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Center for Teaching & Learning: Perspectives on Teaching & Learning

Supporting the MCPHS faculty and staff in their commitment to excellence and innovation in teaching and learning

Meet John Dewey. The man behind learning by doing

by Reena Lederman Gerard on 2019-04-08T16:42:00-04:00 | 0 Comments

Portrait of John Dewey“What do I mean, or intend, by think and reflect?”

John Dewey explored this question and examined how we can promote these actions in his book How We Think (1910). Widely recognized as one the great leaders in educational theory, Dewey's philosophy of education forms the foundation for constructivist learning theory’s “learning by doing”, or experiential learning. Dewey removes the assumption that we understand all that is entailed and explores those two verbs. He proposes that thinking which leads to education must be trained and can only be achieved through reflection. He describes thinking and reflection as follows:

Thinking: “that operation in which present facts suggest other facts (or truths) in such a way as to induce belief in the latter upon the ground or warrant of the former” (pp. 8-9).

Reflection: “a state of perplexity, hesitation, doubt” and “An act of search of investigation directed toward bringing to light further facts which serve to corroborate or to nullify the suggested belief” (p. 9).

For Dewey, learning was active, relevant, and practical. To that end, teachers must support and guide their students. They must teach, or train, their students to think by:

  • Planning well-sequenced instruction with subject matter that stimulates curiosity.

  • Presenting real-world situations

  • Asking students to note what seems “to be”, what is puzzling or different in a particular environment or situation

  • Encouraging the questioning of that which is presented as knowledge.

  • Creating space to allow for reflection.

  • Designing work that is authentic and practical.

How We Think has had an enormous influence across multiple disciplines. Training our students to think is what we do, and Dewey provides a starting point.


Dewey, J. (1910), How we think. Boston: D.C. Heath

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