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John Dewey is one of the most influential thinkers in the history of modern educational theory. In this video, we will briefly explore his philosophical position and how his ideas have impacted education for decades.

John Dewey and Education

John Dewey is nothing less than a rock star of modern education. His ideas and approaches to schooling were revolutionary ideas during his lifetime and remain fundamentally important to modern schooling today. In this video, we will take a brief look at the background of John Dewey as well as a more in depth look at his educational philosophies and ideals. When we’re done, you should be able to describe Dewey, but more importantly, you should be able to identify his philosophy in action.


John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont, on October 20, 1859.

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He was a bright kid, attending college at the University of Vermont at only 15 years old! At the University of Vermont, Dewey focused on the study of philosophy. Dewey graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 1879. He then began his teaching career. He taught two years of high school in Oil City, PA, and one year of elementary school in Charlotte, Vermont.In 1884, Dewey received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and immediately began his university teaching career at the University of Michigan.

Dewey spent most of his early career there, except for a one-year stint at the University of Minnesota. In 1894, Dewey left for the University of Chicago, where he would become the head of the philosophy department. At the University of Chicago, Dewey would work to develop much of his viewpoints that have lasted far beyond his time. In 1904, Dewey would become a professor at Columbia University, where he would retire in 1930.

The Views of John Dewey

John Dewey is probably most famous for his role in what is called progressive education. Progressive education is essentially a view of education that emphasizes the need to learn by doing. Dewey believed that human beings learn through a ‘hands-on’ approach. This places Dewey in the educational philosophy of pragmatism.Pragmatists believe that reality must be experienced. From Dewey’s educational point of view, this means that students must interact with their environment in order to adapt and learn.

Dewey felt the same idea was true for teachers and that teachers and students must learn together. His view of the classroom was deeply rooted in democratic ideals, which promoted equal voice among all participants in the learning experience.

How John Dewey Reformed Education

Dewey’s pragmatic and democratic approach to schooling may not stand out as radical today, but in the early and mid-1900s, his view of education was in contradiction to much of the then-present system of schooling. Dewey’s approach was truly child-centered.

A child-centered approach to education places the emphasis of learning on the needs and interests of the child. In Dewey’s view, children should be allowed to explore their environments.He believed in an interdisciplinary curriculum, or a curriculum that focuses on connecting multiple subjects, where students are allowed to freely move in and out of classrooms as they pursue their interests and construct their own paths for acquiring and applying knowledge. The role of the teacher in this setting would be to serve more as a facilitator than an instructor. In Dewey’s view, the teacher should observe the interest of the students, observe the directions they naturally take, and then serve as someone who helps develop problem-solving skills.Traditionally, a teacher would stand in front of a group of students who are all sitting in rows. The teacher is usually the deliverer of information and the job of the students is usually to receive this information and regurgitate it in some form of a written test.

In contrast, in a classroom based on the ideas of John Dewey, you may see a teacher deliver background content information, but you would also likely see students working in groups, with those groups exploring differing concepts within the content. You would see lots of conversation and lots of collaboration. While you may see a written test, you may also see student projects, presentations, or other differentiated techniques of evaluation.

The Teacher Is Important, Too

While Dewey felt the interests of the child were essential to shaping the educational environment, he equally expressed the importance of the teacher in this process. The idea was not to simply allow children to do whatever they please, but rather for the teacher to use professional judgment to shape this process.

Without an important grasp of the content and the direction of a well-trained teacher, Dewey felt the child’s education would be lacking.This way of thinking demonstrates Dewey’s view that education and life were interconnected. They did not exist in vacuums separate of one another and, therefore, should not be treated as if they did.

Dewey believed that by treating education as a part of life as opposed to preparation for it, students would learn to become independent, productive citizens.

Dewey’s Legacy in Action

Dewey’s ideas continue to influence both K-12 schooling and teacher education today. The concept of a democratic classroom, where students and teachers learn together and share their voices and interests, is at the heart of many teacher preparation programs. Dewey’s approach calls for a shift away from fact memorization and automation and towards interdisciplinary collaboration and creative thinking.

His approach calls for a way of teaching that goes beyond the ‘one size fits all’ concept of schooling. This is evident in the modern day push for problem-based learning, or the idea that students learn about a subject or topic through active problem solving, as well as the emphasis on differentiated instructional techniques. As our modern world increasingly requires individuals to think creatively in order to invent and innovate, Dewey’s approach to education will continue to be a topic of discussion in schools of education across the world.

Lesson Summary

To summarize, John Dewey was an innovative thinker and educator who focused on a child-centered, democratic approach to schooling. He is firmly rooted in a pragmatist paradigm that focused on the importance of a learner’s interaction with the environment. He believed in interdisciplinary ideas, student input, and the importance of a well-trained, forward-thinking teacher. His ideas were revolutionary at the time and they continue to push educators today.

Learning Outcomes

Watch this lesson so that you can go on to:

  • Recognize John Dewey’s role in education
  • Summarize John Dewey’s background
  • Describe the concepts of progressive education and pragmatism
  • Explain how Dewey’s child-centered and interdisciplinary ideals helped shaped education
  • Express understanding of Dewey’s views on the significance of teachers
  • Recall the fact that Dewey’s beliefs and legacy continue to shape education today

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