Connectedness
in growth must be his constant watchword. (p. 75)
Dewey reiterates here that organization and selection of subject matter is not always
a strong point for progressive education but that if progressive schools are
going to be effective, it must be. Freedom and improvisation can and should be
used to take advantage of spontaneous opportunities but must not take the place
of organization and methodology. Only through careful organization can true
growth be achieved. He puts this most simply and authoritatively when he says:
…experiences in order to be educative must lead out into an expanding
world of subject-matter…This condition is satisfied only as the educator
views teaching and learning as a continuous process of reconstruction of
experience. This condition in turn can be satisfied only as the educator has
a long look ahead, and views every present experience as a moving force
in influencing what future experiences will be. (Dewey, 1938/1977, p. 87)
In closing, Dewey (1938/1977) expresses confidence in an educational system
based on “intelligently directed development of the possibilities inherent in ordinary
experience” (p. 89). Throughout his writing, Dewey goes to great pains to be
scientific and also to formally rebuke various tenets of both traditional and progressive
education. He defines his words carefully, and he links his core concepts
in an impressive—though sometimes maddeningly dense—way. But at the
heart of it all, his message is relatively straightforward. Experience is the basis of
all progress, be it personal, cultural, or societal. The environment defines the nature
of 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-
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als of teaching for democracy and humanity if it is a carefully organized, subjectmatter-
based continuum of well-designed opportunities for individuals to have
educative experiences. It may be a mouthful, but for Dewey, all parts of that
elaborate potion are necessary for the success of a forward-looking school that
teaches children to live in their world and shape the future of our society.
References
Dewey, J. (1998). Experience and education. West Lafayette, IN: Kappa Delta Pi.
(Original work published 1938)