Skip Navigation Links

A Laboratory School Model for 21st Century Schools?

Terrence Banks


            In 1896 John Dewey opened the doors of the first laboratory school.  Dewey’s intention was to challenge conventional attitudes about the education of children and discover that school can be a cooperative community.  He believed that the traditional factory style education that dominates our education system is inadequate and fosters a passive static style of learning, involving time based learning, memorization of facts, little or no student freedom, isolated learning, text-book driven learning, and low student motivation. If we are to move education into the 21st century we must eliminate most of that and give students an authentic curriculum.


            Our society is quite different from what it was when Dewey’s school first opened.  A lot of things have changed.  The civil rights movement’s fight for equality for minorities and the internet have changed the way we view education, as well.  So, does Dewey’s lab school provide a model for schools of the 21st century?


            What does a laboratory style school look like? One fundamental belief is that students learn best when they understand the purpose of what they are learning. In other words students need to see that what they are learning is relevant to their own lives.  Classroom work at Dewey’s laboratory school was a carefully designed extension of what the children experienced at home.


            John Dewey’s lab school had a diversity of students as well as ideals.  His school was student centered with teachers serving as facilitators.  His school was in part project based.  The curriculum was connected to students’ interests, experiences, talents, and the real world.


            Dewey’s lab school and schools of the 21st century must be community driven.  This means that the classroom is expanded to include the community, state, country and eventually the world. This not only applies to the students but the teachers as well. The teachers will be called upon to serve in their community applying their specific field of expertise.  The world is getting smaller with the use of technologies.  This new school will use those new technologies to create a global community where students will collaborate, exchange ideals, and create/solve real world problems with people from other countries.  Dewey’s laboratory school classrooms were small, vibrant communities.  The students worked in small groups on relevant and practical projects.  They also took frequent trips outside of the classroom to better their understandings.


            John Dewey believed that diversity was important in educating a student. Especially in a world becoming more and more diversified. The diversity in 21st century schools will not only include multiple races and cultures, but a range of ideals, worldviews and experiences.

This type of education will be geared toward solving real world problems, using the classroom.


            A 21st century school will use its facilities in a way that will make learning relevant to its students. This new school will provide real world scenarios like creating web pages for businesses, growing and cultivating their own food somewhere on campus, and other project based learning will be encouraged.   Dewey believed that students begin learning by experimentation and develop interests in traditional subjects to help them gather information.


            Though Dewey’s school got a great deal of attention its impact on education has been seemingly non-existent.  There are a couple reasons for this:  one being its lack of ability to transfer this model to schools in less fortunate environments.  Most if not all of the students from Dewey’s school in the early 1900’s came from middle class families.  A majority of the students also were children of the University of Chicago’s staff and faculty.  Many educators believe that in order for this model to work there must be a very low student to teacher ratio, highly qualified staff, an abundance of different kinds of equipment and an abundance of resources.




Flanagan, F.M.,  Minerva—An Internet Journal of Philosophy. (Retrieved October 22, 2010)


Harms, W., & DePencier, Experiencing education: 100 years of learning at The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.  Alpha Beta Press, 1996. (Retrieved October 15, 2010)


Spring, J. (2008). The American School From Puritans to No Child Left Behind (7th edition).  New York: McGraw Hill.