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"The Union of Intellectual Freedom and Cooperation": Learning From the University of Chicago's Laboratory School Community, 1896-1904

by Anne Durst - 2005

While teaching in a California charter school in the late 1990s, I had the experience of working one year under the dictates of a highly scripted curricular program and the next year in the absence of an effectively crafted instructional plan. In both cases it proved difficult for teachers to provide quality instruction to students. In an effort to analyze such contemporary experiences, I explore here the ideas and practices of an important educational innovation from our past: the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, under the direction of John Dewey from 1896 to 1904. I argue that the very practices that promoted teachers' intellectual freedom at the school, such as weekly meetings to discuss teachers' reports of classroom practice, also provided needed guidance. By avoiding the mindless following of dictates, the school community simultaneously worked to prevent the fragmentation and muddiness of purpose that can result from too little direction. Thus, I argue, a solution to both of the problems I encountered can be found in practices that result from a strong commitment to the intellectual freedom of teachers to make important decisions about curriculum and instruction.

While teaching in a California charter school in the late 1990s, I had the experience of working one year under the dictates of a highly scripted curricular program and the next year in the absence of an effectively crafted instructional plan. In both cases it proved difficult for teachers to provide quality instruction to students. In an effort to analyze such contemporary experiences, I explore here the ideas and practices of an important educational innovation from our past: the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, under the direction of John Dewey from 1896 to 1904. I argue that the very practices that promoted teachers’ intellectual freedom at the school, such as weekly meetings to discuss teachers’ reports of classroom practice, also provided needed guidance. By avoiding the mindless following of dictates, the school community simultaneously worked to prevent the fragmentation and muddiness of purpose that can result from too little direction. Thus, I argue, a solution to both of the problems I encountered can be found in practices that result from a strong commitment to the intellectual freedom of teachers to make important decisions about curriculum and instruction

As a teacher in a California charter school in the late 1990s, I experienced the extremes of curricular possibilities in my two years at the school: the first year a highly scripted reading curriculum, then a catch-as-catch-can alternative the second year. Working on a historical study of intellectual rigor in the teaching profession, I found myself wondering how John Dewey and his colleagues at the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School (1896–1904) might have responded to these two very different experiences. Indeed, I discovered, Dewey had contemplated experiences such as mine. In 1936, he remarked: “In an experimental school it is more difficult than elsewhere to avoid extremes. One of them results in a continual improvisation that is destructive of continuity and in the end of steady development of power. The other relies upon definite presentation of ends and methods for reaching them to which teachers are expected to conform.”1

While the Laboratory School has drawn much attention for its innovative pedagogical methods, an investigation of the school’s ideas and practices also offers historical perspective on questions regarding the role of teachers in curricular and instructional decision making. George W. Myers, a contemporary of Dewey’s at the University of Chicago, observed that “Mr. Dewey had the greatest real faith of any educator I have known in the classroom teacher’s judgment as to what children can and should do.”2 How did this faith in teachers’ judgments translate into school practices that supported teachers’ and students’ growth? And what might schools of today learn from the Laboratory School community about negotiating between what Dewey called ‘‘continual improvisation’’ and a ‘‘definite presentation of ends and methods’’?

Any investigation of the Laboratory School must begin with the 1936 study, The Dewey School, written by Katherine Camp Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards, two sisters who taught at the school during Dewey’s years there. At once historical monograph and primary document, the work includes commentary by Dewey. More recent scholarly literature on the school includes Ida DePencier’s The History of the Laboratory Schools (1967) and Laurel Tanner's Dewey’s Laboratory School (1997). In addition, the school plays a prominent part in studies of components of Dewey’s philosophy in Aaron Schutz’s ‘‘John Dewey’s Conundrum: Can Democratic Schools Empower?’’ (2001) and in Dee Miller Russell’s 1996 dissertation, ”The Passion That Precedes Knowledge.”3 In this article, I expand on this literature by focusing on the role Laboratory School teachers played in curricular decisions and the practices connected to Dewey’s profound faith in teachers’ judgments.

My central argument is that the Laboratory School practices that supported teachers’ intellectual freedom, such as regular meetings during which participants discussed teachers’ reports and investigations, acted also to provide the teachers with guidance they needed to effectively design and implement curriculum. In this way, the Laboratory School community worked together to avoid the extremes Dewey observed (and I experienced later in the century) of conformity and ‘‘continual improvisation.’’4 I connect the Laboratory School experiment to schools and teachers of today by first describing my two years of teaching, with particular reference to the different processes of curriculum design and implementation that I experienced. 5 Then I analyze these curricular experiences by investigating the relevant ideas and practices of the Laboratory School, looking in particular at the practices that fostered what Dewey called the ‘‘union of intellectual freedom and cooperation.’’6 I conclude this article with a discussion of the implications of this historical research for contemporary school improvement efforts.


Facing ever more rigid state and federal mandates concerning standardized testing, schools all over the country are turning to ‘‘off the shelf ’’ curricular programs, especially in the high-stakes area of reading instruction. 7 District and school administrators, and some teachers themselves, are loath to leave reading scores to the vagaries of individual expertise. In response to such pressures, my northern California district adopted Open Court, a highly scripted reading program popular in that state and elsewhere. 8 So in my first year, opening the boxes that contained the Open Court curriculum, I was in company with increasing numbers of elementary school teachers. For some teachers in under funded schools, the program was welcomed simply because it at least provided them with materials they didn’t need to pay for out of pocket. As I worked to prepare for my first year of teaching, I hoped that my school’s charter status would mitigate the district’s very strict implementation of the program.

To a great extent, that hope was unfounded. In my experience, the adoption of Open Court meant that teachers were told what to do and when to do it, and as its implementation took roughly three hours a day, it left little room for anything else but mathematics, whose curriculum is another story.9 Those of us teaching Open Court at the third-grade level at my school were required to do a twenty- to thirty-minute blending session daily, with the entire class. I had twenty children, ranging from nonreaders to a few who read at grade level. My students were mostly from low-income families, and they represented just about the entire range of diversity one finds in the country as a whole. The blending sessions had me at the front of the room with a pointer, as the students chanted the ‘‘sound, sound, blend' advocated by Open Court. I wasn’t convinced this would help any of the children, done as it was en masse, and so I felt like a trained monkey up in front of the kids, an imposter of a teacher.10 Even worse was when the Open Court reading coach came in during those times.

At one of my first encounters with the school’s ‘‘coach’’ (some called the coaches ‘‘Reading Nazis’’), she told me that my responsibility that year was to teach reading, writing, and math only. Science, social studies, art, music, and physical education would be included as they appeared in the Open Court units. We were to be driven by the Open Court (sometimes called ‘‘Open Cult’’) engine, not by the force of our own minds. Indeed, I never felt as intellectually parched in my life as I did during my time as a public school teacher.

The Open Court coach was an experienced, and I would daresay talented, teacher. But her role was to visit classrooms, checking to see whether Open Court posters were prominently displayed, workbooks were being used properly, and blending was being done according to script. (Reading coaches need not enjoy reading. One teacher I met at this school, who went on to become an Open Court coach elsewhere, told me matter-of-factly that she hated to read.) We had no reading specialists for the struggling readers and no regular classroom aides. So my four poorest readers were to get their sole intervention during the fifteen- to thirty-minute Open Court ‘‘workshop’’ time. The coach did not sit down with the children and offer them her expertise; instead, she fulfilled her responsibility, as coach, to inspect classrooms and monitor compliance (hence, I suppose, the coaches’ popular nickname).

It seemed to me, that year, that little about Open Court, as we were implementing it, could help these struggling readers, or the middle-level readers, or the capable readers. One problem was that we were supposed to work through each story (and the connected workbook pages) at a brisk pace. The idea was that getting through the total program, even if not all students ‘‘got it, ’’ was what mattered, because simple exposure would somehow accumulate as knowledge in their minds. So too often I found myself racing through urgently, hurrying the children through the work. As a result of these implementation problems, some of the teachers had deep misgivings about Open Court, primarily because it seemed to us that the curriculum was not designed with any of our children in mind. Nor, for that matter, was it designed with any particular teachers in mind. This was an example of what Susan Ohanian calls “one size fits few.”11 And the same was true of the district’s professional development offerings during this time: few, if any, did more than help teachers implement Open Court in a more exacting way. This experience reflected what D. Jean Clandinin and—. Michael Connelly characterize as today’s prevailing expectations regarding curriculum: ‘‘that schools and teachers will learn to do well what the thinkers and policymakers tell them to do. ’’12

Luckily, (or so I thought), in my frustration, I found a reprieve for the next year. In our school’s charter was a provision for pilot or alternative programs. Along with three colleagues, I became part of a group that proposed to create a multi-age, teacher-run pilot program for the next year. Our curriculum would bypass Open Court, except for the first grade, in favor of a teacher-driven program of our design. After the rest of the faculty approved our proposal, we began planning in earnest for the next year. Some of our ideas and plans worked, some went awry, but for my purposes here, the important point is that our curriculum was too ‘‘improvisational’ ’in nature, to borrow Dewey’s term. We went from the overly dictated Open Court to what sometimes seemed like a free-for-all. With fewer than half of our students at grade level in reading, we couldn’t afford to be less than clear about our plans and aims.

As a group, we decided on some curricular themes and purchased materials, but it turned out that what united us—largely the desire to escape from under the Open Court dictates—was not enough to facilitate effective collaboration. As a result, we had a curriculum that was not carefully mapped out, the implementation of which was made even more difficult by many problems with classroom discipline. Unfortunately, we had instituted an experimental program that was clear in its structural innovations (teacher-run, multi-age, technology-driven), but insufficiently clear about how teachers would be supported in creating and implementing curriculum in ways that would lead to student growth and achievement. In addition, our teacher-leaders were ineffectual, and the demands of a teaching day with no preparation time drained all involved. As a result, planning meetings were not dynamic, intellectually stimulating, and productive, but instead strained, frustrating, and rife with subterranean politics. The failure of our group to successfully work together to state our aims and create curriculumled, again, to teachers who were unable to meet the needs of the students.13 This experience speaks to me of the need for clear experimental aims and sufficient support for curriculum (and program) creation. In this situation, I had greatly increased autonomy, but because of factors such as inadequate guiding principles, no preparation time, and insufficient support services for students, I had little vital intellect with which to exercise my freedom. As a beginning teacher, trying to stay alive creatively and intellectually, I was no better off than I was the year before. Again, I couldn't recognize myself in the teacher my children saw.

After these two years at the school, I left, so I have just a snapshot of the life of this school and the lives of these children.14 For my purposes here, however, the snapshot is sufficient to reflect upon the different curricular approaches that I experienced and to explore how the ideas and practices of the Laboratory School community of one hundred years ago might help to analyze these approaches. As John Lewis Gaddis argues in The Landscape of History, one aim of historical study is ‘‘to interpret the past for the purposes of the present with a view to managing the future.’’15 Similarly, in Democracy and Education, Dewey asserted that ‘‘knowledge of the past is the key to understanding the present. . . . The true starting point of history is always some present situation with its problems.’’16 By investigating this educational innovation from our past, a collective moment of pedagogical imagination, we can understand present practices of curriculum creation and point the way to future practices that might better utilize and promote teachers’ intellectual capacities.


If we look to the Laboratory School as an instance of Dewey’s thoughts about education in action and to his relevant writings on teachers and curriculum creation, we can come up with some ideas about how he and his colleagues might have responded to Open Court and other scripted programs that diminish the teacher’s role in curricular decisions. Dewey knew well the dangers for teachers of overly prescriptive curriculums. He wrote, in 1925, ‘‘By means of achievement and mental tests carried on from the central office, of a steadily issuing stream of dictated typewritten communications, of minute and explicit syllabi of instruction, the teacher is reduced to a living phonograph.’’17 (This perfectly describes my experience with the ‘‘sound, sound, blend’’ routine of Open Court. Indeed, I often thought a recording of a devoted Open Court teacher could have been more effective than I was in person.) Dewey’s colleague at Teachers College, William Heard Kilpatrick, had similar words to describe the ills of standardization. Kilpatrick wrote, also in 1925:

Yes, how can you expect teachers to think when they are tied hand and foot. To tell a teacher what she shall teach and when she shall teach it, and to count success to be only and exactly that children shall successfully pass these mechanical subject-matter tests—all this I say is to treat a teacher as a factory operative. Under such a regime a teacher may be a skilled artisan, but an artisan and thinker, no. She has no chance. In fact she is not expected to think. ‘‘Hers is not to reason why, hers but to teach and dry—up. ’’ That’s what I say, and I have seen it happen too often.18

Dewey was also attuned to why educational fads seemed to hold sway in schools. In his 1904 article on the relation of theory to practice, Dewey observed, ‘‘The tendency of educational development to proceed by reaction from one thing to another, to adopt for one year, or for a term of seven years, this or that new study or method of teaching, and then as abruptly to swing over to some new educational gospel, is a result that would be impossible if teachers were adequately moved by their own independent intelligence. ’19 At the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School, under Dewey's direction from 1896 to 1904, teachers seem to have been ‘‘moved by their own independent intelligence.’’


The Laboratory School, during Dewey’s years in Chicago, grew from sixteen students and two teachers in January 1896 to its maximum of 140 students, twenty-three teachers, and ten assistants.20 According to Dewey, the school was ‘‘by intention an experimental school,’’21 and the teachers' reports document the experimentation that took place during these years. The reports differed considerably from today’s lesson plans, which are used often as a way to monitor teachers’ compliance with external mandates.22 Instead, as Mayhew and Edwards explained in their 1936 book on the school: ‘‘All the teachers in actual daily contact with children of all ages furnished, in these reports, the data for further inquiries and conclusions.’’23 The source for theoretical inquiry was the practice of teachers, with the intention that teaching and learning would be deepened and enhanced by the collective inquiry these reports fostered.

The teachers’ reports provided an opportunity for teachers to articulate their reasons for particular approaches to subject matter and instructional methods and to document the outcomes of these practices with the children. They followed three guidelines, as outlined in the school’s ‘‘scheme for reports. ’’ First, the reports addressed the ‘‘actual subject matter for the week. This should be given in specific, concrete terms not merely as a general title. For example, do not say, studied rocks or seeds, etc., but state what rocks and what seeds, etc. ’’24 In other words, the ‘‘report should in all cases indicate not merely the actual subject matter, but the reason for taking it up, its antecedents, and the points which are being led up to.”25 The second guideline considered handwork, such as carpentry, sewing, or artwork. In such cases, the ‘‘reason or motive for the work should be definitely stated, ’’ as well as ‘‘its connection or lack of connection with the other work of the school, and the uses, if any, to which the objects made are to be put.’’26

Finally, the third guideline dealt with the instructional methods, declaring that ‘‘so far as possible the mode of getting at the topic should be indicated, and the problem or point to be found out should be clearly stated. ’’27 At the Laboratory School, teachers employed a wide variety of approaches to subject matter instruction, including ‘‘conversation, discussion, dramatization, class readings and references to literature, . . . the study of pictures, visits to museums and historical places, ’’ as well as ‘‘experimental work. ’’28 It must be noted that such richness of methods contrasted sharply with the traditional schools of the era, many of which were such dour places that when asked, some children declared that they would rather work in a factory than attend school. 29

In these guidelines, several teachers’ reports were suggested as exemplars. In one such report, of October 14, 1898, history teacher Laura Runyon discussed the activities undertaken by the group IV (age 7) students in the study of migration:

In the second week we began by deciding on reasons for migration of a tribe. The class was divided into groups. Two members were sent to one corner of the room and asked to think up reasons why our tribe should move, and then come back and report. Two more were sent into another corner and asked to ‘‘make believe’’ they had discovered a place which would be exactly fitted for our tribe. The rest of the class was asked to think of reasons why not all should go, and to raise objections, fears as to result of migration, etc.

She then outlined the outcome of this study:

The scheme worked well. The first group brought back the report of lack of food for cattle; the second had, while searching for cattle discovered a valley watered by a river, with clay beds near; and, as a final touch of persuasion, one boy said “there is a beautiful view there.”

The trustworthiness of the men who were to be guides was inquired into. All possible reasons for and against a division of the tribe were spoken of, and finally all agreed to go.30

In this report we learn from Runyon about content (migration), methods (what we might now call role playing or simulation), and her evaluation of the study (“The scheme worked well.”) In a sentence from earlier in there port, Runyon articulated the connection made between child and curriculum: “They were led to use their reason in each step, but always guided to the true facts.” Knowledge of subject matter came from active engagement; teachers made decisions that linked children’s reasoning powers to the content, that guided them to what Runyon referred to as “the true facts,” or the heart of the subject matter.

The teachers’ reports were central to the inquiry in which the Laboratory School community was engaged. As Louis Men and argues in The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, Dewey ‘‘conceived of the [Laboratory School] as a philosophy laboratory . . . . He was trying out a theory. It was a theory, as he said, of the ‘unity of knowledge. ’’’ As Men and puts it, ‘‘By 'unity of knowledge’ Dewey did not mean that all knowledge is one. He meant that knowledge is inseparably united with doing.’’31 Thus rather than the linear-sounding ‘‘learning by doing’’ often ascribed to Dewey and the Laboratory School, the underlying theory was of learning as a ‘‘circuit.’’32 In a 1935 letter, Edwards argued for the centrality of this theory in the practice of the school. She wrote: ‘‘It was the experience of understanding that principle of growth that opened my eyes to the fundamental character of education. ’’ In her words, this ‘‘organizing, centralizing, unifying principle of mental growth, is namely that all three factors of thinking [,] feeling] and muscular effort must enter into every act or coordination.’’33

Dewey explained that ‘‘to learn from experience is to make a backward and forward connection between what we do to things and what we enjoy or suffer from things in consequence. Under such conditions, doing becomes a trying, an experiment with the world to find out what it is like, the undergoing becomes instruction—discovery of the connection of things.’’34 According to this theory, then, in order for students to make these ‘‘backward and forward connections, ’’ they must be engaged in acts that unite ‘‘thinking [,] feeling and muscular effort. ’’ The teachers’ reports were part of the process of testing this theory and thereby determining the educative value of the students’ experiences in the school. As Edwards continued in her 1935 letter: ‘‘Together they worked, thought, revised, reaped their satisfactions or endured their failures [,] considered the consequences [,] revised [,] and went on. The results of the [theory] in practice [were] checked by the effects of the activities on the children.’’35

In this investigative work (in which teachers’ reports were central), the Laboratory School community was engaged in what James Campbell in Understanding John Dewey calls the two ‘‘levels’’ of Dewey’s method of social reconstruction: ‘‘the formation of problems and the selection and development of potential solutions, ’’ which required the community members to ‘‘think differently, ’’ and the ‘‘public testing and evaluating of ideas and proposals, ’’ which required them to ‘‘act differently.’’36 As teacher Katharine Andrews Healy wrote years later, ‘‘We were all on a piece of research together.’’37 To properly test the theory of the unity of knowledge, and to simultaneously engage in the collective effort that Dewey called ‘‘social reconstruction, ’’ it was necessary to know what went on in the classrooms, why certain studies (content and method) were undertaken, and the outcomes of these studies. Teachers were central to the investigations (conducted in the classrooms and continued in meetings) that marked the attempt to make a school into a philosophy laboratory.


Teachers met regularly in meetings described by Dewey as occasions when ‘‘the work of the prior week was gone over in light of the general plan, and in which teachers reported the difficulties met in carrying it out. Modifications and adaptations followed. Discussion in these meetings was a large means in translating generalities about aims and subject matter into definite form. ’’ He went on to outline the benefits of such deliberations for teachers: ‘‘Almost unconsciously teachers of native ability, even if they were without much previous experience, gained confidence in their own independent and original powers and at the same time learned to work in a cooperative way as participants in a common plan.’’38 In the school’s early years, the meetings were attended by teachers, university faculty members, graduate students, and the directors, who came together, in Dewey’s words, ‘‘to discuss the reports of the school in relation to theoretical principles and to revise future plans accordingly.’’39

In a summary of responsibilities (‘‘Daily Administration’’) from the school year 1899–1900, teachers were urged to ‘‘call a Group teacher’s [sic] meeting at least once in two weeks, to unify work and to discuss individual children when needed.’’40 At one teachers’ meeting, held in the fall of 1898, the teachers from several groups discussed ‘‘number work in school. ’’ In the archival records of the meeting, different teachers reported on their current studies in the area of number work. For instance, the sub primary class worked on numbers as follows: ‘‘In setting the table, they must decide on the number of plates, napkins, etc. ’’ Dewey made a suggestion to the teachers: ‘‘The best way to get idea of numbers is to associate them with solids. Whenever material is to be distributed for the group, it should be in relation to numbers, grouping numbers, by twos, at least.”41

In the school’s meetings, what we would now call professional development was directly related to the vital work of teachers engaged in curriculum design, implementation, and evaluation.42 According to teachers Mayhew and Edwards:

Too much emphasis cannot be laid on the constant and intelligent attempts to put into classroom use, and thereby test, the theory of the school. The success or failure of these attempts occupied to a great extent the weekly teachers’ meetings and was the subject of the informal daily discussion that always went on between the teachers in hallways and on the way to and from the classrooms. . . . Although the immediate decision with regard to treatment of subject matter and method was left to the individual teacher, each teacher’s method was so checked and rechecked by cooperative discussion of results and effect on the children, that changes in viewpoint continually took place. 43

Furthermore, the meetings offer an illustration of Dewey’s ideas about democracy in education. As he argued in a 1937 essay, ‘‘The democratic principle requires that every teacher should have some regular and organic way in which he can, directly or through representatives democratically chosen, participate in the formation of the controlling aims, methods and materials of the school of which he is a part.’’44

An ‘‘outline of teachers’ meetings, ’’ included in The Dewey School, offers an illustration of this democratic principle in action at the school. Mayhew and Edwards argued that the meetings were ‘‘in fact seminars in method. ’’The outline referred to an 1899 meeting led by Dewey and included ‘‘Questions which suggest problems that are to be considered. These are not to cover the topics in any literal way, but will get your minds thinking along lines that will be of use to you.’’ Questions included: ‘‘Is there any common denominator in the teaching process? Is there an intellectual result which ought to be obtained in all of these different studies and at these different ages? If there is a normal process [of the mind], if the mind actually works toward it, just as the body is working toward health, what is the use of a teacher anyway?’’ In the resulting discussion, participants concluded that ‘‘use of past experience to gain enlarged experience through control was arrived at as the aim or common denominator. ’’ During the discussion, ‘‘knowledge was suggested as the aim, ’’ and Dewey then asked ‘‘if the end is knowledge, how much knowledge is to be gained? Where will you draw the line? As much knowledge as you can stuff in? And what knowledge? It was argued that the method that brings the desire for more knowledge should obtain. ’’45 Indeed, in this 1899 meeting, teachers themselves were challenged to discuss the essential questions of their profession so that they should have, much like the children they taught, ‘‘the desire for more knowledge. ’’


University of Chicago faculty members and students from many disciplines worked with the teachers and students of the Laboratory School, in various different capacities, in addition to taking part in school meetings. Mayhew and Edwards described one such interaction with a university student, Mr. Jones, who shared his laboratory studies with the students, who were working on similar, if simplified, experiments of their own.46 The former teachers went on to explain that ‘‘this connection with the University and adults who were studying and working on the same problems steadied and heightened the children’s appreciation of the importance and reality of their work. ’’47 In addition, it deepened the teachers’ connection to the subject matter.

The university-school relationship was facilitated by the departmental organization of the Laboratory School, with teachers who were subject matter specialists.48 After attempting to conduct the school with a generalist teacher, or ‘‘all-around teacher, ’’ the school undertook a radical change and reorganized according to departments, with teachers who had expertise in the various areas of study. Laboratory School teachers had to figure out which lines of inquiry would best facilitate learning for students, connecting present experience to future growth. As Dewey put it, education involved the ‘‘searching out of facts and principles which were authentic and intellectually worthwhile in contrast with wooden and sawdust stuff which has played a large part in the traditional curriculum.’’49 The school community found that teachers needed to thoroughly understand content in order to effectively guide this process. Accordingly, by 1900 the school’s faculty included specialists in history, science and mathematics, domestic sciences, artwork, music, manual training, kindergarten, French, physical culture, and Latin and German.50

The letters of the Camp sisters and their family contain evidence of the teachers’ devotion to their areas of expertise. For instance, in a letter of1901 to a third sister, the Camps’ mother Elizabeth wrote that teacher Althea Harmer would spend her six weeks’ vacation at ‘‘the teachers college in New York to get what new ideas she can in her line’’ of domestic sciences.51 Elizabeth Camp wrote to her stepson in 1902 of Katherine Camp’s plans for the summer: ‘‘Kate is going to Woods Hole Mass to study—taking a course in Botany,’’52 where, a month later, the science teacher found she needed her mother to ‘‘please send me my tools—laboratory scalpels.’’53 This expertise was integral to the role of the teachers in making curricular decisions.

The teachers cooperated both within departments (sharing content specialization) and within groups (sharing pupils). According to Dewey, “It is the absence of cooperative intellectual relations among teachers that causes the present belief that young children must be taught everything by one teacher.”54 At the Laboratory School and in their lives outside the school, cooperation among teachers facilitated the interchange of ideas concerning both students and disciplinary knowledge of common interest and expertise. In a letter from 1903, Elizabeth Camp informed her third daughter, also Elizabeth Camp, of one such instance of cooperation, writing that Mayhew ‘‘had been up to Mrs. Young’s talking school.’’55


A figure of great importance to the Laboratory School (indeed, she came up with its name), Ella Flagg Young collaborated with Dewey at the Laboratory School to encourage teachers’ intellectual freedom and growth. Young's work as supervisor of instruction at the Laboratory School came in the middle of a remarkable career with the Chicago Public Schools, which culminated in her position as superintendent in the 1910s. Throughout her life as an educator, Young promoted the participation of teachers in decision-making regarding curriculum and educational policy. For instance, she instituted teachers’ councils, which were meetings at various levels (from school to district) for teachers to discuss and influence school policies.56 In Isolation in the School, published in 1901 while Young was at the Laboratory School, she wrote: ‘‘It is not liberty in carrying out, it is freedom and responsibility in origination also, that will make the whole [teaching] corps a force, a power in itself. . . . It must be predicated that freedom belongs to that form of activity which characterizes the teacher.’’57 Linking teachers' intellectual freedom to that of their students, she wrote: ‘‘For teachers and pupils to become parts of an ‘incoherent homogeneity’ is for them to lose in their school life that individuality which is the inherent right of each soul.’’58 Furthermore, like Dewey, Young linked teachers’ work conditions to the workings of a democracy. ‘‘The school cannot take up the question of the development of training for citizenship in a democracy while the teachers are still segregated into two classes, as are the citizens in an aristocracy. ’’Under what she called ‘‘close supervision, ’’ the following, she argued, tended to happen: ‘‘In a short time, the teachers must cease to occupy the position of initiators in the individual work of instruction and discipline, and must fall into a class of assistants, whose duty consists in carrying out instructions of a higher class which originates method for all.’’59 Not content to leave such matters in the realm of the theoretical, she came up with practices designed to ‘‘secure this freedom of thought, ’’ advocating ‘‘in the various parts of the school, organizations for the consideration of questions of legislation,’’60 such as the teachers’ councils she organized in the Chicago Public Schools. The regular meetings held at the Laboratory School, I would argue, served a similar purpose.

At the Laboratory School, the intellectual freedom advocated by both Dewey and Young was central to the school’s design and practices. Teachers at the school were expected and encouraged to be engaged intellectually with understanding the subject matter, discovering the learning capacities and interests of the children, and bringing the children and content together through innovative pedagogical methods. As both the words and deeds of Dewey, Young, and their colleagues at the Laboratory School indicate, such freedom of intellect cannot flourish in the context of the overly dictated curricular mandates of their era or of ours. To reutilize the curriculum to the extent required by a program such as Open Court, designed as it is by a group of outside experts far removed from any particular classroom community and implemented with what Young called ‘‘close supervision, ’’is to fail to acknowledge the centrality of the teacher and the students, the importance of which Dewey, Young, and their colleagues at the Laboratory School well understood.


While advocating intellectual freedom for teachers, Dewey and Young were also aware of the need for teachers to create curriculum in an environment in which freedom and guidance were in balance. Dewey recounted that teachers at the Laboratory School ‘‘had not only great freedom in adapting principles to actual conditions, but if anything, too much responsibility was imposed upon them. In avoiding hard and fast plans to be executed and dictation of methods to be followed, individual teachers were, if anything, not given enough assistance either in advance or by way of critical supervision.’’61 Perhaps Dewey was referring here, at least in part, to the time it took for teachers to write reports. The Camp sisters’ letters contain references to this commitment. For instance, Mayhew wrote to her mother in1901 that she was ‘‘struggling with reports and an article for the manual training magazine.’’62 Dewey maintained that, in spite of these reservations, if one would err, he was ‘‘confident that all concerned would prefer to err in this direction rather than in that of too definite formulation of syllabi and elaboration in advance of methods to use in teaching and discipline. Whatever was lost, vitality and constant growth were gained.’’63 Yet he realized, with help from Young, that teachers indeed required some type of guidance in formulating and evaluating curriculum.

In ‘‘Experimenting with Education: John Dewey and Ella Flagg Young at the University of Chicago, ’’ Ellen Condliffe Lagemann argues that ‘‘Young's suggestions for the Laboratory School apparently showed Dewey that giving teachers clear expectations and assignments did not constrain them. Quite the opposite was the case. More important, her suggestions demonstrated that what was crucial for good teaching were opportunities to think and experiment within a context of frank exchange and full respect.’’64 Dewey and Young were clearly aware of the dangers inherent in situations like the one I participated in during my second year of teaching, when educators failed to effectively articulate and implement a coherent plan for curriculum and instruction. Both Young and Dewey realized that teachers' intellectual freedom did not come without intellectual responsibility.65

At the Laboratory School, I would argue, the very structures that were in place to assure teachers’ intellectual freedom, such as teachers’ reports and meetings, served also to offer teachers the guidance that my colleagues and I missed in our charter school experiment. Dewey made this connection clear. As he argued in 1936 in The Dewey School, ‘‘Experience showed that there are checks upon dispersion and centrifugal effort that are more effective than are the rigid planning in advance and the close supervision usually relied upon. One such check was the weekly teachers’ meeting.’’66 Dewey further asserted that ‘‘association and exchange among teachers was our substitute for what is called supervision, critic teaching, and technical training. ’’ Looking back thirty years, he concluded that ‘‘experience and reflection have convinced me that this principle is fundamental in school organization and administration. ’’ The school offered ‘‘proof . . . that the union of intellectual freedom and cooperation will develop the spirit that is prized in university teachers, and that is sometimes mistakenly supposed to be a monopoly of theirs. ’’ Cooperation, he argued, must ‘‘have a marked intellectual quality in the exchange of experiences and ideas.’’67

Dewey credited Young (as general supervisor) and his wife, Alice Chimpanzee (as principal), with supporting the school climate necessary for these exchanges. He maintained that ‘‘their personalities and methods were such as to introduce more intellectual organization without impeding the freedom of individual teachers.’’68 According to teacher Grace Fulmer, Dewey himself contributed significantly to this climate. As Fulmer wrote years later:

As with his idea of each child being free to develop his own powers to some ultimate purpose through the guidance of one whose experience was richer, so with his own relation to the teachers in his school. I know there were things in my own work of which he did not approve and yet I always felt free to work in my own way, while his ideals and influence upon my educational experiences have increased with the passing years.69

The Laboratory School community envisioned the art and science of teaching by supporting the intellectual freedom of teachers to investigate and create curriculum in a context of cooperative inquiry, offering an alternative to the two extremes I encountered and that Dewey described as conformity and continual improvisation. In this environment, it was possible for teachers to engage in intellectual and social activism, through their deep involvement in the life of the school and in connected institutions such as Hull House.70 For instance, several teachers published scholarly article son their work in the Laboratory School. In her 1900 article ‘‘Textile Industries, ’’Althea Harmer wrote: ‘‘Thinking does not occur for its own sake; it is not an end in itself. It arises from the need of meeting some difficulty, unreflecting upon the best way of overcoming it, and thus leads to planning, to projecting mentally the end to be reached, and deciding upon the steps necessary. ’’ This method ‘‘has the added advantage of being concrete and of calling the constructive imagination into play.’’71 Though she was describing the learning process through which teachers guided students, she might also have been describing the investigative process by which teachers reported on classroom practices and the ‘‘cooperative discussion’’ that took place in the teachers’ meetings. The practices designed to encourage teachers to become ‘‘investigators’’72Fincluding the teachers’ reports and the regular meetings during which they were discussed—served also to provide guidance that teachers needed in order to teach effectively and flourish in acclimate of intellectual collaboration.


In my two years of teaching can be seen the extremes of too much prescription and too little guidance on curricular matters. The works of Dewey and his colleagues at the Laboratory School offer a lens through which to view and analyze these curricular experiences and point the way to an alternative.73 The writings and practices of these educators lend support to the idea that the proliferation of scripted, publisher-driven curriculums will contribute to the demise of what remains of intellectual freedom in the teaching profession. In addition, unarticulated, non-sequential curriculums developed helter-skelter by individual teachers can also serve to reduce intellectual rigor in the profession and may contribute to the perception that ‘‘teacher-proof ’’ curriculums are needed.74

What might we take from the Laboratory School experience to apply to our current educational situation? How can we avoid the ills of both mindless structure and insufficiently structured good intentions? As we have seen, Campbell argues that Dewey’s method of social reconstruction entails both thinking differently and acting differently. If we attempt to think differently about current practices of curriculum creation by considering the Laboratory School community’s ‘‘union of intellectual freedom and cooperation, ’’what are some possible solutions to the problems of ‘‘conformity’’ and ‘‘continual improvisation’’ suggested by this analysis? How might we act differently in order to promote what all would agree is essential to students' educational success: an effective and intelligent teaching force? First, the experiences of the Laboratory School community indicate that teacher education programs should prepare teachers for the high-level intellectual work that teaching can and must be.75 It isn’t enough for prospective teachers to love children and learn what ‘‘works. ’’ Their preparation must be intellectually rigorous and should include ample opportunities to work with excellent teachers.76 Furthermore, we should look both to the Laboratory School and to educational practices abroad to learn about teacher specialists at the elementary level. As the Laboratory School found, generalists at the elementary level cannot be sufficiently expert in (and devoted to) the wide range of subject matter taught in today’s schools.77

At the Laboratory School, what we now call professional development for teachers was embedded in the daily life and work of the school. The teachers' reports and regular meetings provide us with a model for professional development that is relevant to the teaching lives of the participants and includes possibilities for the improvement of curriculum and instruction through investigation and ‘‘cooperative discussion. ’’ By considering the relevance of such practices to current efforts to enhance teachers’ effectiveness, we might offer an alternative to the kinds of meetings I attended as an Open Court teacher, with their not-so-hidden agenda of promoting compliance rather than professional excellence and growth.

Restructuring the school day would allow time for teachers to collaborate over subject matter and instructional methods. There is no joy, no sense of discovery for teachers when they must cram their collective inquiry into stolen moments at the end of a tiring day. At the Laboratory School, Mayhew and Edwards explained, ‘‘the importance of this continual exchange of news was felt to be so great that the teachers’ work was arranged with periods free from class work of twenty to thirty minutes every day for each teacher. In these she could visit and advise with other groups and teachers.’’78 As researchers have discovered abroad, in other countries the schooldays is structured so as to include time for teachers to work together on matters at the heart of their profession: improving curriculum and refining their practice. 79 Furthermore, if teachers are to have a voice in decision-making regarding educational policy, we should revisit the teachers’ councils established by Young in the early twentieth century.

The Laboratory School teachers worked in close collaboration with university faculty from many different departments of the University of Chicago. Not every school can be a laboratory school. But surely closer ties can be established between our public schools and our colleges and universities. By that I do not mean simply the existing connections maintained primarily to provide colleges of education with training centers for prospective teachers. Purposeful relationships between universities and schools, designed to deepen subject matter understanding and instruction, could improve curriculum creation at the school level at the same time that they could elevate the prestige of the teaching profession. Likewise, teacher education programs can be strengthened by more cooperation with university faculty in the letters and sciences.

In order to promote excellent teaching in these ways, all schools require and deserve adequate resources for rich curriculum creation. Currently, there are schools in the United States in which children share outdated textbooks and in which the ceilings are so decrepit that children must use umbrellas inside. Conditions such as those described in Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities diminish the self-worth and learning capacities of the children unlucky enough to attend under funded schools. 80 These conditions also signal disrespect for the teachers who call such schools their places of work. The profession must be more visible in its unwillingness to tolerate inferior conditions in the workplaces that are also centers of learning for our children. This must cease to be ‘‘their’’ problem, the problem of those directly affected, and must become ‘‘our’’ problem. Perhaps such vocal advocacy for the rights of both teachers and children would lend support for connected efforts to bring teachers’ voices to discussions and decision making about other educational matters, like curriculum, that also affect school practices.

Finally, teachers, working individually and collaboratively at many levels, must be held primarily responsible for decisions regarding curriculum and instruction. The questions of what knowledge is of most worth and why this content is valuable for children must be questions that teachers grapple with daily for real purposes and consequences. Otherwise, teachers are reduced to ‘‘living phonographs, ’’ ‘‘factory operatives, ’’ a ‘‘class of assistants. ’’ The heart of the profession is the asking and working out of these vital questions of content, knowledge, and methods, and each school and all participants must be engaged in such inquiry. 81For several years, I’ve asked my college students to write a short essay on a ‘‘shining moment’’ in their educational careers. So many of these essays revolve around a teacher who, through combination of compassion and creativity, went beyond the ‘‘basics’’ to involve students in a curricular experience that could have been fashioned only by a particular teacher with real students in mind. Many of my college students count as memorable those school experiences that involve teachers who created dynamic curriculum designed to connect a particular group of children to the world of ideas.

During my first year of teaching in California, my third-grade students were very interested in reading and writing poetry. And I believe that it is this practice, which I sneaked into the days of Open Court workbooks and blending, that might have been most memorable, perhaps significant, for my students. Mindful of my roomful of poetry lovers, while reading Georgia Heard’s Awakening the Heart, I had encountered a way to spread the word about poetry: secretly putting poems up around the school. 82 While introducing this idea to my students, I told them about a group of women artists in New York City called the Guerilla Girls, who ran around the city secretly (under gorilla masks) plastering it with witty posters about gender injustice in the art world. My students were entranced with the idea. They called themselves the ‘‘Magic Poets’’ (the idea of one of my most troubled students, who was also one of the poorest readers) and went to work, whenever they had a minute, to type up and illustrate their favorite poems, and then to sneak them onto the walls of the school.

The next year, I tried it again and asked a few of my former students to introduce the idea to my new class. In explaining the importance of secrecy, my struggling reader of the year before told the group the story about ‘‘these artists in New York, called the gorilla girls, who wore masks. ’’ I was astonished that he had remembered the entire story I had told (with reinterpretation of the group’s name) and was reminded of how important surprise and signature can be in curriculum. My children were caught up in the excitement of surprising the rest of the school with their poetic discoveries, and my signature on the project—including my story of New York City—stuck in my student’s mind. For the most part, in highly scripted curriculums, both surprise and signature have no part.83

It is important that we come to an understanding, both as a society and as a profession, of what it means to be a teacher, including the proper role of teachers in designing curriculum and the structural supports necessary for this role. This becomes particularly urgent as we note the effects of the current standardization movement on the teaching profession. As Maxine Greene argues, ‘‘Uniform objectives and what they require continue to erode the freedom of individual teachers ripe with ideas for teaching and learning, prevented from trying them out in the circumstances that exist. ’’84 The works of Dewey and his colleagues attest to the importance of recognizing the centrality of individual teachers to the vitality and effectiveness of educational practices. We can look to the collective work of the Laboratory School community to find some of the guidance we need to create teaching and learning conditions that afford teachers their deserved intellectual freedom and the support required to exercise it.


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ANNE DURST is an assistant professor of educational foundations at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She taught at the elementary level in a California charter school in the late 1990s. Her research interests include the history of the Laboratory School community and the history of day care in the United States during the Progressive era.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 5, 2005, p. 958-984
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11846, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 8:47:12 PM

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  • Anne Durst
    University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
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    ANNE DURST is an assistant professor of educational foundations at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She taught at the elementary level in a California charter school in the late 1990s. Her research interests include the history of the Laboratory School community and the history of day care in the United States during the Progressive era.
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