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Chapter 4 of Beyond Rhetoric: New Perspectives on John Dewey's Pedagogy. Lang Publishing (July 2022)

The moment Dewey first came across the maxim is difficult to determine. While an avid reader, he never referred to Comenius, Froebel or Parker in this respect. But apart from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he could, for example, have noticed the maxim in Charles H. Ham’s Manual Training: The Solution of Social and Industrial Problems and William H. Payne’s Contributions to the Science of Education, i.e. books he occasionally quoted. Much more likely is, however, that Dewey discovered the expression when he obtained McLellan’s Applied Psychology: An Introduction to the Principles and Practice of Education in 1889. James A. McLellan, the Director of Normal Schools in Ontario, wished to highlight the main message of his text-book by putting a modified version of the maxim on the front-page of the book. Endeavoring to smooth down differences, McLellan suggested that doing and knowing should – for logical reasons – not be separated. In fact, Parker’s and Payne’s opposing views had to be revised and combined in one single maxim, namely “Learn to know by doing, and to do by knowing,” otherwise Aristotle’s insight would remain a dangerous half-truth. 

"Learn to do by doing. This principle is by no means co-extensive with the whole of education, and is in fact much abused by some educational “reformers,” but it is the basis of all early training. […] The principle is true in so far as it recognizes the fact that self-activity of the pupil must be appealed to in all learning, and that it is through this activity that the subject gains meaning, and is apprehended. The principle becomes false when it loses sight of the ideal factor, the element of knowledge required for doing; and when it implies that the doing be merely habitual or mechanical. It, therefore, requires a supplement: Learn to do by knowing. We might combine the maxims, and say: Learn to know by doing, and to do by knowing."  

It is interesting to note that McLellan’s Applied Psychology was inspired by Dewey’s Psychology of 1886, a fact the author acknowledged in the book’s preface. “To Professor Dewey,” McLellan wrote, “[…] I must express my obligations for most valuable assistance in the preparation of this work.” Although Dewey himself most likely did not contribute a word, the book was reissued unrevised five years later with Dewey as co-author, probably an advertising measure to increase the profit and reputation of author and publisher.

Even if Dewey may have learned about Aristotle’s maxim through McLellan’s book, he used the slogan not at once and, more important, scarcely in writings concerning his own educational philosophy. Thus, the term did not show up in “My Pedagogic Creed,” “Ethical Principles Underlying Education” and The School and Society, to mention just a few of his pertinent early works. Indeed, the phrase “learning by doing” can be found for the first time in 1911 when he contributed two entries to Paul Monroe’s Cyclopedia of Education. In “Experience and the Empirical,“ Dewey dealt with the method of learning in “simple social groups,” in “Education,” with the “concept of experience” in modern pedagogy. Far more often, the expression occurred in a book about contemporary progressive schools, most of which was written by his daughter Evelyn. In Schools of Tomorrow of 1915, the maxim “learning by doing” was mentioned three times in a general context but eight times when the educational practice at the Public School 45, the Interlaken School, the Montessori kindergarten and the Teachers College playground was discussed. In Dewey’s main pedagogical work Democracy and Education, the term appeared only twice, just as rarely as in Katherine C. Mayhew and Anna C. Edwards’ The Dewey School of 1936. All these statements are of minor importance; they do not take a central place in Dewey’s educational theory. Actually, Dewey dealt with the matter only of necessity. In his Collective Works, the maxim is defined more closely just once; presumably, it was an attempt to defend his position against unjustified appropriation by insolent friends and avowed foes. In “The Theory of the Chicago Experiment,” an appendix to Mayhew and Edwards’ documentation of the Laboratory School, Dewey wrote:  

"A child or an adult – for the same principle holds in the laboratory as in the nursery – learns not alone by doing but by perceiving the consequences of what he has done in their relationship to what he may or may not do in the future; he experiments, he “takes the consequences,” he considers them. […] Through the consequences of his acts are revealed both the significance, the character, of his purposes, previously blind and impulsive, and the related facts and objects of the world in which he lives. In this experience knowledge extends both to the self and the world; it becomes serviceable and an object of desire."

Although he never used the phrase frequently and suggestively, Dewey – and no longer Parker – was soon generally regarded as the originator or at least the main advocate of the principle “learning by doing.” The first slow, then rather sudden change in public perception may seem surprising, but can be explained. At least in the 1920’s, Parker’s former fame was surpassed by Dewey’s steep rise and universal recognition. The great, living, philosopher had outshone the, deceased, normal school principal. There is another reason why Dewey now ranked first in the movement for vital and active learning. As the above quote indicates, Dewey neutralized the maxim and rendered it innocuous by making it an integral component of his pragmatic theory of knowledge, which is after all a theory of action and of experience. For Dewey, activity was the basis of all learning, and experience was the outcome of activity, i.e. the interaction between the individual and the physical and social environment. But initially, Dewey did not concern himself with the concept of “learning by doing” at all since he apparently considered Parker’s slogan too vague and narrow and virtually unacceptable for his own purpose and intent. What bothered him at the turn of the century far more than “Parkerism” was the upcoming “Herbartianism.” Dewey flatly rejected Herbart’s dictum that the school’s primary mission was to care for instruction and information. He countered Herbart’s, and indirectly Parker’s, approach with a principle he called “learning by experience.” The new maxim “learning by or through experience” which would apply to all ages and situations in life first appeared in his course Pedagogy I B 19. Philosophy of Education, 1898-1899 – Winter Quarter, later published as Lectures in the Philosophy of Education. In the 31th lecture, Dewey said:  

"We do not set out to learn anything. We set out to do something, but in the doing there is an enlargement of consciousness, an enlargement of our horizon, a gain of information which comes in incidentally, or in relation to the active experience itself. It goes without saying of course, that the child is naturally one who learns by experience, not because he intends to learn, nor because he has lessons set to him."

Dewey referred to the new maxim in some of his later works, too, such as in Democracy and Education, “Psychology for Teachers,” “The Classroom Teacher” and, of course, in Experience and Education where he depicted “learning by experience” as progressive and “in sharp opposition” to the “old” mode of teaching. “Modern education,” Dewey contended in an address at the Michigan School Masters’ Club in 1936, “is largely committed to the idea of learning as a consequence of experience and engaging in activity.”

But his efforts to differentiate the issue and to eliminate ambiguity were of no avail. “Before long,” Philip W. Jackson, the distinguished Dewey scholar, observed, “that much overworked phrase ‘learning by doing’ […] came to be seen as capturing the essence of all he [Dewey] stood for as an educator. More than a slogan, it encapsulated for many of Dewey’s admirers the totality of what they needed to know in order to follow in the master’s footsteps. For his critics it became a convenient target of scorn.” Indeed, Dewey’s alleged maxim was criticized many a time, most aggressively perhaps by Mortimer Adler, proponent of the Great Books program. “Why all this fuss about John Dewey’s great maxim that all learning is doing?” Adler asked in 1940. If “there is no knowing and thinking apart from doing, and if ‘doing’ means exclusively practical activities, then I say there is learning – and learning of the most important kind – apart from doing.” Having examined Dewey’s writings more closely, Adler modified his line of reasoning. Much is learned by doing, he conceded, but not “all learning is patterned upon the scientific method. Learning by discussion, for example, is not learning by doing in the sense that the scientific method is either employed or acquired in the process.”

As a result of critical comments, Dewey had to defend his position repeatedly. In 1949, on his 90th birthday, interviewed by a journalist about “his” motto, Dewey said, “I don’t believe people learn merely by doing. The important things are the ideas that a man puts into his doing. Unintelligent doing will result in his learning the wrong thing.” Thus, Dewey once again defied the banalization of his concept. Strictly speaking, he understood learning by doing neither that one learns only by doing (learning by training or by trial and error) nor that one learns how to do something (learning by instruction or by imitation). Dewey had fought all along against the “separation of doing and knowing” and had presented the “laboratory method” or “scientific method” as example and lesson to be observed. The learning process, he had already argued in his Lectures in the Philosophy of Education of 1899, would start when an individual encountered an “obstacle,” a “difficulty,” a “problem,” that disrupted the ongoing activity and required thought and effort. In order to overcome the obstacle and to deal with the problem effectively, the individual should rather proceed scientifically and pass, at least, through the three phases of experience as intelligently as possible: (1) “formulate that difficulty as a problem;” (2) find a method to restore the “current of experience;” and (3) “make that experience itself run smoothly again.” As Dewey in Logic: The Theory of Inquiry and elsewhere emphasized, the all important feature in education was not “doing” or “activity” as such but “inquiry,” i.e. the application of the scientific method of research and rational decision making. Hence, he favored a method which overtaxed the ability and capability of children and – as Adler and others had noticed – was not applicable in all real-life situations and certainly not in all learning situations at school. Had Dewey paid more attention to McLellan, he might have profited from his co-author’s admonition that the teacher, “while having constantly in view the dawning intelligence of the child, must avoid undue reliance upon the rationale of the subject-matter, and undue appeal to a reason as yet undeveloped.”