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  • Destiny Yarbro

John Dewey's Holistic Approach to Education

The influence of John Dewey’s writings on education can be seen worldwide. He elevated the discussion from a laundry list of basic skills to be taught in the classroom, to the exploration of the meaningful purpose of education. The International Baccalaureate Organization is an example of an education program built largely upon Dewey’s key principles of education. These principles have been key in the educational reformation of the last century and their impact can still be seen today in our modern educational system.

The Purpose of Education

The purpose of education according to John Dewey was multifaceted, but two specific elements stood out to me. First, education was meant to develop a student in a holistic way, developing attributes that would survive any outside or inner challenge. It would allow him to realize his full potential since “ prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of his capacities” (Dewey, 1897). Dewey promoted the idea of the “whole” student, writing in Democracy and Education that, “To find out what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is key to happiness” (Dewey, 1916).

Second, Dewey said education was not just the “acquisition of pre-determined skills” but the chance for a student to learn how to live (Talebi, 2015). In The School and Society he wrote that each school should be “an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society and permeated throughout with the spirit of art, history and science” (Dewey, 1916). Within this small-scale community he encouraged “saturating [the student] with the spirit of service, and providing him with instruments of effective self-direction” so that in the end, “we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely and harmonious” (Dewey, 1899). Dewey felt that education should ultimately lead students to do good in their communities and countries.

Meaningful, Relatable, and Effective Education

Dewey’s writings came out of the post-Civil War era when many traumatized U.S. citizens were recognizing the need for an education system built on principles much different than in the past. One of these ground-breaking principles Dewey termed as “the democratic ideal” or the development of students to “share in the social conscious” (Dewey, 1916; Dewey, 1897). He emphasized that an educational environment must be largely free of class, race, and religious barriers so that it is primed to nurture the “full potential and ability [of a student] to use skills for the greater good” (Soltis, n.d.; Talebi, 2015, p. 4). In a society recently torn apart by the war, many in Dewey’s time recognized the critical need for students to identify common values, be exposed to many different ideas, and be engendered with a desire to spread good (Jeynes, 2007). We continue to reach for these ideals today but deeply-rooted barriers to education diversity remain, such as a homogenous school location, the lack of capable teachers to hire, or limited meaningful employment prospects in a stagnant economy.

Another of Dewey’s educational principles, paraphrased by Kandan Talebi, was that “in order for education to be most effective, content must be presented in a way that allows the student to relate the information to prior experiences, thus deepening the connection with this new knowledge” (Talebi, 2015, p. 5). This hands-on and experiential learning was elemental to Dewey’s educational reform and influenced Problem-Based Learning in which students work in groups to solve a relatable and open-ended problem. It has also highly influenced the Theory of Multiple Intelligences which recognizes that students with a variety of learning strengths generally do well with more hands-on, and less rote, learning experiences (Armstrong, 2018).

A third principle of Dewey was that learning should not be unidirectional; that the best learning environments blossom when both the teacher and the students are life-long learners. He emphasized that a student should be actively encouraged to apply what he has learned to his current life experiences. A common grievance voiced among United States citizens living in poverty is that information given in school is abstract; that learning poetry has nothing to do with surviving a traumatic home life or getting food on the table (Payne, 2010; Hancock, 2009). Perhaps this is why controversial slam poetry has risen in popularity; unlike much of traditional poetry, slam is real, relatable, and communicated in easy-to-understand terms (Bean, 2019). The issue of abstract learning is minimized or even dispelled when a student immediately relates what he is learning to his ongoing reality.

Along these same lines, a fourth principle of Dewey was the need for a complete shift in the role of teachers. Rather than a teacher dictating dry data from the front of a room, pouncing on the student who dares to think critically, rewarding students who are submissive and remain still in their seats, the new-and-improved teacher should nurture an apprenticeship relationship with a student. This teacher would not be hired solely for their skills in classroom management and executing test-based curriculum, but because they model how a life-long learner approaches the quest for knowledge. They would understand that “natural development as an aim requires that we recognize differences among individual children and respond to them accordingly” (Mintz, 2017).

The International Baccalaureate Organization (IB)

The principles of the International Baccalaureate Organization (IB) are in close alignment with many of John Dewey’s principles of education. For example, as discussed, Dewey emphasized that an education should help students engender a desire to “share in the social conscious” (Dewey, 1897). IB’s mission statement mirrors this vision. They seek to develop students who “help...create a better and more peaceful world” (IB Learner Profile 2013). This priority is clearly evident in the following statement by one of their former students and a current director at the World Bank, “I felt so privileged - I’d gone to the best was time for me to give back a bit. I decided to dedicate the rest of my career to ending poverty” (Jeffery, 2013).

Another example of an educational principle promoted by both Dewey and IB is the emphasis on social learning. Dewey made clear that an education should include a democratic learning environment; that ultimately learning is a social activity and can lead to social reform (Talebi, 2015). Similarly, IB emphasizes open-mindedness in their IB Learning Profile, stating that their students appreciate “the values and traditions of others” and “seek and evaluate a range of points of view” (IB Learner Profile 2013). They tout the importance of multilingualism in nurturing globally-minded students as voiced by one of their alumni (and current CEO of Rosetta Stone). “Learning another language” Tom Adams said, allows you to “engage more easily in another culture, and you engage more deeply in your own culture too” (Jeffery, 2011). In other words, an IB student’s education is to become a global citizen.


While much of Dewey’s work focused on the U.S. education system, he no doubt knew the impact a global-minded education would have on a society. He firmly believed that the purpose of education was to develop a student’s whole self so they learn how to live their full potential. He taught many principles, including the importance of developing students who desire to do good in the world, an experiential and relatable education, and multidirectional learning in the classroom with the teacher as a model of life-long learning and the student an active proponent in his education. Finally, we can see the influence of Dewey’s work, specifically in the IB educational program’s focus on creating global citizens and encouraging students to better their communities with what they have learned. Dewey presented his work in only a few countries during his lifetime, but his global impact can be seen clearly more than a century later and as far away as Yemen in the case of Kanden Tabebi who is referenced in this article.


Armstrong, T. (2018). Multiple intelligences in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Bean, A. (2019, March). The Impermanence of Home. Speech presented at TEDxPonceyHighland in Georgia, Atlanta. Retrieved September 5, 2020, from [Note: Beautiful example of slam.]

Dewey, J. (1899). The School and Society. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press. Retrieved September 4, 2020, from

Dewey, J. (1897). My Pedagogical Creed. The School Journal, LIV(3), 77-80. Retrieved September 4, 2020, from

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York City, NY: Macmillan. Retrieved September 03, 2020, from

Jeynes, W. H. (2007). The Widespread Growth of the Common School and Higher Education. In American Educational History: School, Society, and the Common Good (p. 150). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. Retrieved September 4, 2020, from

Hancock, J. L. (Director). (2009). The blind side [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: Warner Bros. Pictures. [Note: A poignant scene in The Blind Side has Michael Oher, a black student who grew in a neighborhood called “Hurt Village” in Memphis, failing to relate to poetry until he applies “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Lord Alfred Tennyson to football and his need for strong role models in his life.

IB Learner Profile. (2013). Retrieved September 03, 2020, from

Jeffery, R. (Ed.). (2011, September). Words to the Wise. IB World, (63). Retrieved September 4, 2020, from

Jeffery, R. (Ed.). (2013, January). Education inspires world-renowned economist. IB World, (67), 30.

Mintz, A. I. (2017). What is the Purpose of Education? Dewey’s Challenge to His Contemporaries. In L. Waks & A. English (Eds.), John Dewey's Democracy and Education: A Centennial Handbook. New York: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved September 3, 2020, from

Payne, R. K., DeVol, P. E., & Smith, T. D. (2010). Bridges out of poverty: Strategies for professionals and communities. Moorabbin, Victoria, Australia: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Talebi, K. (2015). John Dewey - Philosopher and Educational Reformer. European Journal of Education Studies, 1(1). Retrieved September 03, 2020,

Soltis, J. F. (n.d.). John Dewey (1859–1952) - Experience and Reflective Thinking, Learning, School and Life, Democracy and Education. Retrieved September 04, 2020, from


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