Doing Pragmatism in teaching

Barbara Simpson, Anna Rylander Eklund, Line Revsbaek, Emma Arneback

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Teaching is a cornerstone of Pragmatist philosophy as is evident, for instance, in Dewey’s ‘Experience and education’ (1938 [1988]), Follett’s ‘Creative experience’ (1924), Addams’ ‘Twenty years at Hull House’ (1910), and Mead’s lectures on the philosophy of education (Biesta & Tröhler, 2016). These writers consistently argue for an alternative to traditional pedagogies (and andragogies) that frame education in terms of knowledge acquisition, seeking instead productive engagements with the creative and social dimensions of participatory learning (Elkjaer, 2004). From Dewey’s (1922 [1957]) perspective, if teaching simply reproduces the fixation of habits, principles or ideals, then there is no opportunity to develop the vitality of engaged participation, nor any opening for flexibility, reflection, and transformative change. These concerns are as relevant today as they were a century ago, as the formal development of graduate attributes focuses increasingly on participatory capabilities that produce new ideas rather than formulaic responses, while organizations are necessarily experimenting with novel ways of working that emphasize flexibility, dynamic creativity, and engagement with societal change and responsibilities (e.g., sustainability). Whether in the form of popular management concepts such as agile (Rigby, Elk, & Berez, 2020) and design thinking (Brown, 2009), or more radical approaches to redesigning organizations such as Teal (Laloux, 2014) and progressive organizations (Minnaar & de Morree, 2020), these initiatives depend on coworkers’ capacities to act creatively, engage democratically, and use responsibly their own judgments in close collaboration with others.

The question that motivates this proposal is, if we accept the Pragmatist notion that education involves ongoing transformations of meaning accomplished through engaged participation in social situations, what then are the implications for how we teach and how organizations train and develop their people? We will open up this question by sharing our own, quite varied experiences of Pragmatist-inspired teaching as a dynamic and generative participatory process. Our argument is built on four intertwining elements of Pragmatist philosophy – experience, emergence, doubt, and deliberation – the implications of which we will illustrate from our own practice of arts-based learning, event-attentive inquiry, progressive experimentalism, and the reflexive demands on teachers and trainers.

Our starting point is the increasingly pressing need for a shift in educational focus from abstract categories and generic methods to experience, concrete actions and situated techniques. While much of the literature focuses on formal methods, often drawing on cognitivist theories grounded in an entitative worldview, Pragmatism offers a comprehensive process ontology that attends to participation and the processes of mutual becoming (Rylander Eklund, Navarro Aguiar, & Amacker, 2021, Simpson & den Hond, 2022). Being attentive to emergent events, responding to and affecting what arises, is a difficult skill to teach in organizational trainings as well as in academic management programmes. Doing inquiry from, and in lived experience (Brinkmann, 2014, Revsbæk & Tanggaard, 2015) requires us to “develop methods for watching varying activities in their relatings to other varying activities” (Follett, 1924, 68), as we co-emerge with our situations. These ongoing transformations are triggered by doubt, when we find ourselves “betwixt and between” (Mead, 1932, 73), in the midst of liminality, where we don’t know what to do, yet we must do something. And so, we experiment; we make tentative bets on how to proceed (Simpson, 2018). This dynamic uncertainty however, raises particular, and sometimes controversial issues for teachers (Arneback, 2014, Arneback & Englund, 2020, Rosén & Arneback, 2021) for whom deciding how to act can be hard. The need for deliberation turns out to be crucial. Teachers must be able to enter processes of interpersonal deliberation and take contextual elements into consideration when deciding how to act.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 25 Jun 2022
Event2nd Colloquium on Philosophy and Organization Studies - Rhodes, Greece
Duration: 23 Jun 202225 Jun 2022


Conference2nd Colloquium on Philosophy and Organization Studies


  • Pragmatism
  • teaching
  • alternative pedagogies


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