John Dewey High School
from the Encyclopedia of Educational Theory and Philosophy, ed. D.C. Phillips. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage 2014. Vol. 2. Pp. 455-458.
The University of Chicago Laboratory School is one of the most distinguished pioneer schools of the progressive education movement. This entry discusses the history of the school, its purpose, and its teaching philosophy and methods.
Founded in November 1894 by John Dewey and University President William R. Harper, the “Dewey School” opened its doors as University Primary School on January 13, 1896 in the Hyde Park Area of Chicago, with twelve children present and one teacher in charge. John Dewey was at this point, the most notable philosopher in the United States and school friend of Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey (later President).
The school, since October 1897 was officially University Elementary School and since October 1898, included a sub-primary department, grew continuously, reaching its peak in 1901, with 140 children (predominantly of the wealthy and educated classes), comprised of 23 teachers, and 10 graduate students as teaching assistants.
In October 1901, Dewey appointed his wife Alice principal of the school. At the same time, the school was renamed “Laboratory School” due to the fact that the University of Chicago by now maintained a second “University Elementary School,” having incorporated the Chicago Institute, a private normal school endowed by Anita M. Blaine and headed by Francis W. Parker. In May 1902, Dewey was elected Parker’s successor as director of the University’s School of Education (formerly of the Chicago Institute), and in October 1903, because of financial reasons and rapidly declining numbers of students, the two university elementary schools were consolidated and housed together in the newly erected Emmons Blaine Hall.
Dewey’s wife was the principal but because of her unprofessional conduct and poor management, Alice Dewey faced such powerful opposition from the former Parker school faculty (representing more than 70 per cent of the teaching staff), that Harper had no other choice but to ask for her resignation as school principal.
Mr. Dewey frustrated by administrative duties and the failure to shape the consolidated school according to his own ideas, resigned too and left Chicago in May 1904 for a professorship at Columbia University, New York City where he remained for the rest of his professional life.
From the outset, Dewey’s school was not meant to be a mere practice, model, or demonstration school where normal school students acquired simple instructional techniques and exercised fixed lessons and specific drills. Instead, Dewey envisioned his school as a scientific “laboratory” staffed with college trained teachers and devoted to research, experiment, and educational innovation.
Like the Herbartians, he expected his school – as part of the University’s Department of Education – to perform two functions: first, to test and evaluate his theories about schooling and teaching and, second, to appraise the findings of these studies and work out subject matters and teaching methods for a curriculum that did not focus on books and recitations but on children and activities.
The ultimate aim was that his experimental school would be laying the foundation for a reform which would revolutionize the educational system and, over time, transform the society into a great secular humanist community.
Parents feared their children might be misused as guinea pigs but were reassured that the school did not experiment with children, but for children. Apart from serving as an educational laboratory, the school felt obliged to bestow a sound and liberal education upon the students in its care.
Instead of beginning with reading, writing, arithmetic as is traditionally done, the lessons at the Laboratory School concentrated from the start on topics and issues pertaining to actual life and the meeting basic human needs like food, clothing, and shelter.
The curriculum followed nature, and children relived the stages believed that mankind had taken in hundreds if not thousands of years as the race moved from from being hunters and collectors to being farmers, craftsmen, and manufacturers — Marc Jones was to continue this teaching in his Acolyte mss. of “Racial Cycles.” The idea was that the students acquired the three R’s naturally, that is, when they needed them for tackling the situations and problems at hand and so education would be a self-propelling “natural” process.
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 were simplified, purified, and enriched so that the students were not overtaxed in their mental ability, damaged in their moral growth, or captivated in their familial narrow world-view.
In fact, the occupations were conceived so broadly that they integrated considerable subject matter into the lessons at hand. Literature, art, history, geography, chemistry, and physics, included excursions to parks, farms, and factories, and libraries and museums, with the object of extending the sutdent’s horizon beyond the familiar.
Moreover, the teacher chose and suggested problems and situations of such nature that the students had to pass through the complete act of thinking and doing by referring to 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. Many students found this tedious for in the process they often missed the larger objective of the task.
Criticisms of the School
The concept of occupations, the backbone of Dewey’s curricular reform, did not fulfill the high expectations the philosopher had for it. Indeed, Dewey’s notion of instrumental and interdisciplinary learning in real life situations proved only a partial success at best.
Many parents and visitors, felt that Dewey had turned the world upside down. Their criticism was scathing: that in the morning the students learned cooking, knitting, and weaving, while in the afternoon they were at home and learned, on their own, reading, writing, and arithmetic. While those comments were exaggerated, they also were not totally off target.
In weekly reports, the Laboratory School teachers observed time and again how wearisome and laborious for both them and their students to have to repetitively review reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. Older students had been taught that such rote skills were an abomination and were negatively predisposed towards both systematic drills and practice, so they were ill-prepared for any type of test.
In addition, the concept of occupations and integrated studies, the hallmark of the school, inevitably had lesser importance in higher grades as the school strove to prepare the students for work life. But as the subject matter was abstract and overly specialized, students after graduation were ill-prepared for the rigors and demands of an office job and business.
The Laboratory School ranked among the most creative and progressive schools of its time. It was similar in precept to the Francis W. Parker Cook County Normal School (founded in 1867 also in Chicago), Nicholas M. Butler’s Horace Mann School (founded in 1887 in Manhattan), and James E. Russell’s Speyer School (founded in 1902 also in Manhattan). For its part, the Dewey School contributed considerably to the destruction of rote learning, liberalization of education, and vitalization of teaching.
Unlike Parker, Butler, and Russell, though, Dewey overestimated the value of instrumental and problem-based learning and underestimated the importance of grammar & the benefits the students reap from direct and systematic instruction.
Therefore, after chaotic beginnings and fruitless experiments, the teachers returned to the conventional patterns and procedures. Ultimately the Laboratory School differed – in practice, but not in theory – little from the other innovative schools in the country.