Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Dewey on the Concept of Education as Growth

  • Sarah M. Stitzlein
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_52


To be educated, especially in particular ways, such as for a vocation or citizenship, is often seen as the end of schooling, a terminus of classroom learning. Likewise, growth is often seen as having an end, as having some final point of termination, like reaching adulthood, or of achieving some aim, like mastering a skill. Intriguingly, Dewey disrupts these common understandings to suggest that growth itself is an end and education should be understood as growth.

Growth as an End

Most people understand ends to be fixed points that can be reached through an orderly progression with certainty and clarity. They have a specific mark in mind that they hold as a goal or see as an outcome of a process. For Dewey, however, trajectories tend to be more complicated and precarious. The complexities of life are such that marching toward a specific fixed end can be challenging and even achieving such an end unlikely, especially as one’s environment shifts and changes. Moreover, doing so may be undesirable because holding such a fixed end may entail a limited or even a foreclosed vision of the future. As changes occur in the world, Dewey believes people must continually inquire into their shifting circumstances, develop new hypotheses about them, and revise their aims. For Dewey, this “educative process can be identified with growth when that is understood in terms of the active participle, growing” (1938, p. 19, emphasis in original).

Dewey believes some people wrongly hold “a false idea of growth or development – that is a movement toward a fixed goal. Growth is regarded as having an end, instead of being an end” (1916, p. 55, emphasis in original). For example, when we think of children as reaching a final end of growth, a terminus, in adulthood, we place a static end on growth rather than focusing on the process of growing as itself educative. Dewey’s notion of growth is not linear, and it lacks a narrowly defined teleology. Growth describes how continuous experiences and reconstructions of them can develop one’s physical, intellectual, and moral capacities, actualizing them and helping them inform one another so that they continue in a chain of continuity that enables one to live satisfactorily. For Dewey, “when and only when development in a particular line conduces to continuing growth does it answer to the criterion of education as growing” (1938, p. 20, emphasis in original). Education as growth, then, entails an ongoing succession of educative experiences that shape and develop a person, igniting curiosity and inquiry, and carry him over future struggles, leading into new opportunities for reflection and learning. Education as growth cultivates ones capacities to meet new and unpredictable situations.

In chapter four of Democracy and Education, Dewey offers his most extended discussion of education as growth. There he claims:

Our net conclusion is that life is development, and that developing, growing, is life. Translated into its educational equivalents, that means (i) that the educational process has no end beyond itself; it is its own end; and that (ii) the educational process is one of continual reorganizing, reconstructing, and transforming. (Dewey 1916, p. 54)

Education, then, is the ongoing reconstruction of experience where we learn by inquiring into our circumstances, coming to understand them better, and employing that understanding to shape our future experiences. This is the process of growth, one to be celebrated in and of itself, not for some exterior or fixed goal.

We grow as learning, inquiry, and reconstruction create opportunities for ongoing development and education. Educative experiences produce growth because they carry people from one situation to the next, expanding their understanding and their connections, opening them up to opportunities. Or, in Dewey’s words, they “prepare a person for later experiences of a deeper and more expansive quality” (1938, p. 28). Good and authentic growth, then, is that which provides conditions for ongoing growth, rather than foreclosing opportunities that would enable a person to further flourish. It enables a person to respond flexibly and intelligently to novel future situations so that those situations can be transformed into further educative experiences. Again, in Dewey’s own words, “If education is growth, it must progressively realize present possibilities, and thus make individuals better fitted to cope with later requirements. Growth is not something which is completed in odd moments; it is a continuous leading into the future” (1916, p. 60).

This definition of education as growth is admittedly rather cryptic, especially as it appears in one of his most famous accounts: “Since in reality there is nothing to which growth is relative save more growth, there is nothing to which education is subordinate save more education” (Dewey 1916, p. 56). Situated within his rather counterintuitive discussion of ends and the conditions for growth, statements like these may contribute to some of the criticisms that the notion of education as growth has received. Dewey is criticized for not providing specific ends for education or criteria for assessing growth, which can be malignant – a criticism echoed in the significant work of Richard Hofstadter (1963). He is also criticized for operating under the assumption that growth is ultimately geared toward democratic problem-solving, even though Dewey’s actual depiction of it is open to much broader and conflicting interpretations of growth without normative guidelines as to whether that development might be good (Callan 1982). Such criticisms may reveal a lack of understanding his notion of education as growth or the criteria he provides for determining whether education as growth is effectively occurring. Or such criticisms may be uncovering inconsistencies and problems in Dewey’s account. To better understand how education as growth works and to clarify the foundations related to these criticisms, let us turn to the counterintuitive conditions for growth that Dewey offers.

The Conditions for Education as Growth

Dewey suggests that education as growth is initiated and sustained through immaturity, plasticity, habits, and inquiry. He details the first two primarily in Democracy and Education and expands greatly upon the third in Human Nature and Conduct and the fourth in Experience and Education.


Dewey begins by claiming, “The primary condition of growth is immaturity” (1916, p. 46). Whereas immaturity is commonly understood negatively, as an absence or lack, Dewey surprisingly emphasizes the positive element of immaturity as a capacity for growth. Immaturity entails “the ability to develop” and “the power to grow” (p. 46–47, emphasis in original). It is immaturity that goads us to come to understand our surroundings and increasingly develop control over them. It is immaturity that supplies the inquisitive drive to explore the world and to cultivate skills for living within it.

Dewey similarly argues that while children are typically thought of as being dependent – another negative connotation – dependence actually provides the conditions that urge children to develop new abilities. Children constructively build new proficiencies and acquire new knowledge through a process of interdependence, whereby children employ social skills that elicit cooperative help from others despite and, importantly, because of, their physical dependence on adults. Immaturity and dependence force children to engage in interdependent transactions with those around them, initiating learning and ultimately helping them to become better members of a community. In this regard, rather than seeing children as lacking or as “not yet adults,” Dewey locates great potential within their unique position.


Dewey goes on to explain “The specific adaptability of an immature creature for growth constitutes his plasticity” (1916, p. 49, emphasis in original). Plasticity enables us to learn from our experiences, change our activities and our environments to meet our needs, and develop habits that allow us to function well. It is plasticity that allows children to adapt to their world and ushers growth from one educative experience to the next. When we adapt to the changing world as we try things out in varied situations, we cultivate a habit of learning – we learn how to learn (p. 50).


This discussion of learning how to learn leads Dewey into describing another condition of growth: habits. Habits begin as impulses, located in the nexus of immaturity and plasticity in children. Impulses are natural activities that are shaped and collected into habits as children interact with and inquire into their surroundings, including cultural norms that dictate typical and accepted ways of behaving. Habits are dispositions and ways of acting that are performed largely without effort or conscious attention.

Significantly for Dewey, a habit should be understood as a predisposition to act or as sensitivity to ways of being, rather than as merely an inclination to repeat identical acts, as many people more commonly understand habits. Dewey explains:

Any habit marks an inclination—an active preference and choice for the conditions involved in its exercise. A habit does not wait, Micawber-like, for a stimulus to turn up so that it may get busy; it actively seeks for occasions to pass into full operation. (1916, p. 53, emphasis in original)

Habits are active, projecting themselves into the world to pursue desires and to continue the chain of educative experiences. This is partially enabled because habits “do all the perceiving, recognizing, imagining, recalling, judging, conceiving and reasoning that is done” (Dewey 1922, p. 124). Habits are the mechanisms that enable us to inquire into our world and provide the working capacities that help us to know how to act in the world.


Habits and thought are closely related insofar as habits enable us to implement thought – to test it out. In return, reflecting on one’s actions and experiments allows for the development of new and better habits. We employ intelligent reflection and inquiry not only to reconstruct our world and our experiences but also to reconsider and reshape our habits when problematic conditions or novel situations arise. It is the intellectual aspect of habits that gives them meaning and keeps a person elastic and growing. Or, in Dewey’s words:

The habits of mind involved in habits of the eye and hand supply the latter with their significance. Above all, the intellectual element in a habit fixes the relation of the habit to varied and elastic use, and hence to continued growth. (1916, p. 53)

Good habits are intelligent and flexible, enabling us to appropriately respond to our changing world and carrying us over from one experience to the next, thereby enabling growth. By the same token, bad habits are those that become fixed and disconnected from intelligence. They are restrictive, having a hold on us, rather than us on them. Bad habits stop plasticity, disabling the conditions for growth. Dewey explains:

the acquiring of habits is due to an original plasticity of our natures: to our ability to vary responses till we find an appropriate and efficient way of acting. Routine habits, and habits that possess us instead of our possessing them, are habits which put an end to plasticity. They mark the close of power to vary. (1916, p. 54)

Here Dewey brings together immaturity, plasticity, and habit, which leads into his discussion of inquiry as guiding these three elements in the process of growth.

It is inquiry that helps us understand, control, and reconstruct our environments and our experiences. We grow when we learn from our experiences and cultivate better, more flexible and more intelligent, habits because of them. Forming hypotheses and testing them out are central steps in Dewey’s process of inquiry. When habits themselves are formed tentatively as hypotheses in light of intelligent consideration of the present and informed predictions into an admittedly uncertain future, habits can be flexible agents of change whose form emerges as situations unfold. In this way, habits, facilitated through intelligent inquiry, are projective and sites of agency. They can be changed in ways that develop the person as a part of educative growth while effecting change on the world as well.

The Communal Nature of Growth

Importantly for Dewey, habits, inquiry, and the growth they enable should not be understood merely in terms of individuals. Rather, they are located within communities, the practices of democracy, and collective inquiry. Habits develop as individuals transact with their surroundings, including other people, laws, and traditions. Although each person acquires a unique set of habits and ways of enacting them, our shared experiences and similar transactions with our world lead many people’s habits to be alike. These similar habits may then become customs because they are typical ways of behaving within a social group and often they come to be seen as good or appropriate ways to act, which we intentionally pass on to children. Habits are most overtly cultivated in schools, where children watch, imitate, and interact with others as they learn through both direct and indirect teaching. Teachers there oversee the inquiry process, helping children to best use the relationship between thought and habit to improve themselves and to learn. Reflecting upon habits and inquiring into surroundings often entail interacting with others to test out different ways of acting in order to determine which secure satisfactory living for oneself and flourishing for one’s community. One element of growth is that of becoming part of the human tradition that is continually being reshaped anew. The growth of individuals is sought alongside growth of the community.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of CincinnatiCincinnatiUSA