John Dewey Theory of Learning By Doing explained (2023)

John Dewey Theory of Learning By Doing explained (1)

John Dewey Theory: this article provides a practical explanation of the John Dewey theory. Next to what it is, this article also highlights the importance of learning by doing, the reformation of the educational system, this theory applied in the classroom and the vision of Democracy and Society. After reading, you’ll have a basic understanding of this change management theory. Enjoy reading!

What is the John Dewey Theory?

John Dewey is one of the big names in the history of educational theories. John Dewey was influential in countless fields and had lots of ideas concerning educational reform. His collection of views, philosophies and radically different ideas on education have been combined in the John Dewey theory.

In many countries, the modern educational system looks the way it does thanks to John Dewey. His approach to schooling was revolutionary for his time and proves to be fundamentally important for modern education to this day. John Dewey probably gained the most publicity thanks to his role in the studies into progressive education.

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Progressive education in essence is a vision of education that emphasises the necessity of learning by doing. According to the John Dewey theory, people learn best through a hands-on approach.

As a result, the philosophies and views of John Dewey are placed in the educational philosophy of pragmatism.

John Dewey Theory of learning by doing

John Dewey and other pragmatists are convinced that students or other persons who are learning must experience reality as it is. From John Dewey’s educational point of view, this means that students must adapt to their environment in order to learn.

The John Dewey Education Theory shows that the great thinker had the same ideas about teachers. His view of the ideal classroom had many similarities with democratic ideals. Dewey posits that it isn’t just the student who learns, but rather the experience of students and teachers together that yields extra value for both.

Reformation of the Educational System

Children learn better when they interact with their environment and are involved in the school’s learning plan, according to John Dewey.

He rejected most of the theories that were popular at the time, such as behaviourism, and dismissed these as being too simplistic and insufficiently complex to describe learning processes.

In those days, at the end of the 20th century, it was assumed by many people that children were passive recipients of knowledge. The John Dewey theory, however, directly opposes this.

John Dewey argued that education can only truly be effective when children have learning opportunities that enable them to link current knowledge to prior experiences and knowledge.

This was a ground-breaking idea in those days. Particularly the part related to experience learning, where children come into contact with their environment, was revolutionary.

Educational Experiment John Dewey

The above shows that John Dewey was a great advocate of progressive educational reform. He was convinced that the educational system was flawed and that it should focus on learning by doing.

He and his wife Harriet therefore started their own experimental primary school: the University Elementary School. It was part of the University of Chicago, and the goal was to test his own theories. His wife was fired however, as a result of which Dewey resigned.

Over 25 years later, in 1919, Dewey founded The New School for Social Research in collaboration with his colleagues Charles Beard, James Harvey Robinson and Wesley Slair Mitchell. This too was a progressive, experimental school that encouraged the free exchange of ideas in the field of arts and social sciences.

His revolutionary ideas soon bore fruit. In the twenties of the previous century, Dewey gave a lecture on educational reform in schools all over the world. He was very impressed by experiments in the Russian school system.

(Video) John Dewey’s 4 Principles of Education

This taught him that students particularly had to focus on interactions with the present. The John Dewey theory, however, doesn’t reject the value of learning about the past.

John Dewey Theory Applied in the Classroom

Particularly in those days, between the two world wars, it was common that desks were set up in rows in the classroom and the students wouldn’t leave their chair all day. This was what John Dewey meant with the fact that children were viewed as passive recipients of knowledge.

They really had no say in the learning process whatsoever and they certainly couldn’t indicate whether they liked to learn more on a specific subject. John Dewey was also very clear about how things could be improved. These ideas are no longer radical today, but at the beginning of the previous century, his view of education clashed with the policy and view of most schools.

Interdisciplinary Curriculum

The John Dewey theory recommends an interdisciplinary curriculum, or a curriculum that focuses on connecting multiple subjects where students can freely walk in and out of classrooms.

In this way, they pursue their own interests, and build their own method for acquiring and applying specific knowledge. In this setting, the teacher has a facilitating role. According to John Dewey, the teacher should observe the student’s interests, follow the directions, and help them develop problem-solving skills.

As stated, it was common in those days that the teacher stood in front of the group of students and provided information all day long.

The students’ task was to absorb the information and test this in the form of an exam or other written test. John Dewey’s ideal describes an entirely different function of the teacher.

According to Dewey, the teacher should only provide background information and have the students work together in groups on the concept. This should start conversation and discussion, and give rise to valuable collaboration. Although the written exam would continue to play an important role, particularly presentations, projects and other evaluation techniques are used to keep track of the progress.

John Dewey & Psychology

During his period at the University of Michigan, John Dewey published two books: Psychology, and Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning the Human Understanding.

Although he was still a philosophy professor there, he and his colleagues began to reformulate psychology, emphasising the mind and behaviour. The ideas on psychology in the John Dewey education theory
also differ strongly from the standards at that time.

Their new psychology style, called functional psychology, focused on action and application. They reasoned that it went against the traditional concept of stimulus-response.

Although he didn’t deny the existence of stimulus and response, he didn’t agree that these were separate, individual events. He developed the idea that there is a certain form of coordination that enhances stimulation through past results.

John Dewey’s Vision of Democracy and Society

John Dewey believed that democracy is an ethical ideal and not just a political structure. He considered participation rather than representation as the essence of democracy.

Furthermore, he insisted on the interaction and harmony between democracy and the scientific method. He saw an increasingly larger and critical research community, drawing on their pragmatic principles and convictions.

The Role of Women in Society

John Dewey also had a controversial view of the role of women in society for his time. He was convinced that the woman’s place in society was determined by a woman’s environment rather than by biology. He noted that women are perceived based on their gender too much.

According to the John Dewey theory, this gender qualification must be removed. Subsequently, the view of women will change, because the generalisations about women have turned out to be incorrect.

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Now It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Are you familiar with the explanation of the John Dewey theory? Which elements of his contributions do you recognise in everyday life? Which other great thinkers preceded Dewey in his vision? How do you think the educational system would have developed if thinkers like Dewey hadn’t shared their vision? What’s your vision on education during Covid-19?

(Video) Learning by Doing (directors cut)

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Dewey, J. (1989). The Later Works of John Dewey, 1949-1952: 1949-1952, Essays, Typescripts, and Knowing and the Known (Vol. 16). SIU Press.
  2. Dewey, J. (2014). John Dewey. The Middle Works, 1899–1924.
  3. Schilpp, P. A. (1939). The Philosophy of John Dewey.
  4. Shook, J. R. (2000). Dewey’s empirical theory of knowledge and reality. Vanderbilt University Press.

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    What is learning by doing according to John Dewey? ›

    Learning by doing refers to a theory of education. This theory has been expounded by American philosopher John Dewey and Latinamerican pedagogue Paulo Freire. It is a hands-on approach to learning, meaning students must interact with their environment in order to adapt and learn.

    What is learning by doing explanation? ›

    Definition. Learning by doing is the process whereby people make sense of their experiences, especially those experiences in which they actively engage in making things and exploring the world.

    What is learning by doing theory examples? ›

    Perhaps the most obvious example of the “learning by doing” method has to do with skill development. How did you learn to ride a bike? It was probably not by studying it or from hearing others' experiences, but rather by picking up your vehicle and failing repeatedly – until, one day, you made it.

    What philosophy relates to the idea of Dewey's about learning by doing explain? ›

    The American philosopher, John Dewey, first popularized learning by doing. For Dewey, this meant a heavy emphasis on student engagement. This approach upended the traditional notion that learning happens through lectures and rote memorization.

    What type of learning is by doing? ›

    Kinesthetic learners are individuals who prefer to learn by doing. They enjoy a hands-on experience.

    What are the objectives of learning by doing? ›

    "Learning by doing" is active, hands-on, and engaging for 4-H members. The goal of this teaching approach is for learners to construct mental models that allow for "higher order" performance such as applied problem-solving and the transferring of information and skills (Churchil , 2003).

    Is progressivism learning by doing? ›

    Progressivist teachers believe: Learning comes naturally to children. Children learn by doing. They should teach skills over content.

    What is it called when you learn better by doing? ›

    Kinaesthetic Learners learn through doing. This is perhaps the most challenging learning style for university students, as there are not always many opportunities to engage in hands on learning in lectures. For this reason, labs and tutorials become even more essential for these learners.

    What is the importance of learning by doing of John Dewey? ›

    Dewey believed that learning by doing enabled students to develop their problem-solving skills. They could then clarify the learning and apply it in their future lives. Today this is considered obvious.

    What is the main point of Dewey's philosophy of education? ›

    Dewey's method of teaching is based on the pragmatic philosophy that says that education should be about life and growth and teachers should teach students things that are practical for life and encourage them to grow into better individuals.

    What are the characteristics of learning by doing? ›

    The process of acquiring, ingesting, and storing information is called learning. The main objective of learning is to gain knowledge through interaction, practice, and experience that can change human behavior. Human beings are exposed to various types of learning during their lifetime.

    Why should students learn by doing? ›

    When students are forced to do something, they are engaged in active learning. They're practicing their critical thinking skills and they're putting their knowledge to the test. Most importantly, this form of learning gives opportunities for students to actively create knowledge, instead of passively consuming it.

    What is the principle suggesting learn by doing known As_____? ›

    Thus, it is concluded that Work education is based on the principle of learning by doing. Work education is a comprehensive term, it includes professional skill development, practical work, knowledge through senses, etc.

    What does it mean by progressive education emphasizes learning by doing? ›

    Progressive education: emphasizes to enhance skills and understanding of the learners by engaging with the contents and experiences. promotes 'learning by doing' to make children self-reliant and productive to use their knowledge and talents effectively.

    What is the teaching strategy of progressivism? ›

    Progressivist teachers try making school interesting and useful by planning lessons that provoke curiosity. In a progressivist school, students are actively learning. The students interact with one another and develop social qualities such as cooperation and tolerance for different points of view.

    What is the most efficient way to learn? ›

    One of the most impactful learning strategies is “distributed practice”—spacing out your studying over several short periods of time over several days and weeks (Newport, 2007). The most effective practice is to work a short time on each class every day.

    What are the 4 principles of John Dewey? ›

    Its key theorist is John Dewey. It has four principles: Unity, Interest, Experience, and Integration. Pragmatic teachers use active project-based learning strategies in the classroom and focus on topics relevant to students' lives.

    What is learning by doing or experiential learning? ›

    Experiential Learning is the process of learning by doing. By engaging students in hands-on experiences and reflection, they are better able to connect theories and knowledge learned in the classroom to real-world situations.

    Who coined the term learning by doing? ›

    Similarities between our experience and other well-known methods such as problem-based learning, problem solving and, more generally, the concept of learning by doing coined by John Dewey in his philosophy of education, are mentioned.

    What are the 4 basic principles of learning? ›

    Four learning principles of PBL
    • Constructive education. Learning should be an active process, in which you gain knowledge from your experiences and interactions with your environment. ...
    • Learning in a relevant context. ...
    • Collaborative learning. ...
    • Self-directed education.

    What are the 3 principles of learning? ›

    Edward Thorndike developed the first three "Laws of learning:" readiness, exercise and effect.

    What are the benefits of learning by doing John Dewey? ›

    Dewey thought that this type of practical learning combines more learning recourses than any other method. Partly because you do something, partly because you do it together and thereby acquire social interest and moral knowledge. The goal is to make the children want more teaching.

    What is the value of learning by doing? ›

    Learning by Doing is a training method that promotes practical hands-on learning experiences (instructional, learning while working). Practical learning is the opposite of theoretical learning, placing the focus on real-life experience. The Learning by Doing approach considerably increases the retention of information.

    What is learning Through Doing called? ›

    Experiential learning focuses on learners reflecting on their experience of doing something, so as to gain conceptual insight as well as practical expertise.


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