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In: Teachers College Record 114 (February 2012), Number 2, 45 pp.

Background/Context: William H. Kilpatrick is worldwide known as “Mr. Project Method.” Despite considerable scholarship by Lawrence A. Cremin, Herbert M. Kliebard, Milton A. Bleeke, John A. Beineke, and others, the origin of Kilpatrick’s celebrated paper of 1918 has never been explored in depth and its historical context.

Focus of Study: The reconstruction reveals that the concept of teaching by “projects” arose in seventeenth-century Italy and reached the United States in 1865 where it served as an instructional device in manual training, agricultural education, and general science. Kilpatrick came into contact with the project method movement in 1915. He jumped on the bandwagon, adopted the two-hundred-year-old concept, and used it in a provocative new way to be not only remembered as a genial teacher but as an “originator” as well. Supported by the “Project Propaganda Club,” he had already initiated in 1917 and which became known as the National Conference for the Promotion of Educational Method in 1921, Kilpatrick advocated a decidedly child-centered approach that in New York, Milwaukee, and Bethpage, Missouri, failed the practice test and evoked fierce criticism from friend and foe, including Boyd H. Bode, Ernest Horn, Guy M. Wilson, and John Dewey. In the late 1920s, Kilpatrick decided that in defining the project as a subjective “philosophy” of education and not as an objective “method” of instruction he “had made a mistake.” Subsequently, he gave up the term and spoke of “activities” when the students carried out their plans and ideas “heartily” and “purposefully.”

Conclusions: Historians worldwide have fallen victim to an error. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Kilpatrick is not the classic of the project method, but rather the classical outsider.


In April 1918, William Heard Kilpatrick was sitting at his desk in New York City laboring over an essay. He was getting desperate at the slow progress he was making, although he merely had to revise a manuscript he had already finished a year before. Kilpatrick was aware that his real talent was for speaking rather than writing. This time, however, progress was particularly laborious. “I am so critical,” he noted in his diary, “that I am like the antipode whose self-consciousness stood in the way of his walking.”1 His courage vanished, and his fear amplified. Kilpatrick got into a panic. “My writing is so slow as to be almost a failure. I am becoming increasingly concerned. If I do not do better I shall have to take a half year off; and retire to some quiet place and write until I master myself.” But it was not to come to this. Kilpatrick recovered, and on May 31, 1918, handed the finished essay to the publisher. While his ordeal was over, he could not rejoice. The result of his labors did not match his high expectations. “Rough in many places,” he recorded worriedly. “I am even apprehensive of the argument in spot[s].”

The essay appeared under the title “The Project Method” in the September 1918 issue of the Teachers College Record, and—as Lawrence A. Cremin put it—“catapulted” its author into the forefront of American education. To the historians of education, Kilpatrick is the project classic par excellence: he was the one who gave the project method its definitive meaning, who made it the focal point of progressive teaching, and who spread it throughout the world. Without Kilpatrick, they like to say, the project method and the project movement are unthinkable.

This view did not exist from the beginning. The educationalists of the 1920s, such as S. Chester Parker, Charles A. Bennett, William H. Burton, still knew about the traditional concept of the project, as it had been used during the nineteenth century in manual training by Calvin M. Woodward, Charles H. Ham, C. Hanford Henderson, Charles R. Richards, and others. They pointed out that Kilpatrick had broken the mold in no longer regarding the project as a “method of teaching” concerned with “practical, constructive activity,” but defining it as a “philosophy of education” founded on “wholehearted purposeful activity.” Even friends and colleagues of Kilpatrick such as John Dewey, Harold B. Alberty, and Boyd H. Bode criticized Kilpatrick’s broad definition of project, with the result that the campaign initiated by Kilpatrick collapsed, and virtually all educators returned to the traditional meaning. Kilpatrick himself shunned the term project since the early 1930s when speaking about education, curriculum, and instruction.

Historians of the postwar period have missed this controversy. They have trusted Kilpatrick’s effective propaganda and maintained in a stereotyped manner that his approach to the project is the sole concept of import and relevance. Numerous articles and monographs on Kilpatrick and the progressive education movement have appeared that give an, at times excellent, account of what Kilpatrick experienced as a child, youth, or teacher, what he thought of religion, race, or age discrimination, how he felt about John Dewey, Maria Montessori, or William C. Bagley. There is, however, not a single thorough interpretation of the project method, i.e., the topic to which Kilpatrick owed his whole renown. The biographies of Samuel Tenenbaum and John A. Beineke are in this respect as deficient as the standard histories by Lawrence A. Cremin, Herbert M. Kliebard, Diane Ravitch, and Daniel and Laurel Tanner. In their works, they present either a “big bang theory” according to which, in a particularly fruitful moment, Kilpatrick, “invented” the project method, that revolutionized teaching and “all at once” and “unexpectedly” brought him fame and glory. Or else they tender an “irrelevance theory” according to which it is agreed to that concepts of project learning had existed since 1908 in agricultural education, but that these concepts were of no significance for Kilpatrick and the rise of the project movement. Even the best study on the subject, Milton H. Bleeke’s dissertation, fails to go beyond the established pattern and remains, like all others, unsatisfactory, because it neglects the early development, and gives no convincing answer to the central question of the project’s historiography: When did Kilpatrick come across the project method, and why did he adopt it for his teaching program?

Meanwhile, nearly a hundred years have passed since 1918. It is about time to trace the origin and history of Kilpatrick’s project paper, and examine whether he in fact was the initiator and undisputed leader of project education. Two sources have not been exploited in depth: Kilpatrick’s eighty diaries and scrapbooks dating from between 1904 and 1961, which are kept at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York, and the ten boxes of letters, manuscripts, and documents covering the same period kept at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. The evaluation of these and other so far unknown texts paints a new picture of Kilpatrick and project teaching; indeed, all the accepted assumptions will turn out to be wrong: Kilpatrick did not provide the authoritative project definition, he did not launch the project movement, and his essay does not deserve the place of honor that it habitually occupies. Historians worldwide have fallen victim to an error. They have taken propaganda as reality, and discussion as outcome. They have failed to see that Kilpatrick was an ambitious entrepreneur who took up the term “project” because it was popular, and who renounced it because his definition was mistaken. [...]

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