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Midwives of Progressive Education

The Bureau of Educational Experiments 1916-1919
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A history of progressive education in early 20th century USA, centering on the Bureau of Educational Experiments 1916-19 in New York City.


This is Jeroen Staring's second doctoral thesis (Universiteit van Amsterdam), the first being on the life of F. M. Alexander (Radboud University Nijmegen 2005). As a mathematics teacher in the Dutch school system, the author is interested in the debate on Nieuwe Leren (New Learning) and traces its origins to radical nineteenth century education reformers in America and the educational philosophy of John Dewey: cf. 'The individual is not set apart from society but very much a product of it. ... But on the other hand, society exists and lives only in and through individuals.' (Crossley, N, Reflexive Embodiment in Contemporary Society, OU Press 2006: 14-15).

In particular, Staring focuses on the lives and pioneering work of Marietta Johnson (1864Ð1938) and Caroline Pratt (1867Ð1954), and the establishment of the Bureau of Educational Experiments (BEE), New York City in 1916. Both women worked tireless to create a practical child-centred approach to school education that could produce worthy citizens for the birth of an American nation. Instead of learning facts and figures mechanically by rote, their method tapped into children's innate curiosity and eagerness to learn about things that interested them and that were relevant to their daily lives. Johnson, dubbed the 'American Montessori', had a 'conversion experience' after reading Robert Oppenheim's, The Development of the Child (1898) and began developing educational methods to 'natural development' principles in the tradition of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel (cf. Dewey, J. (1916), Democracy and Education, Chapter 9: 'regard for the actual part played by use of the bodily organs in exploration, in handling of materials, in plays and games').

Pratt's campaigning also included feminist reform and improvements to the lives of clothing workers living as virtual slaves in sweat-shop factory conditions. As entrepreneur, she manufactured Do-With Toys (i.e. as opposed to what might be described as merely 'Do-nothing' or 'Look-on' toys) to inspire creative learning in association with her Play School (illustrated on the front cover).

For those interested in the Dewey - Alexander connection, familiar names appear in the text: Alice (wife) and Evelyn (daughter) Dewey, and Lucy Sprague Mitchell (wife of Columbia University economist, W. C. Mitchell). All these became Alexander's pupils shortly after they were introduced to him by Margaret Naumburg during the winter of 1915-16 (McCormack, 1958: p. 41 and footnote). Though not mentioned in his book, Staring concludes from BEE Minutes that it was Pratt's school in Greenwich Village that Alexander visited and watched lessons in drawing and dancing with pupils being allowed (he thought) to do too much as they pleased in the name of so-called 'creativity'

Alexander's assistant, Irene Tasker, accompanied him on this American trip and had been invited by her friend Naumburg to teach in her Walden School. (Tasker's main contribution can be seen as her commitment to a 'means whereby' approach to education: 'I learned from Montessori that my function as a teacher was primarily to observe and, according to what I observed, to provide each child with material best suited to him at his particular stage, and then acting as his guide, to give him the least help necessary to enable him to educate himself.' ('Connecting Links', Sheildrake Press 1978.)

It is feasible that Alexander visited both schools but one or other prompted his critique of 'free expression' in Man's Supreme Inheritance, Chapter VII (published January 1918 in the USA). During a BEE meeting in November 1918, Evelyn Dewey spoke out firmly against Alexander's views on progressive education. In his diary (Butler Library, Columbia University), Wesley Mitchell wrote that emotions were riding high on his returning from a meeting with the US President in Washington and that he had to calm the situation. Lucy, and probably Mitchell himself who was a trustee, then wrote a memo recommending further research into Alexander's methods (BEE Minutes).

© Malcolm Williamson 2014

2014 © Malcolm Williamson ( Reproduced with permission.

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