John Dewey on Education: Impact & Theory

Key Takeaways

  • John Dewey (1859—1952) was a psychologist, philosopher, and educator who made contributions to numerous topics in philosophy and psychology. His work continues to inform modern philosophy and educational practice today.
  • Dewey was an influential pragmatist, a movement which rejected most philosophy at the time in favor of the belief that things that work in a practical situation are true, while those that do not are false. This view would go on to influence his educational philosophy.
  • Dewey was also a functionalist. Inspired by the ideas of Charles Darwin, he believed that humans develop behaviors as an adaptation to their environment.
  • Dewey’s influential education is marked by an emphasis on the belief that people learn and grow as a result of their experiences and interactions with the world. He aimed to shape educational environments so that they would promote active inquiry, but did not do away with traditional instruction altogether.
  • Outside of education and philosophy, Dewey also devised a theory of emotions in response to Darwin’s ideas. In this theory, he argued that the behaviors that arise from emotions were, at some point, beneficial to the survival of organisms.

John Dewey . John Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. illustration digital art.


John Dewey was an American psychologist, philosopher, educator, social critic, and political activist. He made contributions to numerous fields and topics in philosophy and psychology.

Besides being a primary originator of both functionalism and behaviorism psychology, Dewey was a major inspiration for several movements that shaped 20th-century thought, including empiricism, humanism, naturalism, contextualism, and process philosophy (Simpson, 2006).

Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont, in 1859 and began his career at the University of Michigan before becoming the chairman of the department of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy at the University of Chicago.

In 1899, Dewey was elected president of the American Psychological Association, and became president of the American Philosophical Association five years later.

Dewey traveled as a philosopher, social and political theorist, and educational consultant, and remained outspoken on education, domestic and international politics, and numerous social movements.

Dewey’s views and writings on educational theory and practice were widely read and accepted. He held that philosophy, pedagogy, and psychology were closely interrelated.

Dewey also believed in an “instrumentalist” theory of knowledge, in which ideas are seen to exist mainly as instruments for creating solutions to problems encountered in the environment (Simpson, 2006).

Contributions to Philosophy and Psychology


Dewey is one of the central figures and founders of pragmatism in America, despite not himself identifying as a pragmatist.

Pragmatism teaches that things which are useful — meaning that they work in a practical situation — are true, and what does not work is false (Hildebrand, 2018).

This rejected the threads of epistemology and metaphysics that ran through modern philosophy in favor of a naturalistic approach that viewed knowledge as an active adaptation of humans to their environment (Hildebrand, 2018).

Dewey held that value was not a function of purely social construction, but a quality inherent to events. Dewey also believed that experimentation was a reliable enough way to determine the truth of a concept.


Dewey developed a theory of functionalism inspired by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, as well as the ideas of William James and Dewey’s own instrumental philosophy.

Scholars widely consider Dewey’s 1896 paper, The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology, to be the first major work in the functionalist school. In this work, Dewey attacked the methods of psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Titchener, who used stimulus-response analysis as the basis of psychological theories.

Psychologists such as Wund and Titchener believed that all human behaviors could be broken down into a series of fundamental laws, and that all human behavior originates as a learned adaptation to the presence of certain stimuli in one’s environment (Backe, 2001).

Dewey considered the approach of Wundt and Titchener to be flawed because it ignored both the continuity of human behavior and the role that adaptation plays in creating it.

In contrast, Dewey’s functionalism sought to consider organisms in total as they functioned in their environment. Rather than being passive receivers of stimuli, Dewey perceived organisms as active perceivers (Backe, 2001).

Educational Philosophy

John Dewey was a notable educational reformer and established the path for decades of subsequent research in the field of educational psychology.

Influenced by his philosophical and psychological theories, Dewey’s concept of instrumentalism in education stressed learning by doing, which was opposed to authoritarian teaching methods and rote learning.

These ideas have remained central to educational philosophy in the United States. At the University of Chicago, Dewey founded an experimental school to develop and study new educational methods.

He experimented with educational curricula and methods and advocated for parental participation in the educational process (Dewey, 1974).

Dewey’s educational philosophy highlights “pragmatism,” and he saw the purpose of education as the cultivation of thoughtful, critically reflective, and socially engaged individuals rather than passive recipients of established knowledge.

Dewey rejected the rote-learning approach driven by a predetermined curriculum, the standard teaching method at the time (Dewey, 1974).

Dewey also rejected so-called child-centered approaches to education that followed children’s interests and impulses uncritically. Dewey did not propose an entirely. Hands-off approach to learning.

Dewey believed that traditional subjects were important, but should be integrated with the strengths and interests of the learner.

In response, Dewey developed a concept of inquiry, which was prompted by a sense of need and was followed by intellectual work such as defining problems, testing hypotheses, and finding satisfactory solutions.

Dewey believed that learning was an organic cycle of doubt, inquiry, reflection, and the restablishment of one’s sense of understanding.

In contrast, the reflexive arc model of learning popular in his time thought of learning as a mechanical process that could be measured by standardized tests without reference to the role of emotion or experience in learning.

Rejecting the assumption that all of the big questions and ideas in education are already answered, Dewey believed that all concepts and meanings could be open to reinvention and improvement, and that all disciplines could be expanded with new knowledge, concepts and understandings (Dewey, 1974).

Characteristics of Dewey’s Theory of Education

Dewey believed that people learn and grow as a result of their experiences and interactions with the world. These compel people to continually develop new concepts, ideas, practices, and understandings.

These, in turn, are refined through and continue to mediate the learner’s life experiences and social interactions. Dewey believed that (Hargraves, 2021):

  • Interactions and communications focused on enhancing and deepening shared meanings increases the potential for learning and development. Dewey believed that, when students communicate ideas and meanings within a group, they have the opportunity to consider, take on, and work with the perspectives, ideas, and experiences of other students.

  • Shared activities are an important context for learning and development. Dewey valued real-life contexts and problems as educational experience. He believed that if students only passively perceive a problem and do not experience its consequences in a meaningful, emotional, and reflective way, they are unlikely to adapt and revise their habits or construct new habits, or will only do so superficially.

  • Students learn best when their interests are engaged: according to Dewey, it is important to develop ideas, activities, and events that stimulate students” interests and to which teaching can be geared. Teaching and lecturing can be appropriate so long as they are geared toward helping students to analyze or develop an intellectual insight into a specific and meaningful situation.

  • Learning begins with a student’s emotional response: this spurs further emotional inquiry. Following this belief, Dewey advocated for what he called “aesthetic” experiences: dramatic, compelling, unifying, or transformative experiences that enliven and absorb students.

  • Students should engage in active learning and inquiry: Rather than teaching students to accept any seemingly valid explanations, Dewey believed that education’s purpose is to give students opportunities to discover information and ideas through their own effort in a teacher-structured environment. Students could then put this knowledge to use by defining and solving problems as well as determining the validity and worth of ideas and theories. However, teachers could also provide explicit instruction as appropriate.

  • Inquiry involves students reflecting on their experiences in a way that helps them adapt their habits of action: Dewey believed that experiences should involve transaction: an active phase where a student does something — as well as a phase of “undergoing” — one where a student observes the effect that their action has had.

  • Education is a key way of developing skills for democratic activity: Dewey believed that recognizing and appreciating differences was a vehicle that students could use to expand their experiences and open up new ways of thinking, rather than closing off their own beliefs and habits.

Empirical Validity and Criticism

Despite its wide application in modern theories of education, many scholars have noted the lack of empirical evidence in favor of Dewey’s theories of education directly.

Nonetheless, Dewey’s theory of how students learn aligns with empirical studies that examine the positive impact of interactions with peers and adults on learning (Göncü & Rogoff, 1998).

Researchers have also found a link between heightened engagement and learning outcomes.

This has resulted in the development of educational strategies such as making meaningful connections to students” home lives and encouraging student ownership of their learning (Turner, 2014).

Dewey vs. Darwin: Theory of Emotions

Another influential piece of philosophy that Dewey created was his theory of emotion (Cunningham, 1995).

Dewey reconstructed Darwin’s theory of emotions, which he believed was flawed for assuming that the expression of emotion is separate from and and subsequent to the emotion itself.

Darwin also argued that behavior that expresses emotion serves the individual in some way when the individual is in a particular state of mind. These can also cause behaviors that are not useful.

Dewey, however, claimed that the function of emotional behaviors is not to express emotion, but to be acts that value someone’s survival. Dewey believed that emotion is separate from other behaviors because they involve an attitude towards an object. The intention of the emotion informs the behaviors that result (Cunningnham, 1995).

Dewey also rejected Darwin’s principle that some expressions of emotions can be explained as cases where one emotion  can be expressed by actions that are the exact opposite of another.

Dewey again believed that even these opposite behaviors have purposes in themselves (Cunningham, 1995).


Backe, A. (2001). John Dewey and early Chicago functionalism. History of Psychology, 4(4), 323.

Cunningham, S. (1995). Dewey on emotions: recent experimental evidence. Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, 31(4), 865-874.

Dewey, J. (1974). John Dewey on education: Selected writings.

Göncü, A., & Rogoff, B. (1998). Children’s categorization with varying adult support. American Educational Research Journal, 35(2), 333-349.

Hargraves, V. (2021). Dewey’s educational philosophy.

Hildebrand, D. (2018). John Dewey.

Simpson, D. J. (2006). John Dewey (Vol. 10). Peter Lang.

Turner, J. C. (2014). Theory-based interventions with middle-school teachers to support student motivation and engagement. In Motivational interventions. Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.