Hundreds Attend Laboratory Schools’ Centennial Colloquium on Dewey: Then and Now

May 13, 2019

On the afternoon of Thursday, May 2, UChicago Professor and Nobel laureate James Heckman, whose groundbreaking work on the benefits of early childhood education has helped shaped the field, spoke to an audience from around the world—among them, high schoolers who a year ago had traveled to the very types of rural Chinese communities that Professor Heckman's work is focusing on. For those high schoolers—some of whom were Chinese nationals from Beijing—seeing those rural schools changed their understanding of the world.

Moments of Deweyan hands-on learning, like these, provided the themes that linked people from across the US, China, and Asia—high school students and senior Chinese officials, teachers and internationally-known policymakers, philosophers and practitioners. For three days, May 3–5, more than 250 people convened in Hyde Park to honor and reflect upon John Dewey's role in education and his relevance today at home and in China. Led by the Laboratory Schools, the Centennial Colloquium on Dewey: Then and Now brought educators to collaborate around several key themes: how Dewey's theories of education guide school leaders today, current challenges in Chinese education, and progressive approaches to art and education.

The conference, designed to deepen connections in the area of pre-collegiate education, marked the 100th anniversary of a seminal two-year trip to China made by Dewey—the world-renowned educator and founder of the Laboratory Schools. As he and wife Alice traveled through China, Dewey gained what some have called "superstar" status, with people flocking to his lectures or reading them in translation in books and newspapers, and widely applying his philosophies of education.

Two days after Prof. Heckman's talk, the high schoolers—from the Laboratory Schools, Woodlawn Charter School, and RFDZ, Lab's partner school in Beijing—took to the stage to talk about their experiences in a conversation with Larry Hickman, an internationally recognized authority on the life and thought of philosopher John Dewey and an emeritus professor and former director of the Center for Dewey Studies, Southern Illinois University.

"What we are doing in our classrooms right now is of deep interest to the world," said Laboratory Schools Director Charlie Abelmann. "Ours is a fascinating school because we have an amazing group of educators and students, who very much exist within the context of the University of Chicago. Even our youngest children are given the age-appropriate tools so that they, too, in age-appropriate ways, can 'challenge conventional thinking in pursuit of original ideas.'

"These young people have the skills to reflect upon real-world experience, discuss and respectfully debate their ideas with peers and educators—and do it on a stage in front of 100 people! This is learning by doing in action."

The conference has reignited interest in Dewey. Tied to the Laboratory Schools' colloquium, Peking University Press just published "John Dewey's Educational Thought in China," a text on Dewey's influence on educational thought in that country. Chinese scholars are also planning to host similar colloquia in China. "It's exciting that Lab is not just a great school—we are known as The Dewey School. We can take a leadership role in raising important issues about education in the world today," said Mr. Abelmann.

Educators visited Lab classrooms to see the Schools' internationally regarded program, one that very much embodies Dewey's ideas on learning by doing, being child-centered, and helping young people develop into meaningful contributors to a democratic society. They witnessed students absorbed in scientific inquiry and engaging in open discourse and debate on topics of history and literature. The speakers, panelists, and presenters came from institutions across the US (UChicago, Lab, Princeton, UIUC, and Texas Tech) and from across Asia (Peking University, Beijing Normal, Tsinghua University, Hong Kong University.)

"This effort reaffirms Lab's history as a convener of original thinkers and an international leader in education. For example, how our art teachers created a cross-cultural, cross-world art project that allowed students to explore a complicated relationship between two nations? Their lesson plans will inspire others." says Mr. Abelmann.

The University of Chicago has a rich history of scholarly collaboration in China, which dates to the early 1900s. In the span of a century, research partnerships between UChicago scholars and their Chinese counterparts have blossomed into dozens of ongoing relationships, spanning many fields of study.

"Faculty and administrators from the University collaborated with us in many ways and it shows the close link. Lab and the University are working together on educational issues on an international level. We hope to have lasting impact on the important issues of our day in terms of precollegiate education."

Lab thanks the individuals and organizations whose financial support made this colloquium possible:

  • Jun Zhou, Jefferson Education Group, for his generous support of Centennial Colloquium on Dewey: Then and Now.
  • Fushun Li for providing the exhibition Dewey's Lectures in China, 1919–1921: Drawings by Fushun Li in Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of John Dewey's Historic Trip, and for the accompanying book, John Dewey's Educational Thought in China—In Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of John Dewey's Lecturing in China (Peking University Press, 2019).
  • Demay Education and HnR for their sponsorship of John Dewey: Art as Experience.
  • Mingyuan Institute of Education for its partnership.