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John Dewey’s Education for Democracy. Chapter 3 in John Dewey and the Promise of Education: New Studies on Democracy, School and Curriculum (New York: Lang, forthcoming).

3. Democracy at the Laboratory School

Dewey was not only an educational philosopher; he also tried to put his theory into practice. Although his Laboratory School existed just 7½ years, it still ranks among the most innovative and advanced experimental schools of the progressive education era. The scientific approach Mayhew and Edwards adopt in The Dewey School (1936) is in some respects objectionable since the authors do not always adhere to the facts and occasionally ignore, twist, embellish them (Knoll 2014). Even though, their documentary report informs us reasonably accurate about questions that are of interest to us at present: how were democratic attitudes to be acquired at the Laboratory School, what role did the teachers play, how much freedom did the students have?

Dewey’s notion that the teacher had to take the lead without falling back on dictatorial or authoritarian behavior was accepted by the Laboratory School faculty. “The teacher,” Mayhew and Edwards observe, “sets the stage for the moving drama of the child’s life, supplies the necessary properties when needed, and directs the action both toward the immediate goal of the child and also towards the direction of that far-away end which is clear in her mind, but as yet unseen by the child” (DS: 253). Albeit somewhat camouflaged, there is ample evidence that the teacher was always in charge and did not adjust her lessons to the children’s whims and wishes. With the term “stage director” (p. 402), Mayhew and Edwards convey that the teachers followed a script and proceeded along a curriculum to ensure stringency, continuity and sustainability within the learning process. The Laboratory School had indeed a mandatory curriculum whose existence is mentioned by Dewey himself just once (MW 1: 318), by Mayhew and Edwards – and their adherents – not a single time (see figure 1). The Outline of the Course of Study of the then so-called University of Elementary School of June 1899 was, as usual, subdivided into age groups, subjects and topics and dealt successively with all the fields of learning traditionally covered in schools: reading, writing and arithmetic, English literature, Roman history and American geography, plant physiology, food chemistry, mechanical physics. Complying with Dewey’s didactic approach, it stressed the close relationship between school and life, explained the importance of the correlation of subject matter and emphasized that “growth” of “knowledge,” “character” and “mental power” had to be striven for before anything else (Outline 1899, p. 1). Yet, the aspect of social learning, so important for Dewey, is not addressed here. Above all, there exists no single reference in the Outline of the Course of Study or the prospectuses of the Laboratory School that conceded the students any right of self- or co-determination.

At the Laboratory School, as in other progressive schools of the time (Cuban, 1984), the teachers took the opportunity to talk with the students about the aims, contents and methods of the up-coming lesson. However, the daily conversation of maximal 15-minutes did not serve to select a topic or determine the course of study. The “morning circle,” like any other class conference, had – in good Herbartian fashion – the purpose of attuning the students to the work ahead: to arouse their interest, to activate their prior knowledge and to obtain their “whole-hearted” approval (see figure 2). In contrast to the project method of William H. Kilpatrick and Ellsworth Collings (Knoll, 1996; 2012), the submission of proposals and the voting on alternatives was not part of the group discussions, by Mayhew and Edwards mistakenly stylized to “council meetings” as if teacher and students were partners and would negotiate on an equal footing (DS: 75). Only twice, the students themselves seized the “initiative” to carry out their own group projects, namely when they built a “playhouse” for younger classmates and when they put up the much-admired “club house” for their own use (pp. 233, 264). And apparently, only once did they have the chance of undertaking a larger task independently and individually. This experiment with free work took place in manual training. According to Mayhew and Edwards, it was not repeated since some of the students “showed a lack of ambition to undertake any worth object; some were more ambitious beyond their skill; and some lacked decision and perseverance” (p. 240).

Within a given assignment, however, the students were free to decide what they wished to do. For example, in the shop they were allowed to potter a jug for milk, juice or flowers, in geography to draw the boundaries on a union map by means of lines, strokes or points, in history to report on the arrival of the pilgrim fathers in America, their everyday life or their first encounter with the Indians (DS: 160, 212, 378). Self-activity and social commitment were also in demand when they – under the direction of the teacher, alone or in groups – had to think up mathematical problems, write poems, compose songs, conceive dramas and perform them (pp. 352-362). At lunch, the students “took entire charge of setting the table, serving, waiting upon each other, and washing and putting away the dishes.” The teachers, however, saw “no need to stimulate the child’s interest by allowing him to choose the particular things to be cooked” (pp. 57, 299). Health and the development of taste had priority over fast food and sweet treats. Each group had a “leader” who took on little tasks such as observing the daily schedule, being in charge of the group in the absence of the teacher and escorting the classmates from one school room to another. One would expect the appointment to be a free and democratic act (Bohnsack, 2005 p. 97), yet in actual fact, the “leader of the class for the day” was not democratically elected, rather his office – like the one of the “waiter” at lunch time – rotated “by alphabetical order” (DS: 377).

These measures, and similar ones, were educationally well-founded and undoubtedly furthered social learning and the development of order, care and fellowship, but in reality, they had little to do with democratic choice, equal rights and mutual decisions. In addition to Dewey’s more general rationales, Mayhew and Edwards give a very practical reason why the students were denied vital opportunities of formal cooperation, participation and partnership. For the teachers of the Laboratory School, co-determination was plainly a waste of time at the expense of performance, efficiency and excellence. They preferred, Mayhew and Edwards argue, thereby severely criticizing more liberal colleagues like John T. Ray and Charles W. French of neighboring Chicago public schools (Harper, 1899, pp. 227-229), that the children put all their energy “into better planning of [their] work and forwarding of [their] skill in techniques” than “in running the school, as sometimes happens in schools of this freer type” (DS: 377).