1.10.2 Pragmatism - Dewey and Experiential Learning

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

What is 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.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.

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.

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. 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. 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).

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. 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.

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. 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).

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).

Links to Practice

Dewey's emphasis on educating the whole child led him to be regarded as "… the father of Progressive education" (State University.com, 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). 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 University.com, 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 University.com, n.d.).

The influence of experiential learning can be seen throughout the educative system in the Western world, particularly within the United Kingdom. The notions 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. 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.


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.

Select bibliography

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Cohen, L. M. (1999) 'Section III - Philosophical Perspectives in Education.' Retrieved 12th January 2017 from http://oregonstate.edu/instruction/ed416/PP3.html

Department for Education (2014) Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage: Setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five. London: Department for Education

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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Isaacs, S. (1932) The Nursery Years The Mind of the Child from Birth to Six Years. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Kivenen, O., Ristela, P. (2003) 'From Constructivism to a Pragmatist Conception of Learning.' Oxford Review of Education Vol. 29, No. 3, pp. 363 - 375

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as a Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall

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Northern Illinois University (n.d.) 'Experiential learning.' Retrieved 11th January 2017 from http://www.niu.edu/facdev/_pdf/guide/strategies/experiential_learning.pdf

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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 http://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/education/pragmatism-in-education-study-notes/69152/

State University.com (n.d.) 'Progressive Education - Philosophical Foundations, Pedagogical Progressivism, Administrative Progressivism, Life-Adjustment Progressivism.' Retrieved 12th January 2017 from http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2336/Progressive-Education.html

Talisse, R. B., Aikin, S. F. (2008) Pragmatism: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum International Publishing Group

Vocabulary.com (n.d.) 'Pragmatic.' Retrieved 11th January https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/pragmatic

Witzky, A. (n.d.) 'Pragmatism in Education.' PowerPoint presentation - edu-513. Retrieved 12th January from https://edu.513.wikispaces.com/file/view/Pragmatism+in+Education.ppt

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