Pete Seeger once said; “Education is what you get when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don’t.” I’m not sure if philosopher of education John Dewey would agree with singer & songwriter Seeger, but I expect that at some future point their relative considerations and positions will become clear or clearer. Dewey built much of his progressive ideas about education on the important links of learning with experience.

In just 90 pages and eight chapters of Experience & Education, Dewey deftly describes his educational philosophy and the importance for that philosophy of experience. As a philosopher, psychologist and educator, Dewey filled his career with considerations for progressive ideas about how schools should be organized and operated to fulfill the needs of individuals as contributors to society. During his lifetime many of his ideas were strongly criticized. Not the least of the criticism stemmed from the departure he advocated from the workings of the so-called traditional schools.  

Tradition in education, particularly in the growing urban population centers of United States  because of industrialization, called for structured organization and disciplined operations that extended to pupils. Top down control characterized these urban schools. The content of education in the traditional schools was debated between adherents for practical skills and the adherents or advocates for the classical studies of geometry, rhetoric and logic.

Experience as an organizing principle for schools and education ran counter to the expectations of broad segments of the public and their thought leaders, mostly men  of commerce, industry, religion and politics. The shift from an agrarian to an industrial base in the last quarter of the nineteenth century fostered a focus on education and new directions for the financing of the growth of schools designed for an industrial age.

Dewey was instrumental in the development of the laboratory school at the University of Chicago where teachers were actively encouraged to try new approaches. Among these approaches were an emphasis on practical skills associated with the home and occupations. The kitchen and shop were replicated in the school to provide pupils with practice and play consistent with learning new paths for self-fulfillment. Cooking and sewing became the experiential base for learning about the world of materials and nature. The science of fabrics and foods were brought to the school not as separate discipline but as an integrated whole supporting practical aspects of natural development.

The kindergarten and primary grades were structured to emphasize the development of basic skills in reading, writing and figuring; the 3Rs. Each skill developed in conjunction with experiences that related the basics of living in the family and the school was explicitly structured to extend the setting of the home to the school and vice-versa.

Dewey was criticized for the apparent lack of structure and discipline in the laboratory school. His “progressive” school was characterized as a place of chaos flaunting the discipline that kept children in traditional schools sitting quietly while teachers delivered lessons and held children accountable for learning the lessons. By contrast the lab school encouraged children to interact with one another and the interaction was considered an important part of their experience and supportive of learning. Peer teaching was not uncommon because it was actively encouraged; older children teaching their younger school mates how to read, write and figure.

Social control within the school was considered in analogy to games. A game such as baseball or basketball was fully dependent upon the existence of rules and a means of enforcement of the rules with a referee or umpire. In the absence of rules there was no game and if the rules were changed the game was changed. Different rules different game. Dewey saw the need for rules in schools. Different rules; different schools. Schools could be characterized according to the source or sources of the rules by which the schools operated. Progressive schools embraced rules created and enforced internally for the advancement of education. Traditional schools by contrast relied on rules imposed from the top.

Freedom of intelligence followed rather than contrasted with social control of behavior. Movement may be free of constraint but in the absence of freedom to engage with ideas to advance thought, desire and purpose freedom of movement is unimportant. Acting on impulse without management of desire toward a more explicit purpose, denies real freedom and leaves an individual buffeted by the (metaphoric) winds of external forces and a victim rather than an architect of their life’s circumstance.  Sustaining purpose is a goal of education that emerges from experience.

Purpose may well begin with impulse. Desire takes shape from impulse and initiates a process of weighing the benefits or consequences; the causes as well as the  effects of action. Awareness of circumstances may modify desire toward a more refined purpose that accounts for contingent or variable elements of the environment. Certain benefits or consequences may be seen as significant enough to modify desire and refine a purpose. Accordingly freedom may not be unrestricted; an initial impulse to act may be suppressed.

Experience may support an evolving meaning of purpose and a refining of capacity to make each experience a step toward new experience consistent with objectives and goals that are purposeful for an emerging worldview.