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John Dewey

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John Dewey: Learning Objectives

After this section, participants should be able to meet the following objectives: 

  • Understand the main principles of John Dewey's educational philosophy
  • Describe John Dewey's contribution to the field of peace education
  • Understand how to apply John Dewey's ideas to a classroom setting


Guiding Questions 

As you read this section, consider the following questions: 

  • What is the relationship between democracy and education?
  • How can the real-world issues of students be integrated into the curriculum?
  • Is an incremental approach the best approach to social change? 




John Dewey (1859-1952) is one of the most prolific philosophers from the United States.  He is considered the founder of the progressive movement, a movement based on promoting societal change via incremental change rather than an overhaul of the system.  He is best known for his work with education and democracy. 



Democracy and Education

John Dewey believed that the promise of humanity was limitless, and that the purpose of education was to provide people with the skills and knowledge to use this potential to be the best that they could be as individuals.  By being the best possible individuals, the best possible (global) society could be built.  However, he also believed that humanity had limitless potential in a less positive direction: the limitless potential to demoralize and promote violence.  He saw this potential for harm in the problems of racism, ethnocentrism, in the class system that capitalism promoted, and also in the manner in which schools taught their students.  According to Dewey, the solution to these problems was an education that promoted democracy and peace.  The focus on democracy came from the belief that democracy was the best model for the positive growth of individuals and society.


Creating Positive Environments for Learning

Dewey's philosophy stressed the importance of viewing the classroom as the locus of creating a community centered around learning. Dewey believed that teachers could not simply give education and students could not simply get it.  For teachers to be effective they needed to structure lessons in a manner that reached students' interests.  This meant that students had the main role in determining what areas they were interested in learning about.  This also meant that classrooms were structured around the idea that teachers and students are co-discoverers in the classroom, rather than a teacher who simply fills the head of a student.  In Dewey's philosophy of learning, the environment is key.  He defined environment as curriculum, instructional methods and physical setting.  With regards to the curriculum he believed that topics needed to be large enough to challenge the current conceptions of students, but also small enough for students to find familiarity in the topic.  This was a difficult balance to strike, but the objective was that students would feel connected to the topic through the aspect of familiarity while still being challenged by new ideas and experiences.  To make this possible the teacher, in addition to being a teacher of his/her subject, was always a learner.  Teachers must constantly be aware of their students, both of their state in the present moment as well as their past growth and potential for future growth.  This allowed teachers to incorporate past experiences of their students into their design of lessons.  Learning, according to Dewey, should never be pre-packaged and should always be shaped around the needs and interests of the students.  Additionally, environments needed to give children the possibility to explore on their own and through the appropriate structuring and guidance from their teachers.


Real-World Problems

As the purpose of education for democracy is to teach students how to solve genuine problems, this is another reason for using the experiences of the students..  Students should be taught how to see issues in the world and respond to them.  Dewey strongly believed that learning in the real world allowed students to undergo a personal self-transformation.  He believed that the democratic state was the most peaceful because it best draws out the capacity of individuals while bringing individuals into society.  Therefore, he considered that a good education would teach students the skills for effective communication and how to interact with others.  These were viewed as key to a peaceful democracy since they taught students how to relate to others.  All of these areas will lead to a commitment to mutual engagement by all of those in society.


Peace Education

With World War I, Dewey saw the destruction that war could bring, and thus he began to focus his educational philosophy on the value of peace education.  While his education for democracy was key to promoting peace, this new philosophy was distinctly focused on promoting peace throughout the world.  One of his main critiques of current education was that it focused on teaching nationalism and patriotism, which in turn promoted more wars.  He proposed, instead, an internationalism that was not bound by patriotism. 


He saw that the teaching of history and geography were the most important subjects through which to teach internationalism and peace.  Teaching geography was designed to teach students about the world community's diverse cultures, habits, and occupations, among other things. The teaching of history should not, according to Dewey, be focused on dates and names, but rather should promote peace by providing students with a knowledge of the past that contributes effectively to an understanding of the problems that exist in the present and will exist in the future.  His argument was that by looking at history it is evident that the current domestic structures that promote war and inequalities need to change for there to be peace in the future. 


Another key aspect of Dewey's peace curriculum was the idea of world patriotism.  According to Dewey, the ideas that there were distinctive differences between various societies and that war was inevitable were destructive and fanned the flames of hatred.  To deconstruct these ideas, he promoted the idea of a global citizen through world patriotism. He also advocated a transnational perspective in which the best attributes of all societies came together to form a broader ideological base for the world.  He wanted to prepare students to be part of a broader international society. 


John Dewey in Action

John Dewey's philosophy of education quickly became popular and served as the influence for many schools across the United States.  However, many people and schools have interpreted Dewey incorrectly, thinking that Dewey advocated for children to do whatever they wish. On the contrary, a school that correctly uses Dewey's influence does not allow children to do whatever they wish. Rather, teachers use student interests and experiences to create relevant activities.  Interdisciplinary and collaborative work is emphasized and information about each subject is supplemented by personal experiences of both teachers and students.  The school, or community of learners, must function as a democracy or a true community in which everyone works for the benefit of their community.  This does not mean that teachers, administrators and parents do not have leadership roles, but rather that they must work to incorporate students into all aspects. 


Dewey's peace education, when enacted, focused on the roles of teaching history and geography.  When teaching these two subjects, teachers must be conscious to teach about various cultures and the similarities that exist between the cultures of the globe.  Students should be taught how these cultures are relevant to their own lives.  This can be seen via drawing connections between the students' culture(s) and the other culture being studied, or through investigating the influences of the different society on the lives of students. For example, in Nicaragua, where firecrackers are popular, teachers should stress that firecrackers were invented in China.  This shows the connections between students in Nicaragua and people in China.  With regards to history, teachers need to ensure that students can see how current events that impact their neighborhood or state or country, come from a certain historical trajectory.  Students should also learn how to create and promote peaceful change to solve problems. 


Questions for Comprehension and Reflection 

  • What are the key points of Dewey's educational philosophy?
  • How did Dewey contribute to the field of peace education?
  • How can you apply Dewey's principles and philosophy in your classroom? Do you already apply it in any way? 
  • Do you agree that democracy is the best way to promote individual and societal growth? Why or why not? 



Hansen, D. T. (2007). "John Dewey on Education and Quality of Life." Ethical Visions of Education: Philosophies in Practice. Ed. David T. Hansen. New York:

     Teachers College Press, p. 21-34. Print.


Howlett, C. F. "John Dewey and Peace Education." Teachers College. Columbia University, 2008. Retrieved from


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