Experiential learning

This is number 7 in my blog series on major learning theories. My plan is to work through the alphabet of psychologists and provide a brief overview of their theories, and how each can be applied in education. In the last post we examined the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi on Flow Theory. In this post, we explore the work of John Dewey on experiential and interactive learning. This is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please refer to the original work of the theorist.

John Dewey is one of the giants in the history of educational theory, and it's difficult to isolate one of his specific theories to discuss here. He was influential in so many areas of educational reform, that to choose one theme would do him a disservice, so I will highlight several of the areas in which he was ahead of his time.

The theory and how it can be applied to education

Even before the constructivist theories of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky were widely known, Dewey was talking about how children learn best when they interacted with their environments and were actively involved with the school curriculum. He rejected much of the prevalent theory of the time - behaviourism - as too simplistic and inadequate to explain complex learning processes. He argued that rather than the child being a passive recipient of knowledge, as was presumed by many educators of the time, children were better served if they took an active part in the process of their own learning. He also placed greater emphasis on the social context of learning. At the turn of the 20th Century, these were radical ideas.

Dewey further argued that for education to be at its most effective, children should be given learning opportunities that enabled them to link present content to previous experiences and knowledge. Again, this was a ground breaking idea for the period. Yet another feature in Dewey's theories was the need for learners to engage directly with their environment, in what came to be known as experiential learning, where 'knowledge comes from the impressions made upon us by natural objects.' This approach led later to a number of other similar approaches such as problem based learning and inquiry based learning.

Notwithstanding, Dewey was wary of placing too much emphasis on the child's abilities, but preferred to place his trust in a more balanced approach to education where teacher, students and content were given equal importance in the learning equation. Ultimately, his belief was that teachers should not be in the classroom to act simply as instructors, but should adopt the role of facilitator and guide, giving students the opportunities to discover for themselves and to develop as active and independent learners. In some schools, a return to these values is long overdue.


Dewey, J. (2011) Democracy and Education. Milton Keynes: Simon and Brown.

Photo by Sharpemtbr on Pixabay

In the next post: Activity theory - Engeström

Previous posts in this series:

Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
Argyris Double Loop Learning
Bandura Social Learning Theory
Bruner Scaffolding Theory
Craik and Lockhart Levels of Processing
Csíkszentmihályi Flow Theory

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