What are Laboratory Schools?

Harriette Halepis

A laboratory school is a type of experiential school that is based on the John Dewey educational system. Laboratory schools are unlike conventional schools, since they focus mostly on teacher, student, and environmental interaction rather than traditional lectures. While Dewey did not coin the term "experiential schooling," he is the reason why laboratory schools exist today.

Some laboratory schools feature outdoor educational experiences.
Some laboratory schools feature outdoor educational experiences.

Dewey believed that education should be ranked according to experience. Following this philosophy, if a student does not gain a wealth of knowledge from an educational experience, then such an education is relatively useless. Active schools that execute the Dewey educational philosophy include Outward Bound and Foxfire. There are various types of laboratory schools in existence, though they all follow the aforementioned educational model.

Laboratory schools for older students tend to require many more projects and presentations than traditional schools.
Laboratory schools for older students tend to require many more projects and presentations than traditional schools.

The five main types of laboratory schools are as follows: Outdoor, service, cooperative, and active. Outdoor education refers to a type of schooling that involves learning from a natural environment. Service learning combines community service with structured learning activities. Cooperative learning allows students to interact and learn from one another. Active learning requires students to learn from themselves, and environmental students must learn from the environment.

The idea behind all of these different educational models is to present students with a learning environment that is entirely interactive. Dewey did not believe in lecturing immobile students. Therefore, all laboratory schools are concerned only with producing well-rounded students that are able to learn from the world around them.

Within a laboratory school environment, homework is much more reflective than it is in a traditional educational setting. Students are often asked to answer philosophical questions. The various answers to these questions are then discussed during class time. Essentially, there are no wrong or right answers to experiential homework. The idea is to allow students to speak openly with other students allowing for reflection, contemplation, and deep thought. It is also common for students in an experiential school to write journal entries as a form of homework.

There are both strong supporters and strong opponents of the laboratory school idea. Some believe that this form of schooling is much more effective than traditional schooling and that traditional schooling provides students with a better grasp of reality. Generally laboratory schools are directly connected with formal university programs, though this is not always the case.

Experiential schools place a large amount of importance upon literature and art, while traditional schools tend to focus mostly upon mathematics and science. Students who are new to experiential programs may find the transition from a traditional school to a laboratory school difficult at first, though most students easily adapt after a few weeks.

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Discussion Comments


I think my son and daughter go to a school that is similar to the laboratory school model. The only difference I can see is that they do not focus on literature and the arts. They tend to focus on what the student is interested in, whether it be literature, art, math or science. They do journal entries and project type homework.

It is much more real world learning in my opinion. When they graduate, they will be able to learn from the world around them and be self-taught thinkers.

I had never heard of this type of learning referred to as laboratory learning, but it makes sense. Your world and who and what is around you is all an experiment. Fun and learning at the same time, gotta love it!

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