Experimental School

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)
Steve Schapp
United for a Fair Economy
Thad Curtz
The Evergreen State College

Schools can become institutionalized and non-responsive to the real needs of their students, the community or, even society at large. Schools with static and immutable assumptions and values are unlikely to meet society's changing needs. This is particularly unfortunate at a time when the need for public problem-solving is the most acute. If schools aren't innovative and if people don't seriously think about how education can play new roles in new ways, it's unlikely that the society will be innovative in cultural, technical, scientific, or civic thought or action. Schools also tend to assist privileged subsets of society. Typically, older people can't attend school, nor can poor people, working people, or rural people. Many colleges and universities (at least in the US) are more becoming commercially-oriented, thus promoting economic aggrandizement of individuals and corporations while ignoring the common good.


Any situation where education or some type of "schooling" is necessary. This pattern has almost universal coverage because learning is a universal phenomenon. Humans are built for learning!


For this pattern we can define an experimental school as a school that broadly attempts to accomplish certain aims (such as social and environmental amelioration) while adopting experimentation as an abiding and guiding orientation. This implies that the school is not perfect and it affirms that the school will at least try to adapt to changing societal circumstances and needs (while maintaining its values). Moreover, it will work towards its goals through a thoughtful experimentation that involves careful and ongoing evaluation of the approaches that the school is trying.

School according to John Dewey should be an experiment in collective action and it should break down walls between academia and practical work. Although this pattern is quite broad (and actually contains several patterns in their own right), several themes or trajectories stand out that support Dewey's contentions whether the student is ten years old or eighty, or whether the student is classically educated or illiterate. Adopting an "experimental" orientation reflects a belief in meliorism — that things can improve through directed effort — and an acknowledgement that nothing is perfect; the need for adjustment is an unavoidable and normal fact of life. Beyond that, the general orientation is compassionate engagement and integration with the world. In a general but non-dogmatic way, an Experimental School would be concerned with the common good, it would stress solidarity and activism. It would be much more permeable — the boundaries between the institution, between teacher and student, between theory and practice and between the academic disciplines themselves and the disciplines and the other systems of knowing that people have devised, would all be less distinct and more forgiving. Additionally there would be more variety as to when and where the educational setting would be and who was eligible to take part. Costs would be as low as possible to encourage everybody to attend. Education is not just for some small segment of the population who are destined for power, prestige and money.

The following table, admittedly over-generalized, highlights some of the ways in which a "modern" university can be contrasted with an Experimental School.

  University Model Experimental School
Site Centralized, stationary, and formal Various locations, movable, informal
Student body Elite, all same age Open to anybody, life-long learning; mixed classes
Assessment Defined by faculty, etc. consists of tests, grades Self assessed by student as well as by faculty member through oral and written narrative evaluation.
Curriculum University-directed, discipline-based, disciplines kept separate Student-directed, inquiry-based, discipline boundaries blurred and broached
Role of teacher / role of student Authoritative / receptive ("empty vessel") Teachers and students are both co-learners
Costs Expensive for middle and lower income people Free
Instruction mode Lecture Peripatetic, seminar, group work
Credential granting Often the most important reason for attending Doesn't necessarily grant credentials. Learning is primary.
Focus On the individual On the group or community
Goals Learning facts, getting degree Learning how to learn, thinking across the curriculum
Faculty Credentialed with PhD Knowledge, skill, values, commitment, and values are as important as credentials
When 2 semesters or 3 quarters per year; no summer with established beginning and end dates for unit of time, Weekdays, 9:00 to 5:00 Weekdays, evenings, anytime
Theory and practice Kept separate ("practice is for trade schools") Integrated

Walter Parker believes that "Idiocy is the scourge of our time and place" (2004). Idiocy was defined by the ancient Greeks to mean the state of being "concerned myopically with private things and unmindful of common things." Idiots are like "rudderless ships" that are not grounded in either the local or the global community. Unable to see beyond their parochial interests, they're likely to do damage to themselves and to the communities in which they live. In his consideration of how idiots come about their idiocy, Parker asks whether our public "schools marshal their human and material resources to produce idiots or citizens? Does the school curriculum, both by commission and omission, cultivate private vices or public virtues?"

Parker proposes several important remedies: "First, increase the variety and frequency of interaction among students who are culturally, linguistically, and racially different from one another. Second, orchestrate these contacts so that competent public talk—deliberation about common problems—is fostered. In schools, this is talk about two kinds of problems: social and academic. Social problems arise inevitably from the friction of interaction itself (Dewey’s “problems of living together”), and academic problems are at the core of each subject area. Third, clarify the distinction between deliberation and blather and between open (inclusive) and closed (exclusive) deliberation. In other words, expect, teach, and model competent, inclusive deliberation."

It's also important for students to take some responsibility (and interest) in their own education early. People with these attitudes and capabilities can undertake their own ongoing education (even in the absence of schools and teachers) and work with others to get them involved. One of the best ways to do this and to help install the sense that the student is part of the process is self-assessment of learning at all levels.

If the point of evaluating students' work were only to rank them, or to give faculty a lever for encouraging their efforts, or even to describe the strengths and weaknesses of what they had produced, then it would seem clear that teachers should do it by themselves. The deepest reasons, however, for asking students to formally assess their own work pertain to the students' development over the long run. For one thing, the student may have learned some things which are relevant to learning which the teachers don't know about. If students have learned how to write a paper without agonizing over the first paragraph for hours, or pay a new kind of attention to the clouds when they go for a walk, or think about the late Roman Republic when they read the papers, these changes may say more about their education in literature or physics or history than their essays or exams do, yet be invisible to the teachers.

The practice of self-assessment is a central way for students to acquire the reflective habits of mind which are essential to their ongoing capacities to do good work, and to progressively improve their work over time. Growth in intelligence, or thinking, is precisely growth in the capacity for ongoing reflective self-assessment. This point is the center of Dewey's analysis of the difference between mere activity and educational experience in Democracy and Education (1916): "Thinking…is the intentional endeavor to discover specific connections between something which we do and the consequences which result, so that the two become continuous."

But formal education is considered complete at a certain age. Does this mean that people who have missed this one chance or who are otherwise interested in additional education are simply out of luck? Popular education, developed in the 1960s and ’70s by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire helps to answer that question positively. Popular education is a non-traditional method of education that strives for the empowerment of adults through democratically structured cooperative study and action. It's carried out within a political vision that sees women and men at the community and grassroots level as the primary agents for social change. It aims to enable ordinary people to define their own struggles and critically examine and learn from the lessons of past struggles and from concrete everyday situations in the present. It is a deeply democratic process, equipping communities to name and create their vision of the future for which they struggle.

The popular education process begins by critically reflecting on, sharing, and articulating with a group or community what is known from lived experience. It continues with analysis and critical reflection upon reality aimed at enabling people to discover solutions to their own problems and set in motion concrete actions for the transformation of that reality. In Freire’s model, the teacher becomes a facilitator, the traditional class becomes a cultural circle, the emphasis shifts from lecture to problem-posing strategies, and the content, previously removed from the learners’ experience, becomes relevant to the group.

Popular education has always had an intimate connection to organizing for social change. In the early 1960s, Freire, began his work in this area by using the principles of dialogue and critical consciousness-raising—fundamental to popular education—to teach literacy to peasants struggling for land reform in Brazil. Freire argued that action was the source of knowledge, not the reverse, and that education, to be transformative, involved a process of dialogue based on action and reflection on action.

Although starting a new — or supporting an existing — Experimental School might be the best use of this pattern, the concepts of an Experimental School can be useful to anybody who is establishing new programs in a traditional school or involved in virtually any way in the education of themselves or anybody they know. The key concepts are respect for learning, reflection, and a faith in the importance of reasoning and, especially, reasoning together.


Integrate the ideas from this pattern into educational settings that exist or can exist. We can think about how we think and we can learn about how we learn.

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