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Experiential Learning

John Dewey

John Dewey, the Modern Father of Experiential Education

James Neill
Last updated:
26 Jan 2005

Dewey is lauded as the greatest educational thinker of the 20th century.  His theory of experience continues to be much read and discussed not only within education, but also in psychology and philosophy.  Dewey's views continue to strongly influence the design of innovative educational approaches, such as in outdoor education, adult training, and experiential therapies.

In the 1920's / 1930's, John Dewey became famous for pointing out that the authoritarian, strict, pre-ordained knowledge approach of modern traditional education was too concerned with delivering knowledge, and not enough with understanding students' actual experiences.

Dewey became the champion, or philosophical father of experiential education, or as it was then referred to, progressive education.  But he was also critical of completely "free, student-driven" education because students often don't know how to structure their own learning experiences for maximum benefit.

Why do so many students hate school?   It seems an obvious, but ignored question.

Dewey said that an educator must take into account the unique differences between each student.  Each person is different genetically and in terms of past experiences.  Even when a standard curricula is presented using established pedagogical methods, each students will have a different quality of experience.  Thus, teaching and curriculum must be designed in ways that allow for such individual differences.

For Dewey, education also a broader social purpose,  which was to help people become more effective members of democratic society.  Dewey argued that the one-way delivery style of authoritarian schooling does not provide a good model for life in democratic society.  Instead, students need educational experiences which enable them to become valued, equal, and responsible members of society.

The most common misunderstanding about Dewey is that he was simply supporting progressive education.  Progressive education, according to Dewey, was a wild swing in the philosophical pendulum, against traditional education methods.  In progressive education, freedom was the rule, with students being relatively unconstrained by the educator.  The problem with progressive education, said Dewey, is that freedom alone is no solution.  Learning needs a structure and order, and must be based on a clear theory of experience, not simply the whim of teachers or students.

Thus, Dewey proposed that education be designed on the basis of a theory of experience.  We must understand the nature of how humans have the experiences they do, in order to design effective education.  In this respect, Dewey's theory of experience rested on two central tenets -- continuity and interaction.

Continuity refers to the notion that humans are sensitive to (or are affected by) experience.  Humans survive more by learning from experience after they are born than do many other animals who rely primarily on pre-wired instinct.  In humans, education is critical for providing people with the skills to live in society.  Dewey argued that we learn something from every experience, whether positive or negative and ones accumulated learned experience influences the nature of one's future experiences.  Thus, every experience in some way influences all potential future experiences for an individual.  Continuity refers to this idea that s each experience is stored and carried on into the future, whether one likes it or not.

Interaction builds upon the notion of continuity and explains how past experience interacts with the present situation, to create one's present experience.  Dewey's hypothesis is that your current experience can be understood as a function of your past (stored) experiences which interacting with the present situation to create an individual's experience.  This explains the "one man's meat is another man's poison" maxim.  Any situation can be experienced in profoundly different ways because of unique individual differences e.g., one student loves school, another hates the same school.  This is important for educators to understand.  Whilst they can't control students' past experiences, they can try to understand those past experiences so that better educational situations can be presented to the students.  Ultimately, all a teacher has control over is the design of the present situation.  The teacher with good insight into the effects of past experiences which students bring with them better enables the teacher to provide quality education which is relevant and meaningful for the students.

To learn more, read a 500 word summary of Dewey's classic book "Experience & Education".