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“I Had Made a Mistake”: William H. Kilpatrick and the Project Method


by Michael Knoll — 2012

Background/Context: William H. Kilpatrick is known worldwide as “Mr. Project Method.” Despite considerable scholarship by Lawrence A. Cremin, Herbert M. Kliebard, Milton A. Bleeke, John A. Beineke, and others, the origin of Kilpatrick’s celebrated paper of 1918 has never been explored in depth and its historical context.

Focus of Study: The reconstruction reveals that the concept of teaching by “projects” arose in seventeenth-century Italy and reached the United States in 1865 where it served as an instructional device in manual training, agricultural education, and general science. Kilpatrick came into contact with the project method movement in 1915. He jumped on the bandwagon, adopted the two-hundred-year-old concept, and used it in a provocative new way to be not only remembered as a genial teacher but as an “originator” as well. Supported by the “Project Propaganda Club,” he had already initiated in 1917 and which became known as the National Conference for the Promotion of Educational Method in 1921, Kilpatrick advocated a decidedly child-centered approach that in New York, Milwaukee, and Bethpage, Missouri, failed the practice test and evoked fierce criticism from friend and foe, including Boyd H. Bode, Ernest Horn, Guy M. Wilson, and John Dewey. In the late 1920s, Kilpatrick decided that in defining the project as a subjective “philosophy” of education and not as an objective “method” of instruction he “had made a mistake.” Subsequently, he gave up the term and spoke of “activities” when the students carried out their plans and ideas “heartily” and “purposefully.”

Conclusions: Historians worldwide have fallen victim to an error. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Kilpatrick is not the classic of the project method, but rather the classical outsider.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 2, 2012, p. 1-45
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16242, Date Accessed: 4/16/2014 12:18:08 AM

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About the Author
  • Michael Knoll
    Catholic University Eichstaett, Germany
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL KNOLL was principal and manager of Schloss-Schule Kirchberg, Kirchberg/Jagst, Germany. His primary areas of scholarship are history of education, curriculum theory, and comparative education. His most recent book is Dewey, Kilpatrick und “progressive” Erziehung. Kritische Studien zur Projektpädagogik (Bad Heilbrunn: Klinkhardt, 2011).
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