Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The house that progressive education built

Over the weekend we made a long-awaited trip out to the Eastern Panhandle to do some sightseeing. It seemed a shame to have lived in West Virginia for nearly two years and not to have seen Harpers Ferry, Berkeley Springs, and some of the other interesting and historic places at the state's far reaches.

The place I ended up falling in love with, though, was Shepherdstown, a small college town between Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry. Its main street, German Street, is lined with 18th-century brick and stone buildings that now house an interesting array of shops and restaurants, and adjoins the campus of Shepherd University, the state's oldest liberal-arts college.

Notably, the now-Shepherd University began life as Shepherd College, one of West Virginia's extensive system of state normal schools. (My grandfather taught at the former normal school in Athens, which is now Concord University, and my aunt got her degree in education from the normal school that's now Glenville State College near my dad's hometown of Grantsville.)

It turns out that this cute playhouse that Tom is standing in front of wasn't built, as you might expect, by a handy parent or grandparent for a beloved child. Rather, it was built by children as part of a "learning by doing" initiative by education faculty at Shepherd in the 1920s.

According to a 1983 article by Chris Kaye reprinted in the Summer 2009 edition of Shepherdstown's Good News Paper,

The project started out quite modestly back in 1928. Professor Florence Shaw, supervisor of "observation and teaching" at Shepherd College, had the idea to start a small garden for school children in the fifth and sixth grades....When the idea was presented to President W. H. S. White, it is reported he replied, "Why not build a real house?"

...Thus, the garden grew into a one-acre model of a typical farm in the Shenandoah Valley--a house, a barn, and crops.

The kids researched local farming practices and architectural styles, calculated the amount and cost of needed building materials, and built the structure with the help of adult masons and carpenters. According to other sources, after it was completed, student teachers observed children's play habits in the house as part of their own research (though it seems hard to believe that there'd be room enough inside for a group of kids and several adults).

It's really the perfect illustration of the values of early 20th-century progressive education, a la Dewey: get the kids involved in real activities and you'll see real learning. And in the meantime, teacher-researchers can continue their own professional development by observing and writing about if, why, and how the various activities worked.

Like old wine in new bottles, these are the principles of contemporary theories about "project-based learning" and "action research." But I bet no one's out there building an adorable stone cottage that will not only still be standing, but still be admired 80 years from now.


Erica said...

That's gorgeous. And, comparing it to flimsy (rarely very educational) things my kids tend to bring home from school, incredibly impressive. I'd love to see more cooperative, permanent (or semi-permanent) projects involved in their education, rather than single-use bring-home things that clutter my house.

ldoyle said...

When did Tom get so tall?