Teaching and Learning Theory
The Dewey School


The Dewey School (1898-1948): The School as a Cooperative Society

The Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, later known as the Dewey School, opened in January 1896 with 16 pupils and two "teachers." By 1898 the Dewey School had 82 students. By 1902 the school was composed of 140 children, 23 teachers, and 10 graduate assistants.

The Goals of the Dewey School:

  1. the development of the school as a cooperative community that would meet the social needs of students and,
  2. the intellectual development of the child through activity.

According to Mayhew & Edwards (1936), two assumptions about children were fundamental to the philosophy of the Dewey School.

The first emphasized the differences between children and adults:

The second assumption was that:

Therefore the school must meet the unique needs and interests of the child, while providing a situation where the problem-solving processes used by both children and adults can be brought to bear upon those interests and needs.

Equally important to the philosophy of the Dewey School was that learning occurred within a community setting. Dewey (1900) stated that a school as an embryonic community life that will reflect the life of the larger society. Dewey elaborated on this belief by stating that the embryonic community will in turn produce citizens that can improve the larger society by making it worthy, lively, and harmonious. Thus, in the Dewey School, a major goal of education was its social purpose. This social purpose guided the process of having children learn to work cooperatively together to achieve common goals.

Activities at the Dewey School arose from the child's own interests and from the need to solve problems that aroused the child's curiosity and that led to creative solutions. In turn, activity itself led to inquiry and to the development of skills (Tanner & Tanner, 1980).

Subject matter was seen as a resource for social and intellectual problem solving. In keeping with principles of child development, the selection of subject matter was related to children's experiences and interests, and moved from primarily concrete and physical experiences for the younger children to more abstract and intellectual pursuits for the older groups (Martinello & Cook, 1994).

Integrated Curriculum in the Dewey School

In the Dewey School integration of the curriculum emerged from teacher's and researcher's beliefs about learning and from beliefs about the purposes of schools. Children's interests are not subject specific; they cross the traditional disciplines. The acquisition of skills emerges from activities and inquiry related to a broad central theme, and are explored in the community of the classroom.

The Dewey School curriculum, and integration of that curriculum, was expected to occur naturally, as subject-area specialists designed activities to explore the problem each group was investigating. However, teachers were not afraid to encourage the children to explore other topics not directly related to the central problem.

For example:

A group of 6 year old children, in addition to counting and measuring, as they learned about a farm, also used dominoes and blocks to help develop concepts of tens and units.

It is important to note that the central problems studied in each age group at the Dewey School had a strong social studies orientation. This is logical considering the social purposes of the school were the School's major focus. Studies in subjects such as science, mathematics, cooking, art, music, and even French were related to the central social, historical, or geographical central theme.


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Dr. Mark L. Merickel
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School of Education
Oregon State University
Corvallis, OR