Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Dewey on Book Work and Opportunities for Mistakes

Here is a quotation worth considering in our communications landscape awash in information: From “Democracy and education: an introduction to the philosophy of education” by John Dewey, published in 1916. In Chapter Fifteen: “Play and Work in the Curriculum” he wrote:

Doubtless the fact that children normally engage in play and work out of school has seemed to many educators a reason why they should concern themselves in school with things radically different. School time seemed too precious to spend in doing over again what children were sure to do any way. In some social conditions, this reason has weight. In pioneer times, for example, outside occupations gave a definite and valuable intellectual and moral training. Books and everything concerned with them were, on the other hand, rare and difficult of access; they were the only means of outlet from a narrow and crude environment. Wherever such conditions obtain, much may be said in favor of concentrating school activity upon books. The situation is very different, however, in most communities to-day. The kinds of work in which the young can engage, especially in cities, are largely anti-educational. That prevention of child labor is a social duty is evidence on this point. On the other hand, printed matter has been so cheapened and is in such universal circulation, and all the opportunities of intellectual culture have been so multiplied, that the older type of book work is far from having the force it used to possess.

And yet, in the words of Karl Fisch, many math teachers today are still “assigning one through thirty-one odd” and calling that education.

'Maths problems' photo (c) 2009, Dennis Howlett - license:

In the same chapter, Dewey reminds us about the importance of mistakes and fashioning learning opportunities for students which permit learning from mistakes. He wrote:

Moreover, opportunity for making mistakes is an incidental requirement. Not because mistakes are ever desirable, but because overzeal to select material and appliances which forbid a chance for mistakes to occur, restricts initiative, reduces judgment to a minimum, and compels the use of methods which are so remote from the complex situations of life that the power gained is of little availability.

This “requirement” pertains to digital as well as analog work, including digital writing / blogging. I resonate with Dewey’s reference to “the complex situations of life.” Too often in school we try to over-simplify reality. Attempts at simplification can be warranted in some cases, but frequently these attempts result in boring lessons and boring activities for students. Life IS complex, and many of the learning challenges we share with students should include elements of complexity. When they do, not only can we see their levels of interest and engagement go up, but also their opportunities to “make mistakes” and thereby learn valuable lessons they are unlikely to forget tomorrow.

Reading these passages today reminds me I need to “return to Dewey” and read his ideas more often. Project Gutenberg currently has seven of Dewey’s books available free in multiple formats.

'John Dewey' photo (c) 2008, Cliff - license:


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3 responses to “Dewey on Book Work and Opportunities for Mistakes”

  1. Sue Downing Avatar
    Sue Downing

    My favorite Dewey book is Schools of Tomorrow, published in 1915. It is a handbook for student-centered project-based learning by doing. It can be read online at

    Almost 100 years ago, Dewey and many school districts knew how to get students engaged, productive, and responsible for their learning.  

  2. Laura Gibbs Avatar

    There is a very nicely formatted edition of Democracy and Education at Columbia’s ILTWeb here: