How Psychology Made Its Way into Our Schools
Written by Sharon Hillestad, Director of Tutoring
William James, 20th century philosopher, wrote, “The teachers of this country have its future in their hands.” Assuming William James is correct, we should be concerned not only about what our teachers are teaching, but also what they are being taught. Since college professors are the teachers of teachers, any examination of teachers should start with them.
William James had a mighty impact on American public education. He advocated professional training for teachers based on the then new “science” of psychology. He, along with John Dewey, forwarded “Progressive Education.”
Normal schools for teachers were established in 1835 and training to become a teacher only lasted a few weeks. By 1859, these training centers were mostly controlled by those followers of John Dewey who were indoctrinated in German psychological theories. Training teachers became a longer affair. It stretched to two years.
I attended one of the last Normal Schools in Wisconsin. I was certified to teach all eight grades and all subjects when I graduated after two years. Since I was aware that teachers would have to have a college degree soon, I decided to continue training at a state university. I earned a four year degree in 1966; I was certified to teach grades one to four! Two more years of education and I was certified to teach half as many grades.
My first grade teacher started teaching around 1935 with only one year of teacher training. In 1964, I could have gotten a teaching position with two years of college training. In 2014, my granddaughter can look forward to four or five years of college if she wants to teach school. This represents a lot of time and a lot of money. Yet teachers generally feel quite unprepared to handle a class of students. In fact I know of no teachers like the one described to me by my neighbor who was in grade school before 1930.
Lucile Trapp attended a Minnesota one-room school. The teacher she had for the first four grades had the attitude, “I’m here to teach and you are here to learn.” The students in that rural school drilled basic reading and math skills. They learned new vocabulary directly from the dictionary and were expected to learn grammar, geography, history, government and arithmetic.
Lucile learned so much in the first four grades that she felt, if she could have had the same teacher all eight years, she would have had the equivalent of a college education. But that teacher was replaced by one who had graduated from the new Normal Teachers College. The new teacher’s attitude was that “learning had to be fun.”
Scores of American “Educators” spent months in Germany studying theories of psychology. When they returned to the United States they became the “authorities” and established a standard for teacher training.
Even though the Progressive Education movement touted the necessity of a “child centered school”, the Normal Teachers College system unfortunately did not instruct student teachers in the use of the child-centered Montessori Methods to teach young children. Dr. Maria Montessori was an “educational wonder”. She earned that reputation with her work in Roman slums in 1907. She developed materials and techniques to remove obstacles to learning for very young children. Children in poverty-stricken neighborhoods were learning to read before age five. Montessori methods include teaching children how to “sound out” words (phonics).
John Dewey, trained in Germany with the then new psychology theories, criticized the phonic method of teaching reading that had been in use since the creation of written English. Teachers were discouraged from using phonic materials. Drilling the sounds of the alphabet was considered to be worse than useless.
Such authorities were also critical of education they considered “content driven”. Eventually dictionary skills, grammar, and literature were replaced by “Language Arts”. History, civics, and geography were replaced by Social Studies. Direct Instruction was replaced by Indirect Instruction.
Watering down the content of school subjects for the last century has given us scores of high school graduates who do not read and cannot write. What most of us don’t know about history, geography, and arithmetic has become material for television talk shows and comedians.
It has taken decades for the psychological influence to get to a point where millions of children are given medication so they can better handle school. The Normal Schools morphed into the teacher colleges and universities of today.
John Dewey is known as the father of American public schools. He died in 1952, the same year that Marie Montessori passed away. It is unfortunate for us that John Dewey went to Germany and got trained in psychology. Our schools would be so much better if he had gone to Italy and trained under Maria Montessori.
William James correctly stated that teachers are responsible for the creation of the future of our country. It is time to acknowledge and bring to an end the German psychological influence in American education.