Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Dewey on Thinking in Education

  • Andrea R. English
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_44


The concept of thinking plays an important role throughout Dewey’s work, yet his educational theory is commonly associated with the idea of “doing.” This association comes about for at least two reasons. For one, Dewey is part of the philosophical tradition of pragmatism, a term derived from the Greek root pragma (πράγμα), which refers to the “deed.” For another, Dewey has become connected to child-centered notions of education, which, in their more radical iterations, equate learning with activity and thus on the surface can appear to be aligned with his notion of “learning by doing.” However, too much emphasis on these ideas gives us a one-sided picture of Dewey’s understanding of education; it causes readers to overlook the significance of his concept of thinking. For Dewey, thinking is both the aim and the condition for the possibility of education. But, what is thinking? This entry discusses Dewey’s concept of thinking in its relation to three other concepts: “experience,” “learning,” and “teaching.”

Thinking and Experience

Dewey’s central statement on the connection between “thinking and experience” is found in his chapter by the same name in Democracy and Education. A claim that permeates Dewey’s work is that all experience involves both “doing” and “undergoing.” “Doing” expresses the active side of our experience, in which “we act upon something” (1916/2008, p. 147). Undergoing expresses the passive side of experience, in which we “undergo the consequences of our actions” (1916/2008, p. 147). But, as Dewey notes, we do not always make connections between these two sides of experience. That is a problem, because without making this connection, we limit the extent to which we can learn from experience. In order to learn from experience, thinking has to come into play. Thinking is what connects what we do with what happens to us in return; by making this connection, thinking adds value to the experience (1916/2008, pp. 147, 152).

Dewey differentiates between two types of experience, “trial and error” and “reflective experience.” Both involve thinking, but to differing degrees (1916/2008, pp. 147 ff.). In trial and error forms of experience, we try something and on the basis of this trial, we learn whether or not we were successful in meeting our aims; we continue trying until we meet our aims. Dewey views this method of experience as limited, because it primarily helps us learn that we failed to meet a particular aim, but it does not fully help us to learn why we failed. The thinking involved in trial and error forms of experience is minimal; it helps us grasp that there is a connection between what we did in the world (doing) and what happened in consequence (the perceptible response we receive from the world). However, trial and error thinking processes do not extend to inquiring further into the nature of this connection between doing and undergoing.

Thinking comes into play in experience in a more extensive sense when we seek out the reasons for the connections between what we do and what we undergo. When thinking is incorporated into our experience in this way, our experience becomes what Dewey calls “reflective.” The method of reflective experience, in contrast to the method of trial and error, involves trying to understand how activity and consequence are connected, that is, how what one does is connected to the world in which one is acting. Reflection, on Dewey’s account, is a particular type of thinking. All thinking begins in situations which are “incomplete” (1916/2008, p. 153). The situation is incomplete because we do not know how best to move forward; we have reached a limit to our knowledge and ability, and thus we find ourselves in a state of “doubt,” “confusion,” or “perplexity” (1916/2008, p. 157). For Dewey, “reflection” is an inquisitive form of thinking that holds us in “suspense” in order to analyze the limits of our given knowledge and ability. To reflect is to ask ourselves why we are perplexed or in doubt: “The perplexities of the situation suggest certain ways out. We try these ways and either push our way out, in which case we know we have found what we are looking for, or the situation gets darker and more confused, in which case we know we are still ignorant” (1916/2008, p. 155f.; see English 2013).

Dewey contends that by cultivating this phase of thought – analyzing our given perplexity or difficulty – thinking itself becomes an experience (1916/2008, p. 152 and p. 159ff.). Dewey proposes a general structure of reflective experience that follows that experimental method of science (1916/2008; see also 1933/2008; and, 1938a/2008). A reflective experience begins with a basic form of experience, in which we are actively trying something in the world and encounter a difficulty or stopping point in our activity. We then consider all the “data” or resources and knowledge at hand that can help us deal with the difficulty. Following this, we formulate hypotheses and develop new “ideas” that may help explain what has happened. We can then formulate a plan of action and test our hypothesis, either imaginatively in thought, or in action, to verify its validity.

Thinking that follows this general structure is itself “an experience” because we learn something new. In such processes of thinking we are making a “back and forth” motion, looking “back” or reflecting on what we have done and what we know, and looking “forward” to what might be true, that is, to valid ideas that can help us in future attempts at interacting with the world. Thinking is thus what Dewey calls a “method,” from the Greek μέθoδoς, meaning, “way of proceeding.” While all thinking involves having certain aims or ends in mind when assessing new situations, reflective experiences enrich our ability to identify what is significant in new situations so that we can either find the right means to meet our established aims, or potentially decide that our aims need to be modified. Thinking processes that follow the method of reflective experience allow us to gain foresight, such that we gain the ability to make judgments about what is possible or necessary to do in a particular situation. Thinking is involved in both determining the means to meet previously established aims and in creating new aims; it allows us to act with “an end in view” (DE, 152, see also pp. 107–117). The more foresight we have, the better we can formulate our aims to meet the expectations of the situation. For Dewey, thinking “is the method of intelligent learning” (1916/2008, p. 159); it instructs us.

Thinking and Learning

For Dewey, how human beings learn is based in how they experience the world, and our experience of the world is based on a reciprocal relationship between mind and body. Dewey’s discussion of the connection between thinking and experience is part of his general epistemology that shifts focus from knowledge toward inquiry, or “coming to know,” which he equates with the process of learning (see e.g., 1938a/2008). Dewey’s view of reflective experience, which he also calls “reflective activity” (1933/2008), inquiry (1938a/2008) and “the experimental method of intelligence” (Dewey and Childs, 1933/2008), connects his work to that of other pragmatists. A central tenant of pragmatism is that it is important not only to find out that we are in doubt, but to inquire into why we are in doubt. For example, well-known pragmatists such as, Charles Sanders Peirce, emphasized the importance of “real and living doubt,” as a starting point for inquiry. Real and living doubt, as opposed to Cartesian doubt, arises from our interactions within the world around us (Peirce 1994, §3, 374 and 375). William James developed the concept of “leading ideas” which are ideas that guide us out of moments of doubt and difficulty (James 1907/2008, p. 102). Also, George Herbert Mead, discusses what he terms “problems for thought” as starting points for inquiry and underscored the social nature of such problems. As human beings we have shared experiences, and thus we may develop similar problems that are in need of solutions that can help us as a group, not just as individuals (Mead 1964, p. 341). In the pragmatist tradition, doubt, difficulty, and the like are signs that we have arrived at the limits of our existing knowledge and ability, and in order to learn, we have to understand these limits (English 2013).

Dewey’s notion of “learning by doing” understood in the context of pragmatism takes on new meaning. “Doing” becomes the starting point for learning and therefore the starting point for thinking, when thinking is considered an experience. But “doing” alone is not an experience according to Dewey, and just the same it does not comprise the whole of learning. By doing something, we can find out what does not meet our expectations. But, unless we actively think about why the reaction from an object or another person did not meet our expectations, we do not transform the activity into a learning process. Dewey makes this point on several different occasions using a simple example. He writes, if a child touches a hot object, and does not connect what he did with the resulting pain of a burn, then he did not learn (e.g., 1916/2008, pp. 83, 146). Learning by doing thus describes neither the aim of learning nor its general method, but rather a starting point for those types of learning processes that can initiate reflective experiences (English 2013).

A further significant concept connected to Dewey’s learning theory is that of “plasticity” (1916/2008, p. 49ff.), which he also calls “educability” (1916/2008, p. 81). The idea that human beings are “educable” connects Dewey’s thinking to a long tradition of educational philosophy, e.g., Rousseau discusses perfectibilité in Emile (1762/1979) and Herbart discusses Bildsamkeit [educability] in his Allgemeine Pädagogik (1806/1887). These terms refer to the fact that human begins are capable of learning. Dewey connects human plasticity to the idea of “growth.” Growth for Dewey is ateleological; it has no predetermined end (1916/2008). Plasticity or educability is possible on both an individual and social level. Accordingly, each human being can change and grow as an individual, and groups of people can transform their ideas and forms of interaction in ways which better serve the group. For Dewey, a central characteristic of democratic societies is that they offer human beings this possibility for individual, and social, change and growth.

Thinking and Teaching

Thinking and teaching are connected in important ways for Dewey, two of which I will discuss here. First, Dewey contends that the task of teaching and formal education on the whole is to initiate processes of thinking in learners: “The sole direct path to enduring improvement in the methods of instruction and learning consists in centering upon the conditions which exact, promote and test thinking” (1916/2008, p. 159). Dewey is known to be critical of transmission style methods of instruction. He believes these do not initiate reflective thinking, rather overload the minds of learners with facts to be memorized and this dulls the mind (e.g., 1916/2008, p. 159). On such models of teaching, learners are viewed as passive recipients of prepackaged knowledge and the classroom is made into a space for such passive reception, which is seen for example, when learners are placed in rows of desks designed to focus their attention on listening to the teacher (see e.g., 1916/2008 and 1899/2008). Dewey contends that this model of teaching largely results from educational theorists’ and psychologists’ problematic attempts to translate John Locke’s theory of the mind as a blank slate (tabula rasa) into educational practice.

Dewey describes the teacher’s responsibility in the classroom as one of creating opportunities for “educative experiences,” which he contrasts with “miseducative experiences” (1938b/2008). Miseducative experiences are those types of experiences that have the effect of “arresting or distorting” a person’s chance at further growth. Educative experiences support one’s chances for further growth. These follow two principles: continuity (experiential continuum) and interaction (1938b/2008, pp. 10, 17). To have continuity in our experience means that a person has reflectively examined the connections between what one did and what happened in consequence, in order to expand one’s framework of anticipations. Creating such a continuum presupposes that one has interacted with one’s environment and located something that was discontinuous with one’s expectations (English 2013, pp. 93ff.).

Aiming to avoid miseducative experiences and help create educative ones does not entail that the teacher make everything easier for the child. Rather, as Dewey writes, the “art of instruction” is to find the appropriate challenges for learners that initiate reflective thinking and learning processes, that is, to neither over challenge or under challenge learners (1916/2008, p. 164). Dewey also emphasizes that learners must engage with problems they find within their own process of reflective inquiry, which he calls “genuine problems,” in contrast to prepackaged problems handed to them by the teacher. Genuine problems engender learners’ thinking processes, in which they have the opportunity to come to analyze their difficulties and learn to find solutions to these. Teaching does not become easier on this model. Rather, Dewey seeks to make clear that teaching in this way is more difficult than teaching to a script, because the teacher cannot always know in advance what kinds of questions, assignments or activities will properly challenge the learners; many of the learners’ needs and capacities become known to the teacher within the moments of interaction and the teacher has to respond to these needs and capacities. In this way, on Dewey’s model, the learner co-constructs the situations of education. For these reasons, Dewey writes “the teacher becomes a learner, and the learner, without knowing it, a teacher” (1916/2008, p. 167).

This brings us to the second important connection in Dewey’s work between thinking and teaching. Thinking is involved in teaching during the process of designing the lesson plan and developing possible aims for the learners to meet, but also during the teacher-learner interactions which require the teacher to reflectively shift the aims of the lesson, and thus the challenges and questions designed for the learners, in the moment that learners’ needs becomes apparent. The teacher has to not only properly plan for learning but also engage with learners in ways that require the teacher’s own thoughtful reflection on the learning situations that come about. This notion of teaching as involving reflective thinking that is guided by principles of teaching practice connects to Aristotle’s (2000) notion of phronesis, that is, the art of making wise decisions in-the-moment, and to the notion of “pedagogical tact” found in the work of Herbart (1806/1887). The idea that teaching is a profession that demands thoughtful interactions and decision-making guided by principles, as discussed in Dewey’s work, has influenced contemporary notions of teaching as a reflective practice (e.g., Schön 2005).

Thinking and Education

Dewey’s notion of education takes up the ideas of thinking, experience, and learning discussed above. His definition of education contrasts with what he considers the standard or common sense notion of education as transmission of knowledge. On his view, education means the “reconstruction and reorganization of experience,” which both “adds meaning” to our present experience and “increases” our ability to direct future experiences, that is, to make choices about how we want to proceed in subsequent actions, which includes choices in the moral realm concerning how we treat others (1916/2008, p. 82, see also 1938b/2008). Meaning is added to our experience when we genuinely seek to take in and understand the ways our environment (i.e., objects and other people around us) has affected us. In Art as Experience, Dewey emphasizes, the reconstruction of our experiences in this way can be “painful”; it involves changes made in us and in the world around us (1934/2008, p. 47; see also, Dewey 1938b/2008, p. 18).


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Moray House School of EducationUniversity of EdinburghEdinburghUK