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The Impact of John Dewey on Western Education 

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John Dewey was arguably the most prominent educational thinker of the 20th century. His principles set off a series of changes that have impacted what is globally considered best practices in education today. He was of the view that the way education was organized in his days made school seem uninteresting to students whereas life outside school was very interesting. The model for education then, was the assembly line so it was a case of preparing students to fit in a mould designed without much consideration for the interests or intrinsic needs of the student. Also, the schooling system did not adequately prepare students to unearth and maximize their potentials. Students were simply taught a basic set of skills so that they could excel at specific jobs (Cole, 2020). For instance, if the manufacturing industries needed machinists, then that is what students were trained for. There was little regard for finding out what their natural inclinations were or what might suit them better. In Dewey’s opinion, this was not an effective way to achieve social efficiency in the education of children. He opined that they needed to learn how to learn rather than be taught a set of simple skills.

Reading, writing and arithmetic were the main focus of the schools. Learning to read, count and write is necessary for living a meaningful life but are these the only purpose of education? Many thinkers have tried to answer the question – what is the purpose of education? Cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget once said, “The principal goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered”. This an echo of what John Dewey championed in his era. According to Dewey, “education is not a preparation for life; it is life itself. The child lives in the present. The future is meaningless to him. Hence it is absurd to expect him to do things for some future preparation. As the child lives in the present, the educative process will be naturally based on the present needs and interests of the child” (Ayala 2020). That is the essence of the Latin phrase “non scholæ sed vitæ discimus”, which means ‘We do not learn for school, but for life’. It is possible to model in the school what happens in the society since the school can be seen as a microcosm of the world out there. When students are given monitorial duties to carry out or are allowed to participate in student leadership, valuable lessons in democracy can be inculcated.

Another purpose of education identified by Dewey is experience. He said that education helps “The process of the reconstruction of experience, giving it a more socialized value through the medium of increased individual efficiency.” Therefore, as the child interacts with his environment and available tools, there is an unconscious reconstruction of valuable experience which eventually becomes a part of who he is. In an enriched school environment, there is always a continuous search for creative ways to make every experience educational. If a child encounters a problem that causes anxiety, it could be a good opportunity for him to devise a strategy to mitigate the effects or to avoid it. The latent qualities or abilities of the child can thus be developed according to his own abilities and not according to a fixed criterion.

One principle that stands out in Dewey’s body of ideas is the fact that pupils can learn much more effectively by doing or participating in relevant learning experiences rather than by just observing. He was an untiring advocate of meaningful hands-on activities that engage learners at their level of competence. Since every experience has the potential to affect the learner positively or negatively, teachers ought to deliberately design such experiences that will make the desirable impact. Every good school today prides itself with the provision of ample opportunity for students to learn through practical sessions in classrooms, fields, workshops and laboratories.

The traditional system of vocational education prepared learners for specific roles. Dewey was a critique of the concept of using vocational training to supply labor for industry. Students were being prepared for jobs in which they might be trapped for life. The interest in vocational education in the early 20th century was prompted in part by big economic and social changes. Factory owners were facing a shortage of skilled labor in a rapidly industrializing society. “Dewey opposed vocational education because he thought it was building a class distinction right into the design” of public education, says David Stern, whose research focuses on the relationship between education and work. “And I think history proved him right” (Walsh, 2015). Eventually, in the 1990s, vocational programs had become a kind of dumping ground for students who were not succeeding in the mainstream academic environment due to behavior problems or learning disabilities. Dewey’s idea was that both the theory and the practical aspects of a discipline should be introduced to the child based on their interests and propensities. Progressive education asserted that students must be interested in what they were learning and that curriculum should be relevant to students’ lives. He regarded learning by doing and the development of practical life skills as very significant in education (Levin, 2014).

IB education was established to provide a challenging and comprehensive education that would enable students to understand and manage the complexities of our world and provide them with skills and attitudes for taking responsible action for the future. These objectives align with Dewey’s principles of social efficiency and education for life. The IB school environment is organized in such a way that the activities of the outer world are reflected just as Dewey proposed. Students are given the opportunity to encounter real-life problems through the daily activities including CAS which provides the platform for risk-taking, open-mindedness, communicating and caring. These IB learner profile qualities are embedded in Dewey’s principles. Perhaps the most outstanding profile that aligns remarkably with Dewey’s principles is inquiry learning. Dewey pointed out that “Inquiry should be utilized to attain equilibrium and balance in nature. Because it is through one’s inquiry that reflective organisms are able to contemplate with probable actions and measures for self-sustenance and improvement of conditions” (Hickman, 2007). Unlike earlier models of teaching, which relied on authoritarianism and rote learning, IB schools prioritize inquiry-based learning.

The influence of John Dewey on the theory and the practice of not only American education but also education worldwide is noteworthy. Every school that seeks to promote lifelong learning will definitely be subscribing to one or more of Dewey’s time-tested principles.


  • Hanford, E. (2017). The troubled history of vocational education | American RadioWorks |. Retrieved 9 September 2020, from
  • Ayala, D. (2020). An introduction to the study of education. Issuu.
  • Cole, P. (2016). 5 Brilliant Insights About Education from John Dewey | Emerging Education Technologies.
  • Levin, C. (2014). PBS Online: Only A Teacher: Schoolhouse Pioneers. Retrieved 9 September 2020, from
  • Pegg, M. (2020). D is for John Dewey: His Approach to Education – The Positive Encourager. The Positive Encourager.
  • Shawal, M. (2017). 4 Main Aims of Education as Advocated by John Dewey. Your Article Library.  

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