Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Dewey on Educational Research and the Science of Education

  • Craig A. Cunningham
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_49



Dewey’s philosophy of education reflected his belief that schools could be progressively reorganized through the use of science. For Dewey, education and science are united by the centrality of experience and the importance of inquiry. While education must incorporate and reconstruct human ends and values, science can contribute knowledge of the relations between means and ends and thereby afford greater precision and control in the planning and execution of curriculum, instruction, and school administration. Science can also furnish, in its generalized method, one of the most important goals for teaching and learning.

Dewey’s Pragmatic Conception of Science

Science, for Dewey, exemplifies a general trust in experience as the source of knowledge combined with technologies of observation and the control of parameters. “The distinctively intellectual attitude which marks scientific inquiry was generated in efforts at controlling persons and things so that consequences, issues, outcomes would be more stable and assured” (LW 1, p. 105). In Dewey’s conception, science is participatory and democratic, reflecting a commitment to inquiry in the service of securing human values and desired ends. It goes beyond any particular scientific discipline or content, but instead represents a general method or approach to thinking. The “scientific method … represents the only method of thinking that has proved fruitful in any subject…. It is thinking so far as thought has become conscious of its proper ends and of the equipment indispensable for success in their pursuit” (MW 6, p. 78). Because of this general utility across the wide variety of problematic situations, the general method of science is used whether or not the knowledge generated by the disciplines of science is applied or not.

Dewey’s conception of commonsense inquiry is a broader application of the methods of science to human problem solving. Inquiry begins when an obstacle in ongoing routines is encountered. Action is interrupted and reflection ensues. The situation is examined and the problem or problems are defined. The situation’s “inner active distraction, its elements at odds with each other, in tension against each other, each contending for its proper placing and relationship” (MW 2, p. 328) is identified, thus defining a problematic situation. Inquiry is the process of working toward “the restoration of a deliberately integrated experience from the inherent conflict into which it has fallen” (MW 2, p. 336). In this process, facts are identified and knowledge of the possible consequences of these facts – taken from prior experiences – is used to make inferences about what must be done in order to resolve the conflict. The validity of those inferences is determined by whether the problem is solved (and the situation harmonized) when these actions are implemented.

Science follows the very same structure, except it typically aims to produce scientific knowledge rather than merely solving a particular problem. This knowledge has a particular role in human affairs. Scientific “knowledge contributes…the possibility of intelligent administration of the elements of doing and suffering…. When there is possibility of control, knowledge is the sole agency of its realization” (LW 1, p. 29). Science is “a search for those relations upon which the occurrence of real qualities and values depends, by means of which we can regulate their occurrence” (LW 4, p. 83). Science is able to reveal the connections or relations between things by stripping away the qualities of immediate experience and abstracting things in their general or idealized nature as objects of thought, as signs and indicators of those relations and the consequences that may ensue.

When they are found to be stable correlations, relations between facts and consequences may be considered the laws of science. “These are the formulations of the regularities upon which intellectual and other regulation of things … depends” (LW 1, p. 117). Such regularities are also methods which represent “power to use a given fact as a sign of something not yet given” and they extend the “ability systematically to enlarge control of the future” (MW 10, p. 15). Through science, “otherwise disconnected” events are connected “into a consecutive history” (LW 1, pp. 112–113) of meaning. These histories allow causes to be inferred (LW 2, p. 361). With such inferences, generalizations taken from past experiences can be applied to the systematic understanding of the possibilities of present and future experience.

Science improves “our capacity to apply intelligence successfully: to produce, adapt, adjust, accommodate, achieve, institute, identify, order, discriminate, and to ‘resolve’ problems in many other sorts of ways” (Manicas 1998, p. 50). Science can also help us avoid the unpredictable effects of self-interest, passion, laziness, and the biases of tradition or false expectations – which may be especially likely in situations that are social, such as education.

Towards a Science of Education

Dewey brooked no sharp divisions between different arenas of human endeavor, so his conception of science applies both in arenas clearly demarcated as “scientific” (such as the physical sciences) and also in areas of life that seem remote from science. Science as an experimental method, for Dewey, provides the surest way toward solving problems no matter the situation (LW 1, pp. 351, 372). “If the pragmatic idea of truth has itself any pragmatic worth,” he wrote, “it is because it stands for carrying the experimental notion of truth that reigns among the sciences, technically viewed, over into political and moral practices, humanly viewed” (MW 6, p. 31). Thus, science surely has a role in education, as well.

Dewey defines education as “that reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases ability to direct subsequent experience” (MW 9, p. 76). Experience is educative if it results in an expansion of meaning and deepened capacity to grow. Teachers and others who work in schools are consciously working to expand the meanings and contribute to the growth of students. In this effort, they need to use all of the resources available to them, including the findings and methods of science, especially the “human sciences that are sources of the scientific content of education.” But “biology, psychology, and sociology … are relatively backward” when compared with the physical sciences (LW 5, p. 20), due in part to what Dewey saw as a “retarded knowledge of human nature” (LW 2, p. 358). Despite this – and while advocating increased attention to social science research – Dewey believed that the application of the human sciences in education can result in better control of educational situations, promote improvements in school functioning, and allow for a greater variety of approaches to teaching and learning in different situations (Seals 2004). This possibility motivated Dewey’s attention to what he called “educational science.”

The primary difference between education as an arena of human endeavor and something like physics is sheer complexity. “There is no educational practice whatever which is not highly complex; that is to say, which does not contain many other conditions and factors” beyond just the immediate situation of teaching or learning (LW 5, p. 9). This can be contrasted especially with laboratory experiments, where it is possible to create an idealized situation controlling extraneous variables so as to isolate specific parameters for close study. Educational contexts, on the other hand, potentially involve the influence of all of the students’ prior experiences and everything in his or her environment. For this reason, “educational science cannot be constructed simply by borrowing the techniques of experiment and measurement found in physical science” (LW 5, p. 13).

In the physical and experimental sciences,

The control of conditions demanded by laboratory work leads to a maximum of isolation of a few factors from other conditions. The scientific result is rigidly limited to what is established with these other conditions excluded. In educating individualities, no such exclusion can be had. The number of variables that enter is enormous. The intelligence of the teacher is dependent upon the extent in which he takes into account the variables that are not obviously involved in his immediate special task. Judgment in such matter is of qualitative situations and must itself be qualitative (LW 5, p. 33).

As qualitative, educational situations cannot ever be completely standardized. Thus there can be no simple rules of educational practice derived from the findings of science.

But this doesn’t make scientific findings irrelevant. “Material drawn from other sciences furnishes the content of educational science when it is focused on the problems that arise in education” (LW 5, p. 18). In sum, “the sources of educational science are any portions of ascertained knowledge that enter into the heart, head and hands of educators, and which, by entering in, render the performance of the educational function more enlightened, more humane, more truly educational than it was before” (LW 5, p. 39).

Of course, just because a finding is “ascertained” or deemed “scientific” does not make it necessarily relevant to education. Scientific investigations made outside of the educational situation may provide guidance to the educator, or may not. “Practice alone can test, verify, modify and develop the conclusions of these investigations” (LW 5, p. 17). Dewey emphasized that the educator, in his or her role as practitioner working in the context of ongoing education, is in the best position to gauge the value of any given scientific finding. “To suppose that scientific findings decide the value of educational undertakings is to reverse the real case. Actual activities in educating test the worth of the results of scientific results. They may be scientific in some other field, but not in education until they serve educational purposes, and whether they really serve or not can be found out only in practice” (LW 5, pp. 16–17).

Scientific results play their primary role in directing the educator’s “attention, in both observation and reflection, to conditions and relationships which would otherwise” be missed (LW 5, p. 15). The value “resides in the enlightenment and guidance [science] supplies to observation and judgment of actual situations as they arise” (LW 5, p. 15). Its “value for educational practice – and all education is a mode of practice, intelligent or accidental and routine – is indirect; it consists in provision of intellectual instrumentalities to be used by the educator” (LW 5, p. 14). Elsewhere, Dewey specifies these intellectual instrumentalities as “those concepts, general principles, theories and dialectical developments which are indispensable to any systematic knowledge [and are] shaped and tested as tools of inquiry” (LW 2, p. 362).

Research in Practice

Scientific knowledge is the best protection available against the dangers to knowledge mentioned above, including laziness and bias. By offering “a patient and prolonged apprenticeship to fact in its infinite variety and particularity” (MW 12, p. 99), science can counter bias and other enemies of truth. Of particular concern to Dewey was bias that was social or traditional in origin. To defend against that, he applauded Francis Bacon’s call for “the organization of cooperative research, whereby men attack nature collectively and the work of inquiry is carried on continuously from generation to generation.” Bacon’s “great positive prophecy of a combined and cooperative pursuit of science…characterizes our present day” (MW 12, p. 100).

Dewey also supported more localized research, and is often cited as an originator of the concept of action research, in which a practitioner studies his or her own practice in order to “change practices, people’s understandings of their practices, and the conditions under which they practice” (Kemmis 2009, p. 2; see also Greenwood and Levin 1998). Dewey wrote about “the method of intelligence,” which is the application of the scientific method (or, more broadly, reflective thinking) to practice.

A man is intelligent not in virtue of having reason which grasps first and indemonstrable truths about fixed principles, in order to reason deductively from them to the particulars which they govern, but in virtue of his capacity to estimate the possibilities of a situation and to act in accordance with his estimate. In the large sense of the term, intelligence is as practical as reason is theoretical (LW 4, p. 170).

Through apprehending educational possibilities and estimating them in the light of shared values, the educator can apply his or her intelligence, judgment, and knowledge to setting up “conditions favorable to learning” (LW 3, p. 267). When observation of the consequences of these conditions is reflected back into the ongoing practice, research and practice become joined. The knowledge generated in practice is then applied to practice and thereby tested and further refined in a process that Schön (1983) referred to as an “epistemology of practice.”

As knowledge relevant to educational practice is generated in an ongoing cycle of action and reflection, it begins to cohere into a system of facts and laws. This is so-called educational science. It is important to understand that this emerges from practice and isn’t just imposed from outside. In Dewey’s view of education as growth, attention to both the general conditions in favor of learning and the particular needs and interests of each individual student must determine the educator’s actions. “Operating under the auspices of Dewey’s ideas, both researchers and teachers contribute materially to the logic or methodology of the science of education: the former formulating universal ways of acting on which teachers can depend, the latter fashioning methods by which those universal ways of acting may be applied to particular instances of instruction” (Seals 2004, p. 24). Science helps render “those who engage in the act more intelligent, more thoughtful, more aware of what they are about, and thus rectify and enrich in the future what they have been doing in the past.” But the science has to take account of the educator’s “own ideas, plannings, observations, judgments. Otherwise it is not educational science at all, but merely so much … information” (LW 5, p. 39).

The Teacher as Investigator

On this conception of educational science, the classroom teacher is both a “connoisseur” of research (Seals 2004) and a researcher (Grumet 1990). “If teachers are sufficiently alert and intelligent, they go on to notice conditions of the same general nature, but more subtle, and set a problem for further more refined inquiry” (LW 5, p. 19). One of the sections of Dewey’s Sources of a Science of Education is labeled “The Teacher as Investigator” (LW 5, p. 23). This role is critical, as teachers are “the ones in direct contact with pupils and hence the ones through whom the results of scientific findings finally reach students. They are the channels through which the consequences of educational theory come into the lives of those at school” (LW 5, p. 24). Without their assessments of what these consequences are, there can be no improvement in educational science.

Also of central importance to Dewey was his belief that one of the most valuable outcomes of inquiry is the discovery of “what values are worth while and are to be pursued as objectives” (LW 5, p. 38). This applies especially to educational inquiry. Dewey was particularly bothered by the setting up of “a fixed and final set of objectives, even for the time being or temporarily. Each day of teaching ought to enable a teacher to revise and better in some respect the objectives aimed at in previous work” (LW 5, p. 39). Dewey is concerned that if teachers are seen merely as “channels of reception and transmission” for subject matter objectives that are determined outside of the actual educational situation, teaching itself will be conceived as following predefined procedures or rules, with standardized goals or methods formed without regard for “personal potentialities” (LW 2, p. 360). Such a limited conception of teaching misses the opportunity to address the actual students in any given educational situation, or to resolve their actual problems.

Readymade objectives reduce the teacher to technician rather than investigator/researcher. They ignore the teacher’s intimate knowledge of the actual situation and devalue his or her capacity for “constructive imagination and invention” (LW 5, p. 29) and the possibility of “suggesting new ends, new methods, new materials” (LW 5, p. 30). Allowing for objectives to be worked out – or at least modified – in the context of practice respects the capabilities not only of the teacher, but of the student as well. It also ensures that teachers and students can respond to whatever factors in the situation are relevant, whether they can be predicted in advance or not.

Of particular worry to Dewey was the tendency of people outside of the classroom to believe that what goes on within the classroom could be adequately assessed and thereby controlled by the standardized measurement of prespecified outcomes (Seltzer-Kelly 2008). For him, that which is measured can never be taken as the whole of the outcome of education. More important than “forming specific skills and acquiring special bodies of information” were the “other things in the way of desires, tastes, aversions, abilities and disabilities [that the student] is learning along with his specific acquisitions” (LW 5, p. 33). Only an observant teacher who knows his or her particular students is in a position to assess these collateral outcomes and make adjustments for the benefit of the students.

The parent and educator deal with situations that never repeat each other. Exact quantitative determinations are far from meeting the demands of such situations, for they presuppose repetitions and exact uniformities. Exaggeration of their importance tends to cramp judgment, to substitute uniform rules for the free play of thought, and to emphasize the mechanical factors that also exist in schools. They contribute at most to the more efficient working of present practices in some subjects. … But they do not give any help in larger questions of reconstruction of curriculum and methods. What is worse, they divert attention and energy from the need of reconstructions due to change of social conditions and the inertia of the school system (LW 5, pp. 33–34).

In the final analysis, Dewey’s conception of the science of education is rooted in his democratic faith in the intelligence and resourcefulness of all persons, especially teachers who are entrusted with the education and care of the next generation. By granting these teachers the autonomy as well as the responsibility of research-practitioners, education can be continuously improved for the benefit of all.



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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Louis UniversityChicagoUSA