Path opens to the ivory tower

13th December 1996 at 00:00
UNITED STATES. University laboratory schools in the United States have existed almost since the founding of their parent institutions. The first practice schools were established in Massachusetts in 1838. The University of Chicago school, one of the best-known in the country, was founded under the education theorist John Dewey, a century ago, writes Tim Cornwell.

Their dream was to bring the ivory tower world of academia into contact with the school room, to the benefit of both. "Higher education creates all these wonderful programmes for teaching students without ever having active research in the classroom, to see if they actually work," said Dr Wendell McConnaha, principal of the Greyhills laboratory school on the Navajo Indian reservation. "If a professor says, I think I've got a better way to teach maths, he's got 30 students to work with." Schoolchildren, meanwhile, get access to university facilities and expertise.

But since the late 1970s, the number of lab schools has shrunk by almost a half from a high of about 200. Universities bridled under their economic costs and saw better uses for lab school property. And there was mounting criticism that lab schools, with their carefully-selected pupil population and top-grade facilities, provided a rarefied experience for student teachers - who would best be served by training in ordinary schools. "Typically your lab schools are a contrived environment," said Malathi Sandhu, area chairman for special education programmes at Northern Arizona University, echoing what has been a common criticism. "For students, the transition to the real world, sometimes is rough. The preferred mode is to send more students into the real environment. "

The US lab schools are credited with providing research, particularly on early childhood education, that supported US government programmes aimed at young children, such as Head Start. They have suffered under an appearance of elitism, however, particularly where they charge high fees in cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. More recently, said John Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Laboratory Schools, they have enjoyed a minor resurgence. Schools have led research into using computers in education. And while numbers may have dropped at home, the NALS has helped set up 20 overseas, from Nigeria to New Zealand.

Lab schools share a progressive approach to education, disdaining traditional textbook courses, testing and report cards in favour of team teaching and attempting to work each child at their own pace.

At the Bank Street college's School for Children in New York, for example, there is a philosophy of developmental interaction based on concrete experience. Children from a young age work around field trips, even if to a neighbourhood fire station. Seven and eight-year-olds study the Hudson River system. Older children study immigration through role play on visits to Ellis Island, the historic staging post for new arrivals in New York.

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