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The Larger Picture

Written by George Hein

When I joined ESS, I entered a new world both intellectually and practically. Developing science materials for elementary school children required going to classrooms and trying out activities with actual children, a situation dramatically different from mixing chemicals in a flask. And all my reading of the Journal of the American Chemical Society was of little use in attempting to understand how people learn. I began my education with the kind assistance of experienced staff learning about the significance of Piaget's findings that thinking itself developed and that his clinical interview research style was a valid approach to learning about this development, and I was introduced to the wonderful example of the post—World War II British school movement. Several ESS staff members had visited British schools and some had come from progressive private schools in the U.S. (primarily Shady Hill School in Cambridge) and thus also had a familiarity with John Dewey's important educational writings and the example of his experimental school. But it took some time for me to realize that what we were proposing and implementing was only the latest phase of a decades—old—today, forty years later, we can say century—old—progressive education effort to change schools. The British literature that was so influential was itself based not only on their experiences during the war, but also on their own tradition of progressive education, derived from earlier work of a generation that had applied Dewey, as well as Piaget to their society. More directly, both the Shady Hill veterans at ESS and David Hawkins, the first director, were knowledgeable and clear that what we were doing was a version of the progressive education movement. Dewey had already written about the importance of unbolting the school desks from the floor, on using the natural world as a starting point for curriculum and on harnessing children's interest and curiosity to provide teachable moments. While I thought I was contributing to inventing the world, we were actually reapplying older ideas.

A similar historical framework hovered over the activities at The Children's Museum. Providing kits for classroom use goes back to the very early 1900s. Both children's and other museums pioneered developing interactive exhibits and taking the objects out of cases as long ago as the first children's museum, founded in 1899. As Mike suggests in his autobiographical article, it is probably not a coincidence that the Ethical Culture School—where Dewey sent his own children and where he lectured frequently—instilled in him as well as in Frank Oppenheimer models for interactive learning they expressed in their museum work decades later.

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