Sunday, 2 November 2014

Let's start a school - the voice of Helen Parkhurst

Throughout history, women have started schools. Some famously - Mary Wollstonecraft, the Bronte sisters, Maria Montessori... and others, lesser known, like Margaret McMillan - and Helen Parkhurst, who is the subject of this blog.  The world’s oldest university was started by a woman, too – not a fact that we hear about as often as we should. Fatima al-Fihri founded the very first University - of al-Qarawiyyin, in Fes, Morocco in 859.  Women have been stamping their mark on education for thousands of years – often fighting battles of inequality, or just quietly finding themselves able to do something amazing, sometimes through privilege, but also by seeking out like-minded, forward-thinking supporters and taking action where others did not.

Of course, women (being generally the primary care-givers) are also responsible for educating children every day, at home. As @francesbell pointed out (in response to my call for women educational theorists) – ‘I’m thinking of every mother through the arc of history who did everyday theorising of her children’s learning’.  From women who choose to home-school, to those who just naturally teach their kids through the course of the day, taking opportunities wherever they occur.

Men start schools and do all these other things too, of course – but the difference is that they are generally more highly regarded, recognised, and praised for it.  You only need to follow popular educators on Twitter to find evidence that women are still being side-lined, patronised and having their voices often literally silenced by the ‘mute’ button.   It’s so common, it’s almost accepted without question – woe-betide the woman who tries to make it a gender issue, however.  So when presented with the recommended reading list for the Cert Ed/PGCE course I teach, my first thoughts were ‘Why these writers? Why not others? Who is standing in the background just behind them?’  
A quick look at a university reference list won’t generally tell you anything about the writer’s gender - and gender is only one part of diversity, of course - but I would encourage students of every discipline to consider the diversity of what is recommended to them, and to ask questions like these.

My first 'lost voice' is Helen Parkhurst - contemporary of John Dewey, and founder of schools still operating all over the world today.

Helen Parkhurst

Image result for helen parkhurst imagesHelen Parkhurst was born in Wisconsin in January 1887.  By the age of 20 she had already been teaching for three years, and was creating her own pedagogical theory around individualised learning. Parkhurst later taught alongside Maria Montessori and worked with John Dewey, in a career that spanned six decades.

Helen didn't name her theories after herself but instead chose the name 'Dalton' for her teaching plan and later her first school (the name was taken from Dalton, Massachusetts, a town that she frequently visited).  The Dalton Plan was essentially a scheme aimed at helping children to achieve individual goals but in doing so, taking learning wider than the classroom – fostering collaborative skills, community and self-responsibility.

She used contracts to develop autonomy amongst her students, as well as making learning projects highly personalised. Her thinking was that, whenever a student is given responsibility for a particular piece of learning, he or she would instinctively seek the best way of achieving it. The notion of ownership would encourage rigour and application, and self-determination to see it through to the best of the student’s ability. Students are helped and guided through a process of coaching and peer-mentoring however - not just sent off with work to do and told to report back.

The Dalton plan organises schools into three work-strands:

Assignment  - students are provided with individualised learning projects according to ability and interest
Laboratory  - pupils are supported through one-to-one coaching and peer collaborative support to find the best means of achieving their learning goals
House -  lesson-based element where children are encouraged to learn as a community.

Helen defines differentiation (often a slippery concept) in this way:

 (In many traditional classrooms), sharp children are held back and dull children are pushed on, to the detriment of their mental powers, owing to the teacher’s effort to strike the problematical average…(and) how many class lessons have children to listen to which are boring and useless, and others where they are not sufficiently interested to ask a question? If we use class teaching and individual work in their proper places, the best results will follow.”

As educators, we hear lots about the skills needed for work today – the focus however, is often on the skills needed for yesterday. How much do our schools prepare children for modern ways of working, really?  Helen’s ideas are about collaborative working alongside individual planning and decision-making; in the Laboratory strand:

"Discussion helps to clarify [the student’s] ideas and also their plan of procedure.  When it comes to the end, the finished achievement takes on all the splendour of success.  It embodies all [the student] has thought and felt and lived during the time it has taken to complete.  This is real experience.  It is culture acquired through individual development and through collective co-operation.  It is no longer school - it is life.”
The Dalton Plan resonates with me in a lot of ways.   The emphasis on children as social beings and the holistic approach to teaching. The win/win/win when students learn as part of a wider community.  The importance of building self-responsibility and autonomy in students. And most of all the emphasis on individualised planning and learning.  

As I type this, my own daughters are playing schools upstairs, and it makes me think that, a
s teacher educators, we are all, in a way, starting our own school.  Better than that, we are enabling our student teachers to develop their own teacher identities and discover what THEY truly believe teaching and learning to be about.  In doing this, we are of course ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ – the old guard of educational theory, the progressive thinkers of more modern times, the scientists, philosophers and cod-psychologists who inform our thinking, but don’t determine all of it.  I'm adding Helen's thinking to my varied list of theorists in the belief that my teaching practice will all the richer for it.


Not surprisingly it was hard to find much about Helen and the Dalton Plan on-line. These are the best I could come up with in snatched moments - any additions would be very welcome.

Parkhurst, Helen (1922). Education on the Dalton Plan. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company retrieved at


  1. A look at the University of Huddersfield's online library catalogue makes it clear that Helen published absolutely loads (some with very modern sounding titles, like 'Logical Realism' and 'The Evolution of Mastery') but no-one seems to have written recently about her. Time to put that right in a bigger way @kaysoclearn?

  2. Yes definitely. I'm only skimming the surface at the moment which is really frustrating. Looking forward to getting access to Huds systems so I can check out some more of her writing!

  3. Great post Kay and thanks for introducing me to Helen Pankhurst. I can't talk about women's and people of colour's voices in public discourse without getting a bit incoherent but do have a post in the pipeline. This post will help.