My Christmas Wish

Michael Metzger

Our son Stephen is known for his audacious Christmas lists. Tongue in cheek, he asks for over-the-top gifts like a Maserati or 60 inch TV. I too have an audacious Christmas wish this year. I’d like to be a part of launching something similar to John Dewey’s Laboratory School.

I love education. I don’t love the prevailing forms of education however. As a Christian, I believe scripture says genuine education entails knowing by doing. As educational philosopher Kieran Egan notes, knowledge “exists only as a function of living tissue.”1 Learning is hands-on.

We observe this in how Adam and Eve learned. It was embodied learning, as in “Adam knew Eve” – nuptial union (Genesis 4:1). Jesus echoes this: “If any man is willing to do his (the Father’s) will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from myself” (John 17:7). Knowing by doing.

This understanding of education went into decline with the rise of the Enlightenment. Education became knowing by listening. If you took notes and passed the exam, you had knowledge. This is a far cry from the ancient view of education and John Dewey knew it. In his masterful book, The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand retells Dewey’s story.

In 1896, Dewey, then chair of the Department of Philosophy of the University of Chicago, opened an experimental school to test his assumption that children learn by doing rather than through lectures. The University Elementary School of the University of Chicago had sixteen children, all under twelve, and two teachers.

Students learned to cook, as it combined arithmetic (weighing and measuring ingredients, with instruments the children made themselves), chemistry and physics (observing the process of combustion), biology (diet and digestion), and geography (exploring the natural environments of the plants and animals). It was a local sensation.

By 1902, there were 140 students, twenty-three teachers, and ten graduate students working as assistants; it had become an international sensation; and it was known as the Dewey School. It was a laboratory, a place, as Dewey later put it, “to work out in the concrete, instead of merely in the head or on paper, a theory of the unity of knowledge.”

By “unity of knowledge” Dewey did not mean that all knowledge is one. He meant that knowledge is inseparably united with doing. Education at the Dewey School was based on the idea that knowledge is a by-product of activity: people do things in the world, and the doing results in learning. In the traditional method of education, teachers pass on disembodied information to pupils. Knowledge is cut off from the activity in which it has its meaning, and becomes an abstraction, concept, or “theory.”

Dewey countered this with cooking and carpentry. The children cooked and served lunch once a week. Preparing a meal (as opposed to, say, memorizing the multiplication table) was a goal-directed activity, a social activity, and continuous with life outside school. Cooking became the basis for most of the science taught in the school.

It turned out that making cereal became a three-year continuous course of study for all children between the ages of six and eight – with (on the testimony of two teachers) “no sense of monotony on the part of either pupils or teacher.” Cooking was soon seen as seamless with the sphere of the home, industry and business. The children learned to work with iron, for example, building their own tiny smelters.

The pedagogical challenge in all this, wrote Dewey, was to demonstrate how chemistry is indivisible from lunch, learning indivisible from the doing. “Absolutely no separation is made between the ‘social’ side of the work, its concern with people’s activities and their mutual dependencies, and the ‘science,’ regard for physical facts and forces.”2 This is precisely what the Bible teaches us. Genuine education requires knowing by doing.

Of course, the pedagogical challenge in all this is how it runs counter to our current educational approaches. Launching something similar to John Dewey’s Laboratory School would be audacious. It would reframe education, returning to the ancient approach of knowing by doing. Jim Collins says great companies have a BHAG – a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. I know of some educational institutions desiring to reframe education, returning to knowing by doing. I hope to be a part. That’s my Christmas wish.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Kieran Egan, Getting It Wrong From the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget (New Haven: Yale, 2002), p. 68.
2 Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), pp. 320-324.


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  1. Mike
    The implications of “knowing” about good and evil are far reaching. If I have had information pass my mind about good but not done anything I don’t know about good. But despite that if I do contrary to the information that has passed my mind I know all about evil, yet I very well may not know the difference between the two

  2. So true. Studying Scripture AND partaking in the Sacraments are both critical to growing in The Lord. They are not mutually exclusive.

  3. With the rise of eLearning, lecture is taking the lead – I’m wondering what measures would help to infuse eLearning lectures with “doing”. Quizzes don’t do it for me.

  4. You are right, Roy. Coupling eLearning with periodic and regular onsite innovation labs is the solution. In these labs, mentors work with practitioners in solving problems. It is the hands-on ingredient essential to acquiring genuine knowledge.

  5. In 1901 the University of Chicago combined the Laboratory School with the Chicago Institute, a private progressive normal school that had been founded by Francis W. Parker. As part of the university’s new School of Education, secondary schools were established in 1902 and under Dewey’s leadership were merged in 1903 into a set of laboratory schools. The schools marked the beginning of the lab school movement for teacher preparation and educational research in the United States. The Laboratory Schools enroll pupils from nursery school through the 12th grade. There are dozens of them today.

  6. I see, thanks. $29,424 per year makes it a formidable challenge to be educated in a proper way! Still, your thoughts are wisely provocative toward asking ourselves how we ourselves and others best learn anything: take it out of our “heads only” culture and include our hands.

  7. I see, thanks. $29,424 per year makes it a formidable challenge to be educated in a proper way! Still, your thoughts are wisely provocative toward asking ourselves how we ourselves and others best learn anything: take it out of our “heads only” culture and include our hands.

  8. Ray: As a matter of fact, I am with one institute. I’d appreciate any and all prayer for this possibility. While not appropriate to discuss here, you can contact me via email and we can talk further.

  9. Hi Mike!
    I really love reading your website content. I would be very interested in being a nurse at that school. It is a fabulous idea and I know you can make it happen!!! Contact me, Kathy has my number I hope.

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