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Hidden in plain sight: the project method's obscured origins.

The project method may be the best-known legacy of progressive education. It was a hot topic a century ago. It still holds our attention as a, if not the, leading alternative to standard teaching practices, symbolized by the worksheet and the lecture. Today, labels vary. Some people use the acronym PBL to refer to project-based learning. Others talk about problems and problem-based learning, but may be talking about the same thing--or not. Set jargon aside. We can imagine classrooms filled with students doing meaningful, goal-driven, complex learning activities. We can visualize the outcomes of their learning efforts on display at the end of a unit of study. We can easily discern the elements of the project method--purposing, planning, executing, and judging--that were identified by William Heard Kilpatrick in an essay titled, "The Project Method," published in Teachers College Record in September of 1918.

In Kilpatrick's formulation, at its best, the project method offered students a curriculum unit that represented "a fair sample of the worthy life." It engaged them in every aspect of the educational process, from setting goals for learning to participating in learning activities to evaluating the quality of what they had accomplished. Moreover, the project method cast learning itself in an appealing light, by focusing attention on students' motivation to pursue meaningful aims, individually and collectively, or, as Kilpatrick phrased it, to engage in "wholehearted purposeful activity proceeding in a social environment" (Kilpatrick 1918, 320).

Textbooks in educational history and survey accounts of the Progressive Education movement give William Heard Kilpatrick credit for originating the project method and for making it popular. As it is generally told, the story has three main parts. First, John Dewey's theorizing inspired Kilpatrick to develop the project method. Second, Kilpatrick's essay introduced the world to the project method and created a wave of popular enthusiasm for it in 1918. Third, through his essay and his teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University, Kilpatrick gained thousands of disciples who made the project method the defining pedagogy of progressive education. With minor variations, this story has been told to generations of students in Schools of Education. Is it conceivable that this story at the heart of Progressive Education is fundamentally wrong? If so, what might it suggest about our blind spots as historians?

This essay proceeds in four stages. First, it makes explicit its methodological concerns. Second, it identifies problems in current treatments of the project method's origins and spread in the early twentieth century. Third, it offers a hypothetical history, a work-in-progress alternative explanation of how the project method became popular. Fourth, it revisits methodological concerns, to highlight what this hypothetical history of the project method's origins may suggest about the limitations of scholarship in educational history.


The methodological concerns of interest stem from the modern founding or rebirth of the field of the history of education in the 1950s. In 1954, the Ford Foundation's Fund for the Advancement of Education sponsored the Committee on the Role of Education in American History (CREAH). Boasting an impressive roster of historians, including Merle Curti, Richard Hofstadter, and Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., the committee's charge was to consider how historians might use the processes of education as a means of advancing historical scholarship.

The widely-distributed 1957 report of the CREAH offers a refreshing revelation. Prominent historians evaluated their own work, and concluded that, by neglecting education, they had handicapped their ability to make sense of the past. In the era before the "new" social history, methodologically, the historians' problem was that their understanding of how the common man experienced the world rested on hazy generalizations. Perhaps they could gain insight by studying education, "not in its institutional forms alone, but in terms of all the influences that have helped shape the mind and character of the rising generation" (Buck et al 1957, 1)?

The Committee's methodological recommendations can be distilled into two inquiry traits: adopting an open-ended, contextually-sensitive, view of education, and making inferences about its effects. If education were to be treated contextually as an active force in American life, then it would have to be defined as any processes that facilitate "the passage of ideas into the minds of particular persons through the channels of purposeful instruction or indoctrination" (Buck et al 1957, 5). If historians were to make warranted claims about educational impact, they would need to scrutinize closely all suspected learning processes, including policy-making processes, in an effort to disentangle the educational from the merely social, to distinguish learning that derived from intentionally-created experiences from the results of incidental experiences. Education broadly conceived, together with attentiveness to learning processes, then, were the essential tools historians needed to answer the meta-question about the role of education in American history: "To what extent is the American the fruit of happenstance and to what extent is he the product of design" (Storr, 1976, 335)?

The agenda of the CREAH was not informed exclusively by methodological concerns. The Committee's funding source (the Ford Foundation) and some of its members were entwined in the Cold War backlash against progressive education, its presumed debasement of intellectual standards, and its affiliation with Schools of Education (Gaither 2003). The CREAH members were well aware that specialists in Schools of Education had been researching the history of education for decades. Strategically, in their report, they ignored that body of scholarship. A junior committee member, Bernard Bailyn, took the opposite tack in a "Needs and Opportunities" lecture that he delivered to the Institute of Early American History and Culture.

Bernard Bailyn's lecture, published as Education in the Forming of American Society (1960), began with an indictment of the historical scholarship produced by educators. The particulars need not be revisited, since Bailyn's condemnation is well-known, as is its codification by Lawrence Cremin into four "cardinal sins against Clio": anachronism, evangelism, parochialism, and isolationism (Cremin 1965, 43). Rhetorically, Bailyn declared war between History departments and Schools of Education. It was a war over territory, though, that scholars were ill-prepared to occupy. Both sets of historians returned to familiar fields soon enough, so much so that, in 2003, Milton Gaither concluded that "the history of education still means for most educational historians the history of school" (Gaither 2003, 164).

Milton Gaither's conclusion points toward the core legacy that educational history has derived from the Bailyn-Cremin critique: two nagging questions about the field's scope and identity. Should educational history be concerned with education broadly conceived or should it attend exclusively to formal schooling? Should educational historians think of themselves as historians first and educationists second, or vice versa? In the aftermath of the Bailyn-Cremin critique, responses to these questions were "contentiously bipolar" (Warren 2015, 5). Amid controversies, ambitions for promoting methodological searches for learning were supplanted by a preoccupation with the territorial scope of education.

Lawrence Cremin's American Education trilogy symbolizes the main impact of the forces set in motion by the CREAH. Crafting an operational definition and sketching the "changing configurations of education" from the colonial period to the present-day, Cremin committed himself to a methodological dead-end and an impossible task. With a definitional nod to "intended or unintended" learning, he recognized, at least, that learning is the vital force in education (Cremin, 1980, ix). Acting in Cremin's shadow, the History of Education Society now "defines 'education' broadly, to include all institutions of socialization--mass media, voluntary organizations, and so on--as well as schools and universities" (History of Education Society 2014). This is the methodological dead-end: education as territory, institution, and intention.

Why not conceive of the education of history as process, interchange, and learning instead? Educational historians on the whole seem to think that the way of the American Education trilogy was the only way of contextualizing educational influences in American life that emerged from the CREAH. However, the methodology of American Education might well be viewed as a deviation and diversion, particularly if one recalls that Lawrence Cremin was not an original member of the CREAH. To discover paths not taken, educational historians should revisit the 1957 CREAH report. A fuller version of the Committee's thinking--one that traces the coils of conceptual energy compressed into the report's few pages--is available in a "Memorandum" that Richard Storr wrote for the CREAH during its initial deliberations (Storr 1976).

How might an historian avoid the methodological dead-ends of territory, institution, and intention, while pursuing educational processes? One might start by consulting Richard Storr's essay, "The Education of History," a piece that he apparently intended to serve as counterpoint to Bailyn and Cremin. In it, Storr describes how he traversed the landscapes of the past on a quest for something that "can sensibly be described as educational" (Storr, 1961, 124). How does one recognize the educational something when it is encountered? Storr's discussion of how he conducted his inquiry is revealing. For strikingly different approaches, one would do well to read Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and Daniel Calhoun's The Intelligence of a People (1973). Very unlike in style, evidentiary material, and topical interest, these works share a unifying methodological commitment to discerning traces of learning processes--and effects--in the past. They pose an inquiry question about an issue of significance in social life. They troll for data across broad swaths of the historical record, dropping lines of investigation in promising locations. Treating data found relationally and inferentially, as artifacts that offer sightlines into potentially-emerging trends, they point toward conceptualizing how educational activities operate to refashion behavior and attitudes over time.

It may be the case that educational historians are simply not interested in understanding education broadly conceived and its influences in American life. Certainly, investigation into formal schooling and its policy environment should continue. The issue, properly understood, is not about territorial jurisdictions, but methodological considerations. Can educational historians adequately treat formal schooling without contextualizing it among the scope of activities encompassed in the notion of education broadly conceived? Can educational historians speak with surety about the learning that they imagine occurs inside classrooms if they pay little attention to the interplay of sources of learning outside classrooms? Can educational historians tell the story of school just fine without looking for learning in the realm of education broadly conceived? I propose that we cannot, or at least that we do so at great risk of error.

The remainder of this essay seeks to make the case that attending to education broadly conceived can make a difference in the story of schooling. The next section examines the historiography of the project method's origins as a means of illustrating the limitations of school-centric approaches to educational history. It is followed by an alternative account, one that begins within the realm of education broadly conceived and sketches learning processes through which the project method became known to people in the early twentieth century.


In Education in the Forming of American Society, Bernard Bailyn condemned educators for their "excess of writing along certain lines and an almost undue clarity of direction" (Bailyn 1961, 4). His criticism might be applied to how educational history has treated the origins and spread of the project method in the early twentieth century. Compactly stated, the popular story about the project method's beginnings is this: "First detailed by Columbia University professor William Heard Kilpatrick in a 1918 essay, the project method quickly entered the world of practice" (Schneider 2014, 79). Textbooks and surveys of Progressive Education declare that Kilpatrick "developed" or "first introduced" the project method (Rury 2002, 147; Hayes 2006, 24). Some accounts describe the project method as Kilpatrick's "best known innovation" or "most important contribution to educational practice" (Gutek 2013, 293; Zilversmit 1993, 14). To explain the project method's diffusion, these accounts point to the reprinting of 60,000 copies of the 1918 essay, Kilpatrick's incorporation of John Dewey's ideas and the appeal of student-centered curricula, and his popularity as a professor to over 35,000 students.

For contrary evidence, we can look to the first sentence of Kilpatrick's 1918 essay: "The word 'project' is perhaps the latest arrival to knock for admittance at the door of educational terminology." With this statement, Kilpatrick acknowledges that the "project" was already a recognized entity. Three paragraphs later, he states explicitly, "I did not invent the term nor did I start it on its educational career. Indeed, I do not know how long it had already been in use" (Kilpatrick 1918, 319-320). At the outset, Kilpatrick declares that the project method has a history; nonetheless, his 1918 essay has been transfigured into a proprietary claim.

If Kilpatrick did not theorize the project method into existence, what was the point of his essay? Before consulting him, we should turn to Bernard Bailyn and Richard Storr for insight into historical method. Criticizing educators' preoccupation with tracing "the careers of the institutions, ideas, or practices they knew so well," Bailyn argued that the historian's "real task is to describe the dawning of ideas and the creation of forms--surprising, strange, and awkward then, however familiar they may have become since" (Bailyn 1960, 10). Historians should take great care with presumed founding moments and trajectories. Through hindsight's guile, odd ducks may become beautiful swans hatched from their eggs, while other ducks and their fates get forgotten. Richard Storr labeled this tendency "teleology in reverse" (Storr 1976, 334). While Kilpatrick worked on his essay, John A. Stevenson compiled definitions of "problem" and "project"--including one from Kilpatrick--into a dissertation that was published later as a book, The Project Method in Teaching (1921). Thus, Kilpatrick's mission, in part, was to put forward his particular conception: "The purpose of this article is to attempt to clarify the concept underlying the term as much as it is to defend the claim of the concept to a place in our educational thinking" (Kilpatrick 1918, 319-320).

Kilpatrick claimed definitional clarification as the primary purpose for his 1918 essay; in actuality, the bulk of his effort targeted the subtitle, "The Use of the Purposeful Act in the Educative Process." Kilpatrick's real object of affection was the "hearty purposeful act," and by theorizing how a person's interest in learning varies under different conditions he strove to demonstrate its validity in light of the "laws of learning" (Kilpatrick 1918, 320). The project's role in learning served as extended example. Defining the pedagogies to accompany the project was almost an afterthought, set aside until the last two pages of the essay.

Kilpatrick's essay arrived late to the educational discussion of projects. Six months prior, writing in The Journal of Home Economics, W. W. Charters identified the project method's critical attributes as being the complexity of the "problem" and the extent to which the activity occurred in a "natural setting" (Stevenson 1921, 55). Two years earlier, in School and Society, David Snedden articulated a set of "primary characteristics" for distinguishing an "educational project" from projects in general (Stevenson 1921, 67). In 1915, in General Science Quarterly, John Woodhull discussed the project method's potential for incorporating scientists' problem-solving habits into the high school experience (Stevenson 1921, 76). One year before that, in a U.S. Bureau of Education pamphlet on vocational agricultural education in Massachusetts, Rufus Stimson used several terms interchangeably: "home-project," "project method," "project-work," and "project study" (Stimson 1914). Here, where a person struggles to find just the right phrase--where experiences, meanings, and labels fail to correspond or to convey adequately one's intentions--we find "the dawning of ideas" (Bailyn 1960, 10). Or, at least, we find an opening act in the theorizing of an educational experience.

The project method had been an object of scholarly discussion for several years prior to Kilpatrick's 1918 essay. How, then, did the project method surface in the practice and theorizing of formal schooling? To proceed, since the word, "project," has been applied to all conceivable forms of educational activity in the past 100 years, we should identify what we seek. The search is not for any kind of learning by doing, such as, for instance, when students are instructed in a concept or technique and then apply it independently. The object of inquiry is a particular pedagogy, in which "the purpose is to embody some idea or plan in external form," and in which learners participate in four operations: "purposing" the end, "planning" the means, "executing" the plan, and "judging" the results (Kilpatrick 1918, 332-333). Kilpatrick identified this pedagogy as Type I of the project method; that he favored it is evident in his publications.

How did the (Type I) project method originate and become widespread? Herbert Kliebard's The Struggle for the American Curriculum offers one explanation. Kliebard locates the project method's origin with Rufus Stimson's work at Smith's Agricultural School in Massachusetts in 1908. First publicized by the Massachusetts Board of Education, Stimson's "home-project plan" gained a national audience by way of the U.S. Bureau of Education in 1914. Joined by David Snedden and others, Stimson's promotional efforts spread the project method quickly in vocational education circles. From there, it caught the attention of John Woodhull and science educators who launched a new journal, General Science Quarterly, to promote it. Thus was the way prepared for Kilpatrick to make the project method known throughout the realm of formal schooling with his 1918 essay. That piece "caused such an immediate sensation" that Teachers College Record "was obliged to distribute an astounding 60,000 reprints" (Kliebard 2004, 135).

An alternative version of the project method's origin is offered by Michael Knoll in a series of publications (1997; 2010; 2012). Knoll traces projects in formal instructional settings back to sixteenth-century architectural competitions in Italy, and forward via French engineering into nineteenth-century technical schools and industrial colleges. The origins of the (Type I) project method pedagogy, Knoll locates in 1899, with Charles R. Richards, professor of Manual Training at Teachers College, Columbia University. Unlike the Sloyd method and manual training of Calvin Woodward in St. Louis, Richards did not treat projects as "synthetic exercises" performed after students mastered specific principles and techniques. Instead, influenced by John Dewey's idea of "constructive occupations," Richards thought that children "should work with 'natural wholes' before dealing with artificial parts" (Knoll 1997, 3-4).

Based on Richards's work, the project method "attracted more and more adherents as the years passed, but it excited no attention outside manual training and industrial arts" until Rufus Stimson began promoting his home project plan around 1910 (Knoll 2012, 5). Thereafter, John Woodhull and Frank McMurry took an interest in the project method. Between the ferment at Teachers College (Dewey, Richards, Woodhull, and McMurry were on the faculty) and "five years of intensive propaganda," the project method became "a matter of heated discussion everywhere" (Knoll 2012, 5-6). By 1915, the stage was set for Kilpatrick's essay to "set off a wave of enthusiasm" for the project method (Knoll 2010).

These two versions of the project method story agree on two important points: first, that Rufus Stimson's work at a vocational agriculture school in 1908 and subsequent publication via the U.S. Bureau of Education in 1914 was the crucial first step in making educators in non-vocational subjects aware of the project method; and, second, that Kilpatrick's 1918 essay played the decisive role in the project method's taking hold of the public imagination. Stimson's mediating role between educators in vocational and general subjects may be conceded and set aside. How, exactly, though, did Kilpatrick's essay work its magic?

In his account, Kliebard wondered why Kilpatrick's essay "aroused such an explosion of interest," since the idea had been circulating "for several years" (Kliebard 2004, 135). This is a good historical question. To answer it, Kliebard identified several reasons, including Kilpatrick's child-centered vision and his timing in offering a "clear alternative" to proposals for making school curricula efficient and scientific, the essay's "easy cadence," and Kilpatrick's definitional obfuscation. These things, apparently, made it possible for the essay's readers to appreciate the project's potential usefulness for reorganizing school curricula to suit their inclinations (Kliebard 2004, 138). In a related vein, Michael Knoll suggests that because the project method was "under discussion all around, [it] did not need to be laboriously popularized"; however, to gain a following, it needed Kilpatrick's pairing of "the familiar word" (project) with "new content" (child-centered learning). The intrinsic appeal of phrases like "wholehearted purposeful activity" and "method" helped to attract adherents, as did Kilpatrick's stretchy definition (Knoll 2010).

Conceivably, Kilpatrick's essay might have caused some readers to perceive projects in a new light in 1918, but this is not a convincing explanation for the project method's sudden popularity. By virtue of their writing alone, few authors inspire movements in human history, and no one who reads his essay will nominate Kilpatrick to join their ranks. Even if one attributed undue merit to the essay, why would a piece in Teachers College Record create a stir outside the small circle of educators in universities? The answer must be that interest in the project method was already very high and widespread in schooling and society, that Kilpatrick's essay did not set off a wave but rode the crest of a groundswell. Indeed, Kilpatrick seems to have been a gifted opportunist. Two months before his 1918 essay was published, he recorded in his diary his intent to create a "propaganda club," and he took quick action to cement the bond between his name and the project method after his essay's publication (Schneider 2014, 86).

What created such a ripe opportunity for Kilpatrick's ambition? Both Kliebard and Knoll create a trajectory of popularization for the project method that arcs from Stimson circa 1910 to John Woodhull of Teachers College, Columbia University, circa 1915, to Kilpatrick circa 1918. Kliebard and Knoll point to nothing outside that arc that might have popularized the project method. Knoll does assert that "five years of intensive propaganda" made the project method "a matter of heated discussion everywhere" by 1915 (Knoll 2012, 5). Yet, Knoll offers no actual evidence of a propaganda campaign or even "heated discussion" about the project method between 1910 and 1915. If a propaganda campaign really was waged, did the two implied suspects--the U.S. Bureau of Education and Teachers College Bureau of Publications--have sufficient reach and influence in society to make the educational project commonplace?

Phantom propaganda campaigns notwithstanding, historians seem to be looking for the project method in the wrong places. What might be uncovered by looking for learning in the realm of education broadly conceived? Guided by insights from Richard Storr's "Memorandum," the focus now turns to a hypothetical history of the project method's origins. Two questions frame the inquiry: How did the doing of projects by schoolchildren become widespread in the early twentieth century? And, how did schoolchildren encounter the educational use of the term "project"? To illustrate trends, examples will be drawn primarily from the State of Indiana.


At the turn of the century, before Rufus Stimson introduced the home project plan into Smith's Agricultural School in Massachusetts in 1908, rural schools throughout Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and elsewhere, held annual events at which students displayed the outcomes of their inquiry, planning, and effort in voluntarily-chosen lines of pursuit. Alternatively dubbed "institutes," "fairs," or "exhibits," the day-long events often included recitals, musical selections, and speeches by dignitaries. Adults from the community attended; some carried scorecards of itemized criteria to guide their decision-making as they passed judgment on students' work. Corn was the feature attraction, arranged in displays on tables, sometimes stacked in 10-ear pyramids, bottom row up, 4-3-2-1. Vegetables and fruits, baked goods and butter, and other products might be displayed as well, in conjunction with statements written by students to explain how they developed the products on display (Crosby 1904).

Where and when, exactly, the competitions--and related clubs--for farm kids originated is a matter of some dispute. There is no doubt that, by 1904, the corn contests were becoming feature attractions at farmers' institutes in states bordering the Great Lakes. The typical farmers' institute was a one or two day event held in a large hall in a rural town each winter; its mission was to use lectures and discussions to convert farmers' apathy toward agricultural science into enthusiasm for its practical applications. After the Hatch Act of 1887 created federally-sponsored experiment stations, farmers' institutes grew quickly. By 1914, when the Smith-Lever Act created the federal cooperative extension system, nationwide, over three million people were attending about 9,000 farmers' institutes annually (Moss and Lass 1988).

In the twentieth century's early years, organizers of farmers' institutes were trying to get farmers in the door by way of their kids and their financial interest in corn production. Corn contests spread through the Midwest, broadcast by hundreds of agricultural newspapers, subsidized by local businesses, and promoted by the farmers' organizations that existed in virtually every rural county. Corn contests truly came of age at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Asked to prepare an exhibit to represent the agricultural interests of the State of Illinois, the chairman of a county farmers' institute mailed a prize list and rules for participating in a corn contest to 120,000 farms. Roughly 8,000 boys replied, requesting packets of seed corn. Months later, the boys furnished more than enough ten-ear corn pyramids for Illinois to create a display of two massive pyramids, each "made up of 1,000 little pyramids, each containing 10 beautiful ears of white or yellow corn" (Crosby 1904, 489). Undoubtedly, the Illinois display did much to accelerate the corn contests' spread into rural communities.

In Indiana, the state farmers' institute association had been experimenting with solutions to the question of "How to make the rural schools most helpful to agriculture" for several years (Latta 1899). When four county school superintendents described how, in the past few years, they had arranged three-way collaborations between district schools, farmers' institutes, and corn growers' associations to hold corn contests, members of the institute association seized upon the idea. Why not hold joint sessions of farmers' and teachers' institutes, and invite schoolteachers to supervise half-sessions at farmers' institutes to spotlight the agricultural work of local youth? As a forum in which young people could display their accomplishments before their peers, a farmers' institute was certainly well-suited to foster "a higher appreciation of farm life and farm business" (Latta 1904, 785).

By 1905, at least nine county school superintendents were cooperating with farmers' institutes and the Indiana Corn Growers' Association to organize corn contests and clubs (Latta 1905). County school superintendents were often the coordinating-linchpins who made the contests possible. They solicited financial support from township businesses for seed corn and prizes; they held informational meetings with parents; they distributed corn and advice to boys; they inspected corn plots during the summer; and, they worked with teachers to host one-day fairs at district schoolhouses (Haines 1905). Success with boys' corn clubs fueled interest in similar clubs for girls in making bread and butter.

By the winter season of 1908-09, when Rufus Stimson tried the home project plan in Massachusetts, boys and girls in more than one-third of Indiana's counties were participating in the contests, competing for goods donated by local businesses, cash prizes, and the excitement of being at the center of rural community life. Organizers of farmers' institutes were competing, too, by experimenting with an array of contests--wheat, oats, potatoes, poultry, pickles, preserved fruit, aprons, and more--to see which products captured the interest of students and their parents (Lauzon 2013). Everyone involved knew well that their communities reaped the glory, especially when their kids, contests, schools, and farmers' institutes made the front-page of newspapers with statewide readership ("Boys' Corn Contest" 1906).

The pedagogy involved in the youth contests bears an uncanny resemblance to the project method. Rufus Stimson defined the "farming project" simply as "a thing to be done on a farm which, in the preparation for doing it and in the carrying of it out to a successful result, involves a thoroughgoing educational process" (Stimson 1914, 13). In the kids' contests and clubs, the four phases of purposing, planning, executing, and judging, stretched across a year-long learning cycle. In the winter, a farmers' institute announced a contest and distributed a circular listing rules and prizes. Youths then spent several months learning and working, seeking information and guidance as they saw fit, from other people, agricultural newspapers, and bulletins issued by agricultural experiment stations. After completing their work, the kids exhibited it for public inspection, possibly at three events: at the county fair and, if they wrote a report of processes and results, at school and at a farmers' institute. At the exhibit, judging took place in one of two forms. In the "object lesson" style, an expert judge evaluated each exhibit using a scorecard and then explained his reasoning to the onlookers. In the alternative "class exercise" style, a small group of people (youth exhibitors, typically) evaluated each display using a scorecard; an expert judge then reviewed their scores and explained the verdict and, as needed, how their judgments differed (Latta 1903). The purpose of the judging was to create a pedagogical opportunity for recognized expertise to guide people's observation and thinking. Exhibitors and onlookers, children and adults, were the intended learners.

By the 1910s, farm kids across the United States were engaging in educational activities that resembled the project method. Few people seemed to be using the term "project" in connection with it, as yet. A 1910 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) "Farmers' Bulletin," for instance, used the terms "club work," "club activities," and "extension work" to identify what the farm kids were doing, while characterizing the trend as an "agricultural-club movement" that was having "a very stimulating, if not a 'redirecting,' influence upon the ordinary work of rural schools and teachers" (Howe 1910, 6-7). The USDA bulletin included suggestions, along with sample forms, to use in organizing "junior agriculture clubs." People may have found the forms helpful, but the label failed to stick. Ideas and institutions were still in a state of experimentation.

Growth of the boy's and girls' clubs was a reflection of farmers' increasing interest in improving their own agricultural practice. In the nineteenth century, institutions of agricultural education grew fitfully in rural communities (Lauzon 2011). By the early twentieth century, varieties of agricultural education, intended for adult farmers, proliferated. USDA-sponsored demonstration agents were a growing force in the South; in Northern states, farmers' institutes were popular, and they were increasingly surrounded by other forms of university-based extension (Scott 1970). The boys' and girls' clubs were local nodes in multi-layered networks connecting farmers in rural townships to county-level farmers' institutes and organizations, and through them, to farmers' organizations and public agencies at the state and national levels. Through overlapping memberships and readership of agricultural newspapers and other publications, these networks circulated news, innovations, and policy proposals. Constant interchange of ideas generated convergence, along with campaigns for public funding and institutional support for agricultural education.

Indiana's educational policy environment was being remade in decisive ways. In 1911, the General Assembly tripled the annual appropriation for Purdue University's Agricultural Extension department to $30,000 and created three divisions: Farmers' Institutes, Short Courses and Exhibits, and Boys and Girls Clubs. The next year, the Agricultural Extension department reached cooperative agreements, on the one hand, with the USDA to jointly-sponsor personnel to offer demonstration-based instruction in agricultural science to adult-farmers (extension agents), and on the other hand, with the Indiana State Department of Public Instruction to jointly-sponsor adult-leadership for boys' and girls' clubs (Smith and Kirkpatrick 1990). In 1913, the General Assembly incorporated these cooperative agreements into a broader Vocational Education Act that required that agriculture be taught in all township schools in the seventh or eighth grade, as well as be offered as an elective in high schools (Thompson 1962). A comprehensive public system for funding and sponsoring agricultural education for adults and youth was emerging.

The new system pushed the doing of agricultural projects in connection with schoolwork toward institutionalization. A 1915 Indiana Department of Public Instruction Bulletin reported that approximately 7,600 teachers were giving seventh and eighth grade students a course in "prevocational agricultural work." However, the typical teacher in a rural school was deficient in both the content (agriculture science) and the preferred pedagogy (project work). The bulletin's authors dared not estimate how many teachers were "text-book slaves" incapable of "doing their work along practical lines." Instead, they offered descriptive profiles of roughly 25 schools in which students were raising poultry, growing fruit, experimenting with grasses, testing soils, and feeding hogs under "the home problem method" (Dept. of Public Instruction 1915, 20-21).

There was good reason to be optimistic about the potential spread of this sort of educational activity. Through hundreds of lectures and demonstrations at teachers' institutes, Indiana's teachers were receiving appropriate instruction in agricultural education from Purdue University's Agricultural Extension personnel, particularly its rapidly-growing ranks of county agents who were also giving "instruction and practical demonstrations in agriculture and home economics" to farm families as part of the federally-sponsored system of cooperative extension that Congress created with the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 (True 1969, 195).

Recalling that Michael Knoll identified 1915 as a signal year in the project method's popularization, government paperwork seems to have been instrumental in giving the word "project" its educational meanings in popular usage. With the Hatch Act of 1887, Congress sponsored experiment stations that were affiliated with land-grant universities and the USDA. Scientists at the experiment stations used the term, "project," to denote their experimental lines of inquiry (such as a soil-testing project) and to file official reports (Heald 1918, 7). The same scientists spoke at farmers' institutes and short courses, explaining to farmers how their experimental results applied to agricultural practice. These educational extensions of their work were also called "projects" (such as a demonstration project) by scientists. By the 1910s, courtesy of generous state legislative appropriations for agricultural extension, experiment station personnel were becoming increasingly influential in rural communities. Their influence increased exponentially after the Smith-Lever Act allied them with demonstration agents who resided in the counties and served as the public face of agricultural extension.

To implement the Smith-Lever Act, the USDA and the land-grant university agreed to a memorandum of understanding. Each year, the statewide Director of Extension submitted a plan of work that needed the Secretary of Agriculture's approval before federal funds could be released to the university. The approved plan was referred to as a "project agreement." County demonstration agents were required to submit similar plans to the statewide Director of Extension, identifying the lines of educational work that they intended to pursue throughout the year. At year's end, the county agents filled-out a USDA form itemizing the completed "projects" and describing the results (Rasmussen 1989, 55)

In addition to using the word "project" to identify the lines of educational activity that they coordinated and implemented in rural communities, county extension agents carried out their work in a way that was consistent with the project method's four pedagogical phases: purposing, planning, executing, and judging. An extension agent's first task was to organize a county-wide club for adult farmers. Called "farm bureaus" or "better farming associations" in the early years, the clubs consisted of farmers who were willing to devote portions of land, livestock, labor, and resources to small-scale experiments or, at least, who were willing to attend educational events organized by the extension agent. In the winter months, the farm bureau held a large annual meeting to choose local agricultural "problems" (needs or opportunities) that would receive educational attention in the upcoming year. Farmers then created sub-committees to work with the extension agent to identify goals for each problem (say, a target number of farmers testing a new variety of wheat) and to develop plans of action. Throughout the year, the extension agent visited farms to inspect the work, to discuss progress and issues, and to offer advice and resources. At key points in the growing cycle, the extension agent organized "field days," inviting all farmers to gather on a particular farm to participate in demonstrations and discussions. Because it required coordinating efforts among multiple parties--school officials, teachers, club leaders, farmers' institutes, and fair associations--the extension agent's work with boys' and girls' clubs was more complicated, but it followed the same pattern, culminating, of course, in annual events for exhibiting and judging. Repeated annually, these were major mechanisms by which extension agents spread the "project"--as both a learning process and a product--among farm kids, their parents, teachers, and communities (Benson 1918).

Farmers' enthusiasm for improving their agricultural operations and Congress's offering of federal dollars through the Smith-Lever Act fueled quick growth in the presence of extension agents in rural counties. The educational use of the term "project" spread with the agents. A 1915 bulletin of the Indiana Department of Public Instruction used the phrase "home problem method" to describe students' work. By 1917, when extension agents were working with teachers and over 15,000 students in roughly one-third of Indiana's counties, the Department of Public Instruction had switched to the phrase "home project work" (Dept. of Public Instruction 1915, 1917). By February of 1918, Indiana's public officials were taking steps to standardize the shared responsibilities of extension agents, club leaders, and teachers. At that point, they declared with confidence that the boys' and girls' clubs were "well past the experimental stage." The question was no longer "Will we have home project work?" but "How can the best project work be brought about" (Indiana State Board of Education 1918, 9)?

Between 1917 and 1918, the number of Hoosier youth enrolled in agricultural clubs expanded rapidly, nearly doubling what it had been at the close of 1916 (Indiana State Board of Education 1918). The explosive growth stemmed from two decisions made by Congress: to wage war on Germany and to enlist cooperative extension agents in campaigns to mobilize the home front. Granting an emergency appropriation of $11 million, Congress added extension agents to 2,400 counties within a few months' span in the fall of 1917. Working with Herbert Hoover's Food Administration to conserve resources, and with the USDA to increase production of food staples, such as wheat, corn, and pork, extension agents became highly-visible government officials in local communities. Bolstered by the war effort, and working in three-fourths of the counties of the United States by the end of 1918, extension agents organized about one million adults into county-wide farm bureaus and two million youth into boys' and girls' agricultural clubs (True 1969). Many of these people--adults and youth, new members and old--were probably using the term 'project" to talk about their demonstration activities.

In this context, in the spring of 1918, as he labored to prepare an essay for the Teachers College Record, William Heard Kilpatrick chose to "consciously appropriate the word [project] to designate the typical unit of the worthy life" and to carry his theorizing about the "purposeful act in the educative process" (Kilpatrick 1918, 320). Late in his life, Kilpatrick expressed misgivings about that decision (Knoll 2010). In 1918 his choice of terminology was apt: it fit well his theorizing and the temper of the times.


Returning to methodological issues, why have the project method's origins been obscured from educational historians, perhaps even hidden in plain sight? While other methodological issues might be raised, there are two points of direct interest: widening the scope of inquiry beyond formal schooling to encompass education broadly conceived, and looking for learning processes in currents of change. If the historiographical analysis and hypothetical history that have been constructed hold validity, both points should concern educational historians.

In the historiography, two basic versions of the project method's origins are evident, represented by Herbert Kliebard's The Struggle for the American Curriculum and Michael Knoll's publications. These historians, as do many who focus on curriculum history, restrict their gaze largely to formal publications and their authors. Kliebard's and Knoll's searches for the (Type I) project method's origin stop at its first appearance on the printed page of professional education literature. Neglecting education broadly conceived, they fail to notice millions of farm kids--inside and outside institutions of formal schooling--using a pedagogy that corresponds to contemporary educational theorizing.

Because he was involved in the Committee on the Role of Education in American History, one might expect Lawrence Cremin to take note of the farm kids' contests and clubs in his Bancroft-prize winning book on the Progressive Era, The Transformation of the School. Indeed he does, in a single paragraph that starts with this sentence: "As might be expected, some of the most promising innovations appeared quite apart from the formal confines of the school" (Cremin 1961, 79). In the same paragraph, Cremin uses the word "projects" to identify the "farming, sewing, and baking projects" performed by Nebraska youth in 1905. About 150 pages later, without mentioning the farm kids' clubs and contests, he gives a four-page treatment to William Heard Kilpatrick and the project method.

Attentive to education broadly conceived, Lawrence Cremin could not overlook the farm kids' contests and clubs. Did he fail to recognize that they embodied the project method? This seems to be the case. A central example from Kilpatrick's textbook, Foundations of Method (1925), figures prominently in Cremin's explanation of Kilpatrick's enthusiasm for students' purposing and planning in the project method:

"Don't you think that the teacher should often supply the plan," asks one of the participants in Kilpatrick's dialogue. "Take a boy planting corn, for example; think of the waste of land and fertilizer and effort. Science has worked out better plans than a boy can make." Kilpatrick answers, "I think it depends on what you seek. If you wish corn, give the boy the plan. But if you wish boy rather than corn, that is, if you wish to educate the boy to think and plan for himself, then let him make his own plan" (Cremin 1961, 218)

Lawrence Cremin was one of educational history's finest scholars. I suspect that if he had scrutinized closely the farm kids' educational activities, he would have connected them to the project method. If he had been thinking relationally about educational institutions, he would have drawn parallels between the farm kids' contests and their parents' agricultural extension. So, too, if he had been taking stock of educational impact, he would have appreciated that--at a time when more than one-third of the population lived on farms and nearly 60 percent lived in rural townships--educational activities in rural communities were not marginal, but centered in ongoing developments in American life. If he had been trying to make inferences from people's educational experiences and processes to overarching trends he would have recognized these things and more. Unfortunately, in The Transformation of the School, Lawrence Cremin was not looking for learning as much as he was looking for educational intentions and institutions.

A final methodological consideration has to do with the dangers of importing definitions, or at least, conceptual categories, into the analysis of past environments. Lawrence Cremin's treatment of the farm kids' contests and clubs suggests that he considered them, categorically, as something quite different from what William Heard Kilpatrick was theorizing. In particular, he seems to have thought that the contests and clubs were the early stages of a "vocational education" trajectory that leads to the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, to the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, and into the flourishing of school-based vocational programs in the mid-twentieth century.

Certainly, the farm kids' clubs involved agricultural work, but they were not "vocational education" in any ordinary sense. The limited extent to which the contests and clubs might have been considered "vocational education" reflects primarily the intentions of some adults, mostly non-farmers. To the farm kids, spending months working on their projects was not preparation for future occupations; rather, it was "wholehearted purposeful activity": the clubs, contests, and annual exhibits were expressions of "the worthy life" within their rural families and communities (Kilpatrick 1918, 320). Taking advantage of the educational and social opportunities available, turn-of-the-century farm kids were learning to live well by learning and living well. They experienced educational ideas espoused by William Heard Kilpatrick and others in the Progressive Era. So, too, do the millions of school-age children who follow their example today, spending uncounted hours of their summer vacation from school getting their "projects" ready for the county fair. As members of the 4-H, they learn by doing and wear their four-leaf clover emblems with pride, vaguely aware, at best, that their club's mission of educating the whole child--hand, head, heart, and health--began in the cornfields of the Midwest more than 100 years ago (Wessel and Wessel 1982; Reck 1951).

Glenn P. Lauzon

Indiana University Northwest


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Author:Lauzon, Glenn P.
Publication:American Educational History Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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