Dewey's conditions and the principles of experiential education

We created this mess and, more likely than not, will keep ourselves in it: Public education in the United States does more wrong than right, more harm than good.  Since 1916, we have recognized that schools teach far too much knowledge unrelated to character (Dewey, 1916/2009).  It is not enough for students in typical public schools to learn facts and figures: They need to function within the most powerful and complex democracy the world has ever known, and this means learning morals alongside facts.  While alternatives to typical education have existed for more than a century, we, as a democracy, have done little to pursue them.

One alternative to typical education is experiential education, partly based on the philosophy of John Dewey (and elaborated below), but developed by a host of educators in a host of settings.  Experiential education, as we know it today, and in its simplest reckoning, is “Challenge and Experience followed by Reflection leading to Learning and Growth” (Association for Experiential Education, 2016).  If we are to fix the mess we’ve made, we can use Dewey’s conditions and the principles of experiential education as a starting point.

Before Dewey, Caroline Pratt pioneered a school of experiential education in New York City (Pratt, 1948/2014).  “Was it unreasonable,” she asks, “to try to fit the school to the child, rather than…fitting the child to the school (p. 11)?”  Shortly after Dewey published Democracy and Education (1916/2009), Kurt Hahn established schools in Germany and Scotland “to build character through education.  Challenging activities and academics were equally balanced in order to develop the whole child” (Prouty, 2007, p. 6).  Meanwhile, in England, 1921, Arthur Neill founded Summerhill School on the idea that “the aim of education—in fact the aim of life—is to work joyfully and to find happiness….Education must be both intellectual and emotional….[And] education must be geared toward to the psychic needs and capacities of the child” (Fromm, 1960, p. xii).  Following World War II, Hahn established and developed Outward Bound in the United Kingdom; Josh Miner brought Hahn’s model to the United States in the 1960s; Paul Petzoldt, after working for Colorado Outward Bound for two years, founded the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in 1965; and Project Adventure, founded in 1971 by the son of the Minnesota Outward Bound founder, “featured a combination of interdisciplinary academic classes that used the team and leadership skills learned in a 10th-grade physical education class, a series of initiative problems, and low and high challenge courses” (Prouty, 2007, p. 8).  The Association for Experiential Education was founded in 1972.

While these alternatives have existed for more than a century, we, as a democracy, have done little to pursue them for public education.  Admittedly, an adherence to typical public education is what supplied the workforce able to follow orders and encourage relatively rapid national growth in the United States following World War II.  As national needs evolve, however, so too should public education, which has more and more included elements of Dewey’s “moral education.”  But it’s not enough.  And not soon enough.

In “Theories of Morals,” Dewey (1916/2009) expounds multiple obstructions to a moral education.  Defined: “All education which develops power to share effectively in social life is moral” (p. 611).  And to explain: “Moral education in [typical] school is practically hopeless when we set up the development of character as a supreme end, and at the same time treat the acquiring of knowledge…as having nothing to do with character” (p. 600).  Dewey argues for dimensional approaches to prominent dualisms in public education where otherwise categorical approaches were, and are still, taken toward 1) the inner and outer, 2) duty and interest, 3) intelligence and character, and 4) the social and moral.  There are no either/or, black/white, us/them with Dewey: He strives to unify the learner and society.

Dewey does this through a number of conditions.  First, education must 1) embody students’ interest, 2) have a definite result to obtain, 3) require “conscious deliberating…in uncertain situations” (p. 590), and 4) give rise to deliberate reflection (Dewey, 1916/2009).  “Interest in the occupation…keeps a pupil at his work in spite of…obstacles….What carries a person over these hard stretches is not loyalty to duty…but interest in his occupation” (p. 599).  Second, education must also maintain a connection between knowledge and activity, in this case, social activity, because this will develop moral interest and insight (Dewey, 1916/2009).  Third, education must have an active community life that involves “intercourse, communication, and cooperation” (p. 608).  Also, “the learning in school should be continuous with that out of school….[because] the absence of a social environment in connection with which learning is a need and a reward in the chief reason for the isolation of the school” (pp. 608-609).

One hundred years later, these conditions partly manifest in experiential education practices.  Specifically, but not exclusively,

Experiential learning occurs when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis and synthesis; experiences are structured to require the learner to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results; throughout the experiential learning process, the learner is actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative, and constructing meaning; learners are engaged intellectually, emotionally, socially, soulfully and/or physically, this involvement produces a perception that the learning task is authentic; the results of the learning are personal and form the basis for future experience and learning; relationships are developed and nurtured: learner to self, learner to others and learner to the world at large.  (Association for Experiential Education, 2016)

If we truly want to see an evolution in public school, we can start by applying the Dewey’s conditions and the principles of experiential education.


Association for Experiential Education.  (2016).  What is experiential education?  Retrieved from

Dewey, J.  (2009).  Theories of morals.  In Deomcracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education (pp. 587-611).  Waiheke Island: Floating Press.  Retrieved from (Original work published 1916)

Fromm, E.  (1960).  Foreword.  In A. S. Neill, Summerhill: A radical approach to child rearing (pp. ix-xvi).  New York: Hart.

Pratt, C.  (2014).  I learn from children: An adventure in progressive education.  New York: Grove Press.  (Original work published 1948)

Prouty, D.  (2007).  Introduction to adventure education.  In D. Prouty, J. Panicucci, & R. Collinson, Adventure education: Theory and application (pp. 3-17).  Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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