Early Childhood Education

Parker, Francis W. (1837-1902)

 

To the general public, progressive education is often associated with John Dewey and no one else. However, Dewey was neither the first nor the last educator to embrace and develop the principles that define a progressive approach. In fact, Dewey owed much to one of the unsung heroes in the progressive education movement. That hero was Francis W. Parker. Dewey once referred to Parker as “the father of progressive education” (Cremin, 1961).

Parker was a practitioner, not a writer or theorist, which is why he remains relatively unsung. Born in New Hampshire in 1837 and widely traveled in Europe where he studied the latest innovations in education, Parker took over a failing Quincy, Massachusetts school system in 1873. As superintendent of the Quincy schools, Parker led a reform to place children’s observing, describing, and understanding at the center of the curriculum. Everything was aimed at making learning meaningful for children and at making school a community with a warm and friendly, even home-like atmosphere.

The results were immediate and positive. The Quincy children thrived in Parkers’ schools, and soon educators were referring to “the Quincy system.” Parker, himself, downplayed his innovations calling them simply a matter of common sense.

Parker went on to become principal of the Cook County Normal School of Chicago. At the Normal school, he developed his approach further and even gave lectures and produced essays on his approach. However, his lectures and writings were few and did not have a lasting effect. The main and lasting effect came when two parents enrolled their children in the practice school.

In 1894 and 1895, Professor and Mrs. John Dewey had a thorough look at Parker’s school as their two children thrived in the school’s younger grades. Then, in 1896, they established their own “Laboratory School,” with Parker and his school clearly in mind. It is, then, not too much to say that Dewey’s writings on education, though rooted in his training as a philosopher, were equally rooted in Francis Parker’s progressive approach and his school.

Further Readings: Cremin, L. (1961). The transformation of the school: Progressivism in American education, 1976-1957. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

W. George Scarlett