john dewey's experimental school -- 10/21/14

Today's selection -- from The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. In 1896, John Dewey, then chair of the Department of Philosophy of the University of Chicago, opened an experimental school to test his theory that children learn by doing rather than through lectures, and that schools should convey information as part of an integrated whole rather than by dividing it into separate subjects. Thus, as one example, he used cooking since it combined arithmetic (weighing and measuring ingredients, with instruments the children made themselves), chemistry and physics (observing the process of combustion), biology (diet and digestion), and geography (exploring the natural environments of the plants and animals). The book he wrote on the subject, The School and Society, has never since been out of print:

"In January 1896, [John] Dewey opened the University Elementary School of the University of Chicago. The school had sixteen children, all under twelve, and two teachers. It was a local sensation. That fall, it reopened in a new space with three teachers and thirty-two students. By 1902, there were 140 students, twenty-three teachers, and ten graduate students working as assistants; it had become an international sensation; and it was known as the Dewey School.

"The official name the school eventually acquired was the Laboratory School. The name actually came from the school's supervisor of instruction, Ella Flagg Young (who later became superintendent of the Chicago school system), but it expressed Dewey's intention exactly. The Dewey School was a philosophy laboratory ... It was a place, as Dewey later put it, 'to work out in the concrete, instead of merely in the head or on paper, a theory of the unity of knowledge.' ...

Elementary geography class. Laboratory School

"[Dewey] conceived of [his school] as a philosophy laboratory. Dewey wasn't conducting curricular experiments or collecting data on mental development. He was trying out a theory. It was a theory, as he said, of 'the unity of knowledge.' ...

"By 'unity of knowledge' Dewey did not mean that all knowledge is one. He meant that knowledge is inseparably united with doing. Education at the Dewey School was based on the idea that knowledge is a by-product of activity: people do things in the world, and the doing results in learning something that, if deemed useful, gets carried along into the next activity. In the traditional method of education, in which the things considered worth knowing are handed down from teacher to pupil as disembodied information, knowledge is cut off from the activity in which it has its meaning, and becomes a false abstraction. One of the consequences (besides boredom) is that an invidious distinction between knowing and doing -- a distinction Dewey thought socially pernicious as well as philosophically erroneous -- gets reinforced.

"At the Laboratory School, therefore, children were involved in workshop-type projects in which learning was accomplished in a manner that simulated the way Dewey thought it was accomplished in real life: through group activity. Since the project was being carried out in the present, and since it was supposed to proceed in accordance with the natural instincts of the children ('I think ... that the development of the children's interests will follow very closely a truly scientific development of the subject.' Dewey stated in one of his planning letters), what was learned was precisely what was useful. Relevance was built into the system.

"One of Dewey's curricular obsessions, for instance, was cooking. (Like all courses at the school, including carpentry and sewing, cooking was coeducational.) The children cooked and served lunch once a week. The philosophical rationale is obvious enough: preparing a meal (as opposed to, say, memorizing the multiplication table) is a goal-directed activity, it is a social activity, and it is an activity continuous with life outside school. But Dewey incorporated into the practical business of making lunch: arithmetic (weighing and measuring ingredients, with instruments the children made themselves), chemistry and physics (observing the process of combustion), biology (diet and digestion), geography (exploring the natural environments of the plants and animals), and so on. Cooking became the basis for most of the science taught in the school. lt turned out to have so much curricular potential that making cereal became a three-year continuous course of study for all children between the ages of six and eight -- with (on the testimony of two teachers) 'no sense of monotony on the part of either pupils or teacher.' And as cooking established a continuity with the sphere of the home, other activities established continuities with the spheres of industry and business. There was much work, for example, with iron. The children built their own tiny smelters.

"The pedagogical challenge, crucial to the theory, was to make the chemistry indivisible from the lunch, the learning indivisible from the doing. 'Absolutely no separation is made between the "social" side of the work, its concern with people's activities and their mutual dependencies, and the "science," regard for physical facts and forces,' Dewey wrote in 1899 in his best-selling book about the school, The School and Society (a work that has never been out of print)."


Louis Menand


The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2001 by Louis Menand


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