What is Pragmatic Learning?

Pragmatic is a theory of learning and communication that emphasizes context and meaning. It is an approach that combines elements of linguistics, sociology, philosophy and psychology and offers a new perspective on how people interact with one another. It has applications in education, business and government, for example, in law judicial decisions that take into account the practical effects of a statute or a regulation are considered pragmatic. A curriculum constructed with pragmatism in mind focuses on children as individuals and emphasizes the importance of real experiences and the integration of subjects. It also promotes a flexible curriculum that can be modified as a child’s interests, aptitudes and capacities change.

For example, a child who has an obsession with superheroes may be able to name every DC and Marvel superhero and tell you their power levels, kryptonite and the city they protect. This is because the child is a pragmatic learner; they are using their own experiences and understanding of the world to understand the language and information about superheroes.

The goal of the pragmatist is to teach students how to be self-reliant and creative in their problem solving. The method of teaching in a pragmatic classroom is student-centered and the teacher plays a support role. Students are expected to use their knowledge to solve problems and to work on projects with their peers in small groups. This is because pragmatists believe that the best way to learn is through social interaction.

In the early 1800s, a number of Harvard-educated men gathered for informal philosophical discussions at The Metaphysical Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The group included proto-positivists Chauncey Wright (1830-1875), future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) and two then-fledgling pragmatists, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), a logician and mathematician, and William James (1842-1910), a psychologist and moralist.

Pragmatism developed from the work of these and other philosophers, anthropologists (the study of human societies and cultures), sociologists and psychologists. It grew out of the ideas and writings of American sociologist, philosopher and psychologist George Herbert Mead (1863-1925). Mead argued that the world is shaped by social interaction. In particular, he believed that communication is a form of social behavior. Mead also emphasized the importance of understanding and interpreting the meanings that people make of their experiences, knowledge and actions.

A defining feature of pragmatism is its rejection of strict rules and definitions. While there is some truth in this, it is also true that it is impossible to define everything in such a way as to create a set of absolutes. A pragmatist’s goal is to find a balance between what can and cannot be proved.

The aim of this article is to present and analyze three selected pragmatic research principles as they are applied to two project examples from the author’s doctoral dissertation. The aim is to provide other researchers with a clearer understanding of how pragmatism serves as a worthy and useful paradigm to navigate qualitative applied social research on NGO processes.