Unlocking Mysteries of Human Cognition: Synopsis of John Dewey’s ‘How We Think’

John Dewey's "How We Think" is a timeless exploration of human cognition, and one that continues to resonate with educators and scholars today. By emphasizing the importance of critical thinking, problem-solving, and observation, Dewey provides a framework for developing effective thinking skills that can be applied in all areas of life.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded with information and distractions, it is easy to overlook the importance of understanding how we think. John Dewey’s “How We Think” is a seminal work that delves into the intricacies of human cognition, exploring everything from the role of language in shaping our thoughts to the nature of memory and the importance of critical thinking. In this article, we will provide a comprehensive synopsis of Dewey’s work, highlighting the key themes and ideas that continue to resonate today.

The Importance of Understanding How We Think

John Dewey’s work on cognition is based on the premise that understanding how we think is essential for success in all areas of life. He argues that traditional approaches to education, which focus on rote memorization and fact-based learning, do not adequately prepare individuals for the challenges of the modern world. Instead, he suggests that a more dynamic and holistic approach is needed, one that emphasizes critical thinking and problem-solving.

Language and Its Role in Cognition

In the first chapter of “How We Think,” John Dewey explores the relationship between language and cognition. He argues that language is not simply a tool for communication, but a fundamental aspect of human cognition. He suggests that the ability to express our thoughts and ideas to others is essential for developing effective thinking skills, and that language plays a critical role in shaping and organizing our thoughts.

Perception and Observation: The Foundation of Effective Thinking

In Chapter 8 of his work, John Dewey focuses on the importance of perception and observation in the thinking process. He suggests that individuals must learn to observe and perceive the world around them in order to develop effective thinking skills. He advocates for training students to observe their environment and to use their senses to gather information and make judgments, arguing that this is essential for developing critical thinking skills.

The Dynamic Nature of Memory

In Chapter 9, Dewey explores the role of memory in the thinking process. He argues that memory is not simply a passive storage system, but an active and dynamic component of cognition. He suggests that individuals must learn to use their memory effectively, by organizing information and making connections between different pieces of information. This, he suggests, is essential for effective problem-solving and decision-making.

The Distinction Between Concrete and Abstract Thinking

Chapter 10 of “How We Think” is devoted to the distinction between concrete and abstract thinking. Dewey suggests that concrete thinking is based on direct experience and perception, while abstract thinking involves the use of symbols and concepts to represent the world. He argues that both types of thinking are necessary for effective problem-solving, and that individuals must learn to move between concrete and abstract thinking as the situation requires.

Science as a Model for Critical Thinking

In Chapter 11, Dewey explores the role of science in the thinking process. He argues that science provides both a subject matter for thinking (i.e. the natural world) and a method for thinking (i.e. the scientific method). He suggests that the scientific method provides a useful model for critical thinking, and that students should be taught to think scientifically in order to develop effective thinking skills.

Thinking as a Central Component of Education

In the final chapter of “How We Think,” Dewey discusses the role of thinking in the curriculum. He argues that thinking should be a central component of education, and that educators should strive to develop critical thinking skills in their students. He suggests that this can be achieved by incorporating activities that emphasize problem-solving and decision-making into the curriculum, as well as by teaching students to evaluate and critique information.


John Dewey’s “How We Think” is a timeless exploration of human cognition, and one that continues to resonate with educators and scholars today. By emphasizing the importance of critical thinking, problem-solving, and observation, Dewey provides a framework for developing effective thinking skills that can be applied in all areas of life. Whether you are a student, educator, or simply someone who is interested in understanding how the mind works, “How We Think” is a must-read work that will challenge and inspire you.


  1. Dewey, J. (1910). How we think. D. C. Heath & Co.
  2. Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Houghton Mifflin.
  3. Garrison, J. (1997). Dewey and Eros: Wisdom and desire in the art of teaching. Teachers College Press.
  4. Kilpatrick, W. H. (1918). The project method. Teachers College Record, 19(4), 319-335.
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