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Deweyan Reflections on Knowledge-Producing Schools

by S.B. Schneider & Jim Garrison - 2008

Background/Context: Our article examines some of the philosophical underpinnings of knowledge-producing schools (KPS). KPS is an Australian initiative advanced by such researchers as Chris Bigum, Colin Lankshear, and Michael Knobel.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: We examine the epistemology and the theory of new literacy that KPS scholars put forth, which we strongly endorse, and address a lack of attention to embodiment and the emotions that KPS epistemology would seem to require. Our article is devoted to addressing this omission, which we frequently find in other approaches to literacy studies as well.

Research Design: We call on the philosophy of Deweyan pragmatism to provide a friendly critique and reconstruction of KPS epistemology. In doing so, we will rely on the perspective of Deweyan pragmatism supplemented by some of the insights of pragmatist feminism. .

Conclusions/Recommendations: In our reconstruction of KPS, we offer a Deweyan performance epistemology that resembles the epistemology championed by KPS in some important ways, but by emphasizing the role of embodiment and emotion (“bodying”) in making meaning and making knowing, it allows us to better comprehend what it entails to be a member of a community of practice.

Knowledge-producing schools (KPS) started as an initiative in Australia among Chris Bigum, students, teachers, and principals in parts of Queensland (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003a).1 For purposes of this article, “KPS scholars” denotes Bigum, who organized KPS, and Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel, whose theoretical work is part of KPS. Knowledge-producing schools describes a switch in the focus of schooling from autonomous individual knowers to a community of interdependent knowers.2 Likewise, the use of information communication technology (ICT) in KPS is conceptualized as a means to produce knowledge. KPS offers a hopeful restructuring of schooling that links schools, communities, and local expertise.

KPS schools are nonautonomous, focusing on a sociolinguistic view of literacy to develop “networks of practice” between school and community for KPS projects (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003b, p. 180). For example, in response to a school incident, a group of students produced, scripted, and filmed a PowerPoint-based interactive CD. The CD offered advice and scenarios about how students might respond to bullying. The CD was presented at a public meeting with the intention of marketing it to other schools (Bigum, 2002). KPS scholars worry that schooling is out of synch with the real world and is not delivering to students what is needed to function in society at large as a result of changes such as globalization (Bigum, 2003). Related to this concern is the worry that current schooling practices are irrelevant and that schooling experiences with and without the use of technology can be made more relevant by bringing out-of-school practices into schools and schooling experiences.

The first part of our article examines the theory of new literacy and the epistemology of KPS, which we strongly endorse. The remaining sections call on the philosophy of Deweyan pragmatism to provide a friendly critique and reconstruction of KPS epistemology. Our first concern is to establish a closer connection between participating in a literacy practice and the formation of personal identity as an embodied and emotional experience. We also want to show why Dewey’s theory of inquiry provides a viable alternative to the dominant Western epistemology that KPS scholars wisely critique.

The ideas of the KPS scholars are bold, original, and promising. We have already begun incorporating some of their exciting work into our own research program. Meanwhile, Dewey’s ideas are widely considered staid, established, and, for some, exhausted. By calling attention to aspects of his philosophy often overlooked by educators, we hope to provide KPS with a strong ally from a quarter where they may have least expected it. The result is, we think, a valuable mixture of old and new.


KPS “new literacies” scholars respond to the lack of relevance in traditional schooling practices with a nonpropositional digital epistemology that rejects the entire Western tradition of knowledge as justified true belief (JTB). According to this epistemology, for “A” (a person, knower) to know that

P (a proposition):

A must believe that P;

A must be true;

A must be justified in believing that P.

KPS scholars state that JTB has remained the epistemological standard of the Western world:

This general concept has accommodated many variations since Ancient Greek times For instance, it has accommodated various theories of truth (correspondence, coherence, pragmatist), in theories of reality (realism, idealism) and so on. Beneath all such variations, however, the kernel of justified true belief has remained the epistemological standard in the Euro-Western world. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003b, pp. 156–157) 3

Lankshear and Knobel are correct; propositional “knowing that” (e.g., A knows that P is true) has dominated much of Western epistemology.4

KPS scholars confront the epistemology of JTB with its emphasis on propositional “knowing that” with the skilled “knowing how” and explanatory power of “knowing why” that fuels capable practice (e.g., teaching or studenting). Gee, Hull, and Lankshear (1996) believe that “language, literacy, and learning can only be understood when situated in their social and cultural settings” (p. 1). They want to rethink the very idea of “literacy.” They wrote, “On the traditional view, literacy is seen as a largely psychological ability—something true about our heads. We, on the other hand, see literacy as a matter of social practices—something to do with social, institutional, and cultural relationships” (p. 1). Thinking in this way leads them to reconceive the act of reading, which they consider as “reading something with understanding”; that something is a “text of a certain type which is read in a certain way,” and reading is always a plural notion, “readings, rather than reading” (pp. 2, 3). They also insisted that texts “are parts of lived, talked, enacted, value-and-belief-laden practices carried out in specific places and at specific times. Once texts are extracted from the practices that give them meaning, they are transformed” (p. 3). This is not to say that what is extracted is not meaningful, only that it is different. The example of reading that they use is drawn from law school education, which, as they correctly indicated, is alienating for many depending on race, social class, gender, and ethnicity. Any professional school would have done, say dentistry or teacher education.

We initiate students into social practices of which textual practices of reading (including, for instance, textual hermeneutics and reader-response theory) are merely one form of practice among many. What we do not do is download information into brains, where they are encoded as propositional structures that can then be accessed by the memory module. Our way of putting it is that to fully know something is to be somebody who can do something, of which the ability to state accurate propositions is only one component. We will make good on this claim in a later section when we take up embodied habits.

Lankshear et al. (2000) extended the conception of the new literacy concept of “reading” developed by Gee et al. (1996) to information communication technologies (ICT). They praised “Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1953) ‘performative’ epistemology, an epistemology of performance—’Now I know how to go on!’” (pp. 23–24). The emphasis is on ICT as a form of rule-governed, organized social practice, what Wittgenstein would call a form of life. Lankshear et al. also argued that we must overcome JTB. Amazingly, they included John Dewey as among the adherents of JTB; nothing could be further from the “truth,” as we will find below (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003b; Lankshear et al.).

Lankshear et al. (2000) enumerated four ways in which ICT challenges traditional epistemology. Here is the first challenge: “The multimedia realism of digital ICTs makes possible—indeed, makes normal—the radical convergence of text, image and sound in ways that break down the primacy of propositional linguistic forms of ‘truth bearing’ . . . . Meaning and truth arrive in special as well as textual expressions” (p. 39). A picture is not only worth a thousand words, but it also may represent knowledge beyond the limits of propositional statement.5 We will also find that Dewey rejects the very notion that propositions alone are ever knowledge.

A second challenge facing traditional epistemology posed by KPS scholars

concerns the fact that knowing has generally been seen as an act we carry out on, and truth has been seen as pertaining to, something that already exists. In various ways, however, the kind of knowing involved in social practices within the diverse spaces of new ICTs is very different from this. (p. 40)

We will find that Dewey denies the very idea of the knowledge object existing prior to inquiry.

The third challenge centers on the usual concept of knowledge as simply located inside a knower: “Third, practices involving new media help to identify weaknesses in traditional individualistic epistemologies that, following Descartes, have always existed. Problems with the notion that knowing, thinking, believing, being justified and so on are located within the individual person” (Lankshear et al., 2000, p. 41). They mentioned theories of distributed cognition and networked technologies. In work contexts, this means “multi-disciplinary teams supersedes that of the expert individual” (p. 41). In terms of ICTs, “ particular ‘assemblage’ of knowledge that is brought together . . . in the product of an individual may more properly be understood as a collective assemblage involving many minds (and machines)” (p. 42). The mention of machines in this context is important; we could not be who we are, for better or worse, without our technologies. No doubt, new technologies—be they stone tools, iron weapons, the steam engine, or ICTs—alter who we are in ways discussed below.

The last challenge is that instead of assembling knowledge in the traditional sense of correspondence between propositions and some antecedently existing way the world is “out there,” it might be more accurate to claim the following: “We assemble a point of view, a perspective, an angle on an issue or story. This takes the form of a further production, not a capturing or mirroring of some original sate of affairs” (Lankshear et al., 2000, p. 42). As we will see later, Dewey offers a detailed production account of meaning making and knowing that rejects the correspondence theory of truth.

Lankshear and Knobel’s (2003b) thinking on digital epistemologies follows that of ICT. Again, the goal is developing new literacies that overcome the limits of JTB emphasizing “‘procedural’ knowledge (or knowing how to do something), and ‘explanatory’ knowledge (knowing why something is the case), and so on” (p. 156). Digital epistemology challenges propositional knowing by emphasizing the importance of images, sounds, and their ready juxtaposition and disassembly. It stresses “collective assembly involving many minds (and machines)” (p. 172). Because literacy cannot be distilled like wine from the social practices in which they are embedded, KPS scholars strive to make visible the “social character of knowledge” in new literacies (Moore & Young, 2001, p. 458). “New” is used to describe those literacies that are chronologically new—unprecedented because of new technology—and those literacies new to being conceptualized as literacies (Lankshear & Knobel, 2000). We find the notion of new literacies to be one of the principal strengths of KPS.

One example, mindsets, is a new literacy that falls in the latter category, newly conceptualized as a literacy. KPS scholars refer to mindsets as perspectives or ways of seeing (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003b). Mindsets, or ways of seeing, not only describe how experts or specialists see things (e.g., how a physicist sees “force,” a mathematician sees “typography,” or an artist sees “color”) but also predefines specific values and courses of action. Mindsets “relate to how space is constructed and controlled in terms of values, morals, knowledge, and competence” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2000, p. 7). These scholars stated that if tools are approached without the correct, expert, or insiders’ point of view and the kinds of thinking that they promote, they will be used inappropriately (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003b, p. 62). Therefore, specific and predefined subjectivities, values, and ideologies are as important as the physical things done with material tools. Lankshear & Knobel (2003b) see educators in a new role in identifying new literacies—a “kind of brokerage role” in which practices that are seen as fairly certain to produce and distribute knowledge in powerful ways are isolated to be made transcontextual as literacies for producing knowledge (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003b).

KPS scholars use examples from business, cyber-elites, and cyber-activism to implicitly fill out the preferred “mindset.” For example, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos thought differently about ICT. Instead of conceptualizing ICT as doing current processes more efficiently, Bezos saw ICT as a distinctly different way of being and so thought about using ICT in innovative ways (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003b). The archetype of the preferred mindset understand that the world is radically different because of the operation of ICT; they are comfortable with an accelerated pace of change, developments of new technologies, and social and economic shifts; and they are aware of discourse as socially constructed and can be critical of powerful discourse while also being economically viable as knowledge producers. Flexibility and adaptability are primary requisites.

Digital epistemology also emphasizes “performance epistemology—that is, of knowing as an ability to perform” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2000, p. 173). Lankshear and Knobel (2003b) concluded that “to a large extent we may actually be looking at some kind of post-truth/belief/justification epistemology operating under conditions of intense digitization. Clearly, none of the three logical conditions of justified true belief is necessary for information” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003b, p. 174). We are convinced that digital epistemology is unique and operates far beyond the confines of JTB, but we see no need to entirely abandon truth, belief, and justification, although we certainly should reconstruct them.

KPS scholars are attracted to literacies that generate critical activity and socially responsible ways of thinking. The social justice and equity hopes of KPS scholars reside with new literacies and the social opportunities that ICT and globalization seem to afford. The overarching logic of KPS, according to Lankshear and Knobel (2000), is that by switching the focus from content and subject to discourses “connected to work, or to the public sphere more generally (e.g. government), we can get [educational] goals that stress thinking like members of those discourses, using tools from them, engaging in social practices akin to theirs, and critiquing those discourses in relation to others” (p. 163). Lankshear and Knobel are much influenced by the postmodern critique of global economic thinking. They proclaimed, “Practicing (this) powerful literacy, so defined, can provide the basis for reconstituting our selves/identities within society” (p. 163). Thus, the disposition of social individuals, enabled by fluency in various and often conflicting discourses associated within and outside school practices, are sources of reconstruction in the perspectives, worldviews, core values, and identities of discourse groups.

KPS new literacies scholars see the construction of knowledge, by way of literacy teaching, schooling practices, and research, as political because knowledge is infused with perspectives, beliefs, values, and ideals (Gee, 2004; Lankshear & Knobel, 2003b). As already indicated, these scholars seek to bring relevant outside schooling practices into the school in the form of highlighted new literacies (Lankshear & Knobel). This stance leads to such questions as whose practices, whether these practices are transferable or transportable, and whether everyone’s participation has equal potential to change norms and forms of using artifacts.6

We find quite valuable the KPS emphasis on concrete social practices, social inquiry, new technologies, and alternative epistemologies (such as digital epistemology) that emphasize nonpropositional “knowing how” and “knowing why” and not just “knowing that,” such as we find in JTB. We also approve of the emphases on the new global work order, new technologies, and concerns with social justice. All these themes and ideas are very compatible with a Deweyan view of literacy and the world at large. Indeed, KPS points to some important ways that Deweyan pragmatism requires updating for a digital age.

There is one place, however, where Deweyan pragmatism could prove especially helpful to KPS. Although KPS emphasizes the impact of concrete social practices on the formation of personal identity, especially one’s identity as a learner, it does not say much about how participating in a social practice forms individual and collective identity. This is so, in part, because KPS has almost nothing to say about embodiment and emotions. In the next section, we wish to take up issues of embodiment and emotion in the sociocultural construction of linguistic meaning, of inquiry, of knowledge, and of truth.


To have a mind for Dewey is to embody the meanings of the social practices wherein we participate, including, among others, those of the family, civic life (e.g., formal schooling), and the workplace. From the beginning, learning had a firm embodied biological basis for pragmatists. Peirce (1887/1992) insists that “the sense of the process of learning, which is the preeminent ingredient and quintessence of reason has its physiological basis quite evidently in the most characteristic property of the nervous system, the power of taking habits” (p. 264). For Peirce, as for most of the pragmatists who follow him, beliefs are embodied habits that unify thought, feeling, and action. For pragmatists, the condition of belief is profoundly embodied.

For Peirce (1907/1998), habits, along with feelings and action, are part of the semiotic function, the three interpretants of a sign. The first is an “emotional interpretant” or “a feeling” (pp. 410, 430). The second is “dynamical action” or “an effort” (pp. 411, 430). The third regards “the ultimate intellectual interpretant” which, Peirce concluded, “are habits” (p. 431). Peirce is clear that “I by no means say that all habits are such interpretants. It is only self-controlled habits that are so, and not all of them, either” (p. 431). Only self-controlled habits, arrived at through a process of disciplined, intelligent, and reflective inquiry that verifies their validity in action, are properly intellectual interpretants.

Dewey develops Peirce’s line of thinking in his own semiotics. For him, mental functioning is never simply located; instead, it is distributed throughout what J. E. Tiles (1995) called “a world without withins.” We do not have the space here to get into the intricacies of what this means for distributed cognition other than to say that, for Dewey, all meaning and value is potentially distributed.7

William James (1890/1950) makes practical use of Peirce’s understanding of the relation between learning and habit when he derives the following pedagogical principle:

The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. . . . For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible as many useful actions as we can. . . . The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. (p. 122)

Purely cognitive psychologists and others who separate mind from body and thought from feeling can never arrive at such powerful conclusions.

From his ruminations on habit, James (1890/1950) affirms the following connection between the individual and society: “Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent” (p. 121). We acquire our habits from our habitat, especially the norms and customs of our social habitat. Habits embody the norms of participation in a given sociocultural practice. In many ways, Dewey’s norm-governed social customs embodied in habitual dispositions to act resemble the rule-governed organized social practices that Wittgenstein (1953) calls “forms of life.” An appreciation for habits would help provide KPS with the kind of practice-oriented epistemology it seeks for facilitating new literacies.

For Dewey, following his pragmatic predecessors, learning has a firm biological basis; mind is not separate from bodily needs, desires, and interests. Learning, judging, and knowing all involve doing and feeling. For Dewey, embodied habits are cognitive dispositions to act, manifesting emotions that control intelligent, skillful action and constitute the organic beginnings of the mind and the self.8 Acquiring habits from our physical and social habitat has immense psychological consequences for Dewey (1922/1983), who insists that we recognize that all

habits are affections, that all have projectile power, and that a predisposition formed by a number of specific acts is an immensely more intimate and fundamental part of ourselves than are vague, general, conscious choices. All habits are demands for certain kinds of activity; and they constitute the self. In any intelligible sense of the word will, they are will. (p. 21)

Embodied habits constitute the biological basis of personal identity, intelligent action, and freedom. They also have an affective component that gives them “projectile power.”

For Dewey, habits enable stylized performances; “habits are arts,” that is, they involve “skill of sensory and motor organs, cunning or craft” (Dewey, 1922/1983, p. 15). We embody skilled know-how in our habits of conduct. Habits are not simply located functions; instead, “they are working adaptations of personal capacities with environing forces” (p. 16). For instance, habits of textual practice extracted from the social practice where they were learned must adapt to new environing forces, which is why their meaning must undergo transformation. Becoming literate in the norm-guided social practices characterizing institutions like law schools, including, perhaps, mastering digital technologies, requires “working adaptations.” We may say much the same for any other institutional practice. In fact, habits are technologies: “We may think of habits as means, waiting, like tools in a box, to be used by conscious resolve. But they are something more than that . . . . They are means only when they enter into organization with things which independently accomplished definite results” (p. 22). Human beings are tools of labor, though of course we are much more than that; we are also lovers, citizens, and seekers. Because habits constitute the self and are never simply located, there is no such thing as value-neutral technologies. Eventually, we become the practices that we participate in and the tools that we wield.

Recall that habits have an affective component that gives them “projectile power.” Dewey (1922/1983) insists on “the union of habit with desire” (p. 21). Indeed, habit gives direction and structure to vague feelings and natural “impulses,” thereby turning them into specific emotions that allow organized, directed actions. Habits connect and control thinking, feeling, and acting. For Dewey, “Rationality . . . is not a force to evoke against impulse and habit. It is the attainment of a working harmony among diverse desires” (p. 136). Dewey (1938/1986) claims that “rationality is . . . an affair of the relation of means and consequences” (p. 17). In practical reason, the logic of every practice, we reason for objects of desire.9

Embodied habits carry out important cognitive functions. Dewey (1922/1983) concludes, “Concrete habits do all the perceiving, recognizing, imagining, recalling, judging, conceiving and reasoning that is done. . . . Yet habit does not, of itself, know, for it does not of itself stop to think, observe or remember” (p. 124). Habits are part of what Dewey (1938/1986) calls “the Existential Matrix of Inquiry: Biological”; they support inquiry but do not complete it (Chapter 2). To understand the role of habits in intelligent inquiry, we must turn to “the Existential Matrix of Inquiry: Social” (Chapter 3). There Dewey remarks, “The modification of organic behavior in and by the cultural environment accounts for . . . . the transformation of purely organic behavior into behavior marked by intellectual properties” (p. 49). Social habits provide the biological basis for the emergence of language and logical inquiry.


Deweyan pragmatism involves a rich theory of practice. For Dewey (1925/1981), to possess higher psychological functioning is to possess meanings: “Through speech a person dramatically identifies himself with potential acts and deeds; he plays many roles, not in successive stages of life but in a contemporaneously enacted drama. Thus mind emerges” (p. 135). We acquire language, including textual skill, by taking roles in the social drama of a culture, participating in its social practices, and using its tools (e.g., books, computers, and ICTs).

For Dewey (1925/1981), to acquire a mind is to acquire linguistic meanings. This is always a social achievement involving two or more emerging minds coming to agreement in action regarding an emergent object: “Such is the essence and import of communication, signs and meaning. Something is literally made common in at least two different centres of behavior. To understand is to anticipate together, it is to make a cross-reference which, when acted upon, brings about a partaking in a common, inclusive, undertaking” (p. 141). Crucial to this process is the idea of taking the perspective of others in referring to something whose meaning is under negotiation.

Many famous philosophers have noted that Dewey and the later Wittgenstein have a similar social practice- and performance-oriented theory of language and mental functioning. For instance, the renowned analytic philosopher W. V. Quine (1969) calls attention to the following passage from Dewey (1925/1981): “Language is specifically a mode of interaction of at least two beings, a speaker and a hearer; it presupposes an organized group to which these creatures belong, and from whom they have acquired their habits of speech. It is therefore a relationship, not a particularity” (see Quine, p. 27). Commenting on this passage, Quine writes, “When Dewey was writing in this naturalistic vein, Wittgenstein still held his copy theory of language” (p. 27). The copy theory assumes that objects in the world correspond to propositions in language and is committed to a strong version of JTB.10 As the KPS scholars are aware, Wittgenstein eventually came around to Dewey’s naturalistic understanding of language as a social practice.

For Dewey, once we have linguistically meaningful statements, we have candidates for knowledge. The statement, “There is a large boa constrictor under your desk” is probably false, but it is meaningful. For Dewey, determining its truth value, however, is not a matter of JTB, in which isolated propositions must copy antecedently existing things in the world; instead, it is about the outcomes produced by intelligent inquiry. In Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (the subtitle is crucial to understanding that “logic” for Dewey is not just about formal symbol systems), Dewey (1938/1986) boldly declares that “objects are the objectives of inquiry” (p. 122). Dewey is committed to what is often called “maker’s knowledge”—that is, to know something is to have produced it. Knowing is, for Dewey as for the KPS scholars, a creative activity. Likewise, Dewey’s notion of truth involves carrying out concrete, existential operations. It is a view of learning, making, and knowing that should be quite attractive to advocates of KPS and the creative use of new technologies and their literacies.

What follows is Dewey’s (1925/1981) definition of truth in the existential sense from Experience and Nature:

Sometimes the use of the word “truth” is confined to designating a logical property of propositions; but if we extend its significance to designate character of existential reference, this is the meaning of truth: processes of change so directed that they achieve an intended consummation. Instrumentalities are actually such only in operation; when they operate, an end-in-view is in process of actualization. (p. 128)

Something is true if, when we perform a set of stable repeatable operations, they always yield the same consequences. Dewey was sensitive to the fact that the consequences of the same operations might evolve in a Darwinian universe or be different in different places. New symbolic and material operations alter the meanings and knowings of a social practice. In addition, note the implicit rejection of the narrow definition of truth as a logical property of propositions associated with JTB. As operations alter, meanings and knowing must alter as well; that is what makes the KPS analysis of digital and ICT practices, meanings, and knowings so exciting.

For Dewey, propositions are among the various means for making knowledge. In Dewey’s practical, means-consequence instrumental logic, means often constitute the end, whereas propositions are means that contribute to the construction of warranted judgment. But truth and falsity is not a property of propositions alone. If there is any residual doubt about Dewey’s (1925/1981) rejection of JTB, the following longish quote should conclude the question:

The view most current at the present time is probably that which regards propositions as the unitary material of logical theory. Propositions upon this view have their defining property in the property of formal truth-falsity. According to the position here taken, propositions are to be differentiated and identified on the ground of the function of their contents as means, procedural and material. . . . [I]t is pertinent to note that, since means as such are neither true nor false, truth-falsity is not a property of propositions. Means are either effective or ineffective; pertinent or irrelevant; wasteful or economical, the criterion for the difference being found in the consequences with which they are connected as means. On this basis, special propositions are valid (strong, effective) or invalid (weak, inadequate); loose or rigorous, etc. (p. 287)

Instead of the truth and falsity of propositions as correspondence to an antecedently existing object, Dewey preferred to talk about the “warranted assertability” of judgments. Below, Dewey explains why he prefers the phrase warranted assertability to belief and knowledge:

The word knowledge is also a suitable term to designate the objective and close of inquiry. But it, too, suffers from ambiguity. When it is said that attainment of knowledge, or truth, is the end of inquiry the statement, according to the position here taken, is a truism. That which satisfactorily terminates inquiry is, by definition, knowledge; it is knowledge because it is the appropriate close of inquiry. But the statement may be supposed, and has been supposed, to enunciate something significant instead of a tautology. As a truism, it defines knowledge as the outcome of competent and controlled inquiry. When, however, the statement is thought to enunciate something significant, the case is reversed. Knowledge is then supposed to have a meaning of its own apart from connection with and reference to inquiry. (p. 15)

Instead of condemning Dewey as a champion of JTB, it would make much more sense for KPS scholars to welcome him as an ally.

Dewey thinks all reasoning is means-ends reasoning, the reasoning of skilled practice. Dewey’s instrumentalist logic is basically a tool (an instrument) that we use to achieve desired consequences, though Dewey also thought intelligent reflection was needed to distinguish objects of immediate desire from those that would prove desirable after we reflect on their consequences. Dewey (1911/1978) understood the tools—that is the instruments of intelligent action (i.e., technologies)—as extensions of organic functions:

The greatest change of environment occurs when living beings become conscious of the fact that their reaction . . . modify the old forms. . . . In this way, some parts at least of the environment become what have been called “extra-organic” organs; that is to say, all the tools and devices of all the arts, although outside the body, operate in behalf of the functions of life just as do the eye, stomach, hands, etc. From this biological point of view, deliberate or conscious behavior is just a way of doing more effectively and economically what unconscious life adaptations do in a relatively wasteful and uncontrolled way, namely, modifying the environment so as to make it a more varied and more stable or secure stimulus for the exercise of functions. (p. 439)

Dewey has a remarkable philosophy of technology.11 The origin of inquiry for him lies in embodied, impassioned need and desire. We always inquire for a purpose after ends that we desire; that is why inquiry is always theory and value laden. Dewey’s instrumentalism has a biologically based, embodied component that gives it a remarkable robustness that should prove attractive to KPS scholars.

For Dewey (1911/1978), language, like logic, is a tool. He writes, “As to be a tool, or to be used as means for consequences, is to have and to endow with meaning, language, being the tool of tools, is the cherishing mother of all significance” (p. 146). Dewey affirms, “Fortunate for us is it that tools and their using can be directly enjoyed; otherwise all work would be drudgery. But this additive fact does not alter the definition of a tool; it remains a thing used as an agency for some concluding event” (p. 105). We can have aesthetic, consummatory experience of tools in their immediacy, but their definition is in terms of means-ends coordination. Physical tools, language, and logic are not only instruments for Dewey, but their use also involves consummatory experience that is immediately enjoyed or despised without further mediation. For Dewey, thinking, logic, and inquiry is an artistic process that may lead to products that we may appreciate aesthetically. Dewey states, “Thinking is preeminently an art; knowledge and propositions which are the products of thinking, are works of art, as much so as statuary and symphonies” (p. 283). Later, we will take up Dewey’s chapter on “Thinking in Education” in his classic, Democracy and Education.

In Art as Experience, Dewey (1934/1987) insists that “science itself is but a central art auxiliary to the generation and utilization of other arts” (p. 33). In “The Sources of a Science of Education,” Dewey concludes,

In concrete operation, [that] education is an art, either a mechanical art or a fine art, is unquestionable. If there were an opposition between science and art, I should be compelled to side with those who assert that education is an art. But there is no opposition, although there is a distinction. (Dewey, 1930/1984, p. 6)

For Dewey, physical tools, language, and logic are all instruments that we use as means to our ends, but because they are extraorganic organs, their habits of use help constitute our very identity. The new literacies advanced by the KPS scholars are bound to lead to new identities for both individuals and communities. In concrete operations, the educational science of new literacies should be creatively artistic. They should also reinforce democratic modes of being and doing.

According to Dewey (1922/1983), we acquire our habits by transacting with our environment, especially the customs of our social world. For the most part, “individuals form their personal habits under conditions set by prior customs” (p. 43). Cultural customs establish rules and norms for correct performance of social action, which have important consequences for what KPS scholars call “performative epistemology.” Indeed, the norms and rules precede knowing because they lie at the very core of the sociolinguistic construction of meaning, although they may undergo modification as inquiry develops. Dewey reminds us that “meanings are rules for using and interpreting things; interpretation being always an imputation of potentiality for some consequence” (p. 147). We may then use the rules and norms that are the products of prior linguistic and logical practices to govern the determination of subsequent meaning making and knowing.12 We share meaning when we, perhaps tacitly, recognize the rule of action that allows us to coordinate our social practices. Parents, teachers, and peers enforce these rules in many different ways. Dewey’s example is that of a traffic policeman. When the policeman blows his whistle, it “embodies a rule of social action” (p. 149). Dewey means literal embodiment: “Its essence is the rule, comprehensive and persisting, the standardized habit, of social interaction, and for the sake of which the whistle is used” (p. 149). The sanctions for violating social norms are often as subtle as they are severe. We would like to provide a specific example of such a sanction. It helps us realize that an embodied approach to literacy and knowing allows us to readily identify issues that might remain concealed by disembodied approaches and the epistemology of justified true belief.

Any social practice—whether it is navigating public schools or public streets, or new information technologies that require distributed cognition—involves rules and norms that allow participants to functionally coordinate their social transactions. The interpretation of our thoughts, feelings, and actions by others and ourselves depends on norms of “proper” and competent comportment. In her book, Living Across and Through Skins, Shannon Sullivan (2001), a well-respected pragmatist philosopher, relies heavily on the work of Dewey, from whom she borrowed the title of her book. Sullivan links habits and normativity to notions of stylized gender “performativity”: “Habit is an organism’s constitutive predisposition to transact with the world in particular ways, and performativity is the process of repetitive activity that constitutively stylizes one’s being. Together, these ideas provide powerful tools with which to understand the composition and transformation of gender” (p. 88). The customary norms of culture impart distinctive ways of what Sullivan called “bodying”; it allows us to carry out distinct, stylized performances. Bodying is an apt description of what KPS scholars call “performativity.”

Sullivan mentions embodied, unconscious “knowing how” of being able to walk properly in high-heeled shoes, her middle-class tendency to smile often when conversing with others, and keeping her knees together when seated. In Living Across and Through Skins, Sullivan remarked, “To be a ‘real’ woman in Western culture has meant and, to a considerable extent, still means to comport oneself in a generally deferential, nonconfrontational, and passive manner: smiling, containing one’s bodying so that it occupies minimal physical space, and so on” (p. 105). She then contrasts these “virtues” with the confrontational, aggressive, “masculine” performativity characteristic of “real” philosophers. Performativity is not like playing a dramatic role on the stage:

Performativity is not a decision that one makes, nor is it a discrete or singular act . . . . It is a reiteration that is not chosen or performed by a subject that pre-exists the performance; instead, it is the constraint and regularization that forms one as a subject. (p. 96)

We enact the thoughts and emotions of gender according to the norms and standards of proper performance. If we are going to recreate ourselves, we will require “powerful literacy” as the “basis for reconstituting our selves/identities within society” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2000, p. 163).


A Deweyan performance epistemology resembles that of Wittgenstein championed by KPS in some important ways, but by emphasizing the role of embodiment and emotion (“bodying”) in making meaning and making knowing, it allows us to better comprehend what it entails to be a member of a community of practice. It allows us to understand how the new technologies that lead to new literacies may transform the very idea of what it means to be human. Surely, it underscores the need for critical reflection and careful re-creation because the cultural meanings we make eventually make us.


We would like to thank Larry A. Hickman and Matthew Pamental for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. We would also like to acknowledge the helpful comments of the editor and the anonymous reviewers for Teachers College Record. The authors are responsible for any errors that may remain.


1. Please note that this is a philosophical paper. There is no method per se beyond our reliance on Deweyan pragmatism.

2. By community, we mean distinctive human patterns of producing and organizing basic beliefs, values, and norms of conduct over time and space to address various ongoing functional needs. As such, schooling assemblages at their best are social communities unified by local matters of concern in which actors create and modify “use”: sustainable relations of mediation unified by functional need.

3. Nowhere in our article has italics been added.

4. From “Ancient Greek times,” this domination has been far from complete. For instance, 210b of Plato’s Theaetetus reads, “So it would seem, Theaetetus, that knowledge is neither perception, nor true judgment, nor an account added to true judgment.” Nonetheless, there is no doubt JTB is preeminent in contemporary philosophy. As we will see, although Dewey is a very different kind of philosopher than Plato, he is, nonetheless, among those who challenge JTB.

5. Nothing would change if we were talking about an artist sculpting. Dewey (1925/1981) wrote, “Thinking is preeminently an art; knowledge and propositions which are the products of thinking, are works of art, as much so as statuary and symphonies” (p. 283).

6. KPS scholars recognize some of the dilemmas in their views. For example Lankshear (2003) noted that “in various places, Jim Gee states very clearly a major dilemma with respect to effective learning construed socioculturally as a process of achieving fluent mastery in Discourse. This concerns the fact that becoming fluent in a Discourse is best achieved through processes of learning inside the Discourse. But the more effective this learning is, the less critically reflective the learner’s perspective on the Discourse will be. The more effective learning inside Discourse is, the more deeply ‘indoctrinatory’ it is likely to be. As Gee notes, Discourse cannot countenance criticism from within, since that would invite their own demise or transcendence” (p. 9). Lankshear stated that this dilemma, which also illustrates the power of habit and participation, necessitates creating experiences for different competing and divergent discourses. Habits are second-nature “adaptive structures” founded on the many ways we “live by means of the environments” that we encounter in the world. See Dewey, 1938/1986, p. 25.

7. Dewey (1925/1981) stated, “If it be asked, ‘where’ a transaction is located, the only possible answer, on the basis of legal procedure, appears in many cases to be that it is located wherever it has consequences” (p. 156). See Garrison, 2001.

8. The relationship between habits and intelligence, or rationality, is very different for Dewey than it is for David Hume. See Garrison, 1999.

9. Here is the schema of means-ends reasoning as originally formulated by Aristotle:


I desire V.


U is the means to V.


T is the means to U.


N is the means to O.


N is something I can do here and now.


I choose N.


I do N

Adopted from W. D. Ross (1971)

For Dewey, it is best to think of this schema as a circle of functional coordination that expresses the unity of the self, its impassioned and more or less intelligent actions, along with the objects it creates to help coordinate its activity. Like Aristotle, and unlike modern instrumentalism, the means constitute the ends. Agents (the “I”) are always means to their own ends, and their personal identity undergoes transformation in the process of obtaining those ends. Indeed, once we have functionally coordinated a given context of inquiry, what is means and what ends is, at most, a practically useful distinction, not a separation within existence.

10. For an argument similar to Quine’s on the similarity between Dewey and Wittgenstein, see Rorty (1979) and Medina (2004).

11. See Hickman, 1990.

12. This idea is crucial to Dewey’s (1938/1986) logic in which “the problem reduced to its lowest terms is whether inquiry can develop in its own ongoing course the logical standards and forms to which further inquiry shall submit. One might reply by saying that it can because it has” (p. 13).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 10, 2008, p. 2204-2223
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15191, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 12:51:35 PM

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About the Author
  • S.B. Schneider
    Virginia Tech
    SANDRA SCHNEIDER is a recent Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, Social Foundations of Education. Sandra’s interests include the translation of social practice theory and related sociocultural theories into learning technologies efforts, and investigations into how technology, schooling experiences, and structures may serve to advocate participatory democracy by facilitating the public intelligence used by the community. Her investigation into the development of new and diverse forms of public intelligence includes Dewey’s pedagogical focus on social inquiry and the embodied, transformative experiences that inquiry affords. Her work entails an analysis of the current Australian sociocultural change effort, known as knowledge-producing schools (KPS), as a way to realize Dewey’s ideas of participatory demoracy and public social inquiry.
  • Jim Garrison
    Virginia Tech
    E-mail Author
    JIM GARRISON is a professor of philosophy of education at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. His work concentrates on American pragmatism, and especially the philosophy of John Dewey. Jim is a past winner of the Jim Merritt Award for his scholarship in the philosophy of education, and the John Dewey Society Outstanding Achievement Award. He is a past president of the Philosophy of Education Society and president of the John Dewey Society.
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