In education, pragmatism is an approach to learning and teaching that focuses on keeping things practical. Its key theorist is John Dewey. It has four principles: Unity, Interest, Experience, and Integration. Pragmatic teachers use active project-based learning strategies in the classroom and focus on topics relevant to students’ lives.
The 4 Principles of Pragmatism in Education
According to Sharma, Devi and Kumari (2018), there are four principles of pragmatism for teachers to know about:
1. Principle of Utility
Everything that students learn should have ‘utility’. This means that everything should be useful to the student. A student doesn’t care for learning abstract theoretical ideas that they will never apply to their lives outside of school. Instead, a student want to learn things that are relevant to their lives. By making things relevant and useful, students will be more engaged and eager to learn.
2. Principle of Interest
Curriculum content should also include the students’ interests. Dewey (a key pragmatist theorist) argues that students have four interests: conversation, investigation, construction and creative expression.
Therefore, teachers should focus on creating lessons that involve talking with one another, investigating things through experimentation, making things, and being creative.
3. Principle of Experience
Pragmatists value experience over all else. Students can learn abstract things all day, but unless they experience those things, they may never truly learn. Teachers should therefore create a lot of project-based, experimental and experiential lessons that help children ‘learn by doing’.
4. Principle of Integration
Curriculum content is not separate. Mathematics, science and creative arts are not three different lessons. Instead, the pragmatic teacher links the curriculum content together through a process we call ‘integration’. The teacher will show students how concepts from different subjects are related to each other and encourage a holistic understanding of the topics they are learning.
Alternative Theory: Existentialism in Education
Key Ideas in Pragmatic Education Theory
Here is the deeper information about the theory of pragmatism for education. Use this information in your essay to show your depth of knowledge about pragmatism and grow your grades.
1. The Facts can Change
Some people (like Idealists and Absolutists) believe that the facts never change. The truth is the truth, they say! However, pragmatists believe that the truth can change. What is ‘true fact’ is whatever works and gets results at any point in time.
Pragmatists are always willing to change their minds when new information or circumstances come about. The thing they care most about is taking action and achieving results. If they try something out and it doesn’t work, they’ll try something new. They’re always experimenting and changing their minds about things! This has led to the pragmatic saying: “truth is formed by its results” (Adeleye, 2017, p. 2).
2. Pragmatists are “Utilitarian”
A utilitarian is someone who values things that are useful. If knowledge is not useful in real life, then it isn’t really all that interesting to a pragmatic person. However, if knowledge has real-life practical value, pragmatists are very interested in it.
Pragmatic teachers are more interested in showing students things that will have value and relevance to their lives. When teaching mathematics, they might focus on teaching addition and subtraction by linking it to real-life situations such as shopping at the supermarket or scoring a game of football.
3. Experience is King
Everything a pragmatist knows and believes is based on their experiences. A pragmatist is always taking action and trying things out. It is only through experience that a pragmatist understands their world.
When a pragmatist has a new experience, they will learn something new. This will inform how they understand the world. If you don’t experiment and experience things, you’ll never know for sure if something is true or not.
A pragmatic teacher is always focusing on getting students to get active. They won’t be learning theory too much. They’ll learn the theory then spend the rest of the lesson applying the theory in a practical situation. You’ll see lots of experiments, hands-on and project-based activities in a pragmatic classroom. The pragmatic teacher’s motto is “learning by doing”.
4. Thought and Action are Interconnected
If you sat around and thought about something your whole life, but did nothing about it, then your thoughts are meaningless. The only thoughts that matter are the ones that are applied in real-life practical circumstances.
Furthermore, your actions should inform your thoughts. You might think about something, try it out in an experiment, then re-think it and try a new experiment. By taking action, you are changing your thoughts.
5. Something is Better than Nothing
Pragmatists reward results. They don’t care if something is perfect, they care more that something works. If an idea has practical relevance to real life, they’re happy!
In education, that means a pragmatic teacher won’t expect a student’s spelling and grammar to be perfect. They won’t expect perfection in any area of life. Instead, they’ll be happy if the student can show their knowledge and how they can apply it to real life.
Often when I have to decide whether I should pass a student in my college classes, I think to myself “well, does the student have a working knowledge of the course content?” I won’t hold them back if their spelling sucks or they missed one too many classes. These are not the most important practical concerns. Here, I’m being practical: does the student have the knowledge? If yes, go ahead and pass the course.
In real life, pragmatists are often found in politics. Let’s say the president of the United States want to build a highway from Seattle to Los Angeles. That’s what he wants. But the Senate says “No! We’ll only fund a highway from Seattle to Portland!”
An idealist might say “That’s not what I wanted, so I won’t build the highway.”
A pragmatist might say “Well that’s better than nothing. Let’s get it done.” At least residents of Portland and Seattle will get something!
6. Humans are Social Beings
Because pragmatists believe ‘experience is king’, they also believe that social interactions are important. Social interactions are, after all, one of the primary experiences that everyone has in their everyday life.
The theorist John Dewey, who applied pragmatism to education in his writings, believed that education should help young people learn to be better at social interactions. Dewey’s ideas stated that social interactions help us to learn how to cooperate, negotiate and get along. These skills are vital to pragmatists who value getting things done. Sometimes, it requires social interaction and compromise to achieve results.
Examples of Pragmatism in Education
1. Experiential, Experimental and Project-Based Learning
According to pragmatists, students learn best through experience. A pragmatic teacher, therefore, would not be the sort of teacher who does rote learning (learning things by heart). Instead, the teacher would ask students to go off and experience things.
The student can go off and experiment with materials to learn how they work. There will be a lot of scientific projects, writing tasks that involve topics that are relevant to the student’s life, and mathematical tasks that can be used by the student when they go home at night.
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2. Play-Based Learning
One of the best ways of experiencing the world (and therefore learning!) is through play. This is particularly true for early childhood classrooms. Therefore, pragmatists believe that children should spend a lot of time playing. Through play-based learning, children experiment and therefore learn more and more about themselves and the world.
3 Group Work and Negotiation.
Pragmatists are not idealist or purists. This means that they’re more interested in getting things done than achieving perfect results.
In the classroom, this means that students need to learn how to get along with each other and compromise in order to achieve results. A pragmatic classroom will therefore involve a lot of group work, where students have to come to mutual agreements.
Pragmatic teachers should explicitly teach students group work, cooperation and negotiation skills. They should then encourage children to practice those skills throughout their daily tasks.
A pragmatic teacher might also arrange the classroom layout into table groups (see image). This will encourage students to work together to get things done.
The Role of the Pragmatic Teacher
Pragmatic teachers are focused on helping children take action. They should create resource-rich classrooms with project-based lessons.
The pragmatic teacher does not directly teach content but facilitates active learning. While a traditional educator might teach via behaviorist teaching methods like rote learning and be seen as the ‘sage on the stage’, the pragmatic educator is the ‘guide on the side’.
You would expect to see a pragmatic teacher setting out tasks and sending students off to find ways to complete the tasks in practical and pragmatic ways.
How Pragmatists view Children
Because pragmatism is all about taking action and achieving results, pragmatists must view children as active, competent and capable. The child is capable of seeking out and finding solutions to the problems that trouble them in their lessons.
We often call the active and capable view of the child the ‘agentic view of childhood’. You can read more about the agentic child in my post on social constructions of childhood.
Key Pragmatic Education Theorists
1. John Dewey (1859 – 1952)
If you’re writing an essay on pragmatism in education, you must mention John Dewey. His name is almost synonomous with pragmatic education.
While today we see Dewey as a pragmatist, he used the term ‘instrumentalism’ which is just about interchangeable with the term ‘pragmatism’.
Utilitarianism: Dewey is the person who promoted the idea that knowledge (and theory) are only worthwhile if they have clear utility to human beings. If a theory is not connected to action, then what is its point? He was very unimpressed by philosophers who scratched their chins all day, wrote some things, but did nothing else.
Learning by Doing: Dewey was also the person who brought pragmatism to education. In his writings, Dewey spoke a lot about how students need to learn by doing, and then reflect upon what they did. Through inquiry, inductive learning and active learning, the student will become a capable and confident adult.
Critique of Traditional Education: Lastly, one of the biggest contributions of Dewey to pragmatic education was his critique of traditional education. Dewey thought schools treated children as dumb and passive learners. Instead, he proposed students should be taught to be problem solvers. The child shouldn’t be given ‘a set of notes’ but taught to problem solve and develop their own knowledge that is relevant to their lives right now, not just ti their lives as future adults.
2. Charles S. Pierce (1839 – 1914)
It might also be a good idea to mention Charles Pierce in your essay. Charles Pierce was a pragmatist even before Dewey. Pierce was a mathematician who thought that our actions are based on our beliefs or ‘hypotheses’. By experiencing new things and creating new ideas based on our hypotheses, we can improve our thoughts and therefore our actions.
3. William James (1842 – 1910)
James is also a very famous pragmatist, although he did not talk much about education. His eight lectures on the philosophy of pragmatism are famous for setting the groundwork for what pragmatism is. They are very complex indeed, but in essence, he argued that pragmatism is all about being practical. He values ideas that are common sense and usable in real life. He does not care for abstract ideas, but only for thinking about things that are relevant and useful to the lives of human beings.
Scholarly Quotes on Pragmatism in Education
- “Any human activity is evaluated in terms of its consequences or results. If the activity results in utility, then it is true.” (Adeleye, 2017, p. 2) (free access here)
- “Pragmatists hold that whatever was true yesterday; need not to be the same today.” (Adeleye, 2017, p. 2) (free access here)
- “It may be noted that the fundamental start of pragmatism is “change”. In this sense no truth is absolute and permanent. It is always changing from time to time, from place to place and from circumstance to circumstance.” (Adeleye, 2017, p. 2) (free access here)
- “[Pragmatism] can be summarized by the phrase whatever works, is likely true.” (Sharma, Devi & Kumari, 2018, p. 1549) (free access here)
- “Pragmatists firmly believe that old and traditional education is dead and lifeless.” (Sharma, Devi & Kumari, 2018, p. 1551) (free access here)
- “To pragmatism, man is a social being. He gains more and more knowledge through personal experiences than he gets from books.” (Sharma, Devi & Kumari, 2018, p. 1551) (free access here)
- “Pragmatism regards teacher as a helper, guide and philosopher. The chief function of pragmatic teacher is to suggest problems to his pupils and to stimulate them to find by themselves, the solutions, which will work.” (Sharma, Devi & Kumari, 2018, p. 1552) (free access here)
- “Pragmatism holds that man is a social being. He is born into society and all his development takes place in and through society. Hence, pragmatists uphold democratic social attitudes and values.” (Adeleye, 2017, p. 3) (free access here)
- “The greatest contribution of pragmatism to education is this principle of learning by doing.” (Adeleye, 2017, p. 3) (free access here)
- “It is established by the pragmatists that truth is not constant […] Therefore, a teacher must be ready to change in his act of teaching, knowing the appropriate method of teaching because the situation may change and students may also change. ” (Adeleye, 2017, p. 4) (free access here)
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Limitations and Critiques of Pragmatism in Education
1. Pragmatism lacks moral basis
If pragmatism advocates that truth and facts change with time, then there is a risk of moral absolutism. This is a concept that refers to the fact that if there is no one truth, then anything may be true. This could lead to moral decline in society, where people justify all sorts of bad things based on the fact that it’s “their” truth.
2. Just because something works, it isn’t necessarily true
Pragmatists think things are true if they work and are worthwhile. This led to a famous conversation between William James and Bertrand Russell:
“If a hypothesis works satisfactorily, it is true,” said James, the pragmatist.
Bertrand Russell responded: “The hypothesis of Santa Claus works satisfactorily — it brings goodwill world over. So, to James, ‘Santa Claus exists’ is true. To me, it is false!”
Fair criticism, Mr. Russell!
3. Thought without action is important in education, too
Pragmatists think that thought without action (e.g. learning about things that don’t have practical purpose) is pointless. However, many would argue this is not correct. Many times, things we think about have value in and of themselves. They have what we call ‘intrinsic value’. Sometimes reading, thinking and even relaxing have intrinsic value but no utility value. Perhaps we should still teach about Shakespeare and sextants in schools, even if they are old fashioned and have no utility value any more. They might still be interesting!
Scholarly Sources for your Essay
Don’t forget that you need to cite scholarly sources in essays. Here are a few you can use and cite. These citations are in APA Style. If you need to use another referencing format, check our page on how to reference in an essay to change the citation to the correct format.
Adeleye, J. O. (2017). Pragmatism and its implications on teaching and learning in Nigerian schools. Research Highlights in Education and Science. 1(1): 1 – 6. (free access here)
Dewey, J. (1948). Education and the Philosophic Mind. New York: The Macmillian Co.
Sharma, S., Devi, R., & Kumari, J. (2018). Pragmatism in education. International Journal of Engineering Technology Science and Research 5(1): 1549 – 1554. (free access here)
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]