JOHN DEWY: How We Think: Reflective Practice, Journals and Learning Logs

John Dewey

Arguably the most influential thinker on education in the twentieth century, Dewey’s contribution lies along several fronts. His attention to experience and reflection, democracy and community, and to environments for learning have been seminal.

(This ‘John Dewey’ page is due to be extended).picture of John Dewey is reproduced here on the understanding that it is in the public domain - Wikipedia Commons copyright expiredJohn Dewey (1859 – 1952) has made, arguably, the most significant contribution to the development of educational thinking in the twentieth century. Dewey’s philosophical pragmatism, concern with interaction, reflection and experience, and interest in community and democracy, were brought together to form a highly suggestive educative form. John Dewey is often misrepresented – and wrongly associated with child-centred education. In many respects his work cannot be easily slotted into any one of the curriculum traditions that have dominated north American and UK schooling traditions over the last century. However, John Dewey’s influence can be seen in many of the writers that have influenced the development of informal education over the same period. For example, Coyle, Kolb, Lindeman and Rogers drew extensively on his work.
John Dewey’s significance for informal educators lies in a number of areas. First, his belief that education must engage with and enlarge experience has continued to be a significant strand in informal education practice. Second, and linked to this, Dewey’s exploration of thinking and reflection – and the associated role of educators – has continued to be an inspiration. We can see it at work, for example, in the models developed by writers such as David Boud and Donald Schön. Third, his concern with interaction and environments for learning provide a continuing framework for practice. Last, his passion for democracy, for educating so that all may share in a common life, provides a strong rationale for practice in the associational settings in which informal educators work.
Key texts: There is rather a lot of material to choose from here. Three key ‘educational’ texts that seem to appeal most strongly to informal educators are:
Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. An introduction to the philosophy of education (1966 edn.), New York: Free Press. Classic discussion of education for democracy (‘sharing in a common life’) that includes an important reconceptualization of vocational learning. It remains (for me at least) an infuriating book to read. At times ideas are not expressed with the clarity they deserve; there is repetition; and not enough signposting for readers. But… there is gold in these hills.
Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think. A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process (Revised edn.), Boston: D. C. Heath. Brilliant, accessible exploration of thinking and its relationship to learning. Dewey’s concern with experience, interaction and reflection – and his worries about linear models of thinking still make for a rewarding read. The book’s influence lives on in the recent concern with experience and reflection in writers like Boud, Kolb and Schön.
Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education,New York: Collier Books. (Collier edition first published 1963). In this book Dewey seeks seeks to move beyond dualities such as progressive / traditional – and to outline a philosophy of experience and its relation to education.
To approach Dewey’s concern with experience and knowledge in more detail:
Dewey, J. (1929) Experience and Nature, New York: Dover. (Dover edition first published in 1958). Explores the relationship of the external world, the mind and knowledge.
Biographies: There have been a couple of excellent and fairly recent intellectual biographies:
Campbell, J. (1995) Understanding John Dewey. Nature and co-operative intelligence, Chicago: Open Court. Good, new, general introduction to Dewey’s work. Campbell, as his subtitle suggests, focuses on the evaluative power of intelligence not as an individual possession but as a possession of the group.
Ryan, A. (1995) John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, New York: W. W. Norton. Clear and fair-minded evaluation of Deweyian liberalism.
Websites: Visit the Center for Dewey Studies, Carbondale. It gives details of his collected works; and access to the John Dewey Internet discussion group. You can also hear Dewey talk. Center for Dewey Studies. There is also a useful short guide to his publications and access to other sites on a Colorado site. You can get the full text of Democracy and Education.John Dewey Links.
Acknowledgement: picture of John Dewey is reproduced here on the understanding that it is in the public domain – Wikipedia Commons copyright expired
© Mark K. Smith 2001


Reflective Practice


 Spalding and Wilson (2002) argue that ‘reflective thinking is essential to identifying, analysing, and solving the complex problems that characterize [sic] classroom thinking’ (p. 1394). The authors draw upon the work of John Dewey (1933, cited in Spalding & Wilson, 2002, p. 1394) to define reflection as the ‘active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends’ (p. 9). ‘To be genuinely thoughtful, we must be willing to sustain and protract that state of doubt which is the stimulus to thorough inquiry’ (p. 16).
Spalding and Wilson propose (along with Dewey) that, although thinking is natural for humans, reflective thinking needs to be taught. Furthermore, attitudes play an important role in developing reflective thinking, including:
  • open-mindedness (‘freedom from prejudice, partisanship and other such habits as close the mind’)
  • whole-heartedness (‘genuine enthusiasm’)
  • responsibility (a willingness ‘to consider the consequences of a projected step … (and) adopt these consequences when they follow reasonably from any position already taken’).

(Dewey, 1933, cited in Spalding & Wilson, 2002, p. 1395)
The value of reflection lies in the fact that teacher actions will be better considered. Both teachers and students will benefit (Spalding & Wilson, 2002).
Barry and King (1998) also promote reflection as an essential skill for teachers. Barry and King differentiate between the teacher who ‘ponders about how well the skill, strategy, lesson, etc is going or has gone … [and the] more professional evaluator … who systematically reflects on a lesson’ (p. 409). Barry and King provide a readily accessible checklist that can be used to elevate reflection above ‘pondering’ to a more systematic process.

  1. What went well about the lesson? Identify several positive features.
  2. Why did these positive features go well?
  3. What have you learned about your teaching? To what extent are these features strengths in your teaching?
  4. What did not go so well about the lesson? Identify several features.
  5. Why did these features not go so well?
  6. What have you learned about your teaching? To what extent are these features shortcomings in your teaching?
  7. Taking questions 3 and 6 together, how can you capitalise on your strengths and change your shortcomings in your next lesson?

(Barry & King, 1998, p. 409)
Leading from the systematic self-reflection, Barry and King suggest an eight-step cycle for self-improvement.

  1. Identify targets for self-improvement – an honest and frank self-appraisal of strengths that can be built on and shortcomings that can be addressed.
  2. Select one or two targets.
  3. Read the expert literature on the target to develop perspective and context, boundaries and linkages, professional language and new ideas.
  4. Develop or borrow self-checking mechanisms such as checklists or rating scales.
  5. Gather self-information about the target for improvement over a few lessons, possibly with the help of a critical friend.
  6. Analyse and plan an improvement program.
  7. Try out the new behaviours or approaches and self-check again, modifying and continuing until satisfied with the improvement.
  8. Repeat the cycle with another target behaviour.

(Substantially condensed from Barry & King, 1998, pp. 410-413)
Day (1999) also argues that making the professional knowledge base of teachers available to others and valuable to increasing understanding of the ways in which people learn most effectively. He draws upon the work of Judyth Sachs, who identified five core values as essential to a proactive, responsible approach to teacher professional development.

  1. Learning in which teachers are seen to practise learning individually with their colleagues and students.
  2. Participation in which teachers see themselves as active agents in their own worlds.
  3. Collaboration in which collegiality is exercised within and between internal and external communities.
  4. Cooperation through which teachers develop a common language and technology for documenting and discussing practice and the outcomes.
  5. Activism in which teachers engage publicly with issues that relate directly or indirectly to education and schooling, as part of their moral purpose.

(Sachs, cited in Day, 1999)
Day argues that engaging in reflective practice enables such core values to be played out.
Barry, K. & King, L. (1998). Beginning teaching and beyond. Katoomba, NSW: Social Science Press.
Day, C. (1999). ‘Researching teaching through reflective practice.’ In J. Loughran (Ed.), Researching teaching: Methodologies and practices for understanding pedagogy (pp. 215-232). London: Falmer Press.
Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. New York: D.C. Heath and Company.
Spalding, E. & Wilson, A. (2002). ‘Demystifying reflection: A study of pedagogical strategies that encourage reflective journal writing.’ Teachers College Record, 104, 1393-1421.


1. (Social Science / Education) a teacher or educator2. (Social Science / Education) a pedantic or dogmatic teacher

[from Latin paedagōgus, from Greek paidagōgos slave who looked after his master’s son, from pais boy + agōgos leader]


Noun 1. pedagogue – someone who educates young people    

academic, faculty member, academician – an educator who works at a college or university
lecturer, lector, reader – a public lecturer at certain universities
head teacher, school principal, principal, head – the educator who has executive authority for a school; “she sent unruly pupils to see the principal”
professional, professional person – a person engaged in one of the learned professions
schoolmaster – any person (or institution) who acts as an educator
instructor, teacher – a person whose occupation is teaching



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