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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Beechick Outlines Biblical Learning Method

Beechick Outlines Biblical Learning Method

Ruth Beechick. 1982. A Biblical Psychology of Learning. Denver: Accent Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most insidious assumptions of modern and postmodern people is that the current generation is the most intelligent, most perceptive. It is as if everything that came before was prologue to this fantastic new beginning. Not only is this assumption not true; it is idolatrous because, like original sin, this assumption presumes the role of God, who is the true source of all knowledge. This is why as we grow in our faith and learn about it, we find the Bible increasingly interesting. Books that help us understand the Bible in new ways are especially interesting.


In her book, A Biblical Psychology of Learning, educator Dr. Ruth Beechick starts noting that: “we need a theory of learning based on the Bible.” (8) The reason for Beechick’s interest is that in studying learning theory more generally, she was frustrated that the behavioral theory explained primarily the behavior of rats (stimulus-response) and other theories likewise focused on only one dimension of learning. Surely, human complexity required a more complex understanding of learning, she thought (9).

Learning Starts with the Heart

In her attempt to develop a biblical understanding of learning, Beechick observes:

“When we look to the Bible one inescapable fact about man is his heart. The word is used more than 800 times.” (12)

Beechick goes into a long discussion of how modern people understand the biblical concept of heart, but I suspect that, because the heart has a much wider scope of meaning in Hebrew and Greek, heart would translate as a range of emotional and intellectual meanings, which Beechick argues do not all begin with cognition in the mind. She argues from biblical, historical, and scientific evidence that the heart has its own autonomous influence (39).

Biblical Learning Model Uses More Information

Beechick makes an interesting chart comparing sources of input into three learning theories—behaviorism, humanism, and biblical—with their view of man and basis of study. Behaviorism views man as a personless body; humanism views many as a biological organism; and the biblical view of man is that we are created in the image of God. Behaviorism studies laboratory animals; humanism studies mankind; and the biblical view considers animals, people, and the biblical experience (26). From her review, she concludes that the biblical view is better informed than behaviorism or humanism because it takes into account more information (33).

Beechick’s core learning model is built on a model from John A.R. Wilson, Mildred D. Robeck, and William B. Michael called Psychological Foundations of Learning (New York: McGraw Hill, 1969) and has five components:

  1. Wise self-direction (creativity),
  2. Concept Learning,
  3. Information learning,
  4. Heart-set (self-discipline), and
  5. Parental love and discipline (54).

Each of these components interacts with the others and combines influences from both the head and the heart. The remainder of the book focuses on explaining each of these five components.

Example of Psalm 78

Beechick walks through this learning model that she finds illustrated in several verses in Psalm 78 through wisdom and foolishness applications of the model (example and counter-example). The wisdom application is found in verses one, six, and seven (70):

  1. Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
  2. that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children,
  3. so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; (Ps 78:1, 6-7 ESV)

The foolish-learner application is found in the verses that follow (72). Proverbs 10 provides another application of the model through example and counter-example. In walking through these illustrations, Beechick notes that learning starts with the orientation of the heart (heart-setting) and that God disciplines his people with both anger and love (69). Because our hearts are not always naturally set on learning, discipline plays a key role in biblical learning, which the Psalmist likens to the growth of a palm or cedar tree (Ps 92:12).

Who is Ruth Beechick?

Her Amazon author page reports the following biography:

“Dr. Ruth Beechick spent a lifetime teaching and studying how people learn. She taught in Washington state, Alaska, Arizona and in several colleges and seminaries in other states. She also spent thirteen years at a publishing company writing curriculum for churches. In ‘retirement’ she continues to write for the burgeoning homeschool movement. Her degrees are A.B. from Seattle Pacific University, M.A.Ed. and Ed.D. from Arizona State University.”

Ruth has written numerous books and curriculum materials for homeschooling, but she passed away in 2013 and does not have her own website.


Ruth Beechick’s A Biblical Psychology of Learning is an interesting for anyone interested in biblical teaching methods, which explains why she has been so influential in the homeschooling movement. Her learning model is complex which seems appropriate because we are complex people, but it also suggests that rigorous study is required to apply it.

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