experimentation and advocates for science education emphasizing practical content. While criticizing science teaching focused strictly on covering large amounts of known content, Dewey also pointed to the flaws in rigid laboratory exercises: “A student may acquire laboratory methods as so much isolated and final stuff, just as he may so acquire material from a textbook…. Many a student had acquired dexterity and skill in laboratory methods without it ever occurring to him that they have anything to do with constructing beliefs that are alone worthy of the title of knowledge” (Dewey, 1910b). Dewey believed that people should leave school with some understanding of the kinds of evidence required to substantiate scientific beliefs. However, he never explicitly described his view of the process by which scientists develop and substantiate such evidence.

In 1910, Dewey wrote a short textbook aimed at helping teachers deal with students as individuals despite rapidly growing enrollments. He analyzed what he called “a complete act of thought,” including five steps: (1) a felt difficulty, (2) its location and definition, (3) suggestion of possible solution, (4) development by reasoning of the bearing of the suggestion, and (5) further observation and experiment leading to its acceptance or rejection (Dewey, 1910a, pp. 68-78). Educators quickly misinterpreted these five steps as a description of the scientific method that could be applied to practical problems. In 1918, William Kilpatrick of Teachers College published a seminal article on the “project method,” which used Dewey’s five steps to address problems of everyday life. The article was eventually reprinted 60,000 times as reformers embraced the idea of engaging students with practical problems, while at the same time teaching them about what were seen as the methods of science (Rudolph, 2005).

During the 1920s, reform-minded teachers struggled to use the project method. Faced with ever-larger classes and state requirements for coverage of science content, they began to look for lists of specific projects that students could undertake, the procedures they could use, and the expected results. Soon, standardized lists of projects were published, and students who had previously been freed from rigid laboratory procedures were now engaged in rigid, specified projects, leading one writer to observe, “the project is little more than a new cloak for the inductive method” (Downing, 1919, p. 571).

Despite these unresolved tensions, laboratory education had become firmly established, and growing numbers of future high school teachers were instructed in teaching laboratory activities. For example, a 1925 textbook for preservice science teachers included a chapter titled “Place of Laboratory Work in the Teaching of Science” followed by three additional chapters on how to teach laboratory science (Brownell and Wade, 1925). Over the following decades, high school science education (including laboratory education) increasingly emphasized practical goals and the benefits of science in everyday life. During World War II, as scientists focused on federally funded



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement