What Did Dewey Teach? Part II: Hands-On Learning and the Chicago Laboratory Schools

Written by Kerry Ellard on December 3, 2021

In the introduction to this series, I noted that Dewey insisted that manual training not be vocational in nature, but rather “scientific and experimental, an introduction to civilization.” Another way of putting this is that Dewey was looking to develop “critical thinking skills” or “judgment” that would apply broadly to any scenario a student might encounter, rather than concrete skills with an immediate practical application.

Dewey was attracted to this approach because he felt that rapid changes to American life, good and bad, had deprived children of opportunities to develop such judgment, and made it impossible for people to assume the future would be anything like the past, or even the present. It was paramount that young Americans be prepared to rise to the occasion in an increasingly complex society, and yet, in Dewey’s opinion, they were more ignorant of its workings than ever.

According to one biographer, “Dewey tried to give children raised in cities or working in factories a sense of the creative, productive, independent life of a farming family like [the one he grew up in],” and Dewey himself wrote that on his grandfather’s farm, “through the very conditions of living, everybody had a pretty direct contact with nature and with the simpler forms of industry.” Back then, “as there were no great accumulations of wealth, the great majority of young people got a very genuine education . . . through real contact with actual materials and important social occupations.”[1]

The implication was that this “very genuine education” did not occur in schools.[2] Rather, it was a secondary and unplanned effect of the fact that in the days before the rise of big business and finance, most Americans were self-employed and self-sufficient, yet also active in a vibrant community life.[3] From this perspective, Dewey’s emphasis on project-based and experiential learning, rather than traditional schoolwork or specialized practical training, makes more sense.[4] He did not see himself as carrying on a school-based tradition of education, but rather as bringing school-based education into places and roles where the need for it had never been taken for granted. His own words indicate that his approach to schooling was guaranteed to be at odds with most people’s expectations of what schooling entailed:

“I think of the old gristmill of my boyhood days in contrast with the great flour manufactories of today as symbolical. Then we could go into the mill, we could see the grain, we could watch it being ground in those great stone hoppers; we could see it passing through the pipes, and we could follow it with our eyes until it was turned into bran, flour and the rest of it. Today if we go into one of these big flour mills, we would not even see the grain going into the hopper!

We may follow the whole process and see practically nothing, not even the finished flour as it is automatically put into barrels. The youth of today have no access to the basic realities of living, social, material, economic, at all to the extent to which the youth of a few generations ago had. This is what I mean by the illustration of the mills, if we take it symbolically. That fact has made it necessary for the schools to branch out in their instruction and to take up many things which used to be taken care of in the life of the boys and girls, of the young men and young women, out of school.”[5]

In light of this, it is easy to understand the textile exercise I described here, and the theory behind other projects Dewey implemented at his Laboratory Schools, which he ran briefly in Chicago in the late 1890s and early 1900s, before the university it was affiliated with, along with much of education theory in general, changed direction.

Another scholar has described the nature of project-based or experiential learning at the Laboratory Schools as follows:

“...Dewey advocates learning through—although not for—occupations. Dewey and his collaborators set up occupations as “articulating centers” of the Laboratory School. Occupations played three roles in the Laboratory School: they organized studies, helped students understand the larger meaning of future work, and exposed students to a variety of possible vocations. Dewey offers a special definition of occupations as “modes of activity which reproduce, or run parallel to, some form of work carried on in social life.” These activities were designed to be closely related to the everyday world of students; as such, they focused on the occupations children would have encountered around the home: sewing, cooking, and so on. The aim of learning through occupations didn’t involve mastering tools, acquiring skills or producing objects. Rather, through engaging in occupations, the child is given “intellectual responsibility for selecting the materials and instruments that are most fit, and give(n) an opportunity to think out his own model and plan of work, led to perceive his own errors, and find out how to correct them.” Thus, occupations are academically rigorous, requiring students to “put maximum consciousness into whatever is done.

More importantly, these occupations mirror larger social, historical, and industrial processes. In this sense, students learn about industrial processes through simplified constructive activities. Rather than just practicing craft work, Dewey argues that “we must conceive of [occupations] in their social significance, as types of processes by which society keeps itself going.”Through investigating how society developed its means of production, students gain an intellectual and practical understanding of how society came to be... Such an education gives students an expanded notion of the political, economic, and social significance of their future work and the flexibility of intelligence needed to adjust to rapidly changing conditions.”[6]

As late as 1932, a speech Dewey gave at a school suggested this vision had not changed much. He spoke of a kind of school that he had “given the name of the ‘laboratory,’” which he said was done “somewhat metaphorically,” and which remained theoretical.[7] Laboratories and workshops, said Dewey, were defined by “contact with technical equipment...and machinery,” which were “real materials” that required “the use of the hands and the body.” He contrasted this with “old, traditional education,” which focused on “the symbols of learning.”[8] He described activities that sounded like vocational training but continued to frame them as means of learning about the operations of science and of society, rather than acquiring specific skills.

“There is no reason why the kitchens...where the girls learn cooking, or the rooms where they have contact with textiles, and the manual training shops where boys learn something of the arts while using their hands, eyes and bodies, should not embody the principle of learning through action by dealing with realities...Through active contact with a wide range of materials, an opportunity is offered for an introduction into all the resources of science. Indeed, I often think that probably for the majority of young people the shops would make a better avenue of initiation into the elements of scientific knowledge than do our laboratories...[9]

Through the workshop when conducted as a laboratory, that is, as a means of learning and discovery, there is also the opportunity of arousing the curiosity of pupils and of equipping them with the methods for finding out things. The laboratory education also offers a means of access to an understanding of society. For after all, our society is largely what it is today because of the scientifically controlled occupations which are carried on in it. It may not be advisable to subordinate or limit our education to the making of farmers, engineers and merchants, but since the very large majority of the young people who come to our schools go into these various callings, it does seem desirable that they who are to be farmers shall be intelligent farmers, capable of intellectual invention, having initiative and mental control of their materials; and similarly, that the persons who are to enter the other callings shall have an education which will equip them to be flexible and independent in their judgments and original in their outlook... [10]

...The laboratory education, however...puts much more responsibility upon students themselves. The method of the laboratory is an experimental one. It is a method of discovery through search, through inquiry, through testing, through observation and reflection-all processes requiring activity of mind rather than merely powers of absorption and reproduction.”[11]

Dewey’s “Laboratory Schools” were intended to serve a transitional function, building infrastructure and allowing experimentation that would be used for a future system, organized on principles yet to be discovered, but which he summarized as “democratic.” At one point, he wrote, “Democracy is neither a form of government nor a social expediency, but a metaphysic of the relation of man and his experience in nature,” something he claimed only Emerson, Whitman, and Maeterlinck had understood.[12]

In a future piece, I will attempt to explain what Dewey meant by this use of the term “democratic.”

[1] Jay Martin, The Education of John Dewey (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.) See also John Dewey, “Monastery, Bargain Counter, or Laboratory in Education?,” 1932 speech, http://www.daneshnamehicsa.ir/userfiles/files/1/20-%20Teachers,%20Leaders,%20and%20Schools_%20Essays%20by%20John%20Dewey%20(2010,%20Southern%20Illinois%20University%20Press).pdf.

[2] Dewey (1932) “Monastery, Bargain Counter, or Laboratory in Education?” (“...in the first decades of our Republic the practical education of the great majority of people was still obtained out of school. In the main we were still a rural and agrarian people. We were still in an age in which industry was chiefly carried on in the home and in the neighborhood by means of handicraft. If there was machinery, it was comparatively simple. There were local shops in the villages, country communities and towns to which everyone had comparatively easy access.”)

[3] Ibid. (“I remember the village in which stood my grandfather's house, where in my childhood I went to spend the summer vacation...Through the very conditions of living, everybody had a pretty direct contact with nature and with the simpler forms of industry. As there were no great accumulations of wealth, the great majority of young people got a very genuine education through a kind of informal apprenticeship. They took part in the home-made duties of the household and farm and activities of the neighborhood. They saw with their eyes, and followed with their imaginations, the very real activities about them. The amount of genuine education, and of training in good habits that were obtained in this way under our earlier pioneer conditions, is not easy to overestimate.”) Emphases added.

[4] In practice, however, this approach proves difficult. Many who mock Dewey’s lack of standards and practicality fell into the same trap, once again due to social changes that made future career and life paths unpredictable. Proponents of the “knowledge economy” believed that the purpose of education was cultivating individual talents of a particular kind: those that could be broadly and flexibly applied in response to changing societal needs. Like Dewey, they saw themselves as realists about this situation and promoters of a more ambitious, socially, and economically productive approach to education. It would be a model of fairness and good sense, with higher education institutions expanded and thrown “open to all comers,” with some notion of objective merit being the only relevant criterion. No one would be tied down to a narrow or outdated body of knowledge. We now refer to this as the “meritocratic” approach, often portrayed as the total opposite of “progressive” education, but the dynamic is similar. See, for example, Helen Andrews, “The New Ruling Class,” July 1, 2016, https://herandrews.com/2016/07/01/the-new-ruling-class/. Andrews includes a perfect example of what this looks like at its worst, excerpted from Shamus Khan's Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. Khan recounts what a St. Paul’s alumnus told him after finishing his first year at Harvard: “... everyone else at Harvard knew about the Civil War. I didn’t. But I knew how to make sense of what they knew about the Civil War and apply it. So they knew a lot about particular things. I knew how to think about everything.”

[5] Dewey, “Monastery, Bargain Counter, or Laboratory in Education?”

[6] R.W. Hildreth, “What Good is Growth? Reconsidering Dewey on the Ends of Education,” Education & Culture. 27 (2) (2011):28-47, https://www.academia.edu/1903231/_What_Good_is_Growth_Reconsidering_Dewey_on_the_Ends_of_Education_. (Internal citations omitted). Emphases added.

[7] Dewey, “Monastery, Bargain Counter, or Laboratory in Education?”

[8] Later in the speech, Dewey remarked, “The older traditional education was based on the thought that the teacher or the textbook knew in advance what the young ought to learn. The teacher or the textbook told the student what was so. The student's effort was largely confined to passive absorption and reproduction-a process which we might call a pipeline education; the teacher and the textbook, pouring the information into the student, who was supposed to be a reservoir which received the knowledge and which on suitable occasions (chiefly those of the examination period), gave out what it had received. This method of education might also be called a phonographic education. For the mind of the student was regarded as a phonographic disc upon which certain impressions were made by the teacher, so that when the disc was put on the machine and the movement started (which, again, would be during the examination period), it might reveal what had been inscribed upon it.”

[9] Ibid. Dewey then says, “For the concepts of physics and chemistry when approached directly, as in the study of the molecule, the atom or the electron, are technical, difficult and abstract, often quite as abstract and certainly as far removed from sense-perception as anything found in the older type of education. Through the medium of such things as the automobile, the airplane and the radio, there is a direct avenue to the principles of physics, chemistry, the structure of materials, which is on the line of least resistance, and yet which is capable of giving young people a personal and intelligent grasp of scientific principles. Such knowledge then comes to them in terms and through means which are associated with their daily experience; it means something to them in terms of their life instead of in abstruse and remote technical symbols.” Emphases added.

[10] Ibid. Dewey then says, “This is the education I would call the laboratory type. Beginning with activity, it would through that activity bring the student into actual contact with real things, and would then use this contact with objects for intellectual training and for arousing a thirst to understand, and not merely to fit pupils into some narrow groove of later trade and business life. There is one other characteristic of what I call the laboratory education.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] John Dewey, “Maeterlinck’s Philosophy of Life,” The Hibbert Journal 9, no. 4 (1911), 778.