Dewey and Illich

There is no shortage of literature on education.  Particularly at a school that espouses “learn by doing” we would be at a loss to not address American philosopher John Dewey.  The phrase “learn by doing” inverts our inherited mythologies that falsely emphasize thinking as separate from doing.   As noted in Larry Hickman’s John Dewey’s Pragmatic Technology (1990), whereas Aristotle created a hierarchy of ways of knowing with theory at the top, practice in the middle, and production at the bottom,

“Dewey inverted this hierarchy, suggesting that the interpenetration of theory (or ideas about things to be done) with practice (or the doing of things) is made meaningful only when novel tools and solutions are produced.”

This same thinking applies to his thinking on education as expressed in Democracy and Education (1916):

“Diversity of stimulation means novelty, and novelty means challenge to thought.”

Dewey made a direct connection between embodied experience and the structure of thinking.  For example, in his book How We Think (1909), he makes this connection as an analogy to craft:

 “A bungler can make a box, but the joints will not fit exactly, the edges will not be even. A skilled person will do the work in a way that does not waste time or material, and the result is firm and neat. So it is with thinking.”

And so it is, I hope, with your blog posts.

While Dewey was known as a “pragmatist” philosopher, Ivan Illich was a radical.  Dewey’s educational philosophy can be seen as a critique of schooling as a result of the industrial revolution, while Illich’s vision of “learning webs” in 1970 seems to anticipate the open-source information network as a result of the internet.

The intent of these readings is to challenge your thinking on the role of education in society – its cultural value.  As Dewey notes,

“The conception of education as a social process and function has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind.”

From the groups assigned today, each group is to read the following readings, and then write a brief summary highlighting the essential points for the benefit of the rest of the studio.  The intent is to be short and concise, making connections between different passages, as I have tried to exemplify above.  Can you identify with this, or does it sit uneasy with you?  How might it effect the institution of schools including their spatial arrangement?

For Wednesday, everyone to read:

Third Teacher excerpts including: Foreword by David Orr, and Interviews with Sir Ken Robinson and James Dyson.

Readings are provided as a PDF, or can be accessed on-line through links provided below.


Group 1: John Dewey, Democracy and Education,  Ch 1: Education as a Necessity of Life (SKIM) with focus on Ch 7: The Democratic Conception in Education.

Group 2: John Dewey, Democracy and Education, Ch 1: Education as a Necessity of Life (SKIM) with focus on Ch 11: Experience and Thinking.

Group 3: John Dewey, Democracy and Education, Ch 1: Education as a Necessity of Life (SKIM) with focus on Ch 12: Thinking in Education.

Group 4: Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, Ch1 : Why we must disestablish school (SKIM) with focus on Ch 6: Learning Webs.

Your summary Post should focus on your group reading, but you are free to incorporate other references including any graphics/images that support your summary.  Please think of the summary as a succinct text that others in the studio can connect to the material in your reading.  This should not just be a bulleted list, but you can use the quote feature to highlight specific text quotes, or even important phrases or sentences in your own groups’ summary.   Although this first post is primarily about text summary, you can still graphically draw attention to the most important aspects of your summary.

Create your summary as a Post, using the category “Dewey and Illich” and select as well category for each group member’s name.  While only one person can log-on to write the post, it should come from the entire group.

Education and Democracy

The Connotation and Denotation of Society

John Dewey discusses Democracy and education and the difference between the connotation and definition of society. He explains the connotation of society as an “ideal” society where everything is “good” and equal. The definition of society is more of a realistic approach, in which there are class differences due to varied interests and backgrounds, such as different religions, political parties, and languages. In society, people have common interests bonding them together, but also are separated by different classes.

“But when we look at the facts which the term denotes instead of confining our attention to its intrinsic connotation, we find not unity, but a plurality of societies, good and bad.” (82)

Dewey also makes an argument against the isolation of individuals in society. Isolation is a natural characteristic of humans , as we want to protect our ideas and ideals, but it is very easy to stunt communal growth this way. By “preventing adequate interplay of experiences” (85), as a society we all fall into isolation, which can snowball into the separation of classes. When we fall into these classes we become slaves to society to one another, mindlessly following one another in our routines of life.

“Plato defined slave as one who accepts from another the purposes which control his conduct.”(85)

Though isolation is not beneficial, we still have hope for when factors allow people to leave their isolation and come together for the better of the community. When these factors occur, it triggers a largely era of time when human society develops and flourishes.

The two elements behind Dewey’s idea of democracy:

  1. Having numerous and varied points of shared common interest.
  2. Having freer interactions between social groups. (86-87)


Three Historical Examples

1. According to Plato, everyone is born with a unique gift and that through education we should be able to find that gift and use it to enhance society as a whole. However, he argues that there are such varying gifts that people fall into three classes: laboring/trading class, the citizen subjects of state, and the legislatures of state. Furthermore, a person’s “appetite” (or ambition) is what determines the class a person will fall into. Aside from these three classes, he mentions that  philosophers are the one who are able to find the end of existence.

“Plato subordinated the individual to the social whole.” (90)

2. In the 18th century, there was more emphasis on individualism and humanity was promoted. The human mind was viewed as a blank wax tablet where the natural world would instill its harmonious “truth” upon the mind. Individuals were simply pieces of a large puzzle; it was the job of the individual to educate themselves and make themselves happy. However, this didn’t quite work out because there was no structure and there were political and economical limitations.

3. The German thought was that education was a civic function. It became more about discovering yourself in terms of society, rather than for individualism. It was the first form of a public education, but it became more of disciplinary training rather than supporting personal development.

“The conception of education as a social process and function has no meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind.” (97)

In the end, we need to let individuals to be free  in order to develop, but also create a structure that informs individuals as a community. It is possible to have a unified education system without it being corrupted.


Experience and Thinking

In Chapter 11 of John Dewey’s, Democracy in Education,  he analyzes how mind and body effect education and the aspects of experience and thinking.

Experience can be broken up into two parts: active and passive. First we act, then we experience the consequences of that action. The relationship between trying and undergoing is what leads to an experience. This relationship is brought upon by the consequences, which can be positive or negative. The connection between trying and undergoing measures the value of the experience and therefore leads to learning.

Experience -> Change -> Consequences -> Learning

If something of consequence happens to you without any action of our own, no real connection or understanding is made. This means that this occurrence is merely an accident and not a true experience.

Dewey points out the disconnection between the importance of education and the definition of a pupil. There is a separation of mind and body for the pupil leading to a “machine-like” learning process, thus depriving them of a true education experience.


“(1) Experience is primarily an active-passive affair; it is not primarily cognitive. But (2) the measure of the value of an experience lies in the perception of relationships or continuities to which it leads up.”


Despite the disconnect of mind and body, we are encouraged to use some aspect of the body in traditional schooling; the senses of hearing and seeing. These senses are not active participants in learning, however – they are simply inlets and outlets for information to the mind.

Instead of learning from the senses as a wholesome unit, the senses are isolated and learning is taught through repetition.

Isolation of senses =/= Experience

Society has been taught to think in minimums which restricts our minds, weakens ideals, and allow us to not truly have an experience. We have become content with a half-understanding of everything we know; a superficial understanding. It is only through experiential learning that we can really know it. We are in need growth of social sympathies for greater education.

How can we say we have learned and known something without truly experiencing it ourselves?

Not only in society, but reflective in education – there shows a lack of thinking and true processing of information. We have been taught to “ learn” in a mechanical process simply absorbing what we’ve been told. We must remember the meaning of thinking and implement back into education.

Thinking: the intentional endeavor to discover specific relationships

“Thinking, in other words, is the intentional endeavor to discover specific connections between something which we do and the consequences which result, so that the two become continuous.”


We’re in an unfinished society that needs to understand the difference between learning and discovery. Starting with education we must take into prospect what mechanical ways we teach and learn to stop separating mind and body – but join them.

Thinking In Education

In Chapter 12 of Democracy and Education, John Dewey addresses some problems that are present in the current educational system. The structure as we know it is built on a system of hierarchy; the convention is that school authorities dictate curriculum rather than building lessons based on the interests of the students. But what happens when we challenge this formation? Rather than adhering to traditional roles, we should instead try to understand how we can redefine the relationships between the teacher and students.

Often times, the problems asked of the students in class are theoretical and are not relatable to their life experiences — there is a disconnect between their personal and academic lives. The system in place mandates that students learn how to solve problems that are presented to them instead of asking and exploring questions of their own. This practice of rote learning discourages explorative thinking. Because of this, the ‘learned’ information in school prepares students to pass tests but fails to teach them applicable skillsets for their lives outside of the classroom. As Dewey states,

“we have to call to mind the sort of situation that presents itself outside of school; the sort of occupations that interest and engage activity in ordinary life.”

He suggests that classroom instruction should aim to create an interconnection to real life experiences. In doing so, children would be given to opportunity to explore their interests and develop and test ideas that occur to them. We don’t usually such a type of class structure because it involves the practice of making mistakes. But students should be presented with the opportunity for failure. It is in these failures that they learn from their mistakes and can develop a way to solve these issues. When students fail or get lost, teachers must step in as “discovery guides”, not as adults that spit facts to an unrelatable audience.

How can we create these spaces that allow freedom of thought, discovery and even failure through experiences? How can our designs revolutionize the hierarchical student-teacher relationship? How can we, as designers change the education system?

According to Dewey, we need to “provide the conditions which stimulate thinking and [take] a sympathetic attitude toward the activities of the learner by entering into a common or conjoint experience. Instead of designing classrooms centralized on the idea of sterile rooms full of desks and that focus on memorization and test-taking, we need to create learning environments that foster life experiences and lessons based off of them. Spaces such as labs, workshops and theaters, can create a simulation of real life that allows children to learn through real-life events.

He said we should deschool society. What happened next will SHOCK you!

In Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich argues that the current school system confuses teaching with learning and too often the knowledge people actually use is learned outside of school. Illich disapproves of the traditional method he calls “education funnels” and suggests society teach instead through “educational webs.” This system would cultivate students’ self-motivation to explore rather than making teachers the sole proprietors of information. In his view, a good education system:

  1. Provides all who want to learn with access to available sources at anytime
  2. Empowers all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn
  3. Furnishes all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known

Goals of the educational revolution need to be:

  1. Abolish control over educational values by institutions
  2. Give freedom to teach and exercise skills
  3. Allow individuals to call and hold meetings in order to share human creativity and resources
  4. Allow people to choose teachers from their peers to allow the deconstruction of professions

“[Students] should be able to meet around a problem chosen and defined by their own initiative.”

He sought to accomplish these goals through methods involving technology and through four main approaches which would enable students to gain access to any educational resources in order to achieve their goals.

  • Reference services to educational objects: rather than only allowing learners to use objects like maps, microscopes and even lab spaces for specific purposes at specific times, these “educational objects” should be made public and freely accessible to encourage exploration and discovery on one own’s schedule.
  • Skill exchanges: bring together someone that knows something with someone who wants to know something – iif everyday actions like driving, cooking and conversing can be learned by mimicry and observation, why can’t more complex skills be learned in the same manner?
  • Peer matching: this brings people on the same level together, much like a club might
  • Reference services to educators at large: there will be an increase in the numbers of masters needed, as learners will need leadership when they start to struggle; creating a network of these masters or educators creates a safety net

Education should be asking ‘what do learners need to be in contact with to learn,’ not ‘what do they need to learn.’ Illich argues for the mass availability of technology and resources. Education personnel would then become more like librarians or guides rather than teachers. A market for learning could develop, with less restrictive definitions on what qualifies as an educational tool. “Now bureaucratization and organization have placed much of science beyond the public reach.”  We “…should use modern technology to make free speech, free assembly, and a free press truly universal and, therefore, fully educational.”  Illich also sees the environment a person is in to be one of the most valuable educational resources.
Illich makes a case that in a de-schooled society an easily accessible learning network of valuable information would be created. This has, in fact, happened but not in the way Illich predicted. Humans are naturally inclined to sharing information and knowledge. Louis Khan said “Education is something, which is always on trial because no system can ever capture the real meaning of learning…. Schools began with a man under a tree who did not know he was a teacher, sharing his realization with a few other who did not know they were students.” Some people may think that learning would cease if schools were abolished, however, this is not the case at all. The internet shows us this with its endless tutorials on how to do just about anything. This mass conglomeration of information has in fact become for many the most valuable source of collecting information that is relevant and necessary. Through YouTube alone you can learn skills from complex trigonometry to how to repair a transmission on a 1983 Chevy. Illich says “technology is available to develop either independence and learning or bureaucracy and teaching” and even he couldn’t imagine the level of technology we would have today. The “Learning Web” has actually become the world wide web but we still have the same bureaucratic system of  learning that has gone relatively unchanged since the birth of the Industrial Revolution.