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This is the first of four commentaries discussing John Dewey's short essay, 'Education as engineering'. The essay provides a fascinating model of how the example of engineering could guide the interaction between educational research and practice. It has much in common with Herbart's ideas on how 'pedagogical tact' bridges the gap between theory and practice. Re-introducing both Dewey and Herbart's ideas could help to overcome the current naivity of 'evidence-based' school improvement.