Helen Parkhurst had a relatively simple yet highly effective view of how education should be conducted. The basis of her system, called the Dalton system, is that pupils should receive one-to-one attention from their teachers, assignments should be specific and reflect the ability of the pupil, pupils should be set individual targets to be achieved in a specific time, and pupils should be responsible for finding the best way to achieve their targets.
Influenced by high-profile educationalists John Dewey and Maria Montessori, Parkhurst introduced her method to the Dalton High School, Massachusetts, in 1920. She went on to establish the Dalton School (The Children’s University) in New York in 1922. Other schools have since adopted versions of the system. Bryanston School in Dorset, where we work, is one of them.
Parkhurst believed that the Dalton System would promote independence and dependability in her students and, through this, help them develop their social skills and sense of responsibility towards others.
The Dalton System is underpinned by three main elements:
This is a subject-based learning environment. Each subject has a room with subject specific teachers available to support pupils. Learning is self-directed, with the approach – as outlined above – akin to the process that happens in science labs (hence, the name)
This is a contract of work agreed between the teacher and the pupil. Through laboratory time, pupils learn one-to-one, or in small groups, with their teachers and the day is balanced between independent study and learning with teachers.
This is the home base in the school. At the head of it is the house advisor, who holds the general overview of the child’s progress and is the main parental contact.
The Dalton approach works because it is flexible and individualised. Because pupils choose what to work on and the space to study in, they have a greater sense of autonomy over their studies, gaining independence in their learning. Weekly feedback on assignments allows the pupils to understand how they can improve through ongoing dialogue.
Under the modified system at Bryanston, lessons are conventional in as much as they are delivered in a classroom and cover the syllabus. Independent learning builds on the knowledge and understanding from classes and pupils seek help from teachers as they need it to complete assignments. At the heart of the programme is the one-to-one, both with the teacher and through tutorials where pupils develop the skills of planning, organising and prioritising to learn how to structure their own time in order to meet deadlines.
But a Dalton education does comes at a cost. It requires a high staff:pupil ratio; and the right space with subject specific assignment rooms in which children can work independently on their assignments with subject staff available to help them. This makes Daltonism challenging, but not impossible to deliver.
We believe that the Dalton system, placing qualitative feedback at the heart of its pedagogy, is the most cost-effective way of having a measurable impact on the progress of our students. In that sense, expensive though it may appear, many believe it is transformative and, as a result, cheap at any price.
Dr David James is deputy headteacher and Edrys Barkham is director of admissions at Bryanston School in Dorset