Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Dewey on Educational Aims

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_50



Throughout his oeuvre, John Dewey tackled broad questions about the purposes of education. What does education provide for society? How might education best serve individuals? Dewey’s answers to these questions about educational aims sometimes varied. In 1916, in Democracy and Education, Dewey wrote that “the aim of education is to enable individuals to continue their education… the object and reward of learning is continued capacity for growth” (Dewey 1916/1980, p. 107). In 1921, in an essay on “Aims and Ideals in Education” contributed to the Encyclopaedia and Dictionary of Education, Dewey again defended “growth as aim and ideal” in education (Dewey 1921/1983). In 1930, in the essay “Philosophy and Education,” Dewey wrote that “the ultimate aim of education is nothing other than the creation of human beings in the fullness of their capacities” (Dewey 1930/1984, p. 289). And in 1938 in Experience and Education, Dewey wrote that the “ideal aim of education is creation of power of self-control” (Dewey 1938/1998, p. 41).

To many of Dewey’s supporters and critics, his formulations of ideal educational aims were enigmatic. In the day-to-day life of schooling, what might aiming at “growth” look like? Dewey did not present his educational ideal as an oracle, with the hope that others would revel in and work through the ambiguities of his account. He rather endeavored to explain at length the criteria for good aims generally, and good educational aims specifically, particularly in his most comprehensive work on educational philosophy, Democracy and Education. When Dewey was writing in the early part of the twentieth century, others were defending a variety of concrete aims of education – that schooling ought to foster discipline, or cultivate students’ personalities, or serve the State. Dewey prominently critiqued three aims in particular – nature, social efficiency, and culture (discussed below) – in order to elucidate his own conception of valuable educational aims. Before turning to his critique of those aims, Dewey’s own aims and his criteria for good aims must be considered. And his conception of educational aims was rooted in his ideas about the role of education and citizenship in a democracy, so that shall be considered next.

The Democratic Citizen and the Education Necessary for Democracy

Dewey famously argued that “democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living” (1916/1980, p. 93). For Dewey, education for democratic citizenship does not merely serve to help people acquire the literacy necessary to cast an informed vote, nor should it be training for one to advance or defend one’s narrow interests, nor should it emphasize how to submit to the rule of the majority. Rather, the democratic mode of associated living is one in which “the interests of a group are shared by all its members, and the fullness and freedom with which it interacts with other groups” (p. 105). Education for democratic citizenship must prepare people to live well with one another, developing each person’s capacities and simultaneouslylaying the foundation for mutually beneficial social interaction.

Since Dewey viewed mutually enriching social interactions among the diverse groups in society as critical to the quality of life in a democracy, rigid segregation along socio-economic, religious, ethno-racial, or other lines was an obstacle to genuine democracy. Hence an education that can help develop “shared interests” among citizens will help to weaken divisions in society. Individuals, or a community of people, who view their interests as unique or in conflict with the interests of others, will exacerbate social divisions. They will also be less inclined to seek out opportunities for social interaction with other groups, and those interactions are, for Dewey, one of the best ways for a group’s interests to evolve in light of new experiences. Social interaction is necessary but not sufficient for a flourishing democracy – its citizens must additionally be inclined to observe, investigate, and inquire; in short, they must desire throughout their experiences and their lives to grow, to continue their education.

If one recognizes that the Deweyan conception of democratic citizenship requires a fundamental openness to others as a means for enabling the evolution of interest and ideals, it becomes clearer why his educational aims are somewhat obscure. For Dewey, education must not aim at any fixed, rigid end because society should not aim at any fixed end. Each individual and society as a whole must be responsive to changing circumstances. If education aims at “growth” or “to enable people to continue their education” alone – rather than some fixed end – it might create the kind of citizens who readily accommodate and adapt to new experiences and information, improving their own lives and their society. Developing the fullness of people’s capacities is, in this Deweyan framework, the ultimate ideal of education because those capacities enable people to engage intelligently with one another and with their environment. And intelligence entails a fundamental willingness to reconsider one’s beliefs and ideals in light of changes in the world. Dewey’s statement that the “ideal aim of education is creation of power of self-control” is no radical departure from the aim of education as growth. Self-control is essential for intelligent engagement with others and the world – the ability to pursue some particular goal via observation and testing, in the face of distraction or obstacles. As Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education, “aims mean acceptance of responsibility for the observations, anticipations, and arrangements required in carrying on a function” (p. 114). A person requires self-control because, in its absence, one merely indulges impulses rather than developing capacities through the power of thinking, reasoning, and investigating. Self-control is necessary to empower people to follow through with their plans. Good intentions alone will not improve the individual or society – one needs the ability to work tirelessly, and intelligently, to achieve one’s objectives.

The Criteria for Good Aims in Education

Dewey’s conception of an educated person and a democratic society aligned with the criteria for good aims that he outlined in Democracy and Education. Dewey wrote that good aims must be (a) an outgrowth of existing conditions, (b) flexible, and (c) an “end-in-view.” A good aim in education is sought because it presents some kind of resolution to a difficulty or a question that one faces. A good aim is one that is rooted in a genuine problem confronting a person; it is “founded upon the intrinsic activities and needs (including original instincts and acquired habits) of the given individual to be educated” (p. 114). The educational implication of such an aim is that it is preferable and more pedagogically effective if students are occupied with problems that relate to their lives, particularly so if students come to recognize the problem on their own and then seek its resolution. Consider the following example. Two teachers share an aim – to introduce students to fractions. One approaches the lesson by drawing a circle on the board and dividing it into eight parts. The second purchases pies for the class, divides the class into groups, and then tasks them with dividing the pies. Both teachers have an aim: introducing fractions. To the students who find themselves in these two classes, both these aims are, to some degree, external, foreign, and therefore not good aims. Yet the pies possess the potential to appeal to students in a way that the circle on the board does not. Dewey was quite concerned about the damage of externally supplied ends which “limit intelligence because, given ready-made, they must be imposed by some authority external to intelligence, leaving to the latter nothing but a mechanical choice of means” (p. 111). However, Dewey does not require that students discover all of their aims on their own (more on that below in the discussion of “nature as aim”). Rather, teachers have, and ought to have, educational aims (in addition to the students’ aims). So the question becomes, how well can a teacher connect her aims to students’ aims? Doing so would require that the subject matter is actually meaningful to students (as dessert tends to be). Additionally, a good educational aim requires an environment that can be used to “liberate and to organize [students’] capacities” (p. 115) – and dividing pies might help cultivate powers of observation and investigation. Yet even better than the teacher who provides pies would be one who observes students and anchors the lesson in an object or idea in which they are interested. Perhaps the children are not preoccupied with desserts but regularly jostle over marbles. A bag of marbles can easily be substituted for pies, better aligning the teacher’s aim and the students’.

The second criterion of a good aim is flexibility. At times in the pursuit of an aim, new information may arise that might cause one to alter the aim. If an aim is the outgrowth of one’s conditions, the aim should be responsive to changing circumstances. If I found myself in a colder climate, I might aim to purchase a new winter coat, hat, and gloves. The aim is responsive to my needs and my environment. If I happened to receive a coat as a gift, I would revise my aim to purchase or knit only the hat and gloves. Dewey counsels that all aims are initially a “mere tentative sketch.” Teachers’ aims for students and students’ own aims should be flexible because in the process of working towards an aim, new information might lead one to refine or revise the aim. Furthermore, the aim must be flexible not only in that it may be revised due to changing circumstances, it must also be experimental in that it is “constantly growing as it is tested in action” (p. 112).

Dewey’s third criterion emphasizes that no aim ought to be final or complete. Indeed, Dewey suggests that we would better think of an aim as an “end in view.” There is no final resting point when we achieve an aim. We are always faced with new information, new ideas, and new challenges because interaction with other people and the world at large will always present us with infinite variety. The student who successfully achieves the aim of learning about combustion in a science class, for example, is not finished. Her goal was “but a phase of the active end… a ‘freeing activity’” that better enables her to pursue further goals (p. 112). Dewey argued that “an end which grows up within an activity as plan for its direction is always both ends and means… Every mean is a temporary end until we have attained it. Every end becomes a means of carrying activity further as soon as it is achieved” (p. 113).

Dewey’s articulation of the aim of “growth” or further learning meets this criterion because it is not “general” or “ultimate” in that it entails no final accomplishment. Growth and further learning are aims in education because they arise out of the students’ and teachers’ activities and are responsive to those activities. He pointed out that education itself, an abstract concept, has no aims; rather teachers, parents, and other people have aims. “Final” aims of education, imposed externally on students or schools, will be less likely to connect meaningfully to the students’ and teachers’ experiences. Dewey dwells on his contemporaries’ rival aims of education to demonstrate how, when pursued exclusively, they cultivate only a limited range of capacities. Those final aims, however, are not fundamentally misguided, but rather simply too exclusive, too narrow: “One statement of an end may suggest certain questions and observations, and another statement another set of questions, calling for other observations. Then the more general ends we have, the better” (p. 117). Thus, for Dewey, the aims of education that others defend are really compatible. Each aim of education – articulated by a particular person or community – is a response to a real or perceived need in a situation. Such aims, therefore, are valuable, as long as they are not conceived of and sought exclusively, at the expense of neglecting other worthwhile aims. Dewey’s critique of nature, social efficiency, and culture as aims helps to make this point clear.

Nature, Social Efficiency, and Culture as Aims of Education

Dewey’s emphasis on “growth” as an educational aim, and the importance of students cultivating the kind of disposition in which they seek to further their education, in school and outside of school, led some of his readers to interpret him as saying that what students learn is unimportant. These readers thought Dewey proposed that teachers should allow students to grow, to become lifelong learners, by discovering their passions and following their interests. Indeed, some of the child-centered, progressive educators whom critics associated with Dewey did believe that teachers must allow students the room to pursue whatever ideas arose out of their circumstances and activities. They believed that students were naturally curious and that students learned naturally and effortlessly in whatever environments they found themselves. Provide students with a rich, stimulating environment and teachers could, to some degree, simply get out of the way and let students’ natures guide them.

“Nature” as an educational aim, for Dewey, captures many important facts about the process of education. Education indeed ought to make the most of students’ natural capacities and interests. But Dewey finds that this educational aim limits the student: “merely to leave everything to nature was, after all, but to negate the very idea of education” (p. 99). There is indeed a strong role for the Deweyan teacher and the curriculum, both of which prepare students for productive engagement with others and their world. Dewey dismisses the idea that the kind of citizen he envisages could arise out of a fundamentally individualistic education as defended by the “nature” as aim advocates. Dewey’s conception of democratic citizenship emphasizes social interactions and developing shared interests. “Nature” as aim is helpful in that it encourages educators to focus on the capacities of the child, but limited in that nature does not supply the ends of children’s development (pp. 120–121).

Social efficiency as aim errs on the other extreme. Rather than failing to consider how education ought to prepare a student for their broader contribution to and interaction with society, social efficiency as an aim prioritized the State over the individual – that is, the efficient State is one in which schools primarily prepare people for their role in society. The social efficiency advocates of Dewey’s day called for vocational education, among other things. Dewey thought that social efficiency was indeed valuable in that every person who maximizes their potential and finds a place to contribute to their society generates greater social efficiency. But social efficiency as an exclusive educational aim denies the student an opportunity to develop her capacities and interests and would limit the contact between different groups in society.

The proponents of “culture” as aim argued that an individual flourishes via an encounter with the preeminent products of human civilization – great literature, art, and history, for example. Dewey appreciated the recognition that schools should very much introduce students to the great products of human civilization and that these encounters could help students develop their own capacities and interests. However, he worried that culture as an aim of education implied a remote curriculum, one that failed to engage students’ interests adequately. Failing to engage their interests, it would fail to expand their interests, and fail to cultivate their capacities for inquiry.

Yet “culture” understood more robustly was indeed worthwhile. A person who productively makes use of the vast riches of culture in her encounters with others is cultured. Culture is fully compatible with nature as aim, because only when a person draws on her interests will she make the best use of a community’s cultural inheritance, and encounters with that cultural inheritance expand her interests. And this sort of person will utilize her skills and interests to secure social efficiency in that she will be a productive citizen. Thus nature, social efficiency, and culture (and other aims of education) are all theoretically compatible, as long as they respond to students’ genuine concerns and are not treated as exclusive.


Dewey’s educational ideal – whether he formulated it in terms of growth, further learning, or self-control – is rooted in a conception of democratic citizenship in which every person has the opportunity to reach her potential and develop varied interests. Each person contributes to society by finding and making use of her unique talents. And she continues to expand her interests and capacities through meaningful interactions with other citizens. The pedagogical implications of such an ideal entail rich experiences in which the student never simply indulges interests but rather observes, inquires, and questions – always growing, always learning.



  1. Dewey, J. (1916/1980). Democracy and education: An introduction to philosophy of education. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), The middle works: 1899–1924, volume 9, 1916 (pp. 1–370). Carbondale/Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Dewey, J. (1921/1983). Contribution to the encyclopaedia and dictionary of education. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), The middle works, 1899–1924, volume 13, 1921–1922 (pp. 399–405). Carbondale/Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Dewey, J. (1930/1984). Philosophy and education. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), The later works, 1925–1953: Voume 5, 1929–1930 (pp. 289–298). Carbondale/Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Dewey, J. (1938/1988). Experience and Education. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), The later works of John Dewey, 1925–1953: volume 13,1938-1939 (pp. 1–62). Carbondale/Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of TulsaTulsaUSA