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)


Winnetka Plan

The Winnetka Plan emerged as a result of John Dewey's work in the University of Chicago Laboratory School. Dewey's work inspired teachers to attempt innovative pedagogies in their classrooms. Prior to the Winnetka plan, the most common practices in elementary schools stressed the intellectual development of children by teaching skills in reading writing, spelling, and arithmetic. The subjects were taught by methods of memorization and drill through books and ordered arrangements in the classrooms. By the early 1900s, more emphasis was placed on the well-rounded development of the child, including emotional, social, and physical, in addition to the intellectual.

The Winnetka Plan, developed in 1919 under the leadership of Superintendent Carleton Washburne in the elementary school system of Winnetka, Illinois, experimented in individualized ungraded learning. The Winnetka Plan was in response to the structured grading system that held all children to the same rate of progress. Participating students of the Winnetka Plan worked on several grades at once. The curriculum was set up in two components: "common essentials" and "creative group activities." The first component concentrated on common knowledge and skills of mastery, such as spelling, reading, writing, and counting. Subjects were individualized in order for students to progress at their own rate of learning. In this way, quality, rather than time, was emphasized. The rates of progress were then compared among students. According to this plan, a child must master material at 100 percent in order to progress to the next level. No student ever "failed" or "skipped a grade" in the common essentials. The second component consisted of cultural and self-expressive subjects in group settings. These included art, literature, music appreciation, crafts, drama, and physical activities. In the creative group activities, there were no fixed achievement standards. Each student could perform as they desired since there were no defined goals or tests of mastery.

As a result, the overall-effect was a break from routine, from formal learning through textbooks, and the emergence of more emphasis on the individual by stressing the improvement of actual behavior, personality, and character. The Winnetka Plan sought to develop the "whole child" and was concerned with the physical, emotional, social, and intellectual education.

According to Superintendent Washburne:

"The underlying philosophy of the Winnetka curriculum was that every normal child master the knowledges and skills he is going to need in life; that every child be given a chance to live happily and richly as a child; that every child be given an opportunity to develop fully his own individuality; and that all children be brought to the fullest possible realization that in the world's good is one's own, and in one's own good is the world's."


"Winnetka Plan". Britannica Online. < [Accessed 13 May 1998].

Butts, R.F. & Cremin, L.A. (1953). History of education in American culture. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Cubberley, E.P. (1947). Public Education in the United States. Cambridge: The Riverside Press.

Gutek, G. (1986). Education in the United States: A historical perspective. New Jersey: Prentice Hall 1986.

Prepared by Jenny J. Lee

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