At that time, most educators and scientists believed that participating in laboratory experiments would help students learn methods of accurate observation and inductive reasoning. However, the focus on prescribing specific experiments and procedures, illustrated by the embrace of the Harvard list, limited the effectiveness of early laboratory education. In the rush to specify laboratory experiments, procedures, and equipment, little attention had been paid to how students might learn from these experiences. Students were expected to simply absorb the methods of inductive reasoning by carrying out experiments according to prescribed procedures (Rudolph, 2005).
Between 1890 and 1910, as U.S. high schools expanded rapidly to absorb a huge influx of new students, a backlash began to develop against the prevailing approach to laboratory education. In a 1901 lecture at the New England Association of College and Secondary Schools, G. Stanley Hall, one of the first American psychologists, criticized high school physics education based on the Harvard list, saying that “boys of this age … want more dynamic physics” (Hall, 1901). Building on Hall’s critique, University of Chicago physicist Charles Mann and other members of the Central Association for Science and Mathematics Teaching launched a complete overhaul of high school physics teaching. Mann and others attacked the “dry bones” of the Harvard experiments, calling for a high school physics curriculum with more personal and social relevance to students. One described lab work as “at best a very artificial means of supplying experiences upon which to build physical concepts” (Woodhull, 1909). Other educators argued that science teaching could be improved by providing more historical perspective, and high schools began reducing the number of laboratory exercises.
By 1910, a clear tension had emerged between those emphasizing laboratory experiments and reformers favoring an emphasis on interesting, practical science content in high school science. However, the focus on content also led to problems, as students became overwhelmed with “interesting” facts. New York’s experience illustrates this tension. In 1890, the New York State Regents exam included questions asking students to design experiments (Champagne and Shiland, 2004). In 1905, the state introduced a new syllabus of physics topics. The content to be covered was so extensive that, over the course of a year, an average of half an hour could be devoted to each topic, virtually eliminating the possibility of including laboratory activities (Matthews, 1994). An outcry to return to more experimentation in science courses resulted, and in 1910 New York State instituted a requirement for 30 science laboratory sessions taking double periods in the syllabus for Regents science courses (courses preparing students for the New York State Regents examinations) (Champagne and Shiland, 2004).
In an influential speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1909, philosopher and educator John Dewey proposed a solution to the tension between advocates for more laboratory