In: Encyclopedia of Educational Theory and Philosophy, ed. D.C. Phillips. Thousend 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.
The school, since October 1897 officially called University Elementary School
and since October 1898, including a sub-primary department, grew continuously, reaching
its peak in 1901, with 140 children (predominantly of the wealthy and educated
classes), 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 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.
Because of her unprofessional
conduct and poor management, less because of the issue of nepotism, Alice Dewey
faced such powerful opposition, in particular 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. Dewey, anyway 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.
The School as the Laboratory of Education
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 Dewey
strived for with his experimental school was laying the foundation for a reform
which would revolutionize the educational system and, over time, transform the society
into a great democratic community. Parents who feared their children might be misused
as guinea pigs 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.
Didactic and Psychological Premises
Dewey, a mild-mannered philosopher and psychologist who had failed
as a high school teacher because he could not persuade his adolescent students
to behave and learn properly, did not give the Laboratory School teachers detailed
instructions on what and how to teach; he rather provided them with general principles
and suggestions for developing a vital and innovative curriculum.
Inspired by Herbartian precedents, Dewey devised a didactic scheme consisting
of three components:
1. The psychological, that
is, the natural impulses and interests of children that could be utilized for attaining
their attention and moving them to accept as their own the topics, tasks, and
projects proposed by the teacher
2. The sociological, that
is, the social attitudes and practices the students should know about to succeed
in life and play their part in a social and participatory democracy
3. The logical, that is,
the organized contents and methods the students should study to understand the substance
of subjects and the structure of science needed to survive in and contribute to
the advancement of an industrial and progressive society.
All three elements had to be thought of and striven for at the same
time, or else the teacher fell short of her educational mission. Yet of the three
elements, the first had to have top priority while Dewey considered the
children’s impulses and interests as the only expedient starting points for effective
teaching and joyful learning. Dewey identified four interests and activities every
child possessed: the interest (1) in communication and intercourse, (2) in
making and building, (3) in exploring and investigating, and (4) in artistic expression
In addition to didactic considerations, Dewey made use of two
psychological concepts. In accordance with his functional (constructivist)
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 mere action and activity were not enough.
Dewey, in accordance with his psychology of thinking and the
Herbartian theory of apperception, 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 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, children would learn, retain, and retrieve significant
information definitely better than using the traditional methods of memorizing
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, authentically, and, to a
large degree, independently of adult direction.
Learning Through Occupations
At the Laboratory School, the students were to grow emotionally,
socially, and intellectually in ways that had continuity with both their
previous experiences and their present lives. To provide the basis for active
and cheerful learning, diverse measures were implemented: The teachers assumed
the role of group leader and created an environment that resembled that of a
loving family; the school facilitated self-activity and self-expression by
allocating the necessary time and resources for joint and individual undertakings
in kitchen, garden, laboratory, studio, and workshop; and the curriculum was
reconstructed and centered on so-called “occupations,” that is, practical
problems and activities that reproduced typical situations of social and
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. In accord with the theory of culture epochs, the
curriculum followed nature, while the children relived the stages it was
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. The idea was that the students acquired the three R’s naturally,
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, sewing, and
gardening, woodwork and metalwork were lifelike, yet had to be simplified,
purified, and enriched so that the children were not overtaxed in their mental
ability, damaged in their moral growth, or captivated in their narrow
world-view. In fact, the occupations were conceived so broadly that they integrated
considerable subject matter in literature, art, history, geography, chemistry, and
physics, and included excursions to parks, farms, and factories, to libraries
and museums, with the objective of extending the horizon of the students beyond
the familiar and the immediately necessary. 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 and to refer 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.
At the Laboratory
School, the teacher had to alter her professional attitude and to take over new
roles and functions. For her students, she was not a taskmaster and
disciplinarian who relied on compulsion and punishment, on grades, examinations,
and certificates, but a leader and guide in exciting and challenging activities.
And with regard to her associates, the teacher was not an individual working
and striving on her own but a person closely cooperating with her colleagues to
coordinate the diverse elements of teaching into coherent learning units. In theory,
the school was conceived as an “embryonic democracy” where teachers as well as
students enjoyed intellectual freedom and the privilege of initiative and
participation in decision-making and curriculum-planning. Especially due to the
small classes consisting of 6 to 12 students, the atmosphere at the school was liberal,
relaxed, and stress free, and phenomena like indifference, indolence, and want
of discipline that rendered traditional teaching so demanding and aggravating apparently
disappeared or decreased to a negligible degree.
Innovative but Not Exceptional
The Laboratory School underwent numerous modifications that responded
to intricate or defective structures. Five modifications occurred during the
first two years of its existence: the change from all-round teachers to special
subject teachers, from age-mixed groups to age-homogeneous classes, from an amorphous
unit to a departmental organization, from a cooperative administration to a centralized
and supervising principalship, and, most of all, from a free, nearly unregimented
setting and course of study to a socially integrative, problem-based environment
Stimulated by Ella Flagg Young, the school’s supervisor, the original
inclination to scholarly dilettantism, institutional disorder, and, in
particular, educational sentimentalism was overcome in 1898 and visibly surmounted
with the school’s first and only official “Outline of Course of Study” of June
1899. Since then the students had few and limited opportunities to influence curriculum
and instruction. They were, in turn, appointed group leaders and took, in
absence of the teacher, responsibility for law and order, but seldom were they
engaged in 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; and rarely were they allowed to choose
between alternative topics and activities or decide autonomously what they
wanted to do.
Problem-based learning as devised by Dewey had its own drawbacks. Closely
bound up with experimental and creative thinking and coupled with the expectation
that the students discover and reinvent the responses and solutions people had
found for the challenges and difficulties they faced in past and present times,
the problem method often overtaxed the patience, comprehension, and capabilities
of the students. In consequence, the teachers fell back on techniques like telling,
explaining, and demonstrating to transmit the knowledge, skills, and attitudes
they wanted to convey. Therefore – and contrary to Dewey’s specifications – the
experiments in science did not serve to solve authentic problems or rediscover scientific
laws but functions as illustrations of facts and principles the students should
observe and learn.
Even the concept of occupations, the backbone of Dewey’s curricular reform,
did not fulfill all the high expectations associated with it. In fact, the
notion of instrumental and interdisciplinary learning in real life situations proved
only a partial success. For some parents and visitors, Dewey had turned the
world upside down; their scathing criticism – that in the morning at the
Laboratory School, the students learned cooking, knitting, and weaving, while
in the afternoon at home they learned reading, writing, and arithmetic – was definitely
exaggerated but not totally off target. In their weekly reports, the Laboratory
School teachers observed time and again that it was wearisome and laborious for
students and teachers alike to catch up on reading, writing, and arithmetic
when the students of advanced age were, contrary to previous years, negatively
disposed towards systematic drill and practice. In addition, the concept of occupations
and integrated studies inevitably became the lesser importance the higher the
grades, and the more the subject matter became abstract and specialized and relatively
remote from the students’ actual life.
Undoubtedly, the Laboratory School ranked among the most creative and
progressive schools of its time. Like Francis W. Parker’s Cook County Normal
School (founded in 1867), Nicholas M. Butler’s Horace Mann School (founded in
1887), and James E. Russell’s Speyer School (founded in 1902), the Dewey School
contributed considerably to the liberalization of education, the humanization
of schooling, and the vitalization of teaching. But unlike Parker, Butler, and
Russell, 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 Laboratory School differed – in practice, not
in theory – surprisingly little from other innovative schools.
The Laboratory School after Dewey
and John Dewey left Chicago for New York in 1904, Harper appointed Wilbur
Jackman, formerly Francis W. Parker’s main assistant, principal of the
consolidated University Elementary School, consequently putting an end to the severe
crisis the Deweys had caused by poor management and the hostile takeover of the
rival Parker school. United with the Chicago Manual Training School and the
South Side Academy, the Laboratory Schools, as they were called once again,
lived through many changes and various highs and lows. Administered by eminent scholars
and educators like Charles H. Judd, Henry C. Morrison, Ralph W. Tyler, Philip
W. Jackson, they sometimes set the direction or thwart the trend the nation was
to take in curriculum and instruction; but frequently, they have oscillated (as
the rest of the country) between programs and courses that were more academic
or more child-centered. Today, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools are
counted among the best preparatory schools in the United States.
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