John Deweys Pädagogik
   New Perspectives / book
   Dewey als Pädagoge / Buch
   Dewey, Kilpatrick & Co./Buch
   Learning by doing - English
   Learning by Doing - deutsch
   Deweys Reformimpuls
   Deweys pädagog. Credo
   Deweys Laborschule
      Laboratory School
      Theory vs. Practice
   Dewey Unterrichtstheorie
   Scheitern der Laborschule
     Dewey as Administrator
   Mayhew/Edwards Dewey-School
   Prinz Heinrich in Chicago
   Dewey + progressive Erziehung
      Dewey + progressive education
   Dewey + Demokratie
      Education for Democracy
   Dewey + Projektpädagogik
   Dewey + Montessori
   Dewey + Kerschensteiner
      Dewey + Vocational Education
   Dewey + social efficiency
   LabSchool Teacher Publications
   Dewey in Dtl.- Bibliographie
   Aus Projekten lernen / Buch
      Project Method
   Origin of Project Method
   Rezeption der Projektidee
   Kilpatricks Projektmethode
     Kilpatrick's Project Method
   Collings' "Typhusprojekt"
     Faking a Dissertation
   Chronologie USA
   Dokumentation USA
Kurt Hahns Pädagogik
   Reform mit Augenmaß/Buch
   Frau Elses Verheißung /Roman
   Hahns "Erlebnistherapie"
      Experiential Education
      Thérapie des expériences
      Un internat Allemand
      Thérapie par l'expèrience
   Die vier Elemente
Progressive Education
   New Education
   Learning by doing - deutsch
   Herbart in Amerika
Kerschensteiners Pädagogik
Gedanken über Erziehung
Interkulturelle Erziehung
Wozu ist die Schule da? /Buch
Schloß-Schule Kirchberg /Buch
Jugendlicher Minimalismus
          - - -
Curriculum Vitae
   Veröffentlichungen in Deutsch
   Publications in English
   Publications en français
   Publicaciones en español
   Publikace v češtině
   hangug-eo ganhaengmul

Talk held at the ISCHE-Conference in Chicago, August 17, 2016.

There are many studies on the Laboratory School John Dewey established at the University of Chicago in 1896. But surprisingly, the history of this world famous experimental school – which existed for seven years until 1903 – has not been researched exhaustively. To my mind, one topic deserves to be tackled above all: the relation between Dewey’s theory of teaching and the way his educational principles were implemented by his teachers.

When writing about the workings of the LabSchool, historians rely almost exclusively on Mayhew and Edwards’ book “The Dewey School” of 1936, a study that, in general, presents its information in such a way that theory and practice coincide and that Dewey’s concept of curriculum and instruction is being validated and confirmed. However, a new look at the teacher reports and other primary sources reveals another story. Actually, it puts the myth of the Dewey School as an amazingly innovative and creative enterprise at rest and shows most notably that Dewey’s concept and its realization are not identical. In fact, the “grammar of schooling” took its toll. After tentative beginnings, the LabSchool practice differed considerably from Dewey’s educational program and differed only slightly from other contemporary progressive schools such as the Cook County Normal School of Francis Parker or the Horace Mann School of Teachers College. As we shall see, in some respect, the LabSchool even lagged behind innovative schools of the time that were in public charge.

In my presentation, I will deal therefore with two aspects. I start out with a description of Dewey’s concept of curriculum and instruction. Then, I will cope with the problems and limitations the LabSchool teachers faced when they tried to implement Dewey’s educational philosophy.

Dewey’s concept of curriculum and instruction

Dewey, the great philosopher, inexperienced practitioner and administrator, did not give the LabSchool teachers detailed instructions on what and how to teach. He rather provided them with general principles and suggestions for developing a vital and novel curriculum.

While designing the school as an “embryonic society“, Dewey made use of two psychological concepts. In accordance with his functional psychology and Froebel’s concept of self-activity and self-creation, he regarded curiosity, action, and experience as basic conditions of learning – all the more, as he was convinced that children were not passive recipients of facts and matters but active agents constructing their own reality and worldview in continuous interaction with their environment. Ideally, children acquired new knowledge and skills naturally by experiencing real life situations at first-hand.

Yet activity was not enough. In accordance with his psychology of thinking and the Herbartian theory of apperception, Dewey introduced the notion of “problem” as another important factor of curriculum construction. For if the continuous interaction with the environment was interrupted, and if the use of familiar precepts and routines was hindered, the individual would employ the rational method and pass through the complete act of inquiry that scientists use for solving their research problems. Thus, the students were supposed to stop, analyze the problem, search for an alternative, develop a strategy of action, and try to overcome the hindrance by applying the plan that had emerged. Coping with problematic situations by thinking and doing, Dewey asserted, children would learn, retain, and retrieve significant information definitely better than using the traditional method of memorizing and reciting.

With these premises in mind, Dewey concluded that it was the teacher’s chief business to psychologize the curriculum and convert its contents into problems and situations that were appealing and challenging for the students and could be solved by them experimentally and, to a large degree, independently. Therefore, the teacher should facilitate self-activity and self-expression by allocating the necessary resources and time for joint and individual undertakings in kitchen, garden, laboratory, studio, work shop.

Putting his ideas into concrete terms, Dewey recommended that the curriculum should be fundamentally reconstructed. It should not be centered on specific subjects but on so-called “occupations,” that is, on practical problems and activities that reproduced typical situations of social and communal life. Instead of beginning with reading, writing, arithmetic as was traditionally done, learning had to be concentrated on topics and issues pertaining to actual life and meeting basic human needs like food, clothing and shelter. In keeping with the Herbartian theory of culture epochs, the children should relive the stages humankind had taken in thousands of years as the race moved from being hunters and collectors to being farmers, craftsmen, and manufacturers. Dewey’s intention was that the students acquired the three R’s naturally and incidentally, that is, when and so far as they needed them for tackling the situations and problems at hand. In cooking, for example, the students learned and practiced reading when they wished to decipher cookbooks, writing when they wanted to record their favorite recipes, and arithmetic when they had to count eggs, weigh flower and measure milk.

The occupations in cooking, weaving and sewing, in woodwork, metalwork and gardening seemed to be ideal in solving three essential problems of teaching all at once. The occupations were, firstly, lifelike so that the students could identify themselves with their tasks; they were, secondly, conceived so broadly that they integrated considerable subject matter in literature, art, history, geography, chemistry and physics; finally, the occupations were of such nature that the students had to pass through the complete act of thinking and doing and to integrate knowledge and experiences of past and present generations (i.e., to utilize books, expertise, and scholarship) if they were to execute their plans and projects properly.

Dewey expected that the teachers would alter their professional attitude and to take over new roles and functions. For their students, they were not to be a taskmaster and disciplinarian any more who relied on compulsion and punishment, but a leader and guide in exciting and challenging activities. Since the school being an embryonic democracy, the teacher as well as her students would enjoy intellectual freedom and - as far as possible - the privilege of initiative and participation in decision-making and curriculum-planning. And due to small classes, Dewey believed that the teacher was able to create an atmosphere that was liberal, relaxed and stress free, with the result that the children would behave themselves and would enthusiastically and eagerly solve their chosen problems. Phenomena like indifference, indolence and want of discipline which rendered traditional teaching so demanding and aggravating would vanish or be reduced to an insignificant level.  

The implementation of Dewey’s educational theory

During its seven years of existence, the LabSchool underwent numerous modifications that responded to intricate or defective structures. Stimulated by Ella Flagg Young, the school’s supervisor, the original inclination to scholarly dilettantism, institutional disorder and, mostly, educational sentimentalism was overcome in 1898 and visibly surmounted with the school’s first and only official “Course of Study” of June 1899. The “Course of Study” – which, by the way, was organized along the traditional subject matter – was freely distributed to parents and visitors but was in fact neither mentioned by Dewey nor by Mayhew and Edwards. In particular, Mayhew and Edwards wanted to convey the impression that the students decided autonomously – or at most in loose cooperation with the teacher – what they would like to do and study.

Actually, after three years of experimenting and drifting, the students had few and limited opportunities to influence the curriculum. Frequently, teacher and students  talked shortly about the course of the upcoming lesson and subject matter. Occasionally, the students were allowed to choose between alternative topics and activities. In manual training, for example, they could freely decide if they wished to make a pottery vessel for milk, juice or flowers, and in history they were free to write an essay about the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers, about their daily life or about their first encounter with native Indians. Every day, one student, appointed by alphabetical order, acted as a “group leader” who was responsible that, during the absence of the teacher, his classmates observed the school rules and regulations. However, the LabSchool students had no claim for co-determination in important curriculum issues and were hardly ever engaged in big projects like furnishing a model colonial room or building the famous clubhouse that required genuine team work and significant collaboration in planning, deciding and executing.

In this context, it is worth noting that – different from the LabSchool – powerful “student councils” had been institutionalized at progressive public schools in the US since the mid 1890’s. Even in the immediate neighborhood of the LabSchool, the students of the John Crerar Grammar School and the Hyde Park High School had the chance to elect a “tribune” who acted as official spokesperson of the class and as mediator in conflict situations. Moreover, the students could elect so-called “citizens” who would sit in school committees with “the right to vote on all matters pertaining to the general welfare of the school”. The initiators of the student councils maintained that the traditional “monarchy” of the school was thereby substituted by a “democracy” consisting of a government “of all, by all, for all.” To be sure, in accordance with Dewey’s concept, the students of the LabSchool could from time to time make decisions on minor matters but they had no institutionalized opportunity to help fashion the teaching and general affairs of their school.

The attribute that troubled the LabSchool teachers most of all was the problem method since it was closely bound up with experimental and creative thinking and coupled with the belief that the students could discover and reinvent more or less by themselves the solutions people had found for their survival and comfort in hundreds of years. Used as a general method, the concept of problem-based learning overtaxed the patience, comprehension and capabilities of the students. In consequence, the LabSchool teachers fell back on techniques like telling, explaining and demonstrating to transmit the knowledge, skills and attitudes they wanted to convey. For instance, the experiments in science rarely served to solve authentic problems or rediscover scientific laws but functioned as illustrations of facts and principles the teacher presented and the students should observe, learn and know. Contrary to Dewey’s intention, the problem method was just one procedure besides the traditional lecture and lesson plan the LabSchool teachers – like other progressive educators of the time – had by now liberalized the book and recitation method of old days to suit the students needs and purposes in the best possible way.

Even the concept of occupations, the backbone of the school’s curriculum, did not fulfill the high expectations Dewey associated with it. The notion of concomitant and interdisciplinary learning in real life situations was actually too complex and elaborate – it could not be applied permanently and thus proved to be only a partial success. Indeed, for some parents and visitors, Dewey had turned the world upside down. They criticized that in the morning at school, the students learned cooking, knitting and weaving, while in the afternoon at home, they learned reading, writing and arithmetic. This scathing criticism was definitely exaggerated but not totally off target. In their weekly reports, the LabSchool teachers observed time and again that it was wearisome and laborious for students and teachers alike to catch up on the 3 R’s and other basic skills when the students of advanced age were, contrary to previous years, negatively disposed towards repetition and continuous practice. Since too opaque and unsystematic, Dewey’s concept of concurrent and incidental learning created its own forms of frustration, distraction and disorder. And inevitably, it became of lesser importance the higher the grades, and the more the subject matter became abstract and remote from the students’ actual life.

In fact, “the child and the curriculum” could not be reconciled as easily as Dewey assumed in his famous essay. Even with the greatest engagement, the teachers could merely lessen but not solve the contradiction that existed between the subjective, fleeting interests and the objective, enduring interests of the children. In general, the teachers were satisfied with increasing the part of bodily and individualized activities and in creating a school atmosphere that was characterized by respect, appreciation and care. However, although the groups were extremely small and consisted of only five to ten students, the 23 teachers and 10 assitants had sometimes a hard time to convince the at most 140 students to get on with the tasks and problems they had prepared for them. And although the students came from Chicago’s upper and middle class who valued education and culture highly, the students were by no means always eager and ready to be attentive, study hard and do their home work.

Undoubtedly, the LabSchool ranked among the most creative and progressive schools of its time. Like the Cook County Normal School of Francis Parker and the Horace Mann School of Nicholas Butler, the Dewey School contributed considerably to the liberalization of education, the humanization of schooling and the vitalization of teaching. But unlike Parker and Butler, Dewey overestimated the value of instrumental and problem-based learning and underestimated the grammar of schooling and the benefits the students could reap from direct and systematic instruction. After chaotic beginnings and fruitless experiments, the teachers returned to more conventional patterns and procedures so that ultimately the LabSchool differed – in practice, not in theory – surprisingly little from other innovative schools of the time.