Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Dewey leaves the Chicago Laboratory School and goes to Columbia University

This year, John Dewey decides to accept an offer to teach at Columbia University (New York) and leaves the Chicago Laboratory School, which he and his wife, Alice Chipman Dewey, had founded in 1896. By 1904, after eight years of intense and creative pedagogical work, the Laboratory School had become, according to Lawrence Cremin (1961:136), "the most interesting experimental venture in American education." It had also become a center for other scholars of various fields to meet together to analyze and discuss solutions to the most pressing intellectual and social problems of the time.

In those eight years, with John Dewey as director and his wife as principal, the Laboratory School experimented not only a qualitative growth but also a quantitative one. When it opened in 1896, the Laboratory School had two instructors and 16 children. By 1902, it had 23 teachers, 10 university graduates who worked as teaching assistants, and 140 students. In the years to come, the Chicago Laboratory School would inspire other pedagogical experiments, and its impact on educational policies and educational theory would become to be noticeable.

In a context highly influenced by positivism, the Chicago Laboratory School was conceived as a place of social and pedagogical experimentation. Educational theories and practices were applied, researched and tested in a scientific manner in a controlled laboratory setting, and were supposed to inform future educational theories, policies and programs. Hence, the Chicago Laboratory School was designed to conduct, test, verify and criticize the main theoretical assumptions and principles of progressive education. 

In line with the main principle of progressive education theories, and in a drastic rupture with the school system of that time, the Laboratory School was learner-centered. Thus, educational research on teaching methods that focused on the child as the ultimate subject, and the interests of the children were central in the curriculum design. In this approach, the child becomes the sun around which all education efforts revolve (Dewey 1899).

For Dewey, the role of the teacher was not to impose to the children irrelevant tasks which would be potentially useful a decade later, but to identify the child's interest, organize learning activities around its immediate and proximate use, and step by step move the process in the desired direction (Dewey 1895, Rippa 1997). All so-called "traditional" subjects such as reading, writing, history, spelling, arithmetic and science, were connected with each other and observed to great detail with regard to the child as subject. In this sense, learning as a process of moving through segregated disciplines was eliminated in favor of an inter-disciplinary approach to education that was supported by most progressive theorists of education.

Dewey himself promoted the idea that intelligence was an instrument for overcoming obstacles in one's life. And so the focus of the Chicago Laboratory School zeroed in on how to close the gap between thought and action. By having such a focus, the school became the center for Dewey's educational philosophy, known as "Pragmatic Instrumentalism". As Dewey pointed out, the teachers of the Laboratory School started with question marks rather than fixed answers.

In many respects, the Deweys and their Laboratory School were ahead of the prevailing pedagogical theories and practices of that time, and made a valuable contribution to the progressive education movement. As two sisters who were teachers of the school at that time reported, the Deweys constantly stressed that learning should be based on self-directed interests, and emphasized the importance of relating the present to the past through a variety of meaningful learning activities. With the teachers, they designed activities based on a theory of growth stages, and promoted the notions of self-discipline and mutual respect, advanced the idea the subject matter should be modify to suit experience, and argued that thinking is an active process involving experimentation and problem solving. They also spoke of alerting curiosity about all life forms, and of the development of self-directive power and judgement (Camp and Camp 1936). 

It is pertinent to note that John Dewey's most important educational theories, which would be so and influential during the 20th century, were formulated during the Chicago years, where he had the opportunity to relate them to the concrete problems and issues of the Laboratory school (Rippa 1997). For instance, the small book entitled The School and Society (1899), which would soon become a sort of manifesto of the progressive school movement, evolved from three lectures that Dewey delivered to parents and friend of the Laboratory School. Other influential works that were written by Dewey during those years and inspired by the work at the school were My Pedagogical Creed (1897) and The Child and the Curriculum (1902). 

For Dewey, the role of education was to encourage, promote and guide an active learning process, and the key for this is to depart from a problem and not from a subject matter that is fixed and ready-made in itself, outside the child's experience. Thus, he claimed that "demand for the solution of a perplexity is the steadying and guiding factor in the entire process of reflection" (Dewey 1910: iii). Although Dewey was a fervent and articulate advocate of child-centered learning, he went beyond the ideas espoused by the progressive educators of that time, and in My Pedagogical Creed he argued that the school had an essential political role as an instrument for social change, and that each school should be conceived as an embryonic democratic community in which all children had full membership.


Camp, Katherine and Anna Camp Edwards (1936). The Dewey School: The University Laboratory School of the University of Chicago 1896-1903. New York: Appleton-Century.

Cremin, Lawrence (1961). The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education 1876-1957. New York: Knopf.

Dewey, John (1895). Interest in relation to training of the will. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, John (1897). My Pedagogical Creed. Washington, DC. 

Dewey, John (1910). How we think. Boston: Heath.

Dewey, John (1902). The child and the curriculum. 

Dewey, John (1899). The School and Society. 

Rippa, Alexander (1997). Education in a Free Society. An American History. New York: Longman.

Other Sources

Collier's Encyclopedia: Volume Eight, New York: Collier's (1995) pp. 171-172.

The World Book Encyclopedia: Volume Five, Chicago: World Book Encyclopedia,
Inc. (1993), p. 177.

Prepared by DS and Sujata Dube

Updated June 2002

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Last updated on June 12, 2002.

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