John Dewey on Normative Theories

In chapter 8 of Democracy and Education, John Dewey discusses the nature and criteria of good aims:

To have a mind to do a thing is to foresee a future possibility; it is to have a plan for its accomplishment; it is to note the means which make the plan capable of execution and the obstructions in the way, — or, if it is really a mind to do the thing and not a vague aspiration — it is to have a plan which takes account of resources and difficulties. Mind is capacity to refer present conditions to future results, and future consequences to present conditions. And these traits are just what is meant by having an aim or a purpose.

Translation: Having an aim is the opposite of being aimless, which means having an end that is achievable and a plan for how to get there.

A man is imperfectly intelligent when he contents himself with looser guesses about the outcome than is needful, just taking a chance with his luck, or when he forms plans apart from study of the actual conditions, including his own capacities. Such relative absence of mind means to make our feelings the measure of what is to happen. To be intelligent we must “stop, look, listen” in making the plan of an activity.

Translation: Winging it or creating a plan divorced from reality isn’t smart. Don’t just follow your gut; observe and plan carefully.

The foresight functions in three ways. In the first place, it involves careful observation of the given conditions to see what are the means available for reaching the end, and to discover the hindrances in the way. In the second place, it suggests the proper order or sequence in the use of means. It facilitates an economical selection and arrangement. In the third place, it makes choice of alternatives possible. If we can predict the outcome of acting this way or that, we can then compare the value of the two courses of action; we can pass judgment upon their relative desirability.

Translation: The key to acting intelligently is having the foresight to predict the outcomes of our actions. If we have foresight, we can see both the obstacles to and the means available for reaching our ends; we can analyze different paths to our ends; and we can evaluate which of those paths might result in the best outcome.

We can definitely foresee results only as we make careful scrutiny of present conditions, and the importance of the outcome supplies the motive for observations. The more adequate our observations, the more varied is the scene of conditions and obstructions that presents itself, and the more numerous are the alternatives between which choice may be made. In turn, the more numerous the recognized possibilities of the situation, or alternatives of action, the more meaning does the chosen activity possess, and the more flexibly controllable is it.

Translation: Foresight requires careful observation of present conditions. The more carefully we observe the present conditions, the more pathways we’ll see for achieving our ends, and the more control we’ll have over the outcome. The more important the outcome, the more motivated we are to observe carefully.

The aim set up must be an outgrowth of existing conditions. It must be based upon a consideration of what is already going on; upon the resources and difficulties of the situation. Theories about the proper end of our activities — educational and moral theories — often violate this principle. They assume ends lying outside our activities; ends foreign to the concrete makeup of the situation; ends which issue from some outside source. Then the problem is to bring our activities to bear upon the realization of these externally supplied ends. They are something for which we ought to act. In any case such “aims” limit intelligence; they are not the expression of mind in foresight, observation, and choice of the better among alternative possibilities. They limit intelligence because, given ready-made, they must be imposed by some authority external to intelligence, leaving to the latter nothing but a mechanical choice of means.

Translation: An aim chosen based on observations of what is encourages intelligent action by encouraging foresight, even more observation, and deliberate decision-making; an aim chosen based on thoughts of what ought to be limits intelligent action by discouraging foresight, observation, and deliberate decision-making.

An end established externally to the process of action is always rigid. Being inserted or imposed from without, it is not supposed to have a working relationship to the concrete conditions of the situation. What happens in the course of action neither confirms, refutes, nor alters it. Such an end can only be insisted upon. The failure that results from its lack of adaptation is attributed simply to the perverseness of conditions, not to the fact that the end is not reasonable under the circumstances. The value of a legitimate aim, on the contrary, lies in the fact that we can use it to change conditions. It is a method for dealing with conditions so as to effect desirable alterations in them.

Translation: If an aim is based on what ought to be, it is fixed and we learn nothing in the course of pursuing it; however, if an aim is based on what is, we will learn more about the conditions required to achieve our ends, and we can act intelligently to bring those conditions into existence.

A good aim surveys the present state of experience of pupils, and forming a tentative plan of treatment, keeps the plan constantly in view and yet modifies it as conditions develop. The aim, in short, is experimental, and hence constantly growing as it is tested in action.

Translation: An aim based on what is can be both tested and modified in the course of pursuing it.

Summary: Intelligent action requires an aim which is achievable from the present conditions and a plan for getting there. Good aims are based on careful observations of what is. The more clearly we see what is, the more future possibilities we’ll see that could be, and the more control we’ll have over the outcomes of our actions. Careful observations of what is will also help us identify both obstacles and the means available to us for achieving our ends, identify required conditions we didn’t foresee so we can bring those conditions into existence, and test and modify our aims in the course of pursuing them.

Normative aims—aims based on thoughts of what ought to be—are bad because they result in unintelligent action. If an aim isn’t based on present conditions, there’s no motivation to observe carefully, so obstacles and available means aren’t identified, alternative pathways aren’t considered, nothing is learned in the course of pursuing the aim since conditions are irrelevant and the aim itself is fixed, and we experience a loss of control.

It’s especially bad to bring normative aims into the classroom as a teacher because you’re imposing external aims on your students. The aims are external because they’re divorced from the present conditions, so students can’t understand them from within their present context. You are basically saying, “We’re pursuing these aims because I said we should.”

John Dewey (1859–1952) was an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer who wrote extensively about education and founded the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. As a leading thinker in the Progressive Education Movement in the United States, his ideas continue to be studied by prospective teachers in teacher preparation programs today.

The Child and the Curriculum (1902) and Democracy and Education (1916) were required reading in my teacher preparation program; I don’t recall if we also read Experience and Education (1938) or not. At the time, I believed Dewey’s writings were completely irrelevant to me as a future teacher. Now, reading him again 23 years later, I’m embarrassed to see that he developed vertical learning theory a century before I did; I’m merely reconstructing his theory based on 100 years of new observations and experiments conducted by myself and many others.

In that spirit, I’m re-writing a few of my earlier articles from Dewey’s point of view. I hope you enjoy the series!