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Inside this issue:

Earning Our Identity: Are We Being True to Our Educational Core?

Museum-School Bridges: A Legacy of Progressive Education

An ASTC Museum-School Sampler

A Semester for Science: Ontario's Science School Program

In Their Own Words: Middle School Students' Experiences at the American Museum of Natural History

Chartering a Course: Three Communities, Three Schools

Many Doors to Learning: Museums Collaborate to Serve Schools



Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions: January/February 2004
January/February 2004
Science Centers as Schools:
Extending the Mission
Museum-School Bridges: A Legacy of Progressive Education

By George E. Hein

Having museums sponsor schools—and schools make more extensive use of museums—is a concept that has reemerged in the United States in the past decade. But this form of pedagogy is not new. It goes back more than 100 years, to the "Progressive Era" of the early 20th century.

In 1900, the United States was a society with strongly entrenched racism, few constraints on exploitative capitalism, and a burgeoning immigrant population. Visionary leaders appeared who sought, through legal and political means, to diminish the dramatic contrast between rich and poor and to improve social services. They championed such disparate goals as voting rights for women, child labor laws (thus making public schooling possible), and better working conditions for the average man and woman.

Progressive education grew out of this larger social and political movement. In the school community, John Dewey would become its chief proponent. And in the museum world, John Cotton Dana would be identified with a parallel effort.

Progressivism in education

The two champions of experiential learning had much in common, although there is no evidence that they interacted or even met.

Both Dewey and Dana were born in Vermont in the 1850s; both received their education in the eastern United States, spent formative years in the American West, and returned to influential positions in the East (in New York and Newark, respectively). And both emphasized similar principles:

  • the importance of education for improving society,
  • the primacy of experience and the use of objects for learning, and
  • the need for a rich learning environment, unencumbered by traditional subject classifications.

John Dewey (1859-1952) founded the remarkable Laboratory School at the University of Chicago in 1896; he would go on to teach philosophy at Columbia University from 1904 until his retirement in 1930. Dewey was well known for his advocacy of learning through doing and for his insistence that the knowledge in books is dry and dead until it is "put to use" (that is, associated with action). He was also a strong advocate for the incorporation of museums as part of the educational process.

In his seminal 1900 book The School and Society, Dewey suggests that a school should be like a two-story building that houses the various functions of real life. The activity centers—kitchens and workshops, gardens and industries—would surround two central rooms, the library and the museum, with the latter providing a link between the mere "doing" of experience and the reflecting on it.

The Chicago Laboratory School modeled his ideas. His students—who included both boys and girls—tended gardens, worked at carpentry, cooked, and wove. They went on numerous field trips and visited the Columbian Field Museum (then located near the school, at the site of the present Museum of Science and Industry) for an hour and a half each week.

Dewey believed that if a society is to address injustice and discrimination and progress toward a more democratic state, then members of that society need to be educated to think for themselves and question the status quo. All societies educate, he taught, but a traditional education that only reproduces the current culture will do nothing to support change. If we are not satisfied with the current state of the world, progressive education is needed.

John Cotton Dana (1856-1929) was director of the Newark Museum from 1909 until his death. He came to museum work from a background directing libraries, and he applied the community-service philosophy of the American public library to his new task. Devoted to "opening up" institutions, he advocated outreach programs, nature study outside the museum, and activities in the galleries.

Dana argued that the role of the museum was primarily to serve the community, and he put education above collection. Railing against "the undue reverence for oil paint," he wrote that "if oil paintings are put in the subordinate place in which they belong, the average art museum will have much more room for the display of objects which have quite a direct bearing on the daily life of those who support it."

In "Schools and Museums," an article recently republished in The New Museum: Selected Writings of John Cotton Dana (Newark, New Jersey: the Newark Museum Association, 1999), Dana proposed "school museums" that would "lend...objects useful in school work, prepared by a corps of workers [at a museum] who are in close touch with the schools." His vision included the creation of branch museums in many public places, including churches, factories, and even the schools themselves.

"A good museum attracts, entertains, arouses curiosity, leads to questioning and thus promotes learning," Dana wrote. "It is an educational institution that is set up and kept in motion-that it may help the members of the community to become happier, wiser, and more effective."

Progressivism and hands-on science

Today, when we still face the problems of a dramatic (and widening) chasm between rich and poor, the discriminatory treatment of immigrants, and the lingering effects of a racist heritage, it is useful to remember the vision embodied by Dewey and Dana.

Progressive education has never gained mainstream acceptance in public schools, but it has also never disappeared. In the 1960s, I was fortunate to be part of the Elementary Science Study (ESS), a major reform effort in K-6 science education that was funded by the National Science Foundation. Program director David Hawkins, a philosopher, often wrote and spoke about John Dewey, and the more than 100 scientists, artists, and educators who worked for ESS identified strongly with the progressive education movement. All of us were committed to producing materials to match the philosophy we espoused.

The curriculum units we developed (optics boxes, spinning tables, pattern blocks)—as well as the pedagogic practices emphasizing inquiry—became the basis of science instruction in many U.S. elementary schools in the 1960s and early '70s. And when the first science centers were established (some by former ESS staff members, such as Frank Oppenheimer of the Exploratorium), our interactive materials and programs made a ready transition into that setting. So progressive education is still very much alive in science centers and museums around the world.

It also continues to find champions in the debate about schools. In an April 1999 article in Education Week, Julian Weissglass, director of the Center for Educational Change in Mathematics and Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, contrasted the worldviews that define different approaches to education:

The debate between traditionalists and essentially a debate...about the nature of learning, the nature of society, and the purpose of schools in a democracy. Traditionalists structure schools to prepare students for filling roles in society-not for transforming it. They do not see that traditional approaches may contribute to maintaining the inequity and injustice that exist in our society. Progressives see society as needing improvement and the schools as serving the function of helping students become thinking citizens who can contribute to creating a more just society.

Effective museum education activities allow students to ask questions, interact with objects, and explore the processes that lead to a richer understanding of the world. In this era of standards-based curricula and high-stakes testing, it is worth reemphasizing the importance of keeping museum education focused in the direction of open, inquisitive use of material resources—not in the direction of the constrained, answer-driven minutiae of worksheets.

It is equally important to remember the social implications of our philosophy. Not only must we, as museum educators, embrace and employ what we have discovered about human development and learning, but we must also acknowledge that our pedagogic practices shape the society we are helping to nurture. By doing so, we retain our social relevance and remain true to a long and noble tradition of progressive education.

George Hein is professor emeritus at Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. This article is based on his keynote address for the Northeast Informal Science Education Network (NISEN) Conference in 2001. That piece, as well as others by the author, can be found at

George E. Hein
The author, Lesley University professor emeritus George E. Hein, participates in an ASTC Accessible Practices prototype workshop in 2000.

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