I have just been re-reading Helen Parkhurst’s excellent book ‘Education on the Dalton Plan’, and I thoroughly recommend it to discerning educators and those interested in how children learn in schools. Written and published in 1922, it contains an exposition, analysis and case studies of the progressive educational approach – the Dalton Plan – which Helen Parkhurst developed in the early decades of the 20th century. Her theory – which she demonstrated successfully in practice – was that children need space and time in which to learn; learning cannot be pre-determined in convenient chunks, and to try to mould a child’s learning to a fixed timetable is to do him or her a great disservice.
Helen Parkhurst came up with a practical plan to enable children to learn in ways that suited them rather than suited the dictates of a timetable: she ensured that the students in the schools in which she worked had access to clear, detailed assignments – a month’s work in each subject – in which were laid out the problems they had to solve. Teachers then were available to the children, and were able to work with the children to draw out their understanding in a much more individual and personal way. Helen Parkhurst called these ‘Laboratories’ – the classroom was transformed into a place of experimentation, and the student was able to discover the answers. A strong framework of progress checking and corrections was the final piece of her approach, and this ensured that all students made excellent progress – but with regard for their own individual learning styles and capabilities.
Ascham School, of course, has used a modified form of the Dalton Plan ever since one of its great Headmistresses, Miss Bailey, brought the plan to Australia in the 1920s, and it is hugely successful. Reading Helen Parkhurst today, one cannot fail but to be impressed by her no-nonsense, eminently sensible and far-sighted approach to educating in schools. In fact, one has the distinct impression that had our politicians and educational policy-makers spent more time over the past century reading her book, and less trying to fit more and more assessment into an already crowded curriculum, state-sponsored education in general might have had far more successful outcomes. “The true business of school”, she writes, “is not to chain the pupil to preconceived ideas, but to set him free to discover his own ideas and to help him to bring all his powers to bear upon the problem of learning.” (p.105). When writing about the problems of her age, she could almost be writing about the very same issues we have as educators in schools today when we are faced with the demands of exam boards and external assessment: “Today we think too much of curricula and too little about boys and girls … Subject difficulties concern students, not teachers. The curriculum is but our technique, a means to an end.” (p.23).
Christmas has now passed, but when our policy makers come round to thinking about what they want for Christmas in 2013, they could do far worse than to request a reprint of Helen Parkhurst’s tome. In the meantime, the Dalton Plan is alive and well in many great schools around the world. Ascham girls are, thankfully, not the only ones to have – so I have heard – ‘Dalton style’.