No end to growing: Dewey and classroom experience.
Ruth Heilbronn
UCL IoE, London, United Kingdom

No end to growing: Dewey and classroom experience

The paper argues that Dewey’s discussion of ‘growth’ in Democracy and Education (DE) is directly relevant today, a powerful concept contrasting with contemporary policy discourse where ‘growth’ entails measurement, e.g. ‘She has grown 2 inches’; ‘GNP shows the economy has grown’. Auditing and comparing examination ‘outputs’ is one way in which growth appears in education policy. Through Dewey’s conception, we may focus ethically on the child and not the outcome.

Part 1 begins with an exposition of ‘the criterion of education as growing’. Children’s development stems from qualities of flexibility and plasticity. Development relies on mutual dependency - the young are experiencing and experimenting within a social milieu, receiving the culture and mediated experience of adults. Children are socially responsive, learn from experience and develop dispositions and habits. (Active adjustments to the environment develop into ‘habits of active use of our surroundings’ - DE p. 52.) There can be good or bad habits – education, informal and formal should be a process of developing good habits.

Dewey maintains that the primary condition of growth is ‘immaturity’, ateleologically defined. Immaturity is ‘something positive, not a mere void or lack’ (p.46). Immaturity is ‘the possibility of growth’ (ibid). Education is about engagement with the child’s experience, not about bringing the child to an end state of maturity. For Dewey, there is no ‘ideal and standard static end’ (p. 47).

The paper considers Dewey’s critics regarding a) a ‘fuzzy’ use of the notion of ‘growth’ and ‘growing’ (Dearden. 1972, Emerson 1982, Rorty 1999, Saito 2005) and b) a problem that not recognising an end to growth raises questions about how a curriculum is to be constructed. If ‘there is nothing to which growth is relative save more growth, there is nothing to which education is subordinate save more education’ (p. 56), and if ‘the only purpose of school education is to insure the continuance of education by organizing the powers that insure growth’ (ibid.) are we justified in teaching anything at all? (e.g. Hirsch 1987, 1996; Bloom 1987; Ravitch 2000).

I argue that Dewey is justified in his non-telelogical concept of growth (1938 pp.7-11 and 48-63) because he takes it as a normative not a descriptive concept (Dewey 1929, p. 29). This is clear when we see ‘growth’ as an element in a nexus of concepts. (Dewey’s ‘naturalizing philosophy is heavily drawn upon evolutionary biology and we expect to find an ecological interdependence of ideas. No one concept makes sense without relationship with others).

The paper continues with an exposition of some inter-related and dependent concepts to ‘growth’, underlying its significance for education, particularly, ‘continuity of experience’, ‘education’ and ‘democracy as associated living’.

Part 2 illustrates Deweyan ‘growth’ in action, showing an extract from the film 'Etre et Avoir' set in a rural French school. The scene involves two boys who have been fighting with each other. I have transcribed the dialogue and added a description of movement and silent communication, where significant to what is happening interactively. The text is available to read if viewing is not possible.

The film is a text, in the sense that the complex web of inter connected concepts discussed above can be ‘read’ through experiencing the film. The leisurely pace of the action and the previous intercutting with the landscape draw the viewer into a quiet classroom, where the children seem to be open to becoming and to each other. Significant in the scene is the way in which the protagonists are together in a form of associated living that Dewey would call democratic. Through his questioning and direction the master shows dialogical virtues that enable the growing understanding between them, which is about relating to each other in the social space of their classroom in which they spend their days. Dewey famously said ‘education is not preparation for life; education is life itself’. This scene illustrates well that sentence and growth as ateleological. The viewer experiences how the master establishes the context for the discussion; enables both boys to engage by respecting both their views; develops his own understanding about what has happened; takes a stand; undertakes reconciliation based on continuing to respect both children, whilst himself taking a moral position on what has happened. He calls on the children to help each other. They work collaboratively.


Current educational policy positions teachers in a high stakes assessment regime in which time to engage in the ‘pedagogical space of thoughtfulness’ (van Manem 1991) may be compromised. Teachers frequently find themselves acting instrumentally, yet trying to remain ethical and enable the kind of growth discussed in the paper. From the paper’s discussion and illustration it seems that ‘growth’ in the sense of audit’ and ‘growing’ in the Deweyan sense are in tension. The paper is intended to open discussion as to what we might do. My own answer is that we have ‘glimmers of light’ in certain spaces where students are able to deliberate together, such as in discussions in humanities or studying texts in literature or in drama lessons. The arts and the humanities subjects need defending. Extra curricular activities, home schooling, visits and trips are other important places where growing while being together may happen.


Bloom, A. (1987) The Closing of the American Mind. New York City: SImon and Schuster.

Dearden, R. (1972) Education as a Process of Growth. In R. Dearden, P.Hirst (Eds.), Education and the Development of Reason. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

John Dewey (1916). Democracy and Education. Middle Works of John Dewey Vol. 9, The Collected Works. .

- - (1929). The Sources of a Science of Education. Later Works of John Dewey, Vol. 5. The Collected Works.

- - (1938) Experience and Education. Later Works of John Dewey. Vol. 13. The Collected Works. 1882-1953.

- - (1960/1929) The Quest for Certainty. USA: Capricorn Editions.

Emerson, J. G. (1982). John Dewey's Concept of Education as a Growth Process. Meerut City, India: Anu Prakashan.

Hirsch, E.D. Jr. (1987) Cultural Literacy: What every American needs to know. New York: Vintage Books.

- - - (1996) The Schools We need and Why We Don’t Have Them. New York: Random House.

Philbert, N., (2002), Etre et Avoir: Artificial Eye.

Ravitch (2000) Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms. New York: Simon Schuster

Rorty, R. (1999). Education as Socialization and Individualization. In Philosophy and Social Hope (pp. 104-113). New York: Penguin Books.

Saito, S. (2005). The Gleam of Light. New York: Fordham University Press.

Van Manen, M., (1991) The tact of teaching: the meaning of pedagogical thoughtfulness. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Parallel Session A:2
Ruth Heilbronn
Presentation type:
Full paper
Wednesday, 28 September
16:30 - 17:15