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John Dewey's Experience and Education: Lessons for Museums



John Dewey, one of the preeminent educational theorists of our time, wrote Experience and Education 60 years ago, toward the end of his career, as a review of his educational philosophy and the progressive schools it had spawned. Based on the principle that all genuine education comes about through experience, Dewey's ideas are still current and particularly relevant to the theory and practice of museum education. They are, nevertheless, not widely cited within the museum profession. This article comments on Experience and Education, a slim, readable volume, in the hope of giving it wider readership.

Major ideas from each chapter of the book are summarized along with comments on their application to various museum issues. Dewey distinguishes two fundamentally opposed ideas: that education is development from within and that it is formation from without. Believing that experience is the basis for education, he basically takes the within position, although he also warns against either-or thinking. Dewey identifies two aspects of experience and two criteria for judging it which have implications for such things as setting exhibit goals, evaluating exhibits, developing exhibit content, and untangling education and entertainment. He goes on to look at problems of implementing experience-based learning such as maintaining social control, moving people from initial impulses to more purposeful inquiry, and developing organized subject matter from individual experiences. All of this applies to museums as well as schools.

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