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John Dewey and Progressive Education

Who is John Dewey?
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John Dewey (1859-1952) is an American pragmatist often referred to as “the philosopher of democracy” (Dearborn, 1988 as cited by Rogers, 1994, p. 158). Born in the small town of Burlington, Virginia (Rogers, 2005), Dewey’s upbringing likely influenced his concern for the survival of democracy in a large-scale urbanized society. Indeed, Dewey held that values and traditions of rural and agrarian societies formed the foundations for community and democracy (Rogers, 1994). Bernstein (2005) explains that Dewey believed that philosophy ought to be ameliorative and responsive to current problems. Dewey argued that communication is central to forming community and democracy. Because an industrialized urban context alienates citizens from one another, he hoped, according to Rogers (1994) that “modern communication, like newspapers, could again connect people with each other in the metropolitan society” (p. 163).

Dewey argued that “society exists not only by transmission, by communication, but it may be fairly said to exist in transmission, in communication” (Peters, 1989 as cited by Rogers, 1994, p. 158).


This conception of communication’s role in society is filled with important implications for how Dewey viewed the role of citizens. Dewey defied the spectator theory of knowledge, a term he coined to describe the dominant view that knowledge was something that was gained through passive seeing and contemplation. Biesta (2007) would hold Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant as an exemplar of this individualistic view of knowledge formation and the democratic person. Rather, Dewey sought to view humans as agentive beings “who are always already undergoing and shaping their experience in transactions with their world” (Bernstein, 2005, p. 25).

Fallibilistic Skepticism
Dewey, like the other pragmatists, advanced the unique notion fallibilistic skepticism. This fallibilistic skepticism combines the notions of antiskepticism, “that doubt requires justification just as much as belief”, and fallibililsm, “that there is never a metaphysical guarantee to be had that such and such a belief will never need revision” (Putnam, 1994, p. 158 as cited by Bernstein, 2005, p. 27). Inherent to the idea of fallibilistic skepticism is an educated, deliberative body of citizens that critically engage with one another. Again, we see how communication is key to Dewey’s theoretical perspective. Dewey not only wrote about the ideas presented above, but worked to apply them through progressive education.

Learn more about Fallibilism:

The Do-Y School: To Learn by Doing

During Dewey’s tenure at the University of Chicago, he founded the Dewey School –an elementary school that attempted to “capture the natural curiosity of children” (Rogers, 1994, p. 162). Rogers (1994) provides an excellent description of the Dewey School below. Within this description, you can see evidence of Dewey’s philosophy in how Dewey addressed the student’s role, the teacher’s role, and classroom activities. Rogers (1994) writes:

Dewey was opposed to rote learning, to pumping children full of knowledge. Instead, he wanted schools to operate enough like society so that children became interested in learning spontaneously, through a natural curiosity that led to their active involvement in the teaching-learning process. The teacher’s role is to provide the child with tools for learning. Dewey’s motto was: ‘Teach the whole child.’ Math, for example, was taught through cooking and carpentry experience. The Dewey School was supported by the parents of its elite students and by gifts from wealthy Chicago families. Its enriched environment (23 teachers for only 140 students) provided ideal conditions for Dewey’s reformist ideas and launched the progressive movement in American education, which he led for several decades.

Dewey believed that the purpose of education is progress. While Dewey did not believe that children were little adults, he did believe that they should learn through democracy by engaging in learning that fostered the development of democratic citizens (Biesta, 2007). Many programs have adopted Dewey's philosophy of education in their pedagogical practices. The University of Chicago still pays tribute to Dewey's mission.

University of Chicago Laboratory Schools Today

From the University of Chicago Website (

Mission Statement
The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools provide an experience-centered, rigorous and well-rounded education for a diverse community. Recognizing that students have a variety of needs at each developmental stage and learn in different ways, the Schools are committed to help each student:
  • Learn to think critically and creatively
  • Cultivate a passion for excellence in academics, the arts, and athletics
  • Master important subject matter
  • Achieve a sense of emotional and physical well-being
  • Celebrate both our cultural differences and our common humanity
  • Gain a sense of personal and community responsibility
  • Develop a life-long love of learning
In pursuit of this mission and in keeping with John Dewey's legacy, the Schools strive to exemplify educational practice at its best.

*Little Known Drama at the Dewey School*
Listen to: “What had happened was…”

To learn more about Dewey and Progressive Education, check out:
A short overview of John Dewey and Progressive Education provided by

Learn more about John Dewey


The Center for Dewey Studies

at Southern Illinois University Carbondale


Bernstein, R. (2005). The abuse of evil: The corruption of politics and religion since 9/11. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Biesta, G. (2007). Education and the democratic person: Towards a political conception of democratic education.
Teachers College Record, 109 (3).

Rogers, E. (1994). A history of communication study: A biographical approach. New York:The Free Press.

The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (2009). Mission Statement. Retrieved from

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