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The Project Method and Its Origin

by George Douglas Hofe - 1966

This is an essay in personal reminiscence. The author recalls his friendship with J. F. Woodhull and offers his own recollections of a moment in William Heard Kilpatrick’s long and productive career.

This is an essay in personal reminiscence, written by an educator who was writing for the Record a half century ago. Mr. Hofe, Headmaster of the Carteret School in New Jersey, here recalls his friendship with J. F. Woodhull and offers his own recollections of a moment in William Heard Kilpatrick's long and productive career.

WHEN AN ARTICLE of mine was published in the May, 1916 issue of the Teachers College Record, I little thought I would have occasion to refer to it a half century later. At the time it did not seem important; but today, in view of what has happened since, it strikes me as highly significant. The reason for referring to it now is to right what I consider a wrong done to Dr. John Francis Woodhull, one of the great educators of Teachers College. It was Professor Woodhull, Professor Lodge, and the first Dr. Russell who, with Nicholas Murray Butler, were the key figures in the founding of Teachers College.

The article printed in the Record fifty years ago was entitled “The Development of a Project.” Although it now impresses me as quite an elementary piece of work, it does establish the fact that I had gleaned some data regarding the Project Method from Dr. Woodhull, under whom I served as a member of the College staff. The “Project Method” was the name given to a method of teaching conceived earlier in the century. It was then and is today, I believe, the normal, indeed the ideal teaching process. Unfortunately it has been misused over the years and, in a distorted form, was instrumental in creating the construct commonly known as “Progressive Education.”


There is no question in my mind that Professor Woodhull conceived and originated the Project Method. I was close to him over a period of five years. My office adjoined his, so that we were in daily association during the school year; and this association continued during the two summers I spent with him at his home situated high on a rocky peninsula at North Haven, Maine.

Well do I remember his interest in everything scientific, even to the raising of chickens in an incubator and the growing of vegetables which he dehydrated and brought back to his home in Yonkers for winter use. Equally vivid is my recollection of his insisting that I walk around his North Haven grounds in the evenings to study the stars when it was so cold that I could barely wait for his suggestion that we return to sit before the fireplace in his house. During the cold winter days, when he drove from Yonkers to the College in his little Overland car, before the days of car heaters, he placed two five gallon cans of hot water in his car every morning to keep the car comfortable for his return home later in the day.

He used to delight in writing articles on the Project Method and addressing educators throughout the country to explain what he considered the benefits of that comparatively novel way of teaching science. On several occasions he encouraged me to write magazine articles and to make minor addresses which I would never have attempted but for his guidance and encouragement.


The article, “The Development of a Project,” began with the statement that “there is nothing new or unusual in the development of a project.” True enough. As is the case with most new ideas and inventions, what Dr. Woodhull chose to call the “Project Method” was the result of a long train of thought. But this procedure in the learning process had not been utilized or put into practice until it was recommended by Dr. Woodhull in articles and lectures.

In those early days, when the Method was still being explained and recommended, Dr. William Heard Kilpatrick was one of the younger members of the faculty, certainly younger than Dr. Woodhull. One afternoon Dr. Kilpatrick came to my office and asked for Dr. Woodhull, who happened to have left for the day. When I asked whether I could be of any help, he told me that he had heard something about a “project method” which Dr. Woodhull was proposing for the teaching of science and he wanted to know more about it. I have related this meeting so often over the years that I distinctly recall what was said. I explained what Dr. Woodhull had in mind by his use of the term “project method” and, with Dr. Kilpatrick sitting at my desk, gave him a brief resume of what it signified.

All those who have been privileged to know Dr. Kilpatrick realize how his keen, quick approach alerted a man to express himself with particular clarity and accuracy, as if time were always of the essence. Perhaps for that reason, after explaining in general what I understood Dr. Woodhull to mean by the “Project Method,” I offered to lend Dr. Kilpatrick a few magazines containing articles I had written about the method and some condensations of addresses on the subject. These Dr. Kilpatrick took with him and returned at a later date. The articles, I believe, made possible a general understanding of the Project Method and, moreover, included specific illustrations of Dr. Woodhulls procedures at work.


Samuel Tenenbaum's Trail “Blazer in Education (1), a biography of William Heard Kilpatrick, avoids discussion of the origins of the Project Method and implies that Kilpatrick himself was the originator. Indeed, he writes:

In defending the project method, which he proposed at a meeting of educators in Chicago on April 28, 1917, he declared: “Our traditional school was organized to supplement the education of the practical life. It thus became predominately bookish and mental. The body was even despised as material and anti-spiritual. Aristotle's God spent his time thinking on thought, not on matter; and this was deemed the ideal life of man. Christianity, pagans, aristocrats, and the practical world of affairs agreed on restricting physical manipulation in the schools to a minimum. We are heirs to this tradition.”

Tenenbaum here footnotes “project method” which, he says, Dr. Kilpatrick “proposed not only as a method of education but as a philosophy of life. . . .” Somewhat further on, the biographer continues the error:

Kilpatrick wanted a kind of education where a child could conceive, plan, execute, judge, and evaluate a task peculiarly his own. “In the case where no purpose is present, there the weak and foolish teacher has often in times past, cajoled and promised and sugar-coated, and this we all despise. Purpose then—its presence or its absence—exactly distinguishes the desirable and manly interest from the mushy type of anything-to-keep-the-dear-things-interested or amused. It is purpose then that we want, worthy purposes, urgently sought. Get these, and the interest will take care of itself. All that is good we'll have.”

This time Tenenbaum documents by referring to Kilpatrick's article, “Teaching By the Project Method,” in the Detroit Journal of Education, October 30, 1919.

Tenenbaum makes other references, all dated 1918 or later. On page 154, his footnote states: “Kilpatrick conceived this concept of concomitant learnings about 1918.” And on page 159 we find: “When Kilpatrick first conceived the project method he did not perceive as clearly as he does now, he says frankly, its full mental hygiene implication.” And finally, on page 179 we find a footnote reading: “W. H. Kilpatrick, The Project Method,” Christian Science Monitor, December 25, 1921.”


I find in the biography no reference whatsoever to the pioneer work done by Dr. Woodhull. As a result of the failure to give credit to Dr. Woodhull for Dr. Kilpatrick's understanding (or lack of understanding) of the Project Method, educators have come to the conclusion that Dr. Kilpatrick conceived it. The reason for this misunderstanding is not of great importance; the fact that credit for the origin of the Project Method is erroneously given to Dr. Kilpatrick is of more import. Kilpatrick seems to me merely to have popularized an innovation introduced and developed by Dr. Woodhull. The fact that this mistake continues may be seen in the March n, 1965 issue of Scholastic Teacher, under the heading, “Prof. Kilpatrick Dies.” There we find a resume of Dr. Kilpatrick's accomplishments, including the statement, “under his influence teachers adopted the 'project method' which he originated in 1918.”

Not long ago, I discovered that I had kept some of the magazines lent to Dr. Kilpatrick that afternoon in my office some fifty years ago. One was my article which appeared in School Science and Mathematics, December, 1915, an abstract of a paper given at a General Science Meeting, Teachers College, and entitled, “General Science is Project Science.” Another was an article appearing in School Science and Mathematics, December, 1916, which is an abstract of an address I gave before the Physics Club of New York, January, 1916, and this was entitled, “Giving the Project Method a Trial.” These dates are well prior to any occasions upon which Dr. Kilpatrick discussed the Project Method. The third article is also of this period, “The Development of a Project,” from the May 1916, issue of Teachers College Record.

And is there any evidence that Professor Kilpatrick did indeed read these articles? Only this, that over the years the two magazines, School Science and Mathematics, and the reprint from the Teachers College Record were neatly wrapped together, and with them was a small slip of paper in Dr. Kilpatrick's handwriting giving evidence of his having seen them, a slip of paper on which he had written: “Please accept many thanks. I used all the suggestions I could get my hand on. WHK.”

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 67 Number 5, 1966, p. 371-337
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 2281, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 12:07:24 AM

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