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.

Things I Know 219 of 365: A good start is asking what we’re orchestrating class to do

Designers think everything done by someone else is awful, and that they could do it better themselves, which explains why I designed my own living room carpet, I suppose.

– Chris Bangle

Wednesday, we had out first class meeting of Professor Elmore’s A-341 Supporting Teachers for Instructional Improvement.

Much of the class was directed toward establishing class norms and getting a general sense of whom we were learning with. While I loved it (we were moving around, meeting one another, having purposeful conversations and reporting out), it was one question that stuck with me as the defining moment of the class.

In describing what would drive our teacher observations for the class, Elmore asked, “If you were a student in this classroom and you did what the teacher asked you to do, what would you know how to do?”

The simplicity of the question reminded me of why I’d been drawn to apply to the course during shopping.

What’s more, Elmore wasn’t asking us to make judgements about the legitimacy of any of what we observed. He was asking us to observe.

Admittedly, this will be difficult for me. I’d imagine it will be difficult for everyone in the class.

I like the idea. I like the shift in focus from what the teacher is doing to the student experience.

As Elmore pointed out, the process starts not from a standpoint of “Here’s what should be going on here!” but one of “What’s going on here?” And, it starts from moving to the perspective of the student.

Starting out in the classroom, I asked myself, “Would I want to do the assignment I’ve just created?” It was a simplistic question.

Moving forward, I’d collected student responses to hundreds of assignments and had a better idea of the varying perspectives in my classroom. As a result, I felt I was designing assignments more likely to pique my students interest.

It wasn’t until moving to SLA and working with the unit planning template of Wiggins and McTigh’s Understanding by Design that I was asked to unpack where I wanted my students to head in what they were able to know, do and understand as a result of their time in the classroom.

Sparks of Elmore’s question could be seen in my review of student work, assessing how closely the students had come to reaching my goals for the unit.

This isn’t quite the essence of the question.

The question asks for a more complex and paradoxically more simplified observation.

When designing the flow of a given class period, what knowledge or abilities was I helping my students to have at that class’s end?

I wonder how classes would change if all teachers stepped into their classrooms tomorrow, mindful of that question.

Moving forward with the course, I’m curious to see and hear the variety of responses my classmates and I have to that question as we observe the same classes.