Dewey and Education in the 21st Century

Cover of Dewey and Education in the 21st Century

Fighting Back



Table of contents

(14 chapters)

This chapter introduces the book through discussing the context in which it came about, namely a conference to mark the centenary of the publication of Dewey’s Democracy and Education. The first section relates to the book’s subtitle by describing and analysing the context in which speakers at the conference engaged in a ‘fightback’ against educational policies found to be narrowly based on economic aims, and to have lost sight of the humanistic aims of education, aims which Dewey analysed and championed. The book is structured around three key areas, all related to Dewey’s philosophy of education – the first concerns technology, the second, embodiment and the third, democracy and development. A discussion on the significance of each of these areas for contemporary educational theory is followed by detail on the individual chapters within them. This chapter concludes with an introduction to the cautiously optimistic and forward-looking epilogue by Gert Biesta on the matters and issues raised in the book.

Part 1 Dewey, Experience and Technology


Many educators fear that proliferating digital technologies in school and at home create an artificial barrier to young people from having a meaningful direct experience with the world. At the same time, others argue that ubiquitous access to these same technologies is essential if young people are to make sense of the increasingly complex information space characteristic of the twenty-first century. In an attempt to bridge this gap, the chapter draws on Dewey’s frame of experience as articulated in Democracy and Education and Experience and Education to craft a framework by which uses of digital technology can be assessed for their educational value. Characteristic features of experience-rich, growth-promoting uses of technology include support for both the active and passive dimensions of experience, as well as the ability to support continuity, interaction, purpose and progressive organization of experience. These (arguably) better uses of technology are in turn linked to broader concerns for young people developing the capacities needed for citizenship in a creative democracy. Numerous examples of youth projects facilitated by the author are provided to illustrate how the framework is applied in practice.


A new form of learning space has emerged across the world, marking a shift from Do-It-Yourself to Do-It-Together. This space, generically known as a makerspace, is located in accessible and affordable venues, both within communities and serving communities. It offers a resource that allows people to discover their latent capabilities through exploration, experimentation and iteration, alongside the knowledge openly shared by those around them. The underlying rationale is found in the work of John Dewey, notably Democracy and Education (D&E, 1916). This chapter examines this newer form of space to gain insight into what it implies for learning and education. It commences with a reflection of salient aspects of Dewey’s D&E (1916) and how this informs understanding on what is desirable in a learning space. This is followed by a reflection upon research on makerspaces to establish how they can be conceptualized. A case study provides rich insights into characteristics, ethos and practices, while acknowledging that each space is unique and not representative of them all. Nevertheless, it foregrounds the essence of what defines a makerspace. The chapter closes with discussion of the implications and what may be concluded.

Whatever has transpired between the publication of Dewey’s D&E (1916) and the present, his vision of the empowered individual clearly manifests in the makerspace. It allows individuals to break free from the limitations of the formal educational system and, as part of a social learning community, discover their potential in new, natural, non-linear and often unexpected ways. Further, and perhaps only just beginning to be understood, is its wider potential to ignite alternative approaches on how to contribute to society and catalysing new directions for the future of work. With increasing research insights alongside broadened awareness of the possibilities, individuals can gain the capability to design and build for their future – that is only limited by their capacity to imagine it.


The year 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of Democracy and Education, one of John Dewey’s most widely translated and published books around the world still in the author’s lifetime. Nowadays, in a context in which pedagogy is bogged down in ‘economicism’ and suspicion towards any proposal that hints of value, Dewey’s ideas once again provide a ray of hope for a possible future. One of the contemporary authors that has fostered this hopeful reading of Dewey is Martha C. Nussbaum, whose appeal to bringing the humanities back to schools motivated a project on approaching the classic texts with the Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), which we have developed during the past years with secondary education students from three schools in Santiago de Chile, Madrid and London. The project is based on an open reading of Sophocles’s Antigone through an online application that enables students from the participating schools to interact. This chapter delves deeper into the theoretical bases of the project. In the first two sections, we analyse the interpretation that Nussbaum and Dewey each made of Antigone. Then, in the third, we present the Antigone project as a learning experience promoting a creative democracy, as Dewey called it.

Part 2 Dewey, Experience and Bodies


Drawing on Dewey’s accounts of learning the Alexander Technique (AT), this chapter explores why he found the process so powerful. As AT teachers, we explain how the technique enables practitioners to become aware of fixed, unconscious habits and to bring them under conscious control. With a new student, work begins with physical habits. However, because physical, cognitive, emotional and social functionings are interdependent, AT lessons typically enable flexibility in each of these spheres. Dewey’s writings show his strong theoretical commitment to the idea of learning as practical and experiential. His AT lessons were truly revelatory in providing him with both direct, embodied experience of the power of habit to drive human behaviour and a practical means of becoming aware of, and resisting, his own habits of thought and action.

Perceptions are shaped by habit in such a way that the senses can be unreliable in working out how to respond in a given situation. Dewey’s practice of the AT revealed to him the dissonance between his habitual self in activity and his conscious view of himself. Dewey was challenged by his AT lessons, which required an open, enquiring attitude and sense of humility. In the AT, Dewey found a means of pursuing an active, critical, self-directed process of discovery and adaptation akin to childhood learning. AT begins with the self, our ‘tool of tools’. Through fundamentally modifying the self, the AT supports the openness and flexible response to the physical and social world that characterize productive experiential learning.


In this chapter, we read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015) against Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916) to glean insight into how Deweyan transactionalism can help theorize greater democratic participation for the corporeally disenfranchised, that is, those persons who experience sociocultural and/or political marginalization due to the racialized status of their bodies. We argue that transactionalism carries promise to help interrupt current, systemic practice that negatively reifies Black bodies and reasserts Black bodies as central, full participants in democratic action. An analysis of transactionalism as interpreted from Democracy and Education and other Deweyan writings is followed by an analysis of Coates’ memoir, Between the World and Me, focusing on his experiential understanding of how Black bodies exist in educational institutions. We conclude the chapter with possibilities for an embodied ideal of democracy, and some educational practices that can follow from it.


Over the last few decades, the formal school curriculum in many countries has become increasingly prescribed and attainment orientated with an insistent pressure to measure progress in the name of ‘raising standards’. This form of constraint on educational practice has provoked counter trends in a desire to enrich the curriculum. Situating learning activities in the open air have become increasingly popular as a counter to formalised schooling. The UK, for example, has seen legislated outside spaces for early years and a growing interest in Forest Schools. The long tradition of activity centres, outside school visits and field trips—offering a valuable way to augment formal learning—has survived in many school settings. The claims for the benefit of taking learning outside are extensive. They range across claiming value for both individual and societal well-being, improving mental and physical health, as well as a way of sustaining inclusion, social cohesion and democratic practice (Nichol, Higgins, Ross, & Mannion, 2007). This article explores how aesthetics and the body may be seen to feature in outside educational experience. By drawing on the work of Richard Shusterman and his extensive work on somaesthetics, the purpose of the article is to augment or ground claims for the worth of ‘outside’ learning in embodied aesthetic experience and therefore help illuminate what is distinctively educational about moving learning beyond the walls of the school.

Part 3 Dewey, Experience, Democracy and Education


This chapter uses Dewey’s seminal Democracy and Education (1916) as a key text to investigate the concept of the democratic curriculum. I argue that a democratic curriculum is one where a series of educational innovations or procedures are followed. These are as follows: a removal of the existing division between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ education; pedagogy in the form of discussion and dialogue; negotiation of curriculum aims and objectives with students and other local stakeholders. The focus of attention will be on the English school curriculum (both primary and secondary), especially concerning the National Curriculum, and the debate over ‘standards’ and testing. A tentative link between the democratic curriculum and increased student motivation and participation is made.


The chapter presents a novel account of a key concept in John Dewey’s reconstructionist theory specifically related to the nucleus underlying his idea of democracy: intersubjective communication, what Dewey called the ‘democratic criterion’. Many theorists relate democracy to a form of rule. Consequently, discussions of democracy tend to be limited to functionalist theories. Dewey’s idea of democracy establishes an important distinction from conventional theories by developing its radical, critical, evolutionary, and intersubjective potential. I argue that Dewey anticipated Jürgen Habermas’s Paradigm of Communication in his reconstructionist social theory with potential to de-reify institutions and to empower human beings democratically.


Dewey argues throughout Democracy and Education that schooling plays a powerful role in forming how we are disposed towards democracy. Disposition underlies and determines both thinking and activity. A disposition which operates habitually tends to maintain the moral, social and intellectual status quo. A humane democracy demands a disposition which both challenges existing conditions and is concerned to change them for social well-being. A student’s experience at school would ideally need to be one which supports the motivation and skills to foster such a democracy. Dewey claims that we dispose ourselves to think in particular ways. If our mental processes are habitual then teaching and pastoral care may be done in a way that might impose rigidity of thought on students. If the intelligent concern for social well-being is missing from our thinking, the educational experience we offer provides neither model nor means for the development of a humane democracy. Using vignettes from our own experience as educators, together with our interpretation of Dewey’s thinking in Democracy and Education and How We Think, we consider how our own mental processes as educators and dispositions which underlie them might impact for good or for ill on students’ day-to-day experience. We argue that the main responsibility for conditions of experience falls on policymakers, school leadership, management and teachers, who, we conclude with Dewey, should aim to be aware of their disposition and its manifestation in thinking and activity in order to create conditions which make schooling a truly democratic experience.


This chapter sets out to analyse and explain the pedagogic significance of the Deweyan notion of interest. First, it considers what Dewey refers to as the ordinary use of the term. Interest has been described as an emotional force, which pushes one to conscious action. It is an overwhelming impulse that directs one’s actions to the achievement of a goal. From this perspective, Dewey presents the different characteristics of interest as dynamic, objective and subjective. In education, the child’s interest in a particular subject matter directs all her efforts and energy to studies in this field. Second, Dewey considers interest as a condition for discipline. The main purpose of this chapter is to investigate whether coercion, external stimulus or extrinsic motivations are necessarily inappropriate means of enhancing one’s interest in learning a subject matter, using Deweyan arguments. Is sustaining a learner’s interest in a subject matter through punishment and other external pressures antithetic to education? Dewey argues that if the teacher employs teaching strategies that appeal to the intrinsic interests of learners, interest is sympathetic to education. The chapter concludes that children do not have uniform interests in a particular subject matter, taking the example of mathematics. Mathematics is a subject characterized with abstract concepts, thereby rendering many students incapable of proper learning attention and concentration. From this perspective, one is prompted to question Dewey’s categorical denial of extrinsic interest in the teaching–learning transaction. I therefore want to draw inspiration from Dewey’s argument that interest is both natural and cultural, to analyse and clarify the context in which interest is sympathetic with and antithetic to democratic educational development, that is democratic ways of engaging students in their own learning, rather than imposing top-down pedagogies.

Cover of Dewey and Education in the 21st Century
Publication date