John Dewey Theory of Learning By Doing explained (2023)

John Dewey Theory of Learning By Doing explained (1)

John Dewey Theory: this article provides a practical explanation of the John Dewey theory. Next to what it is, this article also highlights the importance of learning by doing, the reformation of the educational system, this theory applied in the classroom and the vision of Democracy and Society. After reading, you’ll have a basic understanding of this change management theory. Enjoy reading!

What is the John Dewey Theory?

John Dewey is one of the big names in the history of educational theories. John Dewey was influential in countless fields and had lots of ideas concerning educational reform. His collection of views, philosophies and radically different ideas on education have been combined in the John Dewey theory.

In many countries, the modern educational system looks the way it does thanks to John Dewey. His approach to schooling was revolutionary for his time and proves to be fundamentally important for modern education to this day. John Dewey probably gained the most publicity thanks to his role in the studies into progressive education.

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Progressive education in essence is a vision of education that emphasises the necessity of learning by doing. According to the John Dewey theory, people learn best through a hands-on approach.

As a result, the philosophies and views of John Dewey are placed in the educational philosophy of pragmatism.

John Dewey Theory of learning by doing

John Dewey and other pragmatists are convinced that students or other persons who are learning must experience reality as it is. From John Dewey’s educational point of view, this means that students must adapt to their environment in order to learn.

The John Dewey Education Theory shows that the great thinker had the same ideas about teachers. His view of the ideal classroom had many similarities with democratic ideals. Dewey posits that it isn’t just the student who learns, but rather the experience of students and teachers together that yields extra value for both.

Reformation of the Educational System

Children learn better when they interact with their environment and are involved in the school’s learning plan, according to John Dewey.

He rejected most of the theories that were popular at the time, such as behaviourism, and dismissed these as being too simplistic and insufficiently complex to describe learning processes.

In those days, at the end of the 20th century, it was assumed by many people that children were passive recipients of knowledge. The John Dewey theory, however, directly opposes this.

John Dewey argued that education can only truly be effective when children have learning opportunities that enable them to link current knowledge to prior experiences and knowledge.

This was a ground-breaking idea in those days. Particularly the part related to experience learning, where children come into contact with their environment, was revolutionary.

Educational Experiment John Dewey

The above shows that John Dewey was a great advocate of progressive educational reform. He was convinced that the educational system was flawed and that it should focus on learning by doing.

He and his wife Harriet therefore started their own experimental primary school: the University Elementary School. It was part of the University of Chicago, and the goal was to test his own theories. His wife was fired however, as a result of which Dewey resigned.

Over 25 years later, in 1919, Dewey founded The New School for Social Research in collaboration with his colleagues Charles Beard, James Harvey Robinson and Wesley Slair Mitchell. This too was a progressive, experimental school that encouraged the free exchange of ideas in the field of arts and social sciences.

His revolutionary ideas soon bore fruit. In the twenties of the previous century, Dewey gave a lecture on educational reform in schools all over the world. He was very impressed by experiments in the Russian school system.

(Video) John Dewey’s 4 Principles of Education

This taught him that students particularly had to focus on interactions with the present. The John Dewey theory, however, doesn’t reject the value of learning about the past.

John Dewey Theory Applied in the Classroom

Particularly in those days, between the two world wars, it was common that desks were set up in rows in the classroom and the students wouldn’t leave their chair all day. This was what John Dewey meant with the fact that children were viewed as passive recipients of knowledge.

They really had no say in the learning process whatsoever and they certainly couldn’t indicate whether they liked to learn more on a specific subject. John Dewey was also very clear about how things could be improved. These ideas are no longer radical today, but at the beginning of the previous century, his view of education clashed with the policy and view of most schools.

Interdisciplinary Curriculum

The John Dewey theory recommends an interdisciplinary curriculum, or a curriculum that focuses on connecting multiple subjects where students can freely walk in and out of classrooms.

In this way, they pursue their own interests, and build their own method for acquiring and applying specific knowledge. In this setting, the teacher has a facilitating role. According to John Dewey, the teacher should observe the student’s interests, follow the directions, and help them develop problem-solving skills.

As stated, it was common in those days that the teacher stood in front of the group of students and provided information all day long.

The students’ task was to absorb the information and test this in the form of an exam or other written test. John Dewey’s ideal describes an entirely different function of the teacher.

According to Dewey, the teacher should only provide background information and have the students work together in groups on the concept. This should start conversation and discussion, and give rise to valuable collaboration. Although the written exam would continue to play an important role, particularly presentations, projects and other evaluation techniques are used to keep track of the progress.

John Dewey & Psychology

During his period at the University of Michigan, John Dewey published two books: Psychology, and Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning the Human Understanding.

Although he was still a philosophy professor there, he and his colleagues began to reformulate psychology, emphasising the mind and behaviour. The ideas on psychology in the John Dewey education theory
also differ strongly from the standards at that time.

Their new psychology style, called functional psychology, focused on action and application. They reasoned that it went against the traditional concept of stimulus-response.

Although he didn’t deny the existence of stimulus and response, he didn’t agree that these were separate, individual events. He developed the idea that there is a certain form of coordination that enhances stimulation through past results.

John Dewey’s Vision of Democracy and Society

John Dewey believed that democracy is an ethical ideal and not just a political structure. He considered participation rather than representation as the essence of democracy.

Furthermore, he insisted on the interaction and harmony between democracy and the scientific method. He saw an increasingly larger and critical research community, drawing on their pragmatic principles and convictions.

The Role of Women in Society

John Dewey also had a controversial view of the role of women in society for his time. He was convinced that the woman’s place in society was determined by a woman’s environment rather than by biology. He noted that women are perceived based on their gender too much.

According to the John Dewey theory, this gender qualification must be removed. Subsequently, the view of women will change, because the generalisations about women have turned out to be incorrect.

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Now It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Are you familiar with the explanation of the John Dewey theory? Which elements of his contributions do you recognise in everyday life? Which other great thinkers preceded Dewey in his vision? How do you think the educational system would have developed if thinkers like Dewey hadn’t shared their vision? What’s your vision on education during Covid-19?

(Video) Learning by Doing (directors cut)

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Dewey, J. (1989). The Later Works of John Dewey, 1949-1952: 1949-1952, Essays, Typescripts, and Knowing and the Known (Vol. 16). SIU Press.
  2. Dewey, J. (2014). John Dewey. The Middle Works, 1899–1924.
  3. Schilpp, P. A. (1939). The Philosophy of John Dewey.
  4. Shook, J. R. (2000). Dewey’s empirical theory of knowledge and reality. Vanderbilt University Press.

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    What is learning by doing according to John Dewey? ›

    Learning by doing refers to a theory of education. This theory has been expounded by American philosopher John Dewey and Latinamerican pedagogue Paulo Freire. It is a hands-on approach to learning, meaning students must interact with their environment in order to adapt and learn.

    What is learning by doing explanation? ›

    Definition. Learning by doing is the process whereby people make sense of their experiences, especially those experiences in which they actively engage in making things and exploring the world.

    What is learning by doing theory examples? ›

    Perhaps the most obvious example of the “learning by doing” method has to do with skill development. How did you learn to ride a bike? It was probably not by studying it or from hearing others' experiences, but rather by picking up your vehicle and failing repeatedly – until, one day, you made it.

    What are Dewey's main points about education as experience? ›

    Dewey thought that effective education came primarily through social interactions and that the school setting should be considered a social institution (Flinders & Thornton, 2013). He considered education to be a “process of living and not a preparation for future living” (Flinders & Thornton, 2013, p.

    What is the principles of learning by doing? ›

    The learning by doing principle is a widely known principle in education that refers to learning from experiences directly relating to one's actions. This hands-on approach concludes that people must interact with their environment to adapt and learn.

    What are the objectives of learning by doing? ›

    "Learning by doing" is active, hands-on, and engaging for 4-H members. The goal of this teaching approach is for learners to construct mental models that allow for "higher order" performance such as applied problem-solving and the transferring of information and skills (Churchil , 2003).

    What type of learning is by doing? ›

    Kinesthetic learners are individuals who prefer to learn by doing. They enjoy a hands-on experience.

    What is learning by doing and seeing is believing? ›

    Seeing hearing, touching, smelling and testing are the five senses through which an individual learns new idea. Extension believes in 'Learning by doing' and 'seeing is believing'. So, demonstrations, visual aids, and other symbols should used by the extension worker, to make the learning experience more effective.

    What was John Dewey's main goal? ›

    Dewey believed that a philosopher should not only reflect but also act, both to improve society and to participate in “the living struggles and issues of his age.” His tools: reason, science, pragmatism. His goal: democracy, not only in politics and the economy but also as an ethical ideal, as a way of life.

    What did Dewey argue was the most important purpose of schooling? ›

    Dewey believed it was vital for schools to encourage students to think for themselves. They would then be more likely to become active citizens who could help to shape a better society.

    Is progressivism learning by doing? ›

    Progressivist teachers believe: Learning comes naturally to children. Children learn by doing. They should teach skills over content.

    Why should students learn by doing? ›

    When students are forced to do something, they are engaged in active learning. They're practicing their critical thinking skills and they're putting their knowledge to the test. Most importantly, this form of learning gives opportunities for students to actively create knowledge, instead of passively consuming it.

    What are the characteristics of learning by doing? ›

    The process of acquiring, ingesting, and storing information is called learning. The main objective of learning is to gain knowledge through interaction, practice, and experience that can change human behavior. Human beings are exposed to various types of learning during their lifetime.

    When did John Dewey say we do not learn from experience we learn from reflecting on experience? ›

    Back in 1933 famous American educator, John Dewey acknowledged the importance of reflection. The experience alone does not necessarily lead to learning; it is the reflection that makes sense of the experience to us and hence makes the experience meaningful for us. “We do not learn from experience.

    What is Dewey's definition of reflective thinking? ›

    Dewey (1933) stated “Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitute reflective thought” (p.

    What is an example of seeing is believing? ›

    said to mean that if you see something yourself, you will believe it to exist or be true, despite the fact that it is extremely unusual or unexpected: I never thought Mark would get out of bed before lunchtime on a Saturday, but seeing is believing!

    What are the three important aims of education according to John Dewey? ›

    Since John Dewey's inquiry must be understood as a process that initiates human action, he proposed that the aims of education were social efficiency, education as life, education as experience, and education as a combination of theory and practice.

    What is the conclusion of John Dewey? ›

    Conclusion in: John Dewey. John Dewey's work illuminates the blind spot of the contemporary problematizations of globalization and democracy. If democracy were to stand still, it would surrender to circumstance and start on the 'backward road that leads to extinction'.

    What does it mean by progressive education emphasizes learning by doing? ›

    Progressive education: emphasizes to enhance skills and understanding of the learners by engaging with the contents and experiences. promotes 'learning by doing' to make children self-reliant and productive to use their knowledge and talents effectively.

    What is progressivism in simple terms? ›

    Progressivism holds that it is possible to improve human societies through political action. As a political movement, progressivism seeks to advance the human condition through social reform based on purported advancements in science, technology, economic development, and social organization.


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