John Dewey’s 4 Principles of Progressive Education

There are only a few ideas that had as much of an impact on education as those of John Dewey. The American philosopher, psychologist and educator believed children to be active contributors and agents of their learning, and not just passive recipients of knowledge of previous generations. He believed that for knowledge to be acquired successfully, learning should be an experience. His Experiential Learning approach was based on four core principles. To find out what these are and how it works in real life, watch our video. Enjoy the sound effects with headphones on! 😊 🎧

the full story
Intro to John Dewey

There are only a few ideas that had as much of an impact on education as those of John Dewey. To understand his ideas, let’s imagine Dewey reappears in the modern world with the mission to implement his theories in a conservative school.

1. Learning by doing
Dewey learning by doing

Dewey championed learning by doing, also known as experiential learning. He observed that children learn better when they are actively engaged, because they are immersed in the present and not a distant future, such as final exams.

In biology students don’t read books, but instead grow plants, harvest fruits and then feed them to snails to see what happens. Sometimes things work out, sometimes accidents happen — whatever the outcome, the students take notes of their observations and form rich memorable experiences. At the end of each class they summarize their learning and turn to discussions.

2. Discussions
Dewey discussion

The discussions prepare the students for life in a democratic society where decisions ought to be based on reasonable arguments. Through the debates the children learn to formulate their own ideas, convince others, and learn to see the world from a different point of view.

In one discussion some started to argue that school uniforms limit self expression, and that they should be abolished. Dewey, who believed that schools should prepare children for life itself and serve society as a force for innovation and reform encouraged those students to start a petition to find out for themselves if real social change is possible.

3. interactive
Dewey interactive

Classes are interactive because Dewey believes that interaction with the environment is essential for the learning process since education is an experience that is subject to constant change. Passive recipients of knowledge on the other hand, learn very little if anything at all.

The group who started the petition present their ideas to the teacher — and start a dialogue that expands their understanding and underlines their learning.

4. interdisciplinary
Dewey interdisciplinary

Learning is interdisciplinary. Dewey believed that continuity is critical to comprehension and that an interdisciplinary education allows students to build on what they already know – which strengthens their understanding. What they observed in biology is being calculated in math, written about in English and put into images through the arts.This provides the students the opportunity to learn how things are connected.

To the brain this process is more effective because it can link new knowledge with previous experiences, and build stronger mental models.

dewey’s price of education
Cost of education

Dewey believed that when societies calculate the price of education, they shouldn’t only look at the cost of school buildings, teachers salaries and other resources. They should also consider the costs of all the hours input by the children. Because the children are the future of our society and human progress, their time in class ought not be wasted. It is thus the school’s responsibility to be a playground to practice a future we wish to see, so when the kids grow up, they can go and create it.


About education, Dewey famously said, “it’s not a preparation for life, education is life itself.”

The group that sought dress-code reform gained a deeper knowledge about the topic and were able to develop good arguments. They printed their demands on banners and tracts and discussed their ideas with everyone until the day the majority of students and teachers had signed their petition. Eventually the petition was presented to the principal and a new school rule was passed.

What do you think?

Dewey’s ideas were not always popular during his time and while we made some progress in education over the last hundred years, is the situation really any better today? What do you think? Did you experience learning by doing in your school? And does your school encourage you and your friends to engage in social reform and create the future we wish to see? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!


Dig deeper!

  • Try this quiz on John Dewey’s Principle from Dr. Cynthia Borja.


  • Script: Jonas Koblin
  • Proofreading: Susan
  • Artist: Pascal Gaggelli
  • Voice: Matt Abbott
  • Coloring: Nalin
  • Editing: Peera Lertsukittipongsa
  • Creative Director: Selina Bador
  • Production Assistant: Bianka
  • Made with MinuteVideos

One Reply to “John Dewey’s 4 Principles of Progressive Education”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.