How Progressive Education Came to Winnetka

Gazette Article by: Susan Crowe Whitcomb
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring/Summer 2009

Winnetka’s educational landscape looked like that of many small towns in America g uring the middle of the 19th century. A one-room school house opened on October 1, 1859 at the southeast corner of Maple and Elm streets. The first teacher was paid $20 per month and taught 25 students (25% of Winnetka’s population). Not only did she teach all ages and all subjects, she lit the fire in the morning and swept out the room in the evening. It is likely that many of her pupils were children of newly-arrived immigrants who did not speak English.

As Winnetka’s population grew, the main educational concern was renting and building space to house students. The curriculum was based on courses taught in the Chicago Public Schools. The Winnetka Board of Education was formed in 1892, and after the turn of the century discussions began among residents about how to bring schools in Winnetka up to the level of those on the East Coast where many of them had been educated. Why couldn’t they make the local public schools as good as private ones?

Up to that time, traditional schooling consisted of rote learning — “lockstep” education that required classes to march through subject textbooks all together in class. Desks standing in rows were bolted to the floor and the teacher’s job was to lead drills and hear recitations. Student misconduct was punished harshly.

By the late 19th century there were some critics of this approach, and Chicago had become a laboratory for new thinking. Colonel Francis Parker — later called the “father of progressive education” – did pioneering work at two experimental schools in Chicago. At the root of his new methods was the idea that learning should derive from a child’s natural curiosity. The ideal classroom should be a democratic community where everyone had a say, and all felt comfortable and successful. A teacher was more facilitator than task master.

Parker collaborated with the writer, philosopher and education reformer John Dewey, who founded the University of Chicago Lab School. Dewey believed in learning that was both active and experiential. Children came to school to do things: learning arithmetic would come from measuring ingredients in cooking or calculating the time it would take to get from one place to another by mule.

One of the students exposed to Parker’s new model of education was Carleton Washburne. Washburne attended Parker’s Chicago Institute for three years in the early grades. Washburne’s mother edited Parker’s educational magazine and was well acquainted with John Dewey. When Washburne was hired as Winnetka Public Schools Superintendent in 1919, he brought with him the philosophy of Parker and Dewey as well as his own research as an educator and later an instructor of teachers in California.

In his first year as Superintendent, Winnetka residents had many questions about Washburne’s “individualized learning system” being used as the primary teaching method. The Winnetka Talk instituted a question and answer column titled “School Problems” so Washburne could address parent concerns. Here Washburne defined his system simply:
“The individualized learning system allows each student to do each grade’s work at his or her own natural rate of progress, unhurried by those who are quicker and unhampered by those who are slower.”

In his previous work, Washburne recognized that just because two children were the same age, they did not progress at the same rate in every subject. Washburne and his staff were early users of diagnostic and intelligence tests to determine the spread of abilities within a single grade.

When they learned that there was a range of four years within any given classroom, teachers developed individualized learning materials in the core subjects; these eventually became known as “workbooks.” After a few years, formal grades were dropped in favor of “goal cards” which tracked each student’s progress against his or her goals. Washburne thought it was important to use research to inform new practices. When teachers were presented with a problem that was not addressed by current research, they took it upon themselves to do their own and publish the results for the benefit of all educators. At first, this was done in the teachers’ free time; after a few years, Washburne established a research department to assess the effectiveness of curricula and teaching methods. The results of this research were presented in over 100 articles published in education journals during Washburne’s 24-year tenure as Superintendent.

The system became known worldwide as the “Winnetka Plan” and a multitude of educators came to visit the Winnetka schools.

“Nearly every week it seemed, Carleton Washburne — we called him “jelly-legs” because he was so tall — would have a foreigner in tow, probably from Japan, showing us at work in our class room. It seems to me that we got used to these ‘inspections’ and even a little worldly, seeing foreigners up close for the first time in our lives.”
– Robert Greenhalgh, Skokie
School student, 1927-29

Beyond classroom work, Washburne encouraged children to develop special interests to stimulate their creativity and give them a sense of social responsibility.

“Student corporations” offered hands-on experience with the real world: a livestock corporation bred rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters and chickens to sell; a dishwasher’s union serviced the school cafeteria in exchange for free lunch; and a student credit union lent money while charging interest fees.

Washburne’s philosophy of education was “living.”

“Education consists of helping children to develop in a way that is personally and socially satisfying. It consists therefore of providing the environment and opportunities, the stimuli and the guidance, that will satisfy both the needs of the growing individual and the needs of the complex, changing society of which he is an integral part.”

Washburne would have been intrigued by the Internet: a global democracy with a highly participatory culture and endless opportunity for shared learning. He said in much of his writing that education methods must continue to change along with children and the world they live in. Since Washburne’s departure from Winnetka in 1943, both progressive education methods and District 36 have continued to evolve.

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