Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont of modest family origins. He received his PhD from the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences at Johns Hopkins University in 1884. From 1904, he was professor of philosophy at Columbia University.
As can be seen in his Democracy and Education Dewey attempts to at once synthesize, criticize, and expand upon the democratic or proto-democratic educational philosophies of Rousseau and Plato. He saw Rousseau's as overemphasizing the individual and Plato's as overemphasizing the society in which the individual lived. For Dewey, this distinction was by and large a false one; like Vygotsky, he viewed the mind and its formation as communal process. Thus the individual is only a meaningful concept when regarded as an inextricable part of his society, and the society has no meaning apart from its realization in the lives of its individual members. However, as evidenced in his later Experience and Nature Dewey recognizes the importance of the subjective experience of individual people in introducing revolutionary new ideas.
For Dewey, it was vitally important that education not be the teaching of mere dead fact, but that the skills and knowledge which students learned be integrated fully into their lives as citizens and human beings. At the Laboratory School which Dewey and his wife Alice ran at the University of Chicago, children learned much of their early chemistry, physics, and biology by investigating the natural processes which went into cooking breakfast--an activity they did in their classes. This practical element--learning by doing--sprang from his subscription to the philosophical school of Pragmatism.
His ideas, while quite popular, were never broadly and deeply integrated into the practices of American public schools, though some of his values and terms were widespread. Progressive education (both as espoused by Dewey, and in the more popular and inept forms of which Dewey was critical) was essentially scrapped during the Cold War, when the dominant concern in education was creating and sustaining a scientific and technological elite for military purposes. In the post-Cold War period, however, progressive education has reemerged in many school reform and education theory circles as a thriving field of inquiry.
The most basic idea of John Dewey's with regard to education was that greater emphasis should be placed on the broadening of intellect and development of problem solving and critical thinking skills, rather than simply on the memorization of lessons. While Dewey's educational theories have enjoyed a broad popularity during his lifetime and after, they have a troubled history of implementation. Dewey's writings can be difficult to read, and his tendency to reuse commonplace words and phrases to express extremely complex reinterpretations of them makes him unusually susceptible to misunderstanding. So while he remains one of the great American public intellectuals, his public often did not quite follow his line of thought, even when it thought it did. Many enthusiastically embraced what they thought was Deweyan teaching, but which in fact bore little or somewhat perverse resemblance to it. Dewey tried, on occasion, to correct such misguided enthusiasm, but with little success. Simultaneously, other progressive educational theories, often influenced by Dewey but not directly derived from him, were also becoming popular, and progressive education grew to comprehend many, many contradictory theories and practices, as documented by historians like Herbert Kliebard.
It is often thought that progressive education "failed"; whether this view is justified depends on one's definitions of "progressive" and "failed"; several versions of progressive educations succeeded in transforming the educational landscape; the utter ubiquity of guidance counseling, to name but one example, is owing to the progressive period. However, radical versions of educational progressivism were hardly ever tried, and often were troubled and short-lived.
Dewey is one of the three central figures in American pragmatism, along with Charles Sanders Peirce, who originated the term, and William James, who popularized it--though Dewey did not identify himself as a pragmatist per se; he referred to his philosophy as "instrumentalism". Dewey worked from strongly Hegelian and Neo-Hegelian influences, unlike James, whose lineage was primarily British, drawing particularly on empiricist and utilitarian thought. Dewey was also not nearly so pluralist or relativist as James. He held that value was a function not of whim nor purely of social construction, but a quality situated in events ("nature itself is wistful and pathetic, turbulent and passionate" (Experience and Nature).
He also held, unlike James, that experimentation (social, cultural, technological, philosophical) could be used as a relatively hard-and-fast arbiter of truth. For example, James felt that for many people who lacked "over-belief" in religious concepts, human life was shallow and rather uninteresting, and that while no one religious belief could be demonstrated as the correct one, we are all responsible for taking the leap of faith and making a gamble on one or another theism, atheism, monism, or whatever. Dewey, in contrast, while honoring the important role that religious institutions and practices played in human life, rejected belief in any static ideal, such as a theistic God. For Dewey, God was the method of intelligence in human life: that is to say, rigorous inquiry, or, very broadly conceived, science.
As with the reemergence of progressive philosophy of education, Dewey's contributions to philosophy as such (he was, after all, much more a professional philosopher than a thinker on education) have also reemerged with the post-Cold War reassessment of pragmatism by thinkers like W.V. Quine, Richard Bernstein, Hans Joas and Richard Rorty.
Because of his process-oriented and sociologically conscious view of the world and knowledge, he is sometimes seen as a useful alternative to both modern and postmodern ways of thinking. Recent exponents (like Rorty) have not always remained faithful to Dewey's original vision, but this itself is completely in keeping both with Dewey's own usage of other thinkers and with his own philosophy – for Dewey, past doctrines always require reconstruction in order to remain useful for the present time.
Dewey's philosophy has gone by many names other than "pragmatism." He has been called an instrumentalist, and experimentalist, an empiricist, a functionalist and a naturalist. The term "transactional" may better describe his views. It was a term emphasized by Dewey in his later years to describe his theories of knowledge and experience.