John Dewey was a liberal philosopher and early psychologist working in the mid-19th and early-20th centuries. He focused primarily on the philosophy of education and helped to develop the philosophy of pragmatism and the psychological philosophy of functionalism.

Professional Life

John Dewey was born October 20, 1859, in Burlington, Vermont. He studied at the University of Vermont, and graduated in 1879 as Phi Beta Kappa. He continued his education at Johns Hopkins University and then began a short-lived teaching career in the elementary school system. He returned to Johns Hopkins University and earned his PhD and began teaching psychology at the University of Michigan. He also received several honorary doctorates throughout his life.

Dewey was one of the first faculty members of the University of Chicago in 1894, and he later established the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where he worked on developing his educational theories that were eventually published in The School and Society. While at the University of Chicago, he began research into empiricism, which sparked an interest in the increasingly popular philosophy of pragmatism. Pragmatists argue that philosophy should be useful and provide practical, actionable knowledge about the world. Dewey referred to his version of pragmatism as instrumentalism, arguing that experimentation provided an important glimpse at fundamental truths. 

In 1904 Dewey joined the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University where he continued teaching until his retirement in 1930. Dewey served terms as president for the American Psychological Association in 1899 and the American Philosophical Association in 1905. He published nearly forty books and hundreds of articles and reports during his long career. He is recognized as a philosopher, educational innovator, and psychologist who greatly influenced social and educational reform. He was responsible for the push toward experiential learning and his accomplishments have been recognized by many organizations. Dewey was acknowledged for his impact on society with a commemorative postage stamp displaying his image in 1965.

Contribution to Psychology

Dewey had several major accomplishments during his professional career, but his influence on education and education reform is the most significant of his contributions to social psychology. He was an early progressive who argued for the liberalization of education. He argued that education is not just a way to gain knowledge; instead, education provides important information about moral decision-making and life skills. Throughout his life, he repeatedly emphasized the important role education plays in democracy. 

Dewey published several articles that espoused his theories on education. Dewey believed that students benefit the most when they are permitted to interact and are provided with experiential learning and social processes for acquisition of knowledge. He firmly believed that the educational realm was one in which students should learn specific academic skills, but more importantly, they should be able to realize their ultimate potential and use their knowledge to impact society in a positive way. Dewey stated that when students are able to relate to the information through experiences of their own, they can absorb and retain the information in a more personal and permanent manner. His educational theories are still widely used, and the emphasis on hands-on learning in contemporary educational settings is partially a product of Dewey's work.

Throughout his career, Dewey worked hard to ensure that the educational environment maintained a blended focus toward the students’ interests as well as the sharing of knowledge. Dewey’s experiential learning model stated that the teacher should serve as a guide to obtaining knowledge and act as an eager partner with the student, prompting students to discover their own understanding of the topic at hand. He advocated for experiential education and worked hard to implement hands-on learning in the educational arena. Dewey’s theories influenced many experiential models of the time and were at the foundation for Project Based Learning, which is a technique that enlists students to become the researchers of their own experiences.

Many of Dewey's followers advocated for a child-centered model of education, allowing children to lead the direction of their own education. Dewey saw this as a form of excess, and cautioned against it.

Dewey's contributions extend to philosophy, journalism, and politics. He was an early humanist atheist and signer of the Humanist Manifesto. He was a staunch advocate for political reform, and emphasized the role journalists should play not only in reporting events, but also in asking questions and presenting alternatives. Dewey also conducted extensive research into epistemology and logic, and his philosophical works are still widely read in university philosophy departments.