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Written by Matthew Hall


John Dewey (1859-1952): American philosopher and pedagogue whose principles contributions were to Experiential Education and the relationship between Education and Democracy. His lifetimes works included ‘My Pedagogical Creed’ (1897), ‘The School and Society’ (1899) and ‘Democracy and Education’ (1916) through which he outlines his firm beliefs in relation to the role of education within society.

Democracy & Education

Dewey saw individuals and society as mutually interdependent. ‘Society is an organic union of individuals…if we eliminate the social factor from the child we are left only with a growing abstraction’ (Dewey 1897 p.80). Thus, Dewey insisted that an individual cannot be seen as a discrete entity, but that humans are intrinsically interlinked to one another and to society throughout their lives. As a result, he viewed the education of individuals as integral to the ongoing survival of society and a fundamental part of the evolution of its organisation. Whilst for the individuals within that society he believed education served as a means of enabling them to make an effective contribution to its existence (Neil 2005).

For Dewey the school is a social institution (in a similar way to the workplace, place of worship or home), located within a specific societal context. As a result, to achieve democratic societies, we must have a ‘type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control’ (Dewey 1999, in Fähnrich 2000 'Education and the School'). Essentially, in Dewey’s view, education can contribute directly to achieving democracy and the two are inherent in one another.

Achieving Education & Democracy

Dewey was not only a theorist but a practitioner and achieved much of what he outlined in his written work in more practical terms through the establishment of the Laboratory School in Chicago in 1896. According to Fähnrich (2000), the Laboratory School was ‘a truly cooperative community in which students studied general features of social life and were practically involved in occupations and activities’ ('Education and the School').

Dewey believed that effective education could only be achieved through harnessing experience. As a result, teaching and learning should be experiential (see Experiential Learning). The acquisition of knowledge should, according to Dewey, take place alongside instruction as to its application. For example, Maths learnt through working out how long it would take to travel a certain distance, Geography learnt through travel. Learning for Dewey is therefore ‘active’ (Geiger 1958). In addition, Neil (2005) outlines continuity and interaction as fundamental components of Dewey’s experiential learning. Learners are sensitive to experience and therefore rely on its continued accumulation to learn but, at the same time, must combine experience with current interactions in order to achieve. Thus educators must allow learners to experience and interact.

On a broader level, Fähnrich (2000) offers us three summaries of how Dewey proposed experiential learning for democracy might be achieved. Firstly, schools can generate ‘special environments’ where learning takes place through experience. Secondly, schools can be organized to represent features of social activity (i.e. the school context is a simplified and idealised version of the democratic society within which it is located). Thirdly, schools can exist separate from outside influences such as politics and economics and therefore act simply as an intermediary between learners and such influences.

In summary, Dewey believed that active, experiential learning within a school organised along a specific framework could in turn lead to a learner’s greater ability to contribute to society and thus the imposition of any democratic principles at the school level would be reflected in the society within which it is located. Despite critics, Dewey made a substantial and particularly moral contribution to educational philosophy and pedagogy and thus remains widely regarded as a ‘father figure’ of Democracy and Education.


Dewey, John (1897) My Pedagogic Creed, School Journal, vol.54 (January 1897), pp.77-80.

Fähnrich, Bastian (2000) John Dewey: Education and the School. (Visited 30-June-05)

Neil, James (2005) John Dewey: Philosophy of Education (Visited 30-June-05)

Useful links

Centre for Dewey Studies
The centre's website contains a huge amount of audio visual and bibliographic information about Dewey, including overviews of all his publications as well as 'occasional paper's' regarding his theories. (Visited 30-June-05)

An informal education web page with the specific aim of allowing people to explore the theory and practice of informal education and lifelong learning. Access to excerpts from some of Dewey's key text as well as a thorough bibliography and links to other Dewey sites. (Visited 30-June-05)

Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
This page, provides a good overview of Dewey's life works, particular with regards to philosophy. A search for the term 'education' on the web page will help you access the information you may require more quickly. (Visited 30-June-05)

John Dewey Project on Progressive Education
The University of Vermont's John Dewey Project promotes more widespread public discussion of the democratic mission of education.

Go to the education systems index