18/365 Back to Dewey 1.6 – ‘The Meaning of Purpose’

Since freedom resides in the operations of intelligent observation and judgment by which a purpose is developed, guidance given by the teacher to the exercise of the pupils’ intelligence is an aid to freedom, not a restriction upon it.

– John Dewey

Experience & Education

This post continues a mini-series examining John Dewey’s Experience & Education chapter-by-chapter.

For Chapter 6, Dewey continues clarification of terms, setting his sights on purpose.

The chapter provides yet another clarification of the frequent view that Dewey was proposing a melee approach to learning, letting students loose in a situation and then cleaning them up for learning later on. In Ch. 6, we find the opposite as Dewey highlights the importance of pausing in moments of impulse so that those impulses might lead to desire.

If the earlier chapters were instructing readers on the importance of a philosophical and critically considered approach to the broader scope of progressive education, here we find that need translated to the individual classrooms and students. What is being done, at all times, must be considered thoughtfully. While this is not surprising from a philosopher, Dewey’s considerations are not philosophical as much as they are practical.

If we are to have purpose in education, we must consider our impulses regarding our experiences, hold tight to them, and reflect on how (or whether) we would like to see them enacted.

To do this, Dewey asks that teachers and students observe the surroundings of the learning and move from there to collect knowledge, organize that knowledge and then set out with purpose driven by that knowledge.

He sets it out in clearer terms:

 The formation of purposes is, then, a rather complex intellectual operation. It involves (1) observation of surrounding conditions; (2) knowledge of what has happened in similar situations in the past, a knowledge obtained partly by recollection and partly from the in- formation, advice, and warning of those who have had a wider experience; and (3) judgment which puts together what is observed and what is recalled to see what they signify. A purpose differs from an original impulse and desire through its translation into a plan and method of action based upon foresight of the consequences of acting under given observed conditions in a certain way.


Rather than rejecting tools of traditional education wholesale, Dewey asks for a blending. Attend to the impulses and nature of students, yes, but do not do so without an eye to judgement, observation, consideration and guidance.

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