John Dewey
In his book Experience and Education, John Dewey (1938) argues for an education of experience. It’s not that traditional education is lacking in experiences for learners, he says, but not all experiences are educative. Worse, some experiences may actually be mis-educative (p. 5). I believe the above story provides an example of a mis-educative experience. It makes me wonder how much of traditional education habitually makes use of unreviewed material, some of which may have been around for centuries.
Dewey predates the other theorists I explored by three-quarters of a century or more, yet his writings on education both predate and synthesize so many ideas from later theorists that I was tempted to include him last in this section. His writing has been called infuriating and difficult, but he finds a comfortable point of balance among the paradoxes inherent in developing a philosophy of education based on a philosophy of experience, and once I managed to get into his stream, I was hooked.
Dewey’s educational philosophy is democratic, experiential, and progressive. Yet, he warns us to avoid the trap of polarizing the field with labels and advocates instead following a path which reminds me of the poet Rumi’s words, “There is a field beyond right and wrong; I’ll meet you there” (1997). For Dewey, it is not a question of progressive versus traditional. It is rather “a question of what anything whatever must be to be worthy of the name education.” He goes on to write,
“What we want and need is education pure and simple, and we shall make surer and faster progress when we devote ourselves to finding out just what education order that education may be a reality and not a name or a slogan. It is for this reason alone that I have emphasized the need for a philosophy of experience” (p. 91).

Despite this, and for ease of communication, he uses the term traditional education, as I will in this paper. It seems from his descriptions that, sadly, today’s education remains close to the traditional education Dewey described, a vehicle organized solely for the transmission of “bodies of information and of skills that have been worked out in the past” from teacher to student (p.17).
In articulating his philosophy of experience, Dewey manages to comfortably hold the paradoxes of education and, for that matter, life. He recognizes, for example, that learning is a process which “is a continuous spiral”(p. 79), yet involves a continuity of experience, an experiential continuum. He understands that, because individuals exist within a community, the needs of individuals must be balanced with the needs of community. Likewise he writes of the shared responsibility of teachers and students (among his principles of interaction), and the need to balance desires, which he calls “the ultimate moving springs of action” (1938 p.70) with self-control, structure with improvisation, and internal with external motivation, while reminding us that competition requires cooperation.
It’s difficult to count the number of times that, while reading Dewey, I am reminded of another theorist or philosopher, sometimes more recent, at other times ancient. One example is Dewey’s aforementioned recognition of education as a continuous spiral, and the related concept that “the educator cannot start with knowledge already organized and proceed to ladle it out in doses” (1938, p.82). Or, as Bateson puts it,
...most of learning is not linear. Planning for the classroom, we sometimes present learning in linear sequences, which may be part of what makes classroom learning onerous: this concept must preceed that, must be fully grasped before the next is presented. Learning outside the classroom is not like that. Lessons too complex to grasp in a single occurrence spiral past again and again, small examples gradually revealing greater and greater implications. (1994, p.30)

A kinship with Ernst von Glasersfeld is found in many of Dewey’s points. One I find particularly important for educators to bear in mind is respect for the presence of every individual’s natural affinity for learning, which at best should be cultivated and taken advantage of in the learning process, and at least must not be quashed.4 Both men are careful to emphasize that
ultimately motivation for learning must come from within the learner (Dewey 1938; von Glasersfeld 1983), but recognize that it’s the educator’s responsibility to make the learning experience “more than immediately enjoyable” (Dewey 1938, p.27) and “such that they evoke the students' spontaneous interest (von Glasersfeld, 2005). People have a natural desire to learn, to order their world and understand it (von Glasersfeld, 1983) and we need to not interfere with or distract from it with external rewards for learning. Neill (1960) makes this same point in his discussion of his school in the book of the same name, Summerhill. At this free school, students only went to classes if they wished to do so, and Neill noticed that the amount of educational damage which had been done to a learner before arriving at a school was directly proportional to the amount of time the student chose to avoid classes all together, before they could reconnect with and rediscover their own natural desire to learn.
When Dewey discusses the educator’s responsibility to regulate the objective conditions of the learning space, he lays the foundation for such later educational philosophies, such as the learning styles of Dunn and Dunn, pointing out that “the 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” (1938, p. 45). Dewey cautions that when educators do not provide environmental and structural adaptation which is mutual between educator and learner, the process of teaching and learning becomes “accidental” (p. 45). This idea of mutual respect for the perspective of the student, as well as the recognition of how critical it is if we want to truly call ourselves educators, can be found as a fundamental principle in the work of Gardner (1983), von Glasersfeld (2005), Llewellyn (1991), Neill (1960), and a number of other educational theorists.
Dewey’s writing not only lays the groundwork for later educational theorists, but for philosophers and scientists as well. He suggests that the present moment has its inherent value:
“The ideal of using the present simply to get ready for the future contradicts itself. It omits, and even shuts out the very conditions by which a person can be prepared for his future. We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future” (1938, p.49).

Here I’m reminded at once of the one pointed awareness of many Eastern traditions5 and, for that matter, Christ’s “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (1997, Matthew 6:34). The idea that by taking care of today we do take care of tomorrow is difficult to accept because it’s not linear. It is more in line with the philosophy the path is the goal. But, this philosophy gives no assurances, and we like assurances, even false ones, as they allow us the illusion of security.
This sort of philosophy is often discredited as having no eye whatsoever to the reality of a future. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Dewey points out, it is the traditional educators that only have to concern themselves with a student’s passing of a test or on to the next grade, whereas the progressive educator, “is obliged to see the present work in terms of what it accomplishes, or fails to accomplish, for a future whose objects are linked with those of the present” (1938 p.76). So it is that when we seek to become educators, we’re working in what Chopra, in his Seven Laws of Spiritual Success calls the field of pure potentiality in which we touch the future with our actions of today.
At different turns, Dewey seems to echo the Tao, and to pave the way for discoveries of state-dependent memory,
Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) theory of flow, Sheldrake’s (1988) morphic field theory and von Glasersfeld’s radical constructivism.
Dewey’s simple but direct truth: “education... must be based on experience.” (1938, p.89) puts the teacher in the role of experience provider and responsible, experienced guide. I see this as radical and accurate. Dewey is defining the role of teacher as a service position rather than a judge or gatekeeper (although the educator’s experience and judgment are vital), and I know that some people will bristle at this and react with an implication that this somehow dishonors the role of a teacher. On the contrary, I believe it elevates it.

4Perhaps in this educators might borrow from the Hippocratic oath of physician’s to “first do no harm,”
Buddhist, Yogic, and Taoist traditions all have this concept in their traditions

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