Dewey Educates Thought

John Dewey, How We ThingJohn Dewey. 1997.  How We Think (Orig Pub 1910). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Some books we find on our own; others come recommended by people that we trust. In this case, one of my mentors, Professor Glenn Johnson, argued in class in the 1980s that the scientific method needs to be amended to include a felt need prior to problem definition, based on arguments by John Dewey. In my own research, I have also observed that the single most difficult step in the scientific method was the movement from a felt need to a definition of the problem. Thus, between Glenn’s instruction and my own experience, I have always referred to Dewey and Johnson together when discussing the scientific method.


In the preface to his book, How We Think, John Dewey expresses his objective in these words:

“… this book also represents the conviction that such is not the case [scientific thinking is irrelevant to teaching]; that the native and unspoiled attitude of childhood, marked by ardent curiosity, fertile imagination, and the love of experimental inquiry, is near, very near, to the attitude of the scientific mind.”(vii)

Dewey believes that classrooms are full of little scientists! This is a remarkable statement coming from one of America’s most influential educators in 1910 because public education in the nineteenth century was but one step removed from the Sunday school programs where education began in the churches.


Dewey breaks his argument up into three parts:

  1. “The Problem of Training Thought
  2. Logical Considerations and
  3. The Training of Thought”(ix)

He then writes five chapters in support of each part. I will organize the remainder of this review around these three parts.

The Problem of Training Thought

When Dewey talks about thought, his focus is on reflective thought, writing:

“Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought.”(6)

This focus on reflective thought is interesting because Dewey uses it to educate students into employing the scientific method in their thinking. He writes:

“While it is not the business of education to prove every statement made, any more than to teach every possible item of information, it is its business to cultivate deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions; to develop a lively, sincere, and open-minded preference for conclusions that are properly grounded, and to ingrain into the individual’s working habits methods of inquiry and reasoning appropriate to the various problems that present themselves.”(27-28)

Dewey’s diagnosis of the problem of teaching is also interesting because he focuses on the student’s habits of the mind (or cognitive preferences). He writes:

“The teacher’s problem is thus twofold. On the one side, he needs (as we saw in the last chapter) to be a student of individual traits and habits; on the other side, he needs to be a student of the conditions that modify for better or worse the directions in which individual powers habitually express themselves.”(46)

Observing learning habits allows the teacher both to steer students towards their lessons in ways that they more easily understand and to improve their efficiency in learning. Either way Dewey appears to anticipate the importance of personality types as articulated by Carl Jung (1955) and later developed more fully by Myers-Briggs (1995).

Logical Considerations

Dewey’s interest in felt needs, which Johnson later incorporated into the scientific method, arose from his inquiry into the nature of reflection. He writes:

“Upon examination, each instance reveals, more or less clearly, five logically distinct steps: (i) a felt difficulty; (ii) its location and definition; (iii) suggestion of possible solution; (iv) development by reasoning of the bearings of the suggestion; (v) further observation and experiment leading to its acceptance or rejection; that is, the conclusion of belief or disbelief.”(72)

This informal process of reflection, which results in belief or unbelief, would naturally align with how we might also come to faith.

One distinction that has stuck with me is the distinction between analysis and synthesis: Dewey writes:

“As analysis is conceived to be a sort of picking to pieces, so synthesis is thought to be a sort of physical piecing together; and so imagined, it also becomes a mystery.”(114)

A review is a type of analysis while a sermon is more of a synthesis, even though it may have analysis of scripture as part of the argument. In this sense, Dewey sees science as more of a synthesis when he writes:

“… science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them.”(127)

This statement may have been heavily influenced by zoology, where different animals are classified into kingdoms, phylum’s, classes, orders, families, geniuses and species.

 The Training of Thought

Dewey starts his discussion of education with a child who is first occupied with mastering his own body (157), then moves into learning to play and manipulate signs that have representative meaning (161). Interestingly, Dewey writes:

“Gestures, pictures, monuments, visual images, finger movements—any consciously employed as a sign is logically language.”(170-171)

He goes on to observe:

“Learning, in the proper sense, is not learning things, but the meaning of things, and this process involves the use of signs, or languages in its generic sense.”(176)

Dewey sees three motivations for focusing on language:

“The primary motive for language is to influence (through the expression of desire, emotion, and thought) the activity of others; its secondary use is to enter into more intimate sociable relations with them; its employment as a conscious vehicle of thought and knowledge is a tertiary, and relatively late, formation.”(179)

Seminary training opened up entirely new avenues of thought for me—I suddenly had words to express ideas that previously had been unformed. Sometimes you hear people talk about the meaninglessness of “churchy” words—suddenly, the churchy words made perfect sense to me. This is what Dewey refers to as the formative nature of language.


John Dewey’s book, How We Think, is an educational classic and has been described as a work in philosophy. I started this book in 2006 and set it aside until this past month because it was a bit challenging. You may also find it challenging, but notwithstanding worth the effort.


Johnson, Glenn L. 1986. Research Methodology for Economists: Philosophy and Practice. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.

Jung, Carl J. 1955. Modern Man in Search of a Soul(Orig. Pub. 1933). New York: Harcourt Inc.

Myers, Isabel Briggs and Peter B. Myers. 1995. Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type(Orig Pub 1980). Mountain View: Davies-Black Publishing.

Dewey Educates Thought

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