Dewey Lab School at the University of Chicago
John Dewey established an experimental school in 1896 at the University of Chicago. He and his wife Alice were involved with the school until 1904 when they left Chicago. Dewey wanted to put into practice his ideas about education, test these ideas, and encourage what we now call action research, as well as provide schooling for his own children. Dewey’s writings at the time about the school include brief descriptive articles (e.g., 1896) as well as his well-known book School and Society (1899).
Two principal accounts of the school other than Dewey’s own reflect different views and help provide here a holistic account of the Laboratory School: The Dewey School (1936/1966) and Dewey’s Laboratory School: Lessons for Today (1997). The first account is by Katherine Camp Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards, two teachers at the school, with an introduction by Dewey himself. They note that Dewey’s purpose was “to discover in administration, selection of subject matter, methods of learning, teaching, [a way of] developing in individuals their own capacities and identifying their own needs” (pp. xv–xvi). The second account comes much later, from the curriculum theorist Laurel N. Tanner (1997), as she assesses Dewey’s school in light of the dissemination of his pedagogy and thought and compares current educational practices to what Dewey proposed and enacted. Tanner is concerned that there are lessons about the school that have not been learned. In the final part of the entry, we discuss more fully the lessons learned from Dewey’s Laboratory School and how Dewey’s ideas have fared in today’s schools.
Dewey brought developments in the new field of psychology to bear upon the conceptualization of the school and its teaching and learning. He was particularly interested in what we would call developmental and social psychology, particularly George Herbert Mead’s social nature of the self. Dewey drew heavily from the Harvard philosopher and psychologist William James, a pioneer in contributing to developmental and educational psychology. Like James, Dewey was a pioneer in the philosophical movement called pragmatism. Pragmatism insists that ideas be tested for their consequences in the everyday world. This way of thinking deeply influenced Dewey’s conception of the Laboratory School as a place where teachers would test ideas about teaching. These ideas would be developed into learning activities, where students would observe, learn, experiment, and reflect upon projects and problems offered by teachers but also ones they encountered themselves in the multiple factors and considerations a problem or project may present.
For instance, Dewey thought everyday activities such as cooking, carpentry, and art all presented engaging problems that would require certain skills to learn and to understand fully. Students learning how to bake would see how numeracy and literacy came alive in the transformation of the ingredients such as flour, eggs, milk, and cocoa into the finished product of a chocolate cake. Students creating paintings would learn techniques that allowed imagination to fashion works of art from the materials of paint and canvas.
Although the school was theorized based upon Dewey’s philosophy and psychology, it also owed its genesis in part to Dewey’s memories of childhood learning, especially what Tanner calls “the never-ending memory of boredom” (1997, p. 13) of the classroom, particularly rote learning common in nineteenth-century schools in his native Vermont. Dewey recalled good memories of learning outside the walls of the classroom, in the vibrant city of Burlington but also out in nature, and he wanted to infuse the Laboratory School with that kind of active, interesting learning.
Dewey was brought to the new University of Chicago by President William Rainey Harper, to not only chair its department of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy but to enact the ideas of the new science of psychology with young learners. The school was founded by Dewey and Harper in 1894 and opened in 1896. It fulfilled a dream that Harper had for his new university, where learning would be paramount from early years through graduate study. Harper had enticed Dewey to his new university in part by elevating pedagogy to a university discipline, as part of the department Dewey headed. The new school was finally called the Laboratory School in 1901 to differentiate it from other schools at the university and to stress its experimental purpose. Dewey appointed his wife Alice as principal of the school in 1901, a position she held until 1904 when she was asked to resign by President Harper, an event which prompted Dewey to resign from oversight of the school as well as from the University of Chicago, for a professorship at Columbia University in New York City.
Dewey wanted a school to be like a scientific “laboratory,” where theories about education and development could be tested, by teachers devoted to learning about research and innovation. He saw the most important work of the university discipline of pedagogy as the advancement of ideas about education through conceptualization, trying out, and applying, as he states in The School and Society, in a “laboratory of applied psychology. That is, it has a place for the study of mind as manifested and developed in the child, and for the search after materials and agencies that seem most likely to fulfill and further the condition of normal growth” (Dewey 1899, p. 96, as cited in Tanner 1997, p. 19). These teachers would then work collaboratively to develop and enact a curriculum based on problems that would not only engage students with materials and ideas but would prompt and enable these students to take charge of their own learning. Dewey’s aim was an active and involved learning experience for all that would serve as a nascent democracy. Thus, the hands-on activities the children did were not only to learn skills and information in a holistic way but to enliven the child’s incipient moral and social character.
Learning in the Laboratory School was based upon a simple idea: The natural interests of the child would be shaped and guided by a collaborative teacher attentive to that particular child’s learning needs. The well-known epithet about active learning of a teacher being a “guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage” was apt for what Dewey wanted teachers to be and do. He objected to the lifeless rote learning common in his day that he recalled from childhood because it removed learning from life’s ever-changing concerns. Dewey stressed the importance of a living, woven-in, psychological connection to learning about matters of interest that stood in contrast to a static, analytic, logical presentation of subject matter in text books.
Dewey privileged the psychological over the logical in education. That is, a child’s interest and curiosity would determine if in fact the child wanted to learn in the first place, and the topics, pedagogy, and curricular structure followed. This contrasts to a logical organization of subject matter, where the rationale for a particular subject is described and analyzed in a sensible, logical, linear fashion as is typical in textbook, an object of knowledge that is not intrinsically attached to any one person’s interest in learning. A textbook by itself does not interest us, Dewey might say, as the material has not been psychologized and thus made living and momentous. A simple example will suffice: A child may or may not be interested in a textbook presentation of sedimentation evident in a riverbed, but this topic can be described adequately in a geology textbook. The textbook is logical, descriptive, and static, while the child’s interest or disinterest in sedimentation is psychological, developmental, and active. The child, if interested, may ask or be prompted to ask by a teacher why the sedimentation occurred in this fashion. Thus, the topic becomes a problem that invites imaginative and often collaborative thinking to understand, which may include investigation of an actual riverbed, the posing of hypotheses about sedimentation, further library investigation, testing with models of riverbeds, water flow, sedimentation, and so forth.
The English empiricist philosopher John Locke envisioned the mind as a blank slate upon which sense impressions are made. All we perceive etches its particular properties upon the mind. Thus, for Locke education was paramount, as it provided the material content to inscribe meaning and significance on a blank slate. Dewey thought such abstract empiricism was nonsensical and believed we always start learning in the middle of things. Children come into a family and a society already endowed with rich strata of history, lore, and custom. Even the environment is humanized, fashioned as buildings and roads, but also the natural world, what we suppose is wild nature, has been altered by humans, most fundamentally as a creation of cognition, as a human creation.
Thus, since we enter into a world already fashioned and constructed, school learning should be continuous with that world and with the learning developed in family and home and with one’s own incipient sense of self and actualization. In the Laboratory School, teachers were more like facilitative leaders who constructed an inviting environment replete with challenging activities in everyday environments such as a garden, kitchen, workshop, or studio. Students encountered puzzling or problematic situations in these environments, and what they learned through the “occupations” of these settings mimicked everyday life. Skills such as numeracy and literacy were learned as part of holistic topics and the means to meet basic human needs of dress, shelter, and sustenance. Building a small shed utilized numeracy (measurement and calculation in construction), literacy (reading instructions), and social or cultural literacy (learning where the wood was harvested and milled, how the construction of sheds evolved over time and in different places and cultures, and so forth).
As the student and curriculum were reconceived in the Laboratory School, so too was the role of the teacher. Rather than the familiar “egg crate” of isolated instruction behind closed classroom doors common in many schools even today, the Laboratory School teacher taught collaboratively, engaging in close dialogue with colleagues and fostering an incipient democracy through modeling collaborative and dialogic practices among each other, with students and with the community at large. Teachers were to be researchers of their own practice. This is a difficult work, and there is evidence that the Laboratory School teachers were not entirely successful in keeping up the intensity and effort required of such pedagogy. Closer to our time, Vivian Gussin Paley, teaching in the Laboratory School well after Dewey’s departure, enacted this aspect of Deweyan pedagogy in her own classroom by working closely with individual students and recording her teaching for analysis and reflection after class each evening, which she then turned into a series of well-known books.
The approach to curriculum and instruction was one of experimentation in which students were encouraged to learn through “first-hand” experience (Mayhew and Edwards 1936/1966, pp. 22, 25), investigation, experimentation, and exploration. The Laboratory School was a progenitor of what became the student-centered approach to teaching and learning that featured small-scale simulations. For example, science classes tended to be structured on the basis of creating meaning through simulations or experiments such as understanding the water cycle by using a sand table and making a river in the sand table to see how water, elevation, and water speed affect each other. Students would experiment with how much water would affect the ways in which a river formed and changed over time. Another example of using the first-hand experience approach to learning was in the teaching of environmental science. Students would, for example, create physiographic maps using sand and clay to place geological features in proportion. These maps could be used to better understand geological processes in the region.
The children switched to the nearby Parker School where the number of applications surged in 1 year by almost 70%… while the Dewey School experienced a decrease of about 60 students, the enrolment of the Parker School rose by 71 students. It seemed safe to say that, in October 1902, most of the Laboratory School parents and students opted for an alternative that they considered equally progressive, but financially less burdensome, curricularly less specific, and emotionally less exhausting. (Knoll 2015, p. 25)
Dewey’s Laboratory School only existed for a short period of time, though the school still exists today with its name intact as a private day school. What lasting effect can an educational experiment have if it lasted for less than 10 years and ended with both Alice Dewey, as principal, and John Dewey resigning and leaving Chicago? Dewey’s short-lived experiment has value for what he tried to enact and as a model from which others can learn. On the other hand, we can ask why the Laboratory School as Dewey conceived it existed for only a short period of time and why its practices were not more widely adopted. This is a larger question too regarding Dewey’s influence in educational thought.
Laurel N. Tanner gives a summary of three reasons why Dewey’s ideas and the practices of the Laboratory School were not and are not more widely applied. All three reasons have to do with classroom teaching: class size, connection between interest and motivation to learn, and the focus on assessment, measurement, and standards of achievement. The Laboratory School was small, and teachers had the opportunity to work closely with students and to collaborate with other teachers to understand and enact best practice. Most public schools do not have the luxury of such small classes. In these larger classes, the teacher simply does not have the time to devote to each student in the way done in the Laboratory School. The second reason Tanner cites is the connection between interest and motivation to learn. Dewey saw this connection and built his theory and practice upon its necessity. However, particularly around the time of Dewey’s death in 1952, study of motivation and interest gave way to behavioral modification, where motivation and interest are irrelevant (Tanner 1997, p. 159). The third reason is related to the previous two: Educational policies and goals at the State and national level are focused on assessment, measurement, and standards of achievement, not in fostering interest in learning or learning itself. Teachers are not rewarded for encouraging interest and motivating students to learn; rather, the focus has been on what Tanner aptly calls the “automatic learner” (1997, p. 160), a fiction wished for by many proponents of testing and accountability. Thus, Dewey’s belief about the importance of interest and motivation in the psychology of learning may be given lip service by current reform initiatives, but are not important aspects of educational reform in the last 40 years in the United States.
Even though Dewey had to resort to a departmental administrative organization of the school after an earlier more open arrangement, the curriculum and teaching did not become compartmentalized (Tanner 1997, p. xi). In Dewey’s Laboratory School, what was taught, how to teach it, and how to improve both were central activities of all the teachers. Dewey believed that the skills of classroom routine, typified by the oft-cited desideratum of inexperienced preservice teacher education students to know “what to do on Monday morning,” would only come in classroom practice and thus after the hard work of thinking through the logic, opportunities, and shortfalls of a particular curriculum. This is how learning occurs in a laboratory, where scientists observe and analyze and reflect upon behaviors and activities of animals, chemicals, or other sources of data, and similarly, in a laboratory school like what Dewey envisioned, teachers would become aware of their own data sources, such as the students, classroom dynamics, and the teacher’s own practice and reflection upon it, among other factors at play.
What characterized Dewey’s Laboratory School most was its focus upon the teacher as an intellectual leader by the example of analysis and reflection upon curriculum. The work of a teacher is first and foremost that of a curriculum theorist and practitioner. Dewey put the teacher front and center in his Laboratory School, not only as an intellectual but as a moral leader. The teacher communicated with students, parents, and other teachers, in a shared enterprise characterized by active learning and reflection.
- Dewey, J. (1896). The need for a laboratory school. In J. Boydston (Ed.), The early works of John Dewey, 1882–1898 (Vol. 5). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.Google Scholar
- Dewey, J. (1899). The school and society. In J. Boydston (Ed.), The middle works of John Dewey, 1899-1924 (Vol. 1). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.Google Scholar
- Mayhew, K. C., & Edwards, A. C. (1936/1966). The Dewey school. The laboratory school of the University of Chicago, 1896–1903. New York: Atherton Press.Google Scholar
- Tanner, L. N. (1997). Dewey’s laboratory school: Lessons for today. New York: Teachers College Press.Google Scholar