Pragmatism - Dewey and Experiential Learning Lecture


This chapter will define Pragmatism, how it applies to education, its strengths and weaknesses and how it can be linked to practice within the educative system. It will begin with a definition of terms and a consideration of the origins of pragmatism, notably the 'classical pragmatists.' It will then consider its application in the world of education, the work of John Dewey and the notion of experiential learning, including its more modern advocates.

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

  • To understand the meaning of the term Pragmatism
  • To understand how this philosophy applies to education
  • To understand its strengths and weaknesses
  • To understand how the philosophy can be linked to practices in the classroom

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Definition of Terms


The word pragmatism has its origins in the Greek word 'pragma', which means 'deed' (, n.d.). Pragmatism is a school of thought which puts forward the idea that meaning or worth can only be judged in terms of its practical consequences. There are a number of different forms of pragmatism - for example, humanistic, experimental, nominalistic and biological. Humanistic pragmatism is largely found in the social sciences where the satisfaction of human nature is the driving force of utility - everything is done to achieve human satisfaction. Experimental pragmatism is a modern notion which attests that facts can only be acquired through experimentation and that human problems can only be solved through the same process. Nominalistic pragmatism - the results of specific experiments are particular to that experiment and can never be abstracted or generalised. Biological pragmatism puts forward the idea that the aim of knowledge is to ensure that man lives in harmony with the environment. The experientialism of John Dewey is grounded in this sort of pragmatism which views the educative process as one in which knowledge and skills are acquired in preparation for life in society (Educational System, 2013).

Experiential Learning

Experiential learning can be defined as a method through which "… educators purposefully engage with students in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, and clarify values" (Association for Experiential Education, para 2 cited in Northern Illinois University, n.d., p. 1).

What is Pragmatism?

There are several principles which underpin pragmatism. By nature, pragmatists are pluralists - they believe that that there are many different realities, with everyone searching for truth and finding meaning in life according to their experiences. They place a great deal of emphasis upon change, focusing on the fact that the world is a work in progress, a reality which is in a constant state of flux. They believe in utilitarian principles - the greatest good for the greatest number, and the fulfilment and meeting of human need. They acknowledge the fact that aims and values will change as a result of the evolving nature of humanity and different societies across the globe. They also espouse principles of individualism placing great emphasis upon freedom, equality and brotherhood, and the fact that everyone should make every effort to adjust to their environment. This individualism is influenced by the society in which people are raised, with experiences and education working towards everyone being able to contribute to, and make an impact in, society. Pragmatists believe in experimentation, placing more importance on the notion of being active in learning, giving more credence to actions than ideas (Educational System, 2013). Pragmatists judge something to be good if it has achieved what it set out to do; essentially, pragmatism is an approach towards successfully "… getting things done" (Talisse and Aikin, 2008, p. 1).

Pragmatism developed as a school of thought in the 19th century with the work of CS Peirce, William James and John Dewey, who are often referred to as the 'classical' pragmatists. Despite having different views on a variety of different issues, they have common themes which are empiricist in the broadest sense, although they reject much of the psychological picture which is linked to empiricism (Godfrey-Smith, 2015). They focused upon the links between an individual experience and their thoughts in relation to actions. To all intents and purposes, pragmatists do not believe in the notion that there are a set of foundational beliefs which underpin all others. They prefer to assess beliefs and methods of inquiry in light of their usefulness in achieving set goals and/or their consequences. Human choice and initiative is also something which is a common thread, regarding philosophical viewpoints that see the world as complete as incorrect, and placing systems of morals and values in the hands of human beings.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 - 1914)

Pierce chiefly concerned himself with discussions about doubt, inquiry, beliefs and actions. He thought that any form of inquiry began with real doubts which ultimately questioned belief. He made the assertion that the real essence of belief lies in habitual actions, believing science to be at the root of all successful methods for the relief of doubt and the acquisition of useful habitual actions (Godfrey-Smith, 2015). He put forward the notion of the pragmatic maxim, which is that our ideas concerning any object are just our ideas about its effect upon our experience.

William James (1842 - 1910)

James was the individual who brought pragmatism to prominence in his book Pragmatism in 1907. It was his view that every individual has the ability and right to make choices with regard to ultimate and philosophical questions which affect the way in which we conduct our lives. He believed that the choices people make are influenced by our personal characteristics and temperament and presented pragmatism as the middle ground between the two other main philosophies of the time - empiricism and religion. James supported a version of the pragmatic maxim, believing it to be a means of finding real and meaningful content in philosophical debate which he felt shed light upon the human condition and how the choices of mankind had an impact on the way in which things turned out (Godfrey-Smith, 2015).

John Dewey (1859 - 1952)

It has been argued that Dewey's work concludes the 'classical' period in pragmatism, which saw him publish works covering politics, philosophy and psychology, and education. He had the ability to write for a variety of different audiences, ranging from the popular to the academic. It is noted that his writings moved through a series of phases which saw him initially accept the notion of some form of supernatural religious belief, later moving towards a more science-based philosophy which still allowed for some types of religious experience. Initially, his work was in line with that of James although his later reflections focused upon a 'naturalistic' way of looking at the world, having its foundations in biological descriptions of organisms in the context of their environment, as well as writing extensively on the importance of social interaction for humanity. Dewey believed that human intelligence provided the means for them to make changes to their environment, which enables them to deal with the issues which result from change and uncertainty (Godfrey-Smith, 2015).

His work stressed the links between organisms and their environment, between mind and nature and between the ability to think and simpler human actions (based on biology). It was his belief that these links or continuities provided individuals with the information to resolve arguments between fact and value. He also spent time explaining his notion that science's most important role was to lead society in its quest to control their environment, and thereby solve different problems through concentrating on a study of nature as opposed to specific issues. He also stated that knowledge should be used in order for individuals and communities to make changes to their situation for their benefit. He regarded knowledge as a factor in guiding the actions of individuals and groups of people, which in turn enabled transformations to take place. Dewey believed that the world could be continually reshaped through the choices that humans make and the way in which their creative ideas are applied. When in Chicago, he worked with George Herbert Mead, a social psychologist who argued that individuality is the result of social constructs and that people's ability to think and devise a sense of self are the result of various interactions which take place within specific communities. It was at this stage that Dewey founded an experimental school, favouring problem solving approaches to learning which still have an influence today (Godfrey-Smith, 2015).


Reflecting on the information provided above, what is your understanding of pragmatism? Try to explain this in your own words.

Are there any clear parallels with other educational theories you're aware of? If so, what are they? What are the significant differences between other theories and pragmatism?

How does it apply to Education?

As far as the pragmatist is concerned, activity is the cornerstone of the educative process. They adopt an attitude akin to Constructivist thinkers such as Piaget and Vygotsky who believe that children acquire their own knowledge through a process of experimentation in, and interaction with their environment (Moore, 2000). Pragmatists regard every activity and interaction as part of the educative process, which by necessity involves a constant restructuring of those experiences in order to apply them to different circumstances, thereby forming new habits (Kivenen and Ristela, 2003). Pragmatists maintain that as society changes and individuals mature, their views and their experiences will change their existing knowledge and therefore their potential actions in the future. It is therefore vital to them that problem-solving is at the core of all education, making the educative process empirical and experimental in nature (Educational System, 2013).

As far as education is concerned, there are several implications which result from a pragmatic stance. Pragmatists believe that education should be an ever-evolving process of reviewing, reconstructing and integrating their experiences as individuals move through life. Having said that, pragmatists hold the view that it is important to maintain the culture of the past within societies whilst tackling the situations which occur in the present and to merge the two. Experimentation and real-life experiences hold the key to real knowledge, in that these activities bring about growth and change in individuals as well as the societies in which they live. The child and their needs should be at the centre of the educative process as they need to have the freedom to discover their specific inherent abilities and their potential, which can be supported and developed through their schooling. Pragmatists believe that one of the aims of education is to help individuals to fulfil their potential (Educational System, 2013).

The parallels with the views of Vygotsky can also be seen in the pragmatists' views of education as a social process. As a result of being sociable, individuals are able to gain more knowledge through interacting with whomever is in their environment, or the environment itself, to make progress. It is believed that the social process will lead to the development of attitudes and feelings which are acceptable to society at large which will enable individuals to take their place and 'fit in' happily in the future. However, this is a process which continues throughout life due to individuals continually reflecting upon their experiences and adjusting their attitudes and actions, as well as developing their personality. For pragmatists, individuals engage in this restructuring of experiences to retain and to update their culture/race, with this educational process having no purpose beyond itself (Educational System, 2013). This theory holds the view that every individual has the right to an education and that it is the state's responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to that right, to be able to fill their potential. Pragmatists argue that it is a governments responsibility to provide children with the tools to enable them to face life's challenges and problems positively and effectively (Educational System, 2013).

As far as this school of thought is concerned, there should not be any specific preconceived aims and objectives within education - the direction and aims of any educative provision should be in line with the child's experience.By necessity, this will involve change as we all live in a world which is subject to change, requiring us to continually reassess our knowledge, our opinions and our values as a part of our everyday lives. Dewey regards education as a personal process of growth and development (Educational System, 2013), which pragmatists acknowledge is an ongoing process which is the result of every experience contributing and initiating adjustments to both knowledge and actions.

In terms of the curriculum, pragmatists hold a number of different principles. The principle of utility involves the notion that the curriculum should comprise of experiences, activities and subjects which are useful to the current needs of individual children whilst simultaneously providing for their needs as adults. Pragmatists content that curriculum content should include the study of languages, Mathematics, Science, Physical Education, health education, History, Geography, as well as natural and domestic science. The principle of interest contends that only those experiences which enthuse or interest children should be included in the curriculum. Dewey argued that these interests fell into four categories - interest in conversation, interest in investigation, interest in creative expression and interest in construction. With this in mind, pragmatists believe that in the primary age range, the curriculum should include languages, Mathematics, Art, creative or craftwork involving different media, and natural sciences. The principle of experience places great emphasis upon the notion that children should be able to be active in their learning and to find a vocation through experience. It should consist of a range of learning experiences which allow children to develop their cognitive skills whilst also developing their identity and a sense of a social self. The principle of integration is one which sees subjects merging in order to provide a cohesive, integrated knowledge bank. Pragmatists believe that knowledge is one collective unit, leaving them with the desire to devise a curriculum which is dynamic and flexible to the extent that children are able to develop problem-solving skills and adapt to the constantly changing world around them (Educational System, 2013; Sankaranarayanan and Sindhu, 2012). Shawal (2016) also notes that pragmatists believe that children should not be taught obsolete facts and theories because they may not help them in tackling the issues which they face during their lives. They argue that only those subjects which contribute to their being able to cope with practical problems should be included within the curriculum, particularly during their formative years. It is critical to pragmatists that children are prepared for future success, which necessitates their being in harmony with the environment in which they find themselves.

Pragmatists hold the view that education should be 'learning by doing'. It should therefore be grounded in children's experiences as well as different activities and preparation for their future lives. It is their view that in addition to school subjects, time should be afforded to children to engage in free, meaningful social interaction within the curriculum (Shawal, 2016). The child is at the centre of the educative process - their needs, their interests and aspirations. This means that the approaches adopted for teaching should be both flexible and dynamic to the extent that they can be modified to cater for the subject matter, as well as the needs and abilities of the children. Pragmatists believe that the approaches adopted in schools must be a mirror of society, where children should be exposed to authentic experiences with which to interact according to their specific interests and/or potential. The design of the curriculum should facilitate the creation of meaningful learning experiences through problem-solving exercises such as topic or project work. It was Dewey's belief that learning was the product of active involvement in a specific activity, which leads to individuals developing their confidence through cooperating with others and finding creative solutions to problems through discovery (Educational System, 2013).

This type of approach towards education sees practitioners adopting the role of a friend and guide, who is aware of the interests of individual children, as well as having an understanding of the changing nature of society (Witzky, n.d.; Shawal, 2016). Teachers provide problems for their pupils which are designed to stimulate and interest them, with the expectation that they find solutions to them, either as individuals or in groups (Educational System, 2013; Whitzky, n.d.). The function of all educators is to act as a facilitator in terms of the activities and materials, in order that the children are able to have a meaningful educational experience. Teachers also act as a resource in their own right and help to guide students in the right direction. This type of approach reinforces the notion of social discipline which is based upon children's interests, the activities in which they are engaged and a developed sense of social responsibility, which sees an individual and collective consciousness with regard to behaviour and its impact upon personal and collective learning. The fact that the students are pursuing a common goal provides an incentive to behave in an appropriate way, particularly as a student's role is to apply their acquired knowledge to authentic situations, and to provide creative solutions to problems through experimental inquiry (Educational System, 2013; Shawal, 2016; Whitzky, n.d.).

As we can see, the pragmatists' philosophy of education leads towards that of experiential learning. Quite simply, this is the concept of learning through action which can be summarised in the well-known axiom 'I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand' (Confucius, 450 BC). Dewey (1938) summarised this similarly: 'There is an intimate and necessary relation between the process of actual experience and education.' It was the work of Dewey which pioneered the notion of experiential learning which places the learner firmly at the centre of the learning process, being actively involved in the accumulation of information and knowledge as opposed to being a passive recipient of data. In traditional classrooms, children can fade unnoticed into obscurity through absenting themselves and remaining uninvolved through teaching being highly structured and mechanistic. In experiential learning, children develop the ability to cooperate and support each other in their learning through a semi-structured approach. This approach towards learning is designed to facilitate learners direct experience of authentic issues and problems, with practitioners' attendance only being necessary as a provider of materials and/or advice (Northern Illinois University, n.d.).


Summarise the notion of a pragmatic approach towards education; now contrast it with a behaviourist approach and a constructivist approach. Highlight the similarities and differences based on what you now understand about pragmatism.

Strengths and Limitations

A number of criticisms have been levelled at the notion of pragmatism. For example, the fact that this philosophy does not espouse any absolute standards is regarded as a limitation. According to pragmatists, truth changes according to circumstances, times and places and that truths are created as a result of our experiences. They also hold that values and ideals are man-made and variable according to the circumstances at any given time or place. These beliefs may lead to corruption and vice within society, as over-arching values and standards of moral behaviour create cohesion within society, and with them the ability to evaluate conduct within society. It is noticeable that pragmatists do not have any form of spiritual values, with the philosophy advocating a more extreme kind of utilitarianism (Shawal, 2016). An absence of spiritual values and some form of moral code can create conflict and disharmony; whilst it is true that human values change as societies change, it is important for the upkeep of law and order that there is a set of common values to live by.This rejection of spiritual values and a moral code is reflected in a pragmatists belief that individuals should only concentrate upon the present and the future as opposed to dwelling upon the past (Educational System, 2013). This seems somewhat strange in that, for their experiences to be validated, there needs to be some form of reflection upon them or they would not be able to utilise their bank of experiences to solve current or future problems. They also intimate that humanity's innate abilities are above their levels of intelligence (Educational System, 2013). This begs the question as to whether mankind would be able to apply the knowledge that they have accumulated - if intellect is subservient to innate capabilities, how can accumulated knowledge be utilised in different contexts to solve current problems?

In terms of education, the fact that pragmatists set no predetermined aims for education could be regarded as a serious flaw. If there are no aims and objectives attached to the educative process, how is achievement to be evaluated and/or assessed? How can planning of activities to capture the interest of children be accomplished? It is also very difficult to construct a curriculum where all knowledge can be gained from life experiences. Devising and selecting project work to achieve a holistic curriculum is extremely difficult (Educational System, 2013) - in addition to the issue of planning, practitioners themselves may not be able to cope with the demands of this approach towards teaching and learning due to having to act in a supervisory capacity as opposed to a direct purveyor of information (Neeraja, 2003).

The strengths of pragmatism lie in its view that the child should be at the centre of the educative process. They focus upon the notion that children develop as individuals as a result of their own efforts, based upon their experiences and their interaction with the environment and those around them. Children are actively encouraged to engage with their learning through problem-solving and addressing projects which allows them to explore and discover things using their imagination and creativity. A pragmatic education is a practical education, in that it prepares children very effectively for the future lives. It is also an education that stresses democratic values and collective responsibility which they believe allows individuals to develop skills, attributes and traits which will fit in well with society at large (Educational System, 2013). It could be said that pragmatism and the views of Dewey provided the impetus for a revolution in education, moving from a situation where children were treated as empty vessels which needed to be filled with information (passive), to one which sees children actively engaged in a voyage of discovery about not only themselves but the world.

Links to Practice

Dewey's emphasis on educating the whole child led him to be regarded as "… the father of Progressive education" (State, n.d., para 2). Progressivists hold the view that education's sole focus should be on the whole child as opposed to the teacher or the content of the curriculum. This type of philosophy stresses the need for students to test ideas through active experimentation and that learning is founded upon the questions that learners come across through experiencing the world. It is an active rather than a passive process (Cohen, 1999). Many of the ideas held by Dewey and other educational Progressives drew upon the work of Friedrich Froebel and Johann Pestalozzi who were the initiators of thoughts about the education of the 'whole child', and the necessity of paying attention to their needs and their interests. These pioneers believed that it was important to develop an approach which catered for the whole child (head and heart), which allowed children to develop through both thinking and doing (State, n.d.). It is important to note that Dewey's writings and philosophy of education move one step away from dogmatic Pragmatism, in that he joined the ideas of thinking and doing [the cognitive and the kinaesthetic] (State, n.d.) as a part of the process of learning and making progress, as opposed to the notion that knowledge could be repeated to the extent that its application became habitual. The amalgam of these differing views helped Progressives to develop a philosophy of education which enables children to understand the connection between thought and action which allows them the opportunity to participate in a democratic society when they reach maturity (State, n.d.).

Being able to think and to apply knowledge to solve problems is the hallmark of experiential learning. The Association for Experiential Education (2011, para 4 cited in Northern Illinois University, n.d., p. 2) highlight a list of 12 principles of experiential learning:

  • Experiential learning occurs when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis and synthesis.
  • Experiences are structured to require the student to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results.
  • Throughout the … process, the student is actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative and constructing meaning.
  • Students 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: student to self, student to others and students to the world at large.
  • The instructor and student may experience success, failure, adventure, risk-taking and uncertainty, because the outcomes of the experience cannot totally be predicted.
  • Opportunities are nurtured for students and instructors to explore and examine their own values.
  • The instructor's primary roles include setting suitable experiences, posing problems, setting boundaries, supporting students, ensuring physical and emotional safety and facilitating the learning process.
  • The instructor recognises and encourages spontaneous opportunities for learning.
  • Instructors strive to be aware of their biases, judgements and preconceptions, and how these influence students.
  • The design of the learning experience includes the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes and successes.

There are two specific learning ideas which focus upon experience - those of Kolb and Honey and Mumford - that are in evidence in practice today. Kolb (1984) contends that there is a cycle of learning which is made up of four different phases (concrete experience [CE], reflective observation [RO], abstract conceptualisation [AC] and active experimentation [AE]) which all contribute to a holistic learning process (Nilson, 2010). Concrete experiences provide the basis for learning. Learners reflect upon their experiences and their observations of the experiences of others (RO), causing the formulation of new ideas (AC) which can then be applied to practical situations in answering questions, making decisions, or solving problems (CE) (Nilson, 2010). It is important to note that learners can embark upon this cycle at any point and may be different for each individual and/or group of learners. Similar notions with regard to a pattern for learning are shared by Honey and Mumford. They argue that learners experience a time of reflection after experiencing an event, followed by a period of evaluation where they gather an understanding of the event as it occurred and how it might have turned out differently had they acted differently, concluding with developing a notion of how this experience can be utilised to their advantage in the future (Rae, 1997).

The influence of experiential learning can be seen throughout the educative system in the Western world, particularly within the United Kingdom. The notion of experiential learning and its importance to children's development can be seen in the Early Years Foundation Stage [EYFS] (Department of Education [DfE], 2014) framework which places children at the heart of the learning process. The emphasis is on experiential learning through play, the origins of which can be traced back to Isaacs (1932), Montessori (1966) and the Developmentally Appropriate Practice Approach (Bredekamp and Copple, 1997). The EYFS acknowledges the need for every child to be in receipt of individual treatment through the creation of an environment which provides for their personal needs whilst helping them to develop socially through positive relationships. This encourages them to become aware of their capabilities and facilitates the development into self-confident individuals who are able to interact with others in their learning. Effective and open communication is an important aspect of this process, as is the ability to empathise with the feelings of others in a variety of different situations (Sayeed and Guerin, 2000b: Bruce, 2004). Bruce (1996) contends that activities based upon play provide opportunities for learners to adopt a variety of different roles, opening up different experiences for them from which they can learn about themselves while simultaneously preparing for their future lives (Hughes, 2006).

The National Curriculum (DfE, 2014a) also places a great deal of emphasis upon children gaining experience through engaging in authentic problem-solving activities. In order to provide for children's holistic development, primary schools often engage in project work which draws together different subject areas, whilst placing an emphasis on both literacy and numeracy. It is within Key Stages 1 and 2 that there is most evidence of experiential learning, although secondary school education provides opportunities for children to engage with active learning through experimentation in science classes and in problem-solving across a variety of different subjects. There is also an increasing focus on educational visits which allow children to experience different environments in which to learn, particularly that of Forest schools where children are able to come into contact with the natural world (Riley, 2007). It has been shown that these types of experiences have a positive impact upon children's motivation to learn (Groves and McNish, 2008) and on language development (O'Brien and Murray, 2005).


Dewey's impact on education should not be underestimated. His ideas about experiential education have ensured that generations of learners have been provided with skills for life and an enthusiasm for learning which runs throughout their lives. It could be argued that his vision has opened a vast array of different learning opportunities from children in the classroom, to adults in the workplace, all of which are based upon life experiences.


Reflecting on the contents of this chapter, what contribution do you feel Dewey has made within education? Pinpoint specific examples where his influence can be illustrated across different age ranges in the education system.

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Department for Education (2014a) The National Curriculum in England. Framework Document. London: Department for Educaation

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2015) 'Pragmatism: Philosophical Aspects.' Wright, J. (Ed) (2nd Ed) International Encyclopedia of the social and behavioural sciences Vol. 18 Oxford: Elsevier pp. 803 - 807

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Neeraja, K. P. (2003) Textbook of Nursing Education. New Delhi: Jaypee Brothers Medical Publishers Ltd

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O'Brien, L., Murray, R. (2005) 'Forest schools in England and Wales: Woodland space to learn and grow.' Environmental Education Autumn, pp. 25 - 27

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Riley, K. (2007) 'Re-connecting with the natural environment - forest schools in Sussex.' Environmental Education Spring, p. 7

Sankaranarayanan, B., Sindhu, B. (2012) Learning and Teaching Nursing. (4th Ed) New Delhi: Jaypee Brothers Medical Publishers Ltd

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Shawal, M. (2017) 'Pragmatism in Education: Study Notes.' Retrieved 12th January 2017 from

State (n.d.) 'Progressive Education - Philosophical Foundations, Pedagogical Progressivism, Administrative Progressivism, Life-Adjustment Progressivism.' Retrieved 12th January 2017 from

Talisse, R. B., Aikin, S. F. (2008) Pragmatism: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum International Publishing Group (n.d.) 'Pragmatic.' Retrieved 11th January

Witzky, A. (n.d.) 'Pragmatism in Education.' PowerPoint presentation - edu-513. Retrieved 12th January from

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