The Laboratory School Community
  • Anne Durst


In 1896, John Dewey opened the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School, an experimental school that he directed until 1904. This was a remarkable time for Dewey, and for the city that caused the young philosopher to “appreciate at every turn the absolute opportunity which chaos affords.”2 The Progressive Era United States was a country in search of novel ideas to solve the daunting problems of the new age: the rapid growth of cities, the steady increase in immigration, and the shifting nature of work. Some Americans, such as Dewey and his friend Jane Addams, responded to this transformative era by creating institutions where people could try out new ways to live and learn together. Through their ideas and actions, they contributed to what historian Jackson Lears calls a “mood of experiment” that was accompanied by “the conviction that life contained more surprise and possibility than previously imagined.”3

Children running in front of the Laboratory School, circa 1900. Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.


Experimental School Charter School Traditional School Laboratory School Intellectual Freedom 
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  1. 1.
    Helen Greeley, quoted in Katherine Camp Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards, The Dewey School: The Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, 1896–1903 [1936] (New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine Transactions, 2007), 406. While both Mayhew and Edwards worked on the book, Anna Camp Edwards wrote all but one chapter (see Mayhew and Edwards, The Dewey School, ix); nonetheless, I have referred throughout my book to both Mayhew and Edwards as the authors of The Dewey School, as that is how they chose to attribute the book’s authorship.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    John Dewey to Alice Dewey and children, July 12, 1894 (00158) The Correspondence of John Dewey (electronic resource) (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999–2004). See Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), 318, where Menand, citing this quote, discusses Dewey’s reaction to Chicago, and earlier, on page 305, where Menand discusses University of Chicago sociologist Albion Small’s description of Chicago as a “vast sociological laboratory.” When it opened, the Laboratory School was called the University Elementary School.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2009), 225–226.Google Scholar
  4. On this era, see also John Higham, “The Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890s,” in John Higham, ed., Writing American History: Essays on Modern Scholarship (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1970), 73–102.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    William James to Sarah Wyman Whitman, October 29, 1903 (09546), The Correspondence of John Dewey (electronic resource) (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999–2004). On pragmatism, see (among others) James Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870–1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Menand, The Metaphysical Club;Google Scholar
  6. Charlene Haddock Seigfried, Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996);Google Scholar
  7. and Robert Westbrook, Democratic Hope: Pragmatism and the Politics of Truth (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005).Google Scholar
  8. 5.
    Fellow pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce is often credited with the phrase, and certainly the concept, of a “community of inquiry.” See Matthew Lipman, Thinking in Education (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. On Peirce, see also R. Jackson Wilson, In Quest of Community (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1968), 46.Google Scholar
  10. 6.
    Jane Dewey, “Biography of John Dewey,” in P.A. Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of John Dewey (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University, 1939), 29–30.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    John Dewey, “Democracy in Education,” The Elementary School Teacher, IV, 4 (December, 1903), 198.Google Scholar
  12. See also Ella Flagg Young, Isolation in the School (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1901).Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    For the phrase “circle of friends,” see George Herbert Mead to Jane Addams, December 1, 1910, Jane Addams Collection, Swarthmore College (on microfilm). Mead wrote, “May I add my affectionate appreciation—the appreciation which I feel whenever I think of what you are to Chicago and to those who are fortunate enough to feel that they belong to the circle of your friends.” Ellen Condliffe Lagemann describes this as the “creative community” that formed in Chicago around the Laboratory School. See Lagemann, “The Plural Worlds of Educational Research,” History of Education Quarterly, 29, 2 (1989), 195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    In The Dewey School appendices, the authors include a list of teachers and assistants, and of those listed, 80 were women and 31 were men. (In addition, two were listed just by initials, and one just by the title of Dr.) See Mayhew and Edwards, The Dewey School, Appendix III, 479–480. Just as importantly, of a total of 13 members of the Laboratory School community who were listed as authors of articles on the school, three were men (and that included John Dewey), and ten were women. See “A List of Articles by Teachers in the Dewey school,” box 17, Katherine Camp Mayhew Collection (6561), Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. For a philosophical analysis of the intersections of pragmatism and feminism at the Laboratory School and Hull House, see Seigfried, Pragmatism and Feminism. On Hull House as a women’s institution, see Maurice Hamington, The Social Philosophy of Jane Addams (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 25–27.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    On the “New Woman,” see Jean Matthews, The Rise of the New Woman: The Women’s Movement in America, 1875–1930 (Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2003);Google Scholar
  16. and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985).Google Scholar
  17. 16.
    Alice Hamilton to Agnes Hamilton, July 3, 1898 and July 2, 1898, Hamilton Family Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. On the bicycle craze in late nineteenth-century Chicago, see Perry R. Duis, Challenging Chicago: Coping with Everyday Life, 1837–1920 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  18. 20.
    Robert Westbrook, “Dewey’s Truth,” History of Education Quarterly, 20, 3 (Autumn, 1980), 351.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 24.
    John Dewey, Freedom and Culture (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1939), 176.Google Scholar
  20. 26.
    John Dewey, “Psychology of Occupations,” The Elementary School Record, I, 3 (April 1900), 82. On the occupations as the “common center” of the curriculum, see Mayhew and Edwards, The Dewey School, 43.Google Scholar
  21. On the occupations at the Laboratory School, see Herbert M. Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893–1958 (Boston, MA: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), 69–74.Google Scholar
  22. 28.
    Alice Chipman Dewey, unpublished manuscript on The University Elementary School, box 12, Katherine Camp Mayhew Collection (6561), Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library; and John Dewey, The School and Society [1900] and The Child and the Curriculum [1902] (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  23. 31.
    John Dewey, Experience and Nature (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1929), 245–246.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. This quote appears in slightly different form in Ross Posnock, The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James, and the Challenge of Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 87–88.Google Scholar
  25. 33.
    On the Progressive Era, see Kevin Mattson, Creating a Democratic Public: The Struggle for Urban Participatory Democracy During the Progressive Era (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998);Google Scholar
  26. Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920 (New York: Free Press, 2003);Google Scholar
  27. Daniel T. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1998);Google Scholar
  28. and Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877–1920 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967).Google Scholar
  29. 34.
    Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House [1910] (New York: Signet Classics, 1961). See also Hamington, The Social Philosophy of Jane Addams, 159–161.Google Scholar
  30. 36.
    Flora Cooke, “Review of The Dewey School,” Progressive Education, XIV, 3 (March 1937), 218. Cooke worked with Colonel Francis Parker at the Cook County Normal School, and then was appointed principal of the Francis Parker Elementary School on the city’s North Side. The changed Laboratory School continued (and still exists today) as the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. The demise of Dewey’s Laboratory School will be discussed in Ch. 6.Google Scholar
  31. 37.
    Althea Harmer, “Textile Industries,” The Elementary School Record, I, 3 (1900), 79. Others at the Laboratory School used the term “constructive imagination.”Google Scholar
  32. See Lillian Cushman, “Principles of Education as Applied to Art,” The Elementary School Record, I, 1 (February 1900), 3; Dewey, The School and Society, 11; and Mary Hill to Gerard Swope, 29 December [1899], Mary Hill Swope Papers, 1899–1933, box 1, folder 10; University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections.Google Scholar
  33. 38.
    See Richard Allington, Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum: How Ideology Trumped Evidence (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002);Google Scholar
  34. Susan Eaton, The Children in Room E4 (New York: Algonquin Books, 2007);Google Scholar
  35. Anita Ede, “Scripted Curriculum: Is It a Prescription for Success?,” Childhood Education 83, 1 (Fall 2006), 29–32;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Donald H. Graves, Testing is Not Teaching: What Should Count in Education (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002);Google Scholar
  37. David Kauffman, “Curriculum Prescription and Curriculum Constraint: Second-year Teachers’ Perceptions” (Cambridge, MA: NGT Working Paper, 2005);Google Scholar
  38. Linda McNeil, The Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing (New York: Routledge, 2000);Google Scholar
  39. Deborah Meier, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2002) and Will Standards Save Public Education? (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2000);Google Scholar
  40. Vivian Troen and Katherine C. Boles, Who’s Teaching Your Children? (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003); and Greg Winter, “Make-or-Break Exams Grow, but Big Study Doubts Value,” The New York Times, December 28, 2002, A1, A15.Google Scholar
  41. On mathematics, see Bill Jacob, “Implementing Standards: The California Mathematics Textbook Debacle,” Phi Delta Kappan, 83, 3 (November 2001), 264–272. There is also evidence of a narrowing of the curriculum in schools across the nation, as they focus on these high-stakes subjects;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. see Richard Rothstein, Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right (New York: Teachers College Press, 2008);Google Scholar
  43. and Claus von Zastrow and Helen Zanc, Academic Atrophy: The Condition of the Liberal Arts in America’s Public Schools (Washington, DC: Council for Basic Education, 2004).Google Scholar
  44. 39.
    For literature in support of Open Court, see Daniel Gursky, “What Works for Reading,” American Teacher, 82 (March 1998), 12–13. Gursky cites an AFT Publication that includes Open Court among “Seven Promising Reading and English Language Arts Programs.”Google Scholar
  45. For research challenging the efficacy of Open Court, see Gerald Coles, Misreading Reading: The Bad Science that Hurts Children (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000), especially chs. 3, 4, and 5.Google Scholar
  46. 40.
    Susan Ohanian, One Size Fits Few (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999). My experience reflected what D. Jean Clandinin and F. Michael Connelly characterize as the prevailing expectations regarding curriculum: “that schools and teachers will learn to do well what the thinkers and policymakers tell them to do.”Google Scholar
  47. See D. Jean Clandinin and F. Michael Connelly, “Teacher as Curriculum Maker,” in Philip W. Jackson, ed., Handbook of Research on Curriculum: A Project of the American Educational Research Association (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992), 379.Google Scholar
  48. See also William F. Pinar, What is Curriculum Theory? (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004). Pinar maintains that teacher unions have contributed to this situation, arguing that: “By ignoring pressing professional concerns such as discretion over curriculum content and the means by which its study is assessed, union leaders have failed to mobilize America’s teachers or to persuade the American public that quality public education is worth paying for” (177).Google Scholar
  49. 41.
    Certainly a lack of adequate resources in many schools, especially in impoverished schools, is a connected problem that is too infrequently acknowledged as a reason for academic troubles. For instance, many in California in the 1980s and 1990s condemned whole language methods while schools lacked class sets of books, well-stocked school libraries, and manageable class sizes. See Stephen Krashen, “Whole Language and the Great Plummet of 1987–1992,” Phi Delta Kappan, 83, 10 (June 2002), 748–753.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. 42.
    John Dewey quoted in Mayhew and Edwards, The Dewey School, 366. In her 1997 work on the Laboratory School, Laurel Tanner discusses this quote by Dewey, and concludes: “There is clearly a lesson to be drawn here, and Dewey as much as said it: Avoid extremes. We have not paid attention. He would have been troubled by the general lack of intellectual freedom for elementary teachers, on the one hand, and the failure to give teachers assistance where needed, on the other.” Laurel Tanner, Dewey’s Laboratory School: Lessons for Today (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997), 69.Google Scholar
  51. 43.
    Such practices might also ensure that the teachers most interested in such roles remain in the profession. See Barbara Benham Tye and Lisa O’Brian, “Why Are Experienced Teachers Leaving the Profession?” Phi Delta Kappan, 84, 1 (September 2002), 24–32, for their claim that some teachers are leaving the profession because of standardization measures that diminish their intellectual freedom.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. 44.
    Nature of the report of third period, transcribed conversation among John Dewey, Anna Camp Edwards, and Katherine Camp Mayhew, box 22, Katherine Camp Mayhew Collection (6561), Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. Historian Robert Crunden questioned the accuracy of the Mayhew and Edwards account of the school, claiming that from a distance of time, the sisters surely distorted the aims and results of the school. See Robert Crunden, “Essay,” in John D. Buenker, John C. Burnham, and Robert M. Crunden, eds., Progressivism (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Company, 1977), 103. But in his introduction to The Dewey School, John Dewey maintained, “The account of the Laboratory School contained in the pages that follow is so adequate as to render it unnecessary for me to add anything to what is said about its origin, aims, and methods.” He added that: “Because of their long connection with the school, the authors have a first-hand knowledge, while their responsible share in the work of the school has enabled them to make an authoritative statement of its underlying ideas, its development, and the details of its operation.” See John Dewey’s Introduction to Mayhew and Edwards, The Dewey School, xiii. As archival records such as this recorded conversation attest, Katherine Camp Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards worked closely with Dewey to complete the book, and relied heavily upon the written record of the school, including teachers’reports and published articles. Mayhew and Edwards solicited remembrances of the school from teachers, parents, and students, whom they quoted, along with Dewey, throughout the text. In several instances, they borrowed from articles published by the teachers in The Elementary School Record and The Elementary School Teacher, usually with citations, but occasionally without. When I have caught these unattributed cases, I have cited both the original and The Dewey School pages.Google Scholar
  53. 45.
    John Dewey, “Democracy in Education,” 197. See Westbrook, Democratic Hope, 89, for his discussion of this quote. For Jane Addams’s related views, see Louise Knight, Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 401; and Seigfried, Pragmatism and Feminism.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Anne Durst 2010

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  • Anne Durst

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