Experience and Education by John Dewey


Originally posted at Gamelier.

I’m not accustomed to reading philosophy, but really enjoyed reading Experience and Education, by John Dewey. It’s a slim book of not even 100 pages, but is beautifully written, exceptionally clear and intelligent.

Experience and Education was written in 1938 as a followup to an earlier book, Democracy and Education, which he had written in 1916. It’s incredible to me that already at that time there was the notion of the “progressive” vs “traditional” education. Progressive education includes learning by doing, problem solving, working in groups, and personalizing education to fit the student, among other things. Interestingly, Dewey frames these schools of educational thought in reference to systems of government. The traditional schools were autocratic, the progressive schools democratic.

Dewey starts Experience and Education by stressing the need for an “educational philosophy” based on experience. I gather that he fears a backlash from the traditional viewpoint that sees the progressive schools as disorganized and lax. He points out that creating a school around a rejection of previous ideas is not the same as beating a viable new path. The book lays out the foundations for such a philosophy. Dewey places “experience” at the center because he sees education in general as a series of experiences, each of which changes the person experiencing them, impacting what experiences the person will seek or avoid in the future, and what they will learn from them. Certain experiences can stimulate growth, widening the possibilities for the person, whereas others can stunt growth, making them avoid whole areas of potential experience.

This reminds me of James Paul Gee’s description of a “damaged learner” in What Video Games have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. Once damaged by a bad experience in a school subject, which made the student feel overwhelmed and bored, the student could be put off the subject whenever possible, and even build their self-image upon a rejection of the subject.

Next, Dewey discusses how discipline in schools comes down to the social context of the environment. As Dewey says: “The [traditional] school was not a group or community held together by participation in common activities. Consequently, the normal, proper conditions of control were lacking. Their absence was made up for … by the direct intervention of the teacher, who ‘kept order’. [In the new schools], the primary source of social control resides in the very nature of the work being done as a social enterprise in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute and to which all feel a responsibility.” Once again, this sounds to me much like how Lee Sheldon sees the teacher’s role as a “dungeon master” in The Multiplayer Classroom, organizing opportunities for learning rather than directly passing on ideas to students.

And yet, not just any kind of communal experience will do. The later chapters of Experience and Education expound on the meanings that Dewey attaches to “freedom” and “purpose”. For Dewey, the kind of freedom that should be prized in schools is not the ability to do whatever one desires at a particular time, but rather the “power to frame purposes, to judge wisely, to evaluate desires by the consequences which will result from acting upon them”. In short, the power for students to fix goals and set out concrete steps to achieve them.

Finally, Dewey points out the connections between the experimental method in science and the progressive model of education. In science, ideas are not simply received as final truths, but tested as hypotheses. Experiments are carefully designed, observed, recorded, and analyzed. Once again, playing games can also be seen as performing the scientific method in miniature, though most often players do so informally.