Dewey and the Alexander Technique: Lessons in mind–body learning

Ruth Heilbronn, Christine Doddington and Rupert Higham (eds) (2018) Dewey and education in the 21st century: fighting back. Emerald Publishing, Chapter 4, pp. 83-100.

Woods C, Williamson M, Fox Eades J

This article considers why the Alexander Technique was so significant for John Dewey, the American educational philosopher and long-term associate of F M Alexander.  Dewey advocated a ‘learning by doing’ approach for young children, and is widely held to be a key thinker in the field of progressive education.  He was also a champion of the Alexander Technique as a means of developing the individual’s capacity to learn, though this fact is given little attention by Dewey scholars.

Because the Alexander Technique is learnt through experience, it is very challenging to convey what it is like to someone who is unfamiliar with it. This is one of the reasons why it can be difficult for those who study Dewey, but do not have direct experience of the Alexander Technique, to appreciate why he held the Technique in such high regard. As Alexander Technique teachers with an interest in education, the aim of the authors is to try to explain why they believe Dewey found his experience of learning the Technique so illuminating.

The paper was presented at a conference at the University of Cambridge in 2016 to mark the centenary of the publication of John Dewey’s landmark work Democracy and Education.

Published abstract:

Drawing on Dewey's accounts of learning the Alexander Technique (AT), this chapter explores why he found the process so powerful. As AT teachers, we explain how the technique enables practitioners to become aware of fixed, unconscious habits and to bring them under conscious control. With a new student, work begins with physical habits. However, because physical, cognitive, emotional and social functions are interdependent, AT lessons typically enable flexibility in each of these spheres. Dewey's writings show his strong theoretical commitment to the idea of learning as practical and experiential. His AT lessons were truly revelatory in providing him with both direct, embodied experience of the power of habit to drive human behaviour and a practical means of becoming aware of, and resisting, his own habits of thought and action. Perceptions are shaped by habit in such a way that the senses can be unreliable in working out how to respond in a given situation. Dewey's practice of the AT revealed to him the dissonance between his habitual self in activity and his conscious view of himself. Dewey was challenged by his AT lessons, which required an open, enquiring attitude and sense of humility. In the AT, Dewey found a means of pursuing an active, critical, self-directed process of discovery and adaptation akin to childhood learning. AT begins with the self, our 'tool of tools'. Through fundamentally modifying the self, the AT supports the openness and flexible response to the physical and social world that characterise productive experiential learning.

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