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date: 02 December 2022

John Dewey and Teacher Educationfree

John Dewey and Teacher Educationfree

  • Margaret SchmidtMargaret SchmidtArizona State University
  •  and Randall Everett AllsupRandall Everett AllsupTeachers College Columbia University


John Dewey’s writings on schooling are extensive, and characteristically wide-ranging: teachers are expected to think deeply about knowledge construction, how we think and learn, the purpose of curriculum in the life of the child, and the role of school and societal reform. He worked throughout his life to develop and refine his philosophy of experience, describing all learning as defined by the quality of interactions between the learner and the social and physical environment. According to Dewey, teachers have a responsibility to structure educational environments in ways that promote educative learning experiences, those that change the learner in such a way as to promote continued learning and growth. The capacity to reflect on and make meaning from one’s experiences facilitates this growth, particularly in increasing one’s problem-solving abilities.

While Dewey wrote little that specifically addressed the preparation of teachers, his 1904 essay, “The Relation of Theory to Practice in Education,” makes clear that he grounds his beliefs about teachers’ learning in this same philosophy of experiential learning. Dewey argued that thoughtful reflection on previous and current educational experiences is especially important in teacher preparation; teacher educators could then guide beginners to examine and test the usefulness of the beliefs formed from those experiences. Teacher educators, therefore, have a responsibility to arrange learning environments for beginning teachers to promote sequential experiences leading to increased understanding of how children learn, “how mind answers to mind.” These experiences can then help beginning teachers grow, not as classroom technicians, but as true “students of teaching.”

Dewey’s ideas remain relevant, but must also be viewed in historical context, in light of his unfailing belief in education and the scientific method as ways to promote individual responsibility and eliminate social problems. His vision of a democratic society remains a fearless amalgam of human adaptation, continuity, change, and diversity: public schools are privileged locations in a democracy for the interplay and interrogation of old and new ideas. Teacher preparation and teacher wellbeing are crucial elements; they can provide experiences to educate all children for participation in their present lives in ways that facilitate their growth as citizens able to fully participate in a democracy. Despite criticism about limitations of his work, Dewey’s ideas continue to offer much food for thought, for both research and practice in teacher education.


  • Curriculum and Pedagogy
  • Educational Purposes and Ideals
  • Educational Theories and Philosophies
  • Education and Society
  • Educational History


Few 20th- and 21st-century philosophers have written as prolifically as John Dewey (1859–1952), capturing ideas in wide-ranging domains such as nature, psychology, science, politics, metaphysics, ethics, and art. Like the ancients Plato and Confucius, Dewey saw philosophy and education as nearly synonymous. And like Plato and Confucius, Dewey sensed the immense power that education could play in shaping not only the individual, but more importantly, the individual in society. Dewey was exceptional in the importance he placed on education, learning, schools, and teachers.

Although practices and beliefs about the preparation of teachers have continued to evolve in the nearly 70 years since Dewey’s death, his writings are regularly referenced among teacher educators. Our intent in this article is to engage with those ideas that have continuing relevance for teacher education, drawing upon the following seminal writings on teachers and teaching: The School and Society (1899); The Child and the Curriculum (1902); How We Think (1933); Experience and Education (1938); Moral Principles in Education (1909); Democracy and Education (1916); “The Relation of Theory to Practice in Education” (1904a), and several essays. As practicing university music teacher educators, we will use examples from the world of music education that are general enough for any discipline.

To understand Dewey’s ideas about how teachers may best learn to teach, Dewey’s own starting point is first approached—that education, and indeed all learning, cannot be understood apart from experience. Next, Dewey’s description of reflective thinking, by which all learners make meaning from their experiences, is presented. Dewey’s ideas specific to teacher education follow: his understanding of the relationship between educational theory and educational practice, and the sequence of experiences he proposed for pre-service teachers. Dewey’s ideas about teaching methods and learning in laboratories are then discussed. The article concludes with reflections placing Dewey’s writings in historical context, and questions for continued research and practice in the Deweyian tradition.

Learning and Experience

All learning, Dewey (1938, p. 7) believed, results from experience—not just in school, but in the individual’s life beyond school as well. Due to the “intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education,” he wanted educators to develop deep understanding of the function of experience in learning. Dewey (1933, 1938) defined an experience as an interaction between an individual and the environment, suggesting that all experiences—good and bad—involve doing (how the individual interacts with the environment) and undergoing (how the experience changes the individual). Dewey (1938, p. 13) continually emphasized that, while all students unquestionably have “experiences” in schools, “everything depends upon the quality of the experience which is had.”

The quality of an experience can be judged in relation to two simultaneously occurring processes or principles: interaction and continuity (Dewey, 1938). As an individual interacts with her physical environment, she creates insights derived from her interests and curiosities (doing). A child playing the piano for the first time will soon discover gradations of high and low, loud and soft. To her delight, she will soon find out that the pedal somehow makes the sound keep going. But from the standpoint of formal education and requisites of growth, a “quality” experience requires that her discoveries become useful to her needs and her community (undergoing growth in understanding). She needs to be given a place to share and test what she has learned with others, thus affording meaningful contributions to the people around her (Dewey, 1916, 1938). Quality experiences require quality interactions, and teachers are tasked with enriching and enlarging the classroom environment, “in other words, whatever conditions interact with personal needs, desires, purposes, and capacities to create the experience which is had” (Dewey, 1938, p. 25).

The principle of continuity states that the effect of a “good” or “educative” experience is cumulative and enriching. Dewey is famously paraphrased as saying that the purpose of growth is more growth. But such an oversimplification ignores the critical role that teachers play in helping the learner make sense of what has been discovered so that further growth is not misshaped. Whether on the playground or from a history book, all teachers know that wrong lessons can be learned. For Dewey (1933, 1938), mis-educative experiences result in insights that impede further learning, while non-educative experiences fail to connect one experience with another, leaving the learner unchanged or merely incurious. In contrast, educative experiences live on in further experiences. “Hence, the central problem of an education based upon experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences” (Dewey, 1938, p. 13). A teacher’s work is thus “moral,” because educators are charged with the fraught task of interfering in the incidental nature of most social learning (Dewey, 1909). A society trusts teachers to select experiences (via curriculum, via pedagogy) that then produce “quality” growth in “other people’s children” (Delpit, 1995). Likewise, according to Dewey, teachers have a moral responsibility to become familiar with their students’ home cultures and design lessons that appeal to their interests (Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 1995), using conditions in the local community “as educational resources” (Dewey, 1938, p. 23).

Dewey (1938, p. 5) frequently critiqued what he and others have called “traditional education.” While we admit that the term is both imprecise and problematic, Dewey used it to refer to classrooms where teachers expected students to repeat back whatever isolated knowledge was presented to them for use in some distant future; such experiences, devoid of meaningful connections are at best noneducative, and at worst mis-educative. As music educators, the authors of this article are aware of the many dangers of isolated knowledge; for example, teaching musical notation as if its purpose were self-evident and universal (say), or teaching Western classical art music as if it were a-historical or context-free. As university teacher educators, we have too often seen beginning teachers ask children for solutions to “so-called problems” that are “simply assigned tasks” (Dewey, 1933, p. 233) or “activities” (Dewey, 1916), rather than genuine problems leading to meaningful insights. Dewey (1938, p. 23, italics in the original) similarly cautioned proponents of “progressive education,” those “parents and some teachers [who seem to be] acting upon the idea of subordinating objective conditions to internal ones.” For Dewey (1938, p. 63, italics in the original), the issue was not “new versus old education;” rather, his concern was “a question of what anything whatever must be to be worthy of the name education.” He believed that a middle, more pragmatic approach could help students use the interactions between their internal inclinations and the external environment to both connect present experiences with past experiences and prepare them for continued future growth. Drawing on the principles of interaction and continuity, teachers could learn “how to utilize the surroundings, physical and social, that exist so as to extract from them all that they have to contribute to building up experiences that are worthwhile” (Dewy, 1938, p. 22; also, see Hildebrand, 2018, for a summary of how Dewey developed these philosophical ideas over time.)

Making Meaning Through Reflective Thinking

To further develop the educative potential of experience, Dewey believed that quality of thought is the basis of all meaningful learning, both in school and in life. Dewey identifies three types of thinking: idle thought, belief, and reflection. Idle thought is “inconsequential trifling with mental pictures, random recollections . . . [and] half-developed impressions” (Dewey, 1933, p. 114). Beliefs are ideas that “are picked up—we know not how” through “tradition, instruction, imitation . . . Even when they happen to be correct, their correctness is a matter of accident as far as the person who entertains them is concerned” (Dewey, 1933, p. 116). In contrast, reflective thought is the “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends” (Dewey, 1933, p. 118). For Dewey, critical or reflective thinking is the only educational aim that can foster freedom of mind and action; he applied this principle equally to the learning and teaching of everyone involved in education, including students, pre-service teachers, and experienced teachers.

Similar to the consummatory experiences in art described by Dewey in his book Art as Experience (1934), reflective thinking has a kind of rhythm through which insights emerge. The cycle begins with “a perplexed, troubled, or confused situation,” a deviation from the expected situation, that Dewey (1933, p. 200) identifies as a pre-reflective phase; the cycle concludes temporarily in a post-reflective state, a space of intellectual satisfaction—before a new puzzle or trouble reveals itself:

In between, as states of thinking, are (1) suggestions, in which the mind leaps forward to a possible solution; (2) an intellectualization of the difficulty or perplexity that has been felt (directly experienced) into a problem to be solved, a question for which the answer must be sought; (3) the use of one suggestion after another as a leading idea, or hypothesis, to initiate and guide observation and other operations in collection of factual material; (4) the mental elaboration of the idea or supposition as an idea or supposition (reasoning, in the sense in which reasoning is a part, not the whole, of inference); and (5) testing the hypothesis by overt or imaginative action.

Reflecting mindfully about experiences “done” and “undergone” creates growth-enhancing habits, which for Dewey (1938, p. 19) include emotional and intellectual dispositions, as well as “our basic sensitivities and ways of meeting and responding to all the conditions which we meet in living.” A large part of learning—and learning to teach—involves the development of productive attitudes and habits of thought. Both teachers and teacher educators must actively cultivate reflective attitudes of open-mindedness, whole-heartedness, and responsibility with their students. Open-mindedness, for Dewey (1916, p. 182), is “accessibility of mind to any and every consideration that will throw light upon the situation that needs to be cleared up, and that will help determine the consequences of acting this way or that,” listening to all sides, and considering “the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us” (Dewey, 1933, p. 136). Whole-hearted involvement in finding a solution or creating meaning, a complete absorption in learning, may be cultivated by experiences that create a sense of suspense in learners, an element of story with “plot interest” (Dewey, 1933, p. 320). Once a pre-service teacher has considered various reasonable possibilities for resolving a problem, an attitude of intellectual responsibility requires projecting and accepting the consequences of a chosen action, “mak[ing] clear what is involved in really knowing and believing a thing” (Dewey, 1916, p. 186). Together, open-mindedness, whole-heartedness, and responsibility promote “retention of the capacity to grow” for learners of all ages, as “the reward of such intellectual hospitality” (Dewwy, 1916, p. 182).

Dewey (1916, p. 183) encouraged educators to welcome diversity of thought, to allow children and preservice teachers time to follow their ideas and make errors, and to resist seeking only “speedy, accurately measurable, correct results”:

Results (external answers or solutions) may not be hurried; processes may not be forced. They take their own time to mature. Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.

The student’s reasoning while solving a problem was far more important to Dewey than the answer itself. A good math teacher will ask students to show their work. A good art teacher will ask students about their intentions and the problems they encountered along the way. A good teacher educator will ask a preservice teacher to explain her thought process in responding to a child’s unexpected response. Dewey (1933, p. 239) recommended that teachers and teacher educators regularly encourage students to conceptualize their reasoning in words, to check that educative meanings were being formed; “without this conceptualizing or intellectualizing, nothing is gained that can be carried over to the better understanding of new experiences. The deposit is what counts, educationally speaking.”

Dewey (1899, p. 12) firmly believed that individuals learn from “books or the sayings of others only as they are related to [personal] experience;” he regularly criticized efforts to require children to memorize information and facts disconnected from their own lives and culture. Such strategies would lead students to repeat meaningless information in efforts to please the teacher or to avoid punishment. In contrast, an emphasis on reflection or “good habits of thinking” (Dewey, 1916, p. 159) will motivate learners to understand the purposes for which skills and information could be applied, providing further motivation for learning by “arous[ing] curiosity, strengthen[ing] initiative, and set[ting] up desires and purposes that are sufficiently intense to carry a person over dead places in the future” (Dewey, 1938, pp. 20–21).

For Dewey (1916, p. 166), all children can be creative, no matter the age or domain: “The child of three who discovers what can be done with blocks, or of six who finds out what he can make by putting five cents and five cents together, is really a discoverer.” As learners return to their discoveries, their insights will deepen. Once the child discovers that the pedals on a piano keep the sound ringing, she is likely to explore the very mechanics of the instrument, to lift the lid and look inside. She might even ask a friend to hold down the pedal for her while she touches or plucks the steel wires. Trading places, these intrepid discoverers are likely to create a tentative theory that they bring to the teacher. The music teacher, if she is clever, will help the discoverers find new tricks and delightful problems. “There are no limits to the possibility of carrying over into the objects and events of life, meanings originally acquired by thoughtful examination, and hence no limit to the continual growth of meaning in human life” (Dewey, 1933, p. 128).

Similarly, beginning teachers must engage in “thoughtful examination” of their educational experiences. For productive reflection, they must reframe a “difficulty or perplexity that has been felt (directly experienced) into a problem to be solved” (Dewey, 1933, p. 200).

No hard and fast rules decide whether a meaning suggested is the right and proper meaning to follow up. The individual’s own good (or bad) judgment is the guide. There is no label on any given idea or principle which says automatically, “Use me in this situation”—as the magic cakes of Alice in Wonderland were inscribed “Eat me.” The thinker has to decide.

(Dewey, 1933, p. 215)

Unlike the beginning teacher, experienced teachers, in considering children’s conceptual learning, have a store of reflected-upon experiences from which they have learned to predict typical responses. This frees them to focus on surprises that arise in the classroom, and thus they are more likely to be able to frame and reflect on the situation and develop and test hypothetical resolutions. Beginning teachers do not yet have this bank of experiences from which to examine student learning. With so many things happening around them, much of which is surprising, preservice teachers may need guidance to identify or frame a specific problem for productive reflection.

Not Theory Versus Practice: Theory and Practice

The principles of experiential learning and reflection apply equally to teachers working with children and to teacher educators guiding preservice teachers’ learning experiences. Dewey’s important essay, “The Relation of Theory to Practice in Education,” is one of his few that specifically addresses the problems of preparing teachers to do the work of teaching. Dewey (1904a, p. 247) “assumes without argument” that both theory and practice are necessary components of teacher preparation; the question in his mind was the purpose of “practical work.” He criticized the apprentice model that was practiced in many programs during his time (and has continued to remain popular) because it too often focuses the apprentice on the immediate results of instructional practices, rather than on long-term growth. Dewey (1904a, pp. 255, 251, italics in the original) proposed instead a “laboratory view” of practice, where theory and practice “grow together out of and into the teacher’s personal experience,” and where beginners acquire “control of the intellectual methods required for personal and independent mastery of practical skill, rather than at turning out at once masters of the craft.” This creates a challenge for teacher educators, as preservice teachers are more interested, at least initially, in “what works” and “what doesn’t” than in general “intellectual methods.” Dewey (1904a, p. 256) argued that an early focus on acquiring technical skills is a dangerous shortcut, helpful at the beginning stages of one’s career, but harmful in the longer term:

For immediate skill may be got at the cost of power to go on growing. The teacher who leaves the professional school with power in managing a class of children may appear to superior advantage the first day, the first week, the first month, or even the first year, as compared with some other teacher who has a much more vital command of the psychology, logic, and ethics of development. But later “progress” may with such consist only in perfecting and refining skill already possessed. Such persons seem to know how to teach, but they are not students of teaching . . . Unless a teacher is such a student, he may continue to improve in the mechanics of school management, but he can not grow as a teacher, an inspirer and director of soul-life.

Dewey (1904a, p. 258) suggests that teacher education classes begin with critical reflection on preservice teachers’ own “direct and personal” learning experiences, both within and outside school, as “the greatest asset” in their possession. This store of experiences provides preservice teachers with “plenty of practical material by which to illustrate and vitalize theoretical principles and laws of mental growth in the process of learning,” as well as “plenty of practical experience by which to illustrate cases of arrested development—instances of failure and maladaptation and retrogression, or even degeneration” (Dewey, 1904a, p. 258). Through guided reflection about the past experiences that most enthused and confused them when they were young learners, preservice teachers might better connect educational theory with actual practice, becoming better equipped to test out their insights in their current setting.

The principle of continuity suggests both the importance and the possibility of guiding preservice teachers to transition from a student’s perspective on schooling and learning to a teacher’s perspective on education and teaching.

Only by beginning with the values and laws contained in the [preservice teacher’s] own experience of his own mental growth, and by proceeding gradually to facts connected with other persons of whom he can know little; and by proceeding still more gradually to the attempt actually to influence the mental operations of others, can educational theory be made most effective. Only in this way can the most essential trait of the mental habit of the teacher be secured—that habit which looks upon the internal, not upon the external; which sees that the important function of the teacher is the direction of the mental movement of the student, and that the mental movement must be known before it can be directed.

(Dewey, 1904a, p. 262)

By focusing preservice teachers’ attention on “how teacher and pupils react upon each other—how mind answers to mind” (Dewey, 1904a, p. 260), the function of practical experiences becomes enriching their understanding of “the knowledge of subject-matter and the principles of education” (Dewey, 1904a, p. 249). Dewey believed that practical experiences could offer a rich source from which to develop, through reflection, a broad understanding of educational psychology and curriculum development, with a goal to develop “intellectual responsibility” and become independent practitioners, not just masters of a craft of teaching.

Sequence of Experiences in the Teacher Education Program

Dewey believed the popular apprenticeship model of learning through “cadetting” or student teaching was not adequate to meet the long-term well-being of future teachers. He developed many of his ideas about teacher education in the context of the laboratory schools he helped found at the University of Chicago (1896–1904), with later refinements as professor of philosophy at Columbia University. Dewey (1904a) outlined a sequence of experiences that, in conjunction with a laboratory school, could help preservice teachers integrate their theoretical studies with their teaching practices.

Dewey (1904a, p. 268) recommended that preservice teachers’ reflection on their own past experiences be supplemented with initial observations in a school classroom—not so much to see how teachers teach, but “to get material for psychological observation and reflection, and some conception of the educational movement of the school as a whole.” According to Dewey (1904a, p. 260), these early observations should be focused “to see how teacher and pupils react upon each other—how mind answers to mind. . . . What the student needs most at this stage of growth is ability to see what is going on in the minds of a group of persons who are in intellectual contact with one another.” Only then, after developing a richer understanding of the workings of the school through reflective writing and observation, could preservice teachers begin to serve as assistants for “more intimate introduction to the lives of the children and the work of the school” (Dewey, 1904a, p. 268).

When preservice teachers are ready for the next challenge, after assisting the cooperating teacher with small tasks and putting theory and practice together through observation and reflection, they may begin to select and arrange subject matter. In typical Deweyian fashion, this third stage is pragmatically considered. Dewey believed that initial curriculum-making should not include the common task of writing isolated make-believe or “practice” lesson plans. Rather, the preservice teacher should focus on one subject area across grade levels to develop “the habit of viewing the entire curriculum as a continuous growth, reflecting the growth of mind itself” (Dewey, 1904a, pp. 267–268). In this third sequence of development, the prospective teacher co-participates in lesson planning by helping the cooperating teacher find supplementary materials, creating authentic discipline-specific problems, or developing a “scheme of possible alternative subjects for lessons and studies” (Dewey, 1904a, p. 269).

Once the preservice teacher is deemed ready, she may move to the fourth stage, actual teaching. Interestingly, in this penultimate period of preparation, the prospective teacher is “given the maximum amount of liberty possible” (Dewey, 1904a, p. 269).

Students should be given to understand that they not only are permitted to act upon their own intellectual initiative, but that they are expected to do so, and their ability to take hold of situations for themselves would be a more important factor in judging them than their following any particular set method or scheme.

(Dewey, 1904a, p. 269)

Dewey (1904a, pp. 269–270) recommended that supervisors keep observation and feedback to a minimum, thereby allowing the preservice teacher time to overcome the “shock” of being newly in charge of a classroom, and “to get enough experience to make him capable of seeing the fundamental bearing of criticism upon work done.”

At this fourth stage, only when the preservice teacher begins to feel comfortable, may the instructor or supervisor offer suggestions. But rather than criticizing specific elements of the teaching or lesson planning, the supervisor should guide “the student to judge his own work critically, to find out for himself in what respects he has succeeded and in what failed, and to find the probable reasons for both failure and success” (Dewey, 1904a, p. 270). Building on a similar process from the third stage, Dewey (1904a, p. 270) recommended allowing the prospective educator to “assume responsibility for the development of some one topic . . . [rather than] to teach a certain number (necessarily smaller in range) of lessons in a larger number of subjects.” This posture would afford student teachers a deeper understanding of the principles of teaching, with less focus on the methods of teaching. “No greater travesty” could happen in a preservice teacher’s development than for the supervisor to assign “a brief number of lessons, have him under inspection in practically all the time of every lesson, and then criticise him almost, if not quite, at the very end of each lesson.” Such oversight might give the person “some of the knacks and tools of the trade,” but would not “develop a thoughtful and independent teacher” (Dewey, 1904a, p. 270).

Dewey’s fifth and final stage is actual apprenticeship. He insists that apprenticeship is only useful if the program is long enough for the beginning teacher to be grounded in “educational theory and history, in subject-matter, in observation, and in practice work of the laboratory type” (Dewey, 1904a, p. 271), and if the “practice schools are sufficiently large to furnish the required number of children” to offer all prospective teachers this opportunity (Dewey, 1904a, p. 270). Even here, Dewey (1904a, p. 271) recommends limiting oversight and criticism, while allowing the apprentice teacher “as much responsibility and initiative as he is capable of taking.” Preservice teachers’ reflective thinking about their teaching experiences remains critical here. The goal of supervision in this period is not for supervisors to “turn out teachers who will perpetuate their own notions and methods, but in the inspiration and enlightenment that come through prolonged contact with mature and sympathetic persons” (Dewey, 1904a, p. 271).

Dewey (1899, p. 39) believed that this could be accomplished best by “getting things into connection with one another, so that they work easily, flexibly, and fully.” He advocated for more connection at all levels of education from kindergarten through college, connection among content areas, connection of theory and practice, connection of school with life; failing such relationships, “each side suffers from the separation” (Dewey, 1899, p. 43).

Developing Teaching Methods

Dewey was consistent in his aversion to binary thinking. A concept like method (Latin methodus /Greek méthodos = pursuit) is neither inherently good, nor inherently evil—it is merely a strategic pursuit. A method, after all, is a natural aspect of life and living, defined in this article as the application of intelligence to the contingencies of an ever-changing world. Teaching methods are rightly criticized when they act as proxy for teacher strategy (Allsup & Westerlund, 2012; Dewey, 1916). In Deweyian logic, the most effective methods are funded by experience and self-reflection. For example, when introducing a new plant to a flower garden, the savvy gardener will call upon her past experiences to forecast how her new addition will thrive. Likewise, a music teacher will draw upon past experience to create interest in an unsuspecting but enthusiastic beginner who wants to play an instrument. In either situation, she knows that flourishing is never guaranteed. In these examples, our hypothetical methodologist will observe and take note, but be ready to make changes should her strategy require it.

In Dewey’s (1916, p. 177) vision for teacher preparation, methods arise from a thorough understanding of one’s disciplinary domain, but subject matter is always balanced by a deep understanding of the principles of learning and teaching: “In brief, the method of teaching is the method of an art, of action intelligently directed by ends.” Using aesthetic language, teaching methods are never counterfeits or copies from fellow artists, but sincere forms of self-expression: “an expression of [teachers’] own intelligent observations” of children. Dewey (1916, p. 177) argues that artists both follow their own inspiration and “study the operations and results of those in the past who have succeeded greatly.” The art of choosing an appropriate method is “the problem of establishing conditions that will arouse and guide curiosity; of setting up the connections in things experienced that will on later occasions promote the flow of suggestions, create problems and purposes that will favor consecutiveness in the succession of ideas” through productive reflection (Dewey, 1933, p. 157).

Dewey (1916) distinguishes “general method” from “individual method.” Preservice teachers can and should learn general methods from a more experienced teacher, including “knowledge of the past, of current technique, of materials, of the ways in which one’s own best results are assured,” supplemented with “child-study, psychology, and a knowledge of social environment” and a thorough knowledge of subject matter (Dewey, 1916, pp. 177, 180). An understanding of general methods alone, however, is “worse than useless”—or even harmful—if it “get[s] in the way of [the teacher’s] own common sense” (Dewey, 1916, p. 179). For example, Dewey (1933, p. 207) suggests that there is “nothing especially sacred about the number five” in the phases of reflection that he outlines; depending on the situation, two phases may run together or a phase may be expanded to include more small steps. Dewey (1916, pp. 178–179) viewed general methods, not as “ready-made models” for instruction, but as “aids in sizing up the needs, resources, and difficulties of the unique experiences” of individual learners.

As young teachers develop “the working tendencies of observation, insight, and reflection” (Dewey, 1904a, p. 256) of their students, and of themselves as educators, they may gain confidence and be freed to create their own individual methods as needed for different learners in varied social settings. As preservice teachers deepen their understanding of curriculum and educational theory, they may become more like jazz musicians, more improvisatory—more capable of allowing “these principles to work automatically, unconsciously, and hence promptly and effectively” (Dewey, 1904a, p. 256). The specific methods used by individual teachers with particular students thus “will vary as [their] past experiences and [their] preferences vary . . . [thus] no catalogue can ever exhaust [the] diversity of form and tint” of methodological approaches (Dewey, 1916, p. 180).

Conceptualizing method as “a statement of the way the subject matter of an experience develops most effectively and fruitfully” (Dewey, 1916, p. 186) can help young teachers to understand how to sequence problems for children’s experimentation and reflection in ways that, through continuity of learning, build deeper and deeper conceptual understanding of various subjects. Dewey (1916, p. 164) suggests that “a large part of the art of instruction lies in making the difficulty of new problems large enough to challenge thought, and small enough so that, in addition to the confusion naturally attending the novel elements, there shall be luminous familiar spots from which helpful suggestions may spring” to connect with prior learning.

As mentioned, for Dewey (1916, p. 160), the basis of any method (as with all learning) is experience. He suggests that “the first stage of contact with any new material, at whatever age of maturity” and no matter the subject matter, must allow children opportunities to experiment with material through trial and error, taking action (doing) and observing the consequences of the actions (undergoing), “trying to do something and having the thing perceptibly do something to one in return.” Once students have sufficient experience with an object or concept, “memory, observation, reading, communication” may all become “avenues for supplying data” for reflection and problem solving (Dewey, 1916, p. 164).

Dewey warns that preservice teachers are likely to teach the way they were taught; they may fail to recognize that a new generation of students will always bring new problems to the classroom, or that a different social environment requires different considerations. He believed “thoughtful and alert student[s] of education” (Dewey, 1904a, p. 256) have a moral duty to learn about their students’ interests and prior experiences in order to design appropriate and effective learning experiences for them. The more teachers know about their students’ world, the better they may “understand the forces at work that need to be directed and utilized for the formation of reflective habits” (Dewey, 1933, pp. 140–141). The teacher should “give pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results” (Dewey, 1916, p. 161).

To emphasize, Dewey (1933, p. 157) saw the concept of “method” as richer than a pedagogical technique or the sequence of a lesson plan. Method must be understood in its very broadest sense:

Method covers not only what [the teacher] intentionally devises and employs for the purpose of mental training, but also what he does without any conscious reference to it—anything in the atmosphere and conduct of the school that reacts in any way upon the curiosity, the responsiveness, and the orderly activity of children.

Dewey calls this unconscious transmission “collateral learning,” a notion that predates current ideas about the “hidden curriculum” (e.g., Apple, 2004; Eisner, 1994; Giroux & Penna, 1979). Students will learn many things in a classroom, intended or not. For example, methods that require a student to memorize “predigested materials” might inadvertently teach the student that school is not a democratic space, nor one concerned with justice. Dewey (1938, p. 27) believed that inappropriate collateral learning would dull the child’s innate curiosity, and might cause her to engage “in the mental truancy of mindwandering” or to build “an emotional revulsion against the subject” or schooling in general. Collateral learning may be educative or mis-educative, but it appears to be a constant in education.

Everything the teacher does, as well as the manner in which he does it, incites the child to respond in some way or other, and each response tends to set the child’s attitude in some way or other. The teacher is rarely (and even then never entirely) a transparent medium of the access of another mind to a subject.

(Dewey, 1933, p. 159, italics in the original)

Committed and ongoing reflection, Dewey believed, helps teachers, preservice teachers, and teacher educators remain alert for the development of their students’ attitudes toward learning.

Learning in Laboratories

Dewey is sometimes referred to as America’s first postmodernist because of his deep antipathy toward dualistic thinking (Hickman, 2007). Dewey was specifically worried that binaries misdirect the focus of our attention. The child, for example, should never be defined in opposition to the curriculum, or seen as an unformed or “miniature” adult (Dewey, 1902). Importantly, for Dewey, the public school must never be viewed as somehow isolated from the larger community in which it is located. Referring to the classroom as a “laboratory” was one way that Dewey could skirt the easy dualism that most people associated with schools—those all-too-familiar spaces that, with their tiny desks and green chalkboards, do not resemble much of anything else in society. Rather, the public school in a democracy is embryonic: a nondualistic metaphor that suggests an environment that is both safely apart and protected, but also incorporated into the “body” of society.

To do this means to make each one of our schools an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society, and permeated throughout with the spirit of art, history, and science. [Hence] the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with the instruments of effective self-direction.

(Dewey, 1899, pp. 19–20)

Set apart, protected, and incorporated, “the school in turn will be a laboratory in which the student . . . sees theories and ideas demonstrated, tested, criticized, enforced, and the evolution of new truths” (Dewey, 1899, p. 56).

In contrast to the factory model of education, Dewey believed that the public school could be a place where the violence of industrial life (e.g., slaughter houses, iron foundries, railroad work, indentured servitude) is remedied and remediated, where displaced persons could be taught new life skills. Jane Addams in Chicago and Grace Dodge in New York City envisioned the school as a community hub—part library, museum, gymnasium, hospital, clubhouse, and savings bank—one that was centered around learning through community-building (Addams, 2002; Lagemann, 1979). Evelyn Dewey, writing with her father, makes a case for the school as a “social settlement,” a set-aside place that is deeply committed to the unique concerns of a particular neighborhood:

Schools all over the country are finding that the most direct way of vitalizing their work is through closer relations with local interest and occupations. That period of American school history which was devoted to building up uniformity of subject matter, method, administration, was obliged to neglect everything characteristic of the local environment, for attention to that meant deviation from uniformity . . . in aiming to hit all children by exactly the same educational ammunition, none were really deeply touched. Efforts to bring the work into vital connection with people’s experiences necessarily began to vary school materials to meet the special needs and definite features of local life.

(Dewey & Dewey, 1915, p. 339)

So integrated did Dewey (1899, p. 45) consider the relationship between the school and democratic society that he composed a blueprint—a visual thought experiment—of the school’s relationship to community stakeholders, as well as disciplinary boundaries to each other. On the north side of the re-imagined school are openings to commercial businesses, on the east one sees arrows pointing to home and family life. In this metaphorical blueprint, a garden is located on the school’s south side, and the local university interacts with the school through its westward opening. In another chart, the school houses a museum at the center of the building with openings on four sides leading to chemistry, biology, art, and music labs. On another floor, one finds a library that is provocatively connected to the kitchen, the dining room, the shop, and the textile industries (1899, pp. 52, 49).

Dewey concedes that most people will think of the laboratory as a specialized space, reserved for experts like physicists and physicians. If we leave aside the white-coated scientists in their protected eyewear, what else might we envision?—Activity? Quiet conversation? Focused attention? Group work?

The first great characteristic of a laboratory is that in it there is carried on an activity, an activity which involves contact with technical equipment, as tools, instruments and other apparatus, and machinery which require the use of the hands and the body. There is dealing with real materials and not merely, as in the old, traditional education, with the symbols of learning.

(Dewey, 1932, p. 108)

In this activity-privileged setting, there is a distinction between discovering knowledge and taking information. “I think the laboratory gives a good example of what I mean,” Dewey (1923, p. 176) writes, “The individual has to be using his hands, doing things, but his experimenting in the laboratory is not simply running wild and at random. He has to have enough physical activity to see that his ideas are made definite and precise; that he is getting principles rather than taking information on faith at the word of the teacher or textbook.”

In the early 21st-century context of benchmarks, standards, high-stakes assessment, and accountability, the laboratory provides an antidote to the problem of isolated knowledge and teacher-assigned tasks. Call them inquirers, researchers, or discoverers: laboratory students will necessarily work within and across a discipline’s standards and norms. However, in an authentic laboratory, discoverers are just as likely to reassemble or build new norms and general principles. Dewey would argue that when students test the knowledge that they are given, they will do one of three things: (1) discard that knowledge if it is not useful; (2) alter it to fit a new context; or (3) accept the knowledge as worthwhile for the time being. In this sense, learners—even young learners—are practicing freedom. Standards alone do not fund freedom; that is, they do not inherently enlarge personal capacity or directly aid in problem-solving. But standards that are tested, discarded, altered, or kept in the light of present circumstances are acts of learner agency.

Norms and standards of practice are needed in the laboratory. Indeed, they help us build warranted assertions, which if tested, may assume new forms of knowledge. As Dewey suggests in the previous paragraph, the choices that warrant an assertion, claim, or solution cannot be informed solely by authority, which alone cannot help one make good judgments. Laboratory settings are democratic spaces where debate can occur, where the usefulness or validity of an emerging truth or act of creation is tested and debated with others (Allsup, 2016). For all learners who participate in it—students, preservice teachers, and cooperating teachers—the laboratory school, thus, can be characterized as:

a place of creativity, construction, imagination;

a place to test, perform, critique, and verify responses to authentic problems;

a place of warranted assertability; a place of hypothesis-building;

a “real”—but supportive—community, like those that exist outside classrooms, but affording students opportunities to succeed and fail;

a place of knowledge-making, where groups can collectively add to the sum of facts (asserted and tested) and principles (emerging and verified).

Dewey believed that such a laboratory setting within a teacher education program would provide preservice teachers with imaginative experiences that could help them develop understandings of the principles of education in its most ideal sense. Formal and informal settings, no matter the design, might aim for similar ends. Thus, laboratories—in their broadest, most non-binary sense—become both places to test specialized knowledge and everyday settings where (say) a new recipe could be tried out, or a previous lesson plan could be altered and studied for its results.

Dewey’s Work in Historical Context

Dewey’s writings have demonstrated consistent staying power in educational circles, with many ideas that remain relevant well beyond the 70 years during which he wrote them (1882–1952). His educational work, however, has also been criticized for saying too little about the role of schools and other democratic institutions in addressing social inequities (e.g., Brick, 2005; Portelli & Vilbert, 2002). It is essential, however, to consider Dewey’s work in the context of his time. Dewey’s ideas about reforming education were in response to the needs of a changing society, one that was undergoing rapid industrialization and mass migration. Electricity, the telegraph, and improved mail service sped communication across great distances. New discoveries in medicine and medical practice helped people live longer. We emphasize, however, that Dewey lived in an era when many in American society, like Dewey (1899, pp. 6–7, 17, 7; see also 1930, regarding Dewey’s faith in the scientific method), clung to the era’s faith that science could solve problems that were previously intractable.

One can hardly believe there has been a revolution in all history so rapid, so extensive, so complete. Through it the face of the earth is making over, even as to its physical forms; political boundaries are wiped out and moved about, as if they were indeed only lines on a paper map. . . . Even our moral and religious ideas and interests, the most conservative because the deepest-lying things in our nature, are profoundly affected. . . . Travel has been rendered easy; freedom of movement with its accompanying exchange of ideas, indefinitely facilitated. The result has been an intellectual revolution. Learning has been put into circulation; . . . a distinctively learned class is henceforth out of the question. It is an anachronism. Knowledge is no longer an immobile solid; it has been liquefied. . . . That this revolution should not affect education in some other than a formal and superficial fashion is inconceivable.

This description, written by Dewey in 1899, bears striking resemblance to social conditions in the first quarter of the 21st century. Writing in 1930, Dewey (p. 275) recognized that “progress” could have negative effects as well; international tensions fostered during and after World War I meant that “race and color prejudice have never had such opportunity as they have now to poison the mind, while nationalism is elevated into a religion called patriotism.” But there remains a hopeful fascination to Dewey’s tone, an inherent faith in the inevitability of progress and growth that is contradicted by the decades that followed his death. Dewey is often described as lacking a sense of the tragic. Should he have lived to see it, the violence of the latter half of the 20th century may have surprised him, particularly as business interests have remade public education according to market principles. And the promises of progressive education are mostly located in private universities and expensive “independent” schools, undermining Dewey’s democratic ideals. While Dewey’s principles clearly address the 21st century’s global interest in the standardization, privatization, and accountability of education, we believe he would continue to argue against any totalizing, one-size-fits-all approach to any reform movement.

Dewey viewed universities as laboratory spaces for social repair and experimentation. At the end of “Theory into Practice” (1904a), Dewey believed that within “the next decade,” more normal schools would become four-year bachelor’s-degree-granting programs. Dewey was hopeful that extending the teacher preparation program from two to four years, within a model of a laboratory school in conjunction with a university, would provide adequate time for preservice teachers to develop deep understandings of theory integrated with their practice and methods of teaching. Those who would graduate from such a program would become lifelong learners and genuine “students of teaching” (Dewey, 1904a, p. 256).

One fundamental and striking element in the significance of the [University of Chicago] School of Education is the desire and resolute purpose to promote the cause of education, not only here, but everywhere, through inspiring teachers with more vital and adequate conceptions of the nature of their work, and through furnishing them with the intellectual equipment necessary to make them effective and apt in carrying out such broadened and deepened ideals.

(Dewey, 1904b, pp. 274–275)

Although this goal seemed tantalizingly close in Dewey’s laboratory school experiments, he admitted the model might be challenging to replicate in other settings. Dewey (1899) cites critics who accuse him of developing his ideas in the context of ideal circumstances: a small teacher–student ratio, close collaboration between university researchers and K-12 faculty, a teaching faculty sharing common beliefs and focused on learning together in community, among other benefits not common to most educators. Dewey (1899, p. 56) responded that genuine experiments, in education as much as in science and industry, required carefully controlled conditions, “working out and testing a new truth, or a new method,” before “applying it on a wide scale, making it available” to others. Ultimately, he left the lab school after seven contentious years (Knoll, 2014), although it has continued to offer learning experiences in the Deweyian tradition into the 21st century (University of Chicago Lab Schools, n.d.).

We now benefit from far deeper knowledge of psychology, which was a young science in Dewey’s time. Dewey did not have access to 21st-century understandings of the intersectionality of race, ethnicity, and class, and the multiple ways these contribute to continued inequities in education and teacher education. We also must admit to a far more complex understanding of educational and social problems, arising from, as in Dewey’s (1899, pp. 8–9) day, an “increase in toleration, in breadth of social judgment, the larger acquaintance with human nature, the sharpened alertness in reading signs of character and interpreting social situations, greater accuracy of adaptation to differing personalities.” We continue to expand our vision of what education in a democracy means, who it is for, and how to work toward Dewey’s vision of education for all, with the goal of citizens prepared to participate fully in a democratic society. We have experienced an additional century of research, with solutions proposed and tried with varying success, yet Dewey’s ideas continue to offer teacher educators ample food for thought and practice.

Questions for Continued Research and Practice

Dewey’s writings remain provocative; even a century later, his insights seem ahead of their time. University teacher educators in the early 21st century, like those in Dewey’s day, are still pressured by myriad stakeholders to provide preservice teachers with predetermined outcomes and conclusions. But over and again, Dewey (1916, p. 183) reminds us that the reflective process cannot be rushed, that knowledge and pedagogy “take their own time to mature.” Recognizing that few preparation programs offer all the characteristics of Dewey’s ideal laboratory school, how can we best incorporate the principles of learning Dewey sets forth? What types of experiences hold the greatest educative potential? How can we include both the breadth and depth of experiences needed to develop theoretical understanding and thoughtful practice? How can university teacher educators help preservice teachers create sustained continuity among all their educational experiences? What learning experiences may guide preservice teachers to enlarge their vision of the goals and practices of education and to reconceptualize possibilities for their work with children?

The authors of this article concede that experiential learning does not present itself as “efficient,” at least not in the short term; and front-loading student teaching through reflection and observation takes more time than the apprentice or “cadet” model. Guaranteed outcomes, furthermore, are prohibited in a Deweyian framework. Learners, including preservice teachers, must always make their own meanings from their experiences, and thus no preparation program or student teaching experience can guarantee skill or expertise in teaching. Dewey wrote about teacher preparation during an era when, like ours, teacher education programs were becoming more standardized and less creative. He would be the first to argue against any single definition of teacher quality or standardized curriculum (see, e.g., Dewey & Dewey, 1915). What would he say about 21st-century national standards for content-area learning and teacher evaluation systems that are based on student test scores, all of which consider children and their teachers “en masse, as an aggregate of units” (Dewey, 1899, p. 22)? He believed this view was responsible for “the uniformity of method and curriculum . . . [with] next to no opportunity for adjustment to varying capacities and demands.” Such “ready-made results and accomplishments to be acquired by all children alike in a given time” conflicted with Dewey’s beliefs about the growing child or the developing teacher: “The moment children [or teachers] act they individualize themselves; they cease to be a mass and become the intensely distinctive beings that we are acquainted with out of school, in the home, the family, on the playground, and in the neighborhood” (Dewey, 1899, p. 22).

Substituting “teachers” for “children” in the previous statement may offer some insight into potential concerns Dewey would have with policies that evaluate teachers in light of “ready-made results and accomplishments.” Given the policy climate in the early 21st century, how can university teacher educators meaningfully respond to calls for accountability in the preparation of a student teacher? How can we honor the individuality of a preservice teacher while preparing her to meet mandated standards? After four or five years in a preparation program (or four semesters in some), how can the beginner teacher be “holistically” evaluated and deemed ready, both for immediate placement and for potential for continued growth? What types of experiences might best help her to examine, construct, or reconstruct her experiences and then demonstrate an expansive understanding of educational theory and practice? How can she exhibit this knowledge in a way that is developmentally appropriate? And if a universal benchmark is not possible—at least according to Dewey—how then do stakeholders know when a preservice teacher is ready for her own classroom, or not?

Dewey’s ideas about reflection on experience have inspired a vast body of research in teacher education. Studies have explored various strategies for engaging preservice teachers in reflection on their personal beliefs and lived histories (e.g., Grimmett & Erickson, 1988; Knowles, 1992; Schön, 1987). Drawing on Deweyian premises, researchers have studied educative and mis-educative beliefs and their possible source (e.g., Dolloff, 1999; Fives & Gill, 2014; Schmidt, 2013); the role of teaching experience in teacher development (e.g., Boyle-Baise & McIntyre, 2008; Clift & Brady, 2005; Feiman-Nemser & Buchmann, 1985; Miksza & Austin, 2010; Tabachnick & Zeichner, 1984); and how beginning teachers make meaning in and through content area courses (Amador, Kimmons, Miller, & Desjardins, 2015; Floden & Meniketti, 2005; Grossman, 2005). The authors of this article believe that more research is needed to identify context-specific practices that engage preservice teachers in truly meaningful reflection based on genuine problems, not “so-called problems” or “simply assigned tasks” (Dewey, 1933, p. 233).

Most research in teacher education is focused on preservice teachers’ learning and development. But more studies could be designed to examine the experiences that help preservice teachers develop an invested and strategic curiosity about children and how they think and learn, “to see how teacher and pupils react upon each other—how mind answers to mind” (Dewey, 1904a, p. 260). How can beginning teachers, generally very concerned with their own need-to-teach, focus more on the child’s needs and interests, and learn to view their students as multifaceted individuals? As an extension of this question, what experiences might help beginning teachers better understand and serve the needs of underserved students, viewing them in terms of the potential of their minds to answer to educational opportunities, rather than through a deficit lens? Research might help us design courses to better challenge preservice teachers’ perceptions of their own learning as the norm for all students; such classes could help new teachers foster a genuine desire to learn about and understand the experiences that their future students bring to school from their home cultures (e.g., Delpit, 1995 ; Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Lind & McKoy, 2016).

Researchers could consider more longitudinal studies, following preservice teachers’ growth throughout a program or even into the early years of teaching (e.g., Bullough, 1989; Bullough & Baughman, 1997; Wetzel, Hoffman, Roach, & Russell, 2018). Such studies might provide insights into ways that preservice teachers make connections among their learning experiences both in and out of class, and how they create continuity among their past, present, and future. In an age of teacher de-professionalization, what can we learn about educational experiences that help preservice teachers develop a larger vision of—and a greater commitment to—their own lifelong learning?


It goes without saying that most classic philosophers of education are encountered by contemporary readers in ways that require context and some degree of generosity. Plato’s writings on education should not probably be read too literally, but we can go to The Republic to think deeply about the ways in which a society is strategically shaped through the education of its citizens. We can read Confucius and find new questions about how personhood is shaped through tradition. But Dewey, a classic American philosopher, remains highly relevant to educational concerns in the early 21st century. Indeed, he requires little contextual apology. We can, for example, return to Dewey to find inspiration in his faith in the professional capacity of teachers. He never spoke of children through a deficit lens. Dewey’s abiding belief in hands-on learning—his constant focus on the child and the child’s interests—is a counter-narrative to contemporary educational discourses that see children as future human resources. Given his belief in the power of experiential learning, the lasting influence of his educational writings almost seems counter-intuitive. Yet based on our own experiences as university teacher educators, we have found the principles presented in this article to hold great potential for continued experimentation and reflection in our own practices.


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