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Pragmatism and Educational Research

reviewed by Martin Bickman - 2004

coverTitle: Pragmatism and Educational Research
Author(s): Gert J.J. Biesta and Nicholas C. Burbules
Publisher: ABLEX Publishing Company, Westport, CT
ISBN: 0847694771, Pages: 128, Year: 2003
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This book is the second in Rowan & Littlefield’s series “Philosophy, Theory, and Educational Research.”  But I fear the authors have taken the series title in too literal and restrictive a sense.  This volume is a wonderfully concise and lucid exposition of the pragmatic theory of learning and knowing, but as such it is an uncomfortable paradox.  For it presents a theory whose very essence is that theory without practice, generalization divorced from concrete instances, is sterile and one-dimensional, the sound of one hand yapping.  “Pragmatic theory,” then, is an oxymoron, something that cannot really exist by itself, and any book that tries to present it as such is necessarily partial and incomplete.

The authors make clear that by “Pragmatism” they really mean the thought of John Dewey, although the introductory chapter contains some remarks on the entire movement and its contexts.  This focus is understandable since Dewey was more extensively and intensively involved in education than William James and Charles Sanders Pierce.  But this book slights much of Dewey’s positive involvement by paying disproportionate attention to his negative critique of western philosophy, leaving an empty lot cleared of deadwood but with no new construction.  So much of the book is spent deconstructing false dichotomies from which we are eventually extricated but at the end find we have spent most of our time thrashing about in those very epistemological quagmires from which we were supposed to be sprung.

The first chapter, “What is Pragmatism,” for example, reconceptualizes the subject/object split through the use of Dewey’s notion of “transaction,” moving back to the unified field existing before such a differentiation is made.  The next chapter, “From Experience to Knowledge,” uses this reconceptualization along with Dewey’s notion of truth as fluid and in process to dismantle binaries such as stimulus/response, thinking/acting.  The third chapter, “The Process of Inquiry,” deconstructs the distinction between natural inquiry and social inquiry.  In the fourth, “Consequences of Pragmatism,” the differences between theory and practice and objectivism and relativism bite the dust.  It is only in the last chapter—by far the shortest, weighing in at eight pages—“Pragmatism and Educational Research,” that we get a more positive albeit still abstract notion of what pragmatic educational research might look like.

Ironically, then, for all the talk of the need to derive theory from practice and then in turn measure, refine, and qualify that theory against further practice, there is no mention of Dewey’s own arena of educational practice, his Laboratory School at the University of Chicago.  The authors expound only Dewey’s theory, violating a key part of what he articulated in that theory:  “Ideas, even as ideas, are incomplete and tentative until they are employed in application to objects in action, and are thus developed, corrected, tested” (Mayhew & Edwards, 1936, p. 3).  For this reason, one can get a richer, more useable sense of pragmatic educational thought from books like Arthur G. Wirth’s John Dewey as Educator (1966) and Dewey’s own contribution to a description of his laboratory school compiled by two of its teachers, Katherine Camp Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards, The Dewey School (1936).

What disappoints most is the authors’ failure to press further and in more specific detail the radical implications of the theory they describe, especially given the urgency of our situation.  Educational practice in this country bears very little relation to educational research.  If this were as true in medicine, we would all be dead.  Such was the case even before the NCLB Act and the Bush administration’s restriction of research-based reform  to only the research it finds ideologically congenial.  While there is still a great deal to be learned about how students learn, the real crisis is that no one pays any attention to all that we already know.  For this to change, we all need to become activists and practitioners.  It is hollow faith to assume that somehow our students will change the schools in directions we have been unable to effect or that some overworked teacher or principal will stumble into a university library and be converted by a jargon-laden article in an academic journal.

For all of us to become directly involved in the schools and in school reform is not to abandon the quest for educational knowledge but, as pragmatism argues, to further and deepen it.  As the authors of this book paraphrase Dewey: “knowing is an activity, it is a ‘mode of doing’ ” (p. 85).  Modern physics has leaped ahead of us in abandoning the myth of the detached, objective observer, the knower separated from the known.  Pragmatism should be more than simply one more “method” in our toolbox but a call to the barricades, a plea for the deepest kind of human involvement to yield the deepest kind of knowing. 


Mayhew, K. C. &  Edwards A.C.  (1936).  The Dewey School: The laboratory school of  the University of Chicago, 1896-1903.  New York: Appleton-Century Crofts.

Wirth, A. G. (1966). John Dewey as educator: His design for work in education (1894-1904).  New York: John Wiley.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 8, 2004, p. 1628-1630
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11310, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 12:55:35 AM

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About the Author
  • Martin Bickman
    University of Colorado
    E-mail Author
    MARTIN BICKMAN is Professor of English, President's Teaching Scholar, and Director of Service Learning at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His most recent book, Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning (Teachers College Press, 2003), won Outstanding Book Award from the Curriculum Division of the American Education Research Association.
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