Experience & Education

Experience & Education is a short book written in 1938 by John Dewey, a pre-eminent educational theorist of the 20th century. It provides a concise and powerful analysis of education.[1] In this and his other writings on education, Dewey continually emphasizes experience, experiment, purposeful learning, freedom, and other concepts of progressive education. Dewey argues that the quality of an educational experience is critical and stresses the importance of the social and interactive processes of learning.

Dewey suggested that students organize fact-based comprehension through meta-cognition, or by building onto prior experiences, preconceptions, and knowledge, and therefore, the educator’s role is in creating an educative experience.

Dewey argues that not all experiences are educative and that, in fact, some experiences can be mis-educative. The central challenge to experience-based learning is to create fruitful experiences and organize them in progression to guide students’ learning. A mis-educative experience stymies the growth of further experiences. Enjoyable experiences may be mis-educative if they are disconnected and promote dispersive, disintegrated and centrifugal habits. In traditional schools, people associated boredom with the learning process. The experiences had by teachers and students were of the “wrong kind.” It Is not the absence of experiences in traditional schooling that Dewey finds troubling, but the defective nature of these experiences. Therefore, the educator’s duty is to determine the quality of an experience. Each experience has two aspects: the immediate agreeableness or disagreeableness and its later impact on further experience.

Dewey maintains that students must feel a sense of purpose in their learning to avoid mental slavery. Dewey describes a slave as someone who “executes the purpose of another or is enslaved to his own blind desires.” A genuine purpose consists of impulses, desires that are measured against perceived consequences. A purpose involves thinking about future consequences resulting from acting upon impulse. Schooling should not just concern itself with appealing to a student’s desires or impulses. Educators must help students foresee the consequences of enacted impulses and desires. More importantly educators must help drive the direction of the purpose. The formation of purposes involves: observation of objective conditions; an assessment of past experiences with similar conditions; and judgment of observation combined with memory to determine significance.


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