Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Dewey on Teaching and Teacher Education

  • Kyle A. Greenwalt
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_48


This entry describes the relationship between Dewey’s thoughts on teaching and teacher education. Because teachers are committed to the growth and development of learners, a discussion of learning must also necessarily be brought into play. This entry therefore describes how Dewey sought to conjoin the topics of learning, teaching, and teacher education under the common heading of the human potential for growth.

The entry starts with a discussion of Dewey’s view of teaching and learning, particularly as it relates to the teacher’s ability to intelligently direct the stream of unfolding experience of the learner. The entry then extends Dewey’s views on teaching through a discussion of his views on initial teacher preparation. In particular, the entry focuses on how Dewey described the preparation needed for initial teacher candidates to be able to awaken and sustain inner attention among learners. In this way, the place of the school curriculum, instructional methods, and classroom management are located within Dewey’s thought. The entry concludes by emphasizing the role of coordination and integration in Dewey’s thought.

Dewey on Teaching

For Dewey, all education has as its proper aim the promotion of growth and development. Growth happens through the experiences of the learner. Teaching is the ability to assist learners in organizing, directing, and maximizing the stream of developing life experiences. As Dewey stated, teaching relies upon “the educational significance of social arrangements [as] means used to educate the young” (1916/Dewey 1997a, p. 89).

Dewey’s view of teaching and learning are firmly grounded in his naturalism. For Dewey, education-as-growth is continuous across the lifespan and there is no absolute sense in which anyone ever becomes fully educated. Dewey therefore rejected both absolute distinctions between teachers and students and viewing children as lesser adults. As he noted, “a living creature lives as truly and positively at one stage as another, with the same intrinsic fullness and the same absolute claims” (1916/Dewey 1997a, p. 51). The recognition of such “absolute claims” demonstrates the degree to which Dewey respected not only children as learners but also adults as learners in their own right – indeed, Dewey’s naturalism committed him to respecting the integrity and sanctity of all people, cultures, and life forms. All are capable of growth. Therefore, the goal of any educational project is “the enterprise of supplying the conditions which insure growth” (1916/Dewey 1997a, p. 51).

Dewey asserted that such growth happens through experiences which are properly educative. If growth is the aim, then experiences are its means, and the criterion by which any experience is judged runs along a continuum that moves from educative to miseducative (1938/Dewey 1997b, p. 25). On the negative side, Dewey noted that some experiences may “engender callousness,” “produce lack of sensitivity,” or “may increase a person’s automatic skill in a particular direction and yet tend to land him in a groove or rut” (1938/Dewey 1997b, pp. 25–26). On the positive side, due to the plasticity of the living creature, experience can engender newer, richer, more profound future experience (1916/Dewey 1997a, p. 44). An experiential path of growth can be laid out on which the living creature journeys.

In more conventional terms, educative experiences are those that allow the learner to go on learning in the future: to become both more open to the world and more responsible in shaping and directing it. When education is viewed in this way, the job of the teacher is to assist in the process of the learner’s growth through the progressive development and expansion of experience. Dewey summarized this task for the teacher when he stated that “the central problem of an education based upon experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences” (1938/Dewey 1997b, p. 28).

Dewey’s teacher can be characterized as the master of the timely intervention. Dewey was certainly concerned about teachers imposing upon learners, but he was equally concerned about a tendency in progressive educational circles for teachers to make themselves absent.

For Dewey, the only aims worth pursuing were those that grew out of the conditions that learners find themselves in. Aims – or more properly, the act of taking aim – is something that only the individual learner can provide. He or she must use aim to assist “observation, choice, and planning in carrying on activity from moment to moment and hour to hour” (1916/Dewey 1997a, p. 107).

On the other hand, teachers play a vital and essential role in helping learners select, organize, and choose among aspects of the environment that increase and broaden aims. Teachers are a force for suggestion. Their power resides in their ability to suggest tactfully and fruitfully. As Dewey stated, “it thus becomes the office of the educator to select those things within the range of existing experience that have the promise and potentiality of presenting new problems” – new problems that can lead the learner to new ways of looking, new ways of thinking, and new ways of acting (1938/Dewey 1997b, p. 75). “Connectedness in growth,” says Dewey, must be the educator’s “constant watchword” (1938/Dewey 1997b, p. 75).

Dewey on Teacher Education

Given this characterization of teaching and learning, what type of professional formation will give teachers the ability to inspire and direct learning? How should the time of initial teacher preparation be spent?

Dewey argued that, “the wise employ of this short time [of initial teacher preparation] is in laying scientific foundations” (1904/1965, p. 316). The goal should be to assist the teacher candidate in becoming a “thoughtful and alert student of education” (1904/1965, p. 320). Initial teacher education seeks to assist teacher candidates in the experimental development of a set of educational principles that will clarify the aims and means of their work.

Dewey argued that all teacher education courses should have a practical component and that the practice had in such courses should be “typical and intensive, rather than extensive and detailed” (1904/1965, p. 315). By “typical and intensive,” Dewey meant that practical work should serve a laboratory purpose. It should enliven and awaken teacher candidates to the meaning and vitality of educational principles. Rather than equipping a candidate who is immediately ready to enter a classroom and teach with a great deal of technical proficiency, Dewey aimed to ultimately build the technically proficient educator by first building knowledge of the method of intelligence.

Dewey was therefore not concerned that teacher candidates quickly achieve technical mastery over all aspects of the profession. His notion of what it means to be ready to teach did not involve immediate displays of technical proficiency. Dewey worried about teacher candidates that “seem to strike twelve at the start” (1904/1965, p. 321), but that did not go on growing over the course of their entire careers.

Dewey thought that teacher candidates need to solve two main problems. On the one hand, they need to figure out how to teach subject-matter to students; on the other hand, they need to figure out how to manage a classroom. Both of these are important for the success of any teacher. Yet in terms of the education a teacher candidate receives, Dewey thought it important that teacher candidates direct their attention toward the former: “mastery of subject-matter from the standpoint of its educational value and use” (1904/1965, p. 318).

Dewey stated that conformity of outward attention is no mark of learning. Therefore, teacher candidates must concern themselves with a form of inward attention that signals the “giving of the mind without reserve or qualification to the subject at hand” (1904/1965, p. 318). Indeed, the ability to induce, sustain, and recognize such inward attention in the learner is the truest and most genuine mark of the teacher:

To be able to keep track of this mental play, to recognize the signs of its presence or absence, to know how it is initiated and maintained, how to test it by results attained, and to test apparent results by it, is the supreme mark and criterion of a teacher. It means insight into soul-action, ability to discriminate the genuine from the sham, and capacity to further one and discourage the other. (1904/1965, pp. 318–319)

Initial teacher preparation has no other purpose than this: the ability to recognize, inspire, and direct mental activity.

For Dewey, knowledge of subject-matter is knowledge of teaching. For subject-matter is what induces and gives meaning to mental activity. There is no method without material nor anything for mind to attend to without subject-matter. Subject-matter is, by definition, organized – it is matter that has been subjected to a controlling intellectual principle, a method. This method, the scientific method, is the very workings of the mind itself: “the classifications, interpretations, explanations, and generalizations which make subject-matter a branch of study do not lie externally in facts apart from the mind” (1904/1965, p. 328). Mind, method, and matter in this way are different aspects of a single relationship. It is the teacher’s business to understand and put this insight to work.

Dewey expected from teachers expansive and profound knowledge of subject-matter. Only then would the teacher have the tools to identify the potential and tendency of the intellectual stirrings of learners. Only then would the teacher be able to provide materials and learning conditions that assist learners in developing their knowledge, skill, and character. Only then would the teacher be able to assess the nature of learners’ past educational experiences when contemplating directions for their future growth. “Only a teacher thoroughly trained in the higher levels of intellectual method … will be likely, in deed, not in mere word, to respect the mental integrity and force of children” (1904/1965, pp. 328–329).

In this way, the practical work that Dewey expected teacher candidates to engage in was premised upon inquiry into how organized subject-matter (i.e., the curriculum) may result in sustained, organized, and systematic growth among learners. For Dewey, this meant avoiding the sporadic teaching of individual lessons in favor of practice work that resulted in the ability to see how progression and development may instead be promoted.

On the one hand, this practice work might simply involve deep reflection upon the scope and sequence of the school curriculum across multiple years. It is not enough to consider a single lesson or even a single unit in the social studies or in the math curriculum; rather, teacher candidates should think about the possibilities inherent in the curriculum for mental development across several grade levels. “What is needed is the habit of viewing the entire curriculum as a continuous growth, reflecting the growth of mind itself” (1904/1965, p. 332). In this way, subject-matter itself provides rich lessons in learning how to teach.

On the other hand, actual practice teaching before students, in classrooms, is an important part of what Dewey envisioned for the education of teachers. Such teaching – both in early practicum experiences as well as during a phase of traditional student teaching – should itself be intensive and continuous rather than spread out and haphazard. Only in this way, Dewey thought, would teacher candidates “get a body of funded experience” that would allow them to in turn “get a feeling for the movement” of learners and subject-matter in their joint coordination of mental growth (1904/1965, p. 335). Such practice teaching would also, Dewey thought, help develop the type of technical expertise that all teachers must eventually obtain.

All phases of initial teacher preparation should be sustained by, and fully directed at, the need to awaken the teacher candidate to the realization that what truly matters is “how mind answers to mind” (1904/1965, p. 324). If the early stages of the education of teacher candidates are successful, the student teaching experience should ultimately happen with a minimum of interference and criticism from supervisors. Student teaching under these ideal circumstances, Dewey suggested, might have very modest aims indeed: to find “persons who are unfit for teaching” so that they “may be detected and eliminated more quickly than might otherwise be the case” (1904/1965, p. 336).

Teaching and learning are processes founded upon convergence, concentration, and coordination. Initial teacher preparation works by a proper coordination of theory and practice in the unfolding experiences of the teacher candidate. It seeks to bring practical and theoretical study, of both school subject-matter and the psychology of the learner, into communion. In this way, Dewey claimed, teacher candidates grow in their ability to carry all knowledge back “to its common psychical roots” (1904/1965, p. 329). They can see in the stirrings and graspings of the young child the potential for the highest forms of human achievement:

The subject-matter of science and history and art serves to reveal the real child to us. We do not know the meaning either of his tendencies or of his performances excepting as we take them as germinating seed, or opening bud, of some fruit to be borne . . . The art of Raphael or of Corot is none too much to enable us to value the impulses stirring in the child when he draws and daubs. (1902/2001, pp. 112–113)

Teachers are masters at seeing the present in light of the past and in hope for the future.


Dewey’s work on the nature of teaching and teacher education are vitally relevant to those engaged in the work of teacher education today, in that they present a profound challenge to much conventional wisdom about how new teachers are best prepared to enter classrooms across the globe.


  1. Dewey, J. (1965). The relation of theory to practice in education. In Archambault, R. D. (Ed.), John Dewey on education: Selected writings (pp. 313–338). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. (Original work published in 1904)Google Scholar
  2. Dewey, J. (1997a). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: The Free Press. (Original work published 1916)Google Scholar
  3. Dewey, J. (1997b). Experience and education. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc. (Original work published 1938)Google Scholar
  4. Dewey, J. (2001). The child and the curriculum. In The school and society and the child and the curriculum (pp. 103–123). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. (Original work published in 1902)Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Michigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA