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Experiential Learning

Dewey's "Experience & Education"

500 Word Summary of
Dewey’s “Experience & Education”

James Neill
Last updated:
01 Oct 2005

For John Dewey, education and democracy are intimately connected.

According to Dewey good education should have both a societal purpose and purpose for the individual student.  For Dewey, the long-term matters, but so does the short-term quality of an educational experience.  Educators are responsible, therefore, for providing students with experiences that are immediately valuable and which better enable the students to contribute to society.

Dewey polarizes two extremes in education -- traditional and progressive education.

The paradigm war still goes on -- on the one hand, relatively structured, disciplined, ordered, didactic tradition education vs. relatively unstructured, free, student-directed progressive education. 

Dewey criticizes traditional education for lacking in holistic understanding of students and designing curricula overly focused on content rather than content and process which is judged by its contribution to the well-being of individuals and society. 

On the other hand, progressive education, he argues, is too reactionary and takes a free approach without really knowing how or why freedom can be most useful in education.  Freedom for the sake of freedom is a weak philosophy of education.  Dewey argues that we must move beyond this paradigm war, and to do that we need a theory of experience.

Thus, Dewey argues that educators must first understand the nature of human experience. 

Dewey's theory is that experience arises from the interaction of two principles -- continuity and interaction.  Continuity is that each experience a person has will influence his/her future, for better or for worse.  Interaction refers to the situational influence on one's experience.  In other words, one's present experience is a function of the interaction between one's past experiences and the present situation.  For example, my experience of a lesson, will depend on how the teacher arranges and facilitates the lesson, as well my past experience of similar lessons and teachers.

It is important to understand that, for Dewey, no experience has pre-ordained value.  Thus, what may be a rewarding experience for one person, could be a detrimental experience for another.

The value of the experience is to be judged by the effect that experience has on the individual's present, their future, and the extent to which the individual is able to contribute to society.

Dewey says that once we have a theory of experience, then as educators can set about progressively organizing our subject matter in a way that it takes accounts of students' past experiences, and then provides them with experiences which will help to open up, rather than shut down, a person's access to future growth experiences, thereby expanding the person's likely contribution to society.

Dewey examines his theory of experience in light of practical educational problems, such as the debate between how much freedom vs. discipline to use.  Dewey shows that his theory of experience (continuity and interaction) can be useful guides to help solving such issues. 

Throughout, there is a strong emphasis on the subjective quality of a student's experience and the necessity for the teacher of understanding the students' past experiences in order to effectively design a sequence of liberating educational experiences to allow the person to fulfil their potential as a member of society.


Dewey, J. (1938/1997). Experience and education. Macmillan.