In Chapter 8 of Democracy and Education, Dewey begins to discuss aims in education. He starts off by defining the nature of aims.

At first I was under the impression that he was referring to the goals of education. After all, he says "the aim of education is to enable individuals to continue their education." But when he elucidates what an aim actually is, this takeaway seems inadequate.

Dewey defines aims by contrasting them with "mere results and ends." Results are essentially effects brought about by an event; they are not always ends. Ends, though, are "true terminations or completions of what has preceded." Dewey then states that aims always relate to results in that they imply an ordered activity and require foresight of said action's results.

It seems like Dewey considers aims to be something that guides an activity, rather than the goals of an activity. Is this an accurate takeaway?


2 Answers 2


Dewey says that:

  • a result is simply the outcome of an action. Example: sand blowing in the desert constantly has the result of shifted positions of sand. But this is neither an end nor an aim, because events are not done "in preparation" for other events (the requirement for an end), and events are not done with conscious anticipation and intention (the requirement for an aim).
  • an end is where actions lead to one another in temporal order, and each step "prepares the way for the next." Example: the activity of bees. Bees, however, do not have aims, because they do not act with conscious intention.
  • an aim is when we consciously, intentionally direct ourselves towards an end. Example: when a student pursues education for some long-term purpose of his own. This is contrasted with when the teacher imposes activities arbitrarily upon the student (not an aim of the student) or when the student pursues activities aimlessly without a long-term purpose in mind (again not an aim of the student).

There isn't any difference between an aim and a goal or objective.


I will answer with a chapter which explicitly tackles the question of what educational aims are in Dewey:

Waks, L. (2017). A Democratic Theory of Aims: On Chapter 8: Aims in Education. In L. Waks & A. English (Eds.), John Dewey's Democracy and Education: A Centennial Handbook (pp. 73-80). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316492765.011


Essentially, yes. But it makes a huge difference as to how aims guide an activity since effectively, ends do guide an activity as well. A concept central to Dewey's theory here is "growth". Educational aims should enable/guide the student to become a better learner by themselves and in their way while they fulfil their assignment and produce a result.

On aims and ends

The author has the following to say on educational aims:

Dewey situates educational aims within the context of democratic education by setting up a contest between two ways of approaching aims. As he says, “we are rather concerned with the contrast which exists when aims belong within the process in which they operate and when they are set up from without” (MW 9: 107). This also turns out to be the distinction between democratic and authoritarian aims. “The vice of externally imposed ends has deep roots. Teachers receive them from superior authorities; [...] The teachers impose them upon children” (MW 9: 115). (p.73)

Thus, I would say there is no such thing as a clear-cut difference between aims and ends since the author states that authoritarian educational aims are "externally imposed ends". This is repeated several times throughout the chapter.

At the same time, we have the aims in democratic education, which is what Dewey really wants to write about:

Dewey wants us to attend to how aims actually enter into action in educational settings; he wants to move from theories and dictates about what the ideal ends of education should be to a naturalistic theory of how aims – especially good ones – actually work in education. (ibid)

That is, the aims would have to be part of (or be intrinsic in) the endeavour of education (or, from a learner's perspective, learning) and should have to do with how to improve education/learning itself, which in modern terms is often called the improvement of "self-competence". And that is where, in some sense, there is a distinction to be made between "results/ends" and "aims".

On democratic educational aims

“Since aims relate always to results,” Dewey says, “the first thing to look to when it is a question of aims, is whether the work assigned possesses intrinsic continuity” (MW 9: 108).

Thus, aims do give a "horizon" or "goal", but they do not determine the way, so that the work is a continuous "guided" but not "determined" approach towards the end. Dewey uses the example of giving a student ("Junior") either the assignment of "write an essay (with some goal posts)" or "complete this list":

Where does continuity – one of Dewey’s favorite terms – enter the picture? The aim provides a useful target within the activity, one that we can keep in mind as we organize steps to achieve it. In the term paper project, the aim – 3000 words, ten footnotes, a narrowly formulated thesis, a deadline – gives Junior both a target to hit and continuous guidance as he searches for, selects, and uses reference materials. Junior is building continuously toward a desired result – an acceptable paper – drawing upon his prior knowledge and interests as well as what unfolds in the research process – and his powers are thus growing.

Suppose, however, that instead of a term paper the professor assigned a mere checklist of thirty historical events to be described in two sentences each. “They come from the common core standards and are all going to be on the test,” she says. But what is Junior’s aim in that case? His study activities have no intrinsic continuity – they do not build upon each other toward something larger. They are a “mere serial aggregate of acts [...] dictated by the teacher,” and “the only order in the sequence [...] comes from the assignment of lessons and the giving of directions by another” (MW 9: 108). Junior could start at the end or middle of the checklist as well as the beginning, and it would not make any difference. His activity in filling in the checklist is thus not guided by an aim. The work does not build to a result, and Junior is not growing – he is just going through the motions. (pp.75-76, bolded mine)

Thus, the main difference for Dewey is whether the student has to determine their way of learning and its contents themselves (learning in learning), or they are given ends of learning, ie. both form and content. In the former case, the student learns something about how they are able to get access to contents, how to set themselves particular ends, about their interests and, in the end, what and how to learn itself. It draws upon who the learner is and their abilities (a third factor I will exclude here since the answer is too long already is the specific context in which the learning situation takes place) and, at the same time, guides them in an improvement of these abilities by providing an aim. That is meant by "growth", which is basically a continuation of personal development within the activity:

“The net conclusion,” Dewey states, “is that acting with an aim is all one with acting intelligently. To foresee a terminus of an act is to have a basis upon which to observe, to select, and to order objects and our own capacities” (MW 9: 110). Unlike writing a term paper or planning a picnic, filling in a checklist does not require intelligence; it is a mindless activity. It does not build capabilities through taking action, meeting obstacles, and taking further action; it’s just doing the same old thing over and over. In doing so, Junior is being shaped by a force outside of himself, a teacher, a district curriculum committee, or a national commission; he is not becoming a free person, a force in his own development, or a democratic citizen – a force in his community. (p. 76, bolded mine)

Thus, aims should allow for continuity both in the sense of continuous development of a result and continuous development of the person within one and the same activity. This cannot be accomplished by ends alien to the particular learner or "set up from without", as Dewey wrote (first quote).


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