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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 and self-realization.

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 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, 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 communal life.

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 and curriculum.

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 (since 1883), 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

When Alice 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.

Further Readings

Durst, A. (2010). Women Educators in the Progressive Era: The Women behind Dewey’s Laboratory School. New York, NY: Palgrave.

Katch, J. A. (1990). Discord at Dewey’s School: On the actual experiment compared to the ideal (Unpublished dissertation). University of Chicago, IL.

Knoll, M. (2014). Dewey as Administrator: The Inglorious End of the Laboratory School in Chicago. Journal of Curriculum Studies 47 (2), pp. 203-252.

Mayhew, K. C., & Edwards, A. C. (1936). The Dewey School: The Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, 1896-1903. New York: Appleton-Century.

McCall, R. L. (1966). Dewey, Harper, and the University of Chicago. In Brickman, W. W., & Lehrer, S. (Ed.), John Dewey: Master educator. New York: Atherton Press.

Smith, J. K. (1977). Ella Flagg Young: Portrait of a Leader. Ames, IA: Educational Studies Press.

Tanner, L. N. (1997). Dewey’s Laboratory School: Lessons for Today. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Wirth, A. G. (1966). John Dewey as Educator: His Design for Work in Education, 1894-1904. New York, NY: Wiley.