postheadericon Helen Parkhurst and The Dalton Plan

Curriculum & Best Practice



By Paul Clement Czaja, Ph.D.

I want to celebrate with you all my memory of the first and great American pioneer Montessorian, Helen Parkhurst – “Parkie” as we affectionately called her. She has left this beautiful blue planet (1973), but not until she left us with a unique Montessori gardener’s manual of how to help older children thrive naturally and with purposeful intentionality as self-motivated learners. It is called the “Dalton Plan”, and rest assured it is not another avant garde dieting program, but it is truly a way of greatly enriching the lives of the older students in our Montessori schools.  Now that so many of our American Montessori schools are developing upper elementary and middle schools, I strongly believe that the proven success story of Helen Parkhurst’s major contribution in extending Montessori principles of a personally challenging, and self-motivated natural-learning up into the more mature age brackets should be freshly examined.

To help you truly understand Helen Parkhurst’s contribution to us Montessorians laboring in the Fields of Glory, let me share with you first an autobiographical tale of how I myself went from knowing graded mass education first hand to discovering the liberty of Montessori and to working alongside of her brilliant American protégé, Helen Parkhurst.  Just about fifteen years after Helen first published her major breakthrough titled “The Laboratory Plan” in the New York Times Educational Supplement (1926!), my twin brother Peter and I innocently entered First Grade and experienced our first life tragedy. The teachers of that graded school apparently knew absolutely nothing about Helen’s Montessori plan. Our dear mother gently but firmly had removed us from the heaven on earth playground of Glover Street and placed us into the local parish elementary grade school on Castle Hill Avenue. I remember that Pete was somewhat enthusiastic as we walked toward the big red brick building with all the windows. He was courageous. My heart, however,  was pounding like that of a frightened sparrow, probably because the place looked to me like a prison – like a huge cage, and my childlike soul instinctively feared that once within, we would never be allowed to fly freely again. I was right. As soon as we got into the main hall of the school, the strange smell of waxed floors and chalk dust assaulted my little Polish nose making me more anxious.  All of a sudden a door opened to the right and a lovely young woman emerged with a smile on her face.

"Hello!" she said, "I'm Miss Costello, and I'm going to be Peter and Paul’s first grade teacher. Come with me boys to this room: 1A."

The room was already filled with forty eight other boys, all sitting in hard wood desks whose iron legs were screwed down fast to the wooden floor. There were five straight rows of them, each row with ten desks lined up precisely one behind the other. Up in front were a huge blackboard and a big teacher’s desk in the middle. Pete and I were given desks in the second row right up front – with me for the first time ahead of my twin since my first name began with a Pa and his with a Pe. The rigorous rule of logistics had begun.

Well, as soon as Miss Costello stood behind her desk she suddenly turned into Miss Hyde. Her face took on a very grim – almost mean – look.  She said sternly to all of us: “Boys, from now on no more talking! -- and from now on no more moving!” These first commands of our schooling confused me. I could not imagine life without talking or moving. I remember thinking that perhaps she wanted us to go to sleep. I was wrong about that.

We were taught our “first grade” lessons the old fashioned way of mass education: dictation followed by recitation followed by examination. There weren’t even text books in those days. We had to copy all our lessons from the blackboard into our note books and then go home to memorize them as best we could for the quizzes of tomorrow.  All day long it was copy this copy that and then recite it back all in one voice like parrots.  Pretty dull life for so many hours of each glorious day! This was the beginning of our term of time spent in the much touted “mass education” factory of the big city.

Peter and I along with the masses of good American Bronx kids were “schooled” like that for twelve years – always graded into bins of one classification and paced through our lessons as if we all were clones – every child of each grade was on the same page of the same lesson plan, and that was the story. We were taught many things but learned nothing. For instance, when I finally  reached 8th grade, I eventually was taught the math trick of calculating square roots  enough times that I eventually knew how to do square rooting correctly but never learned what for, or who invented square rooting in the first place, or what was the purpose of doing square rooting in real life, or whether or not one could earn a salary doing that mathematical technique. I did it to get a mark on my test, and that was that.

At seventeen, my twin joined the Navy and learned all about destroyers and later how to make a living with his mechanical cleverness and zest for ordinary life.  I went to Fordham University and learned all the liberal arts and then philosophy and theology. For the first time in my life I did not have teachers but people who were professors – who had a passion for their individual subjects  -- who stood up there professing their love for this or that – and thereby enticing me to come take a real bite into it.  And so after so many years of just going through the motions, I finally learned to love reading and to love writing.  After so many dreary years of being taught, I finally became a learner.

I shall never forget one great professor of philosophy at my university named Robert Pollock who not only professed with great ardor but also asked great basic questions. His questions were magical, for

whenever I tried to answer them in my head, I found myself saying brilliant things to my self that I did not know I knew. He had the ability to “educe” these realizations from me by his questions. Being with him and his questions was literally “education” –- he brought things out of me, he helped me to give birth to my own explicit ideas. I did not know it but this was my first introduction to the great Montessori discovery: true learning is natural and from the inside out. My woe was that this true time of learning was preceded by so many years attending graded schools that were lifeless, filled with mediocrity, and driven by a hapless trial of behavior-modification tools such as cruel corporal punishment and the personal indignity of shaming.  I entered into my life of self-motivated learning at university much scarred and not a little dulled.

I guess that is all I care to say now about my experience with graded schooling – with the efforts that were made during my childhood formative years to “shape” me with their authoritarian efforts to make me into a functioning citizen -- phooey on graded schools and phooey on the logistics of mass so-called education.  I tell you truly, it was in spite of my elementary and secondary schooling that I entered into Fordham University quite able to read and write and twiddle around with numbers. But I made it! I was the first one of my family to do so. Most interesting to me was that when I entered college life, I felt that I had died and gone to heaven. Ironically, it was there in higher education that I first began to learn “informally” – to learn “environmentally” by natural absorption – to actually be a “seedling” of the man I was destined to become. I had to get up there in higher education to begin my true becoming as a child of personhood.

I thrived as a learner both in college and then in graduate school. As a young, enthusiastic, wondering philosophy major I discovered in the springtime of 1959 the seminal work of Maria Montessori, and I began to blossom into my life’s career: to be an existential gardener of children. A year later in the summer, following up on a providential lead, I met with Nancy Rambusch who hired me away from my assistantship at Fordham’s graduate school of philosophy and challenged me to make philosophers out of the nine to twelve year old children enrolled in the Montessori school she was just founding – oh, and to have them “…fall in love with Latin” as well.

Mario Montessori had come across the ocean to help Nancy (after she had gathered a large coterie of Greenwich parents) to establish an independent Montessori school under the umbrella of the Association Montessori Internationale and create the fledgling American Montessori Society (1959). To accomplish this inauguration, he also brought with him Betty Stevenson, the top trainer from London, and also five master Montessori Directresses to be our core mentors purposed to establish the first AMS training program. He wanted to make sure he personally got us Americans solidly founded on the right footing.  And God bless him, he did.  The Whitby School, the American Montessori Center, thrived almost from day one – and would you believe it, in a rented stable of a Greenwich estate. Very soon thereafter, through the generosity of our parent body and the friendly Putnam Trust Bank we built a beautiful white straw brick school on s little lake surrounded by deep woods. I recall, there were even bluebirds flying around.

Those of us young enthusiastic American Montessorians took up the challenge of applying the basic principles Betty gave in the Primary Course to our indirect educating of the older children. We would meet as an Upper School faculty every afternoon once the kids were gone to talk over our observations on just what had taken place within our learning environments and then make plans for the next day’s presentations. The one area that was a stumbling block for us was how to get our young learners to become more independent of us and especially how to get them to track their academic mastery by themselves as they daily progressed up through the spiral of our sophisticated curricula. An angel of grace then gave us the surprise of Helen Parkhurst!

It happened this way. Jack Blessington who was then the headmaster of Whitby got hold of a tattered old used book entitled: Education on the Dalton Plan. I don’t recall how he got hold of it, but that did not matter, for he gave it to those of us who were working with the older kids to read – and it immediately became as much of a “bible” to us as was Maria’s The Montessori Method. Take this excerpt for example:

" Let us think of a school as a social laboratory where pupils themselves are the experimenters, not the victims of an intricate and crystallized system…..Let us think of it as a place where community conditions prevail as they prevail in life itself….”

Whitby was very much a community of learners, and we sensed that the older children assigned to us were already eager to partner with us in bringing about their learning. We devoured the book, and after discussing it, began to attempt use her plan and adjusted our strategies with the nine to twelve year olds. That very week there was a very complementary article about our school in Time Magazine touting among other achievements the distinction of Whitby being the “first authentic Montessori school in America.” Before Friday dawned, Jack Blessington’s secretary got a phone call from a Helen Parkhurst who was a bit irate about such a travesty of the truth, since she herself had been in on the founding of a number of Montessori schools way back when. Jack was flabbergasted that this great pioneer of Montessori was still alive! And she was living in happy retirement in Connecticut just about forty-five minutes north of us! Picking up the phone, he asked in a hushed voice, “Is this really Helen Parkhurst?” She answered with a resounding: “Yes.” After begging her forgiveness for Time Magazine’s mishandling of historical truth, he arranged for me and him the next day to drive up to Preston and pay our respects and apologies in person. Eyes wide open, Jack said to me that Parkhurst must be at least seventy-five or so years old, so I better bring my camera and a tape recorder for this might be our only chance to capture her living image and words. Little did we know from what strong stock this lady had grown – Helen went on to live another decade before she died in her late eighties (1973).

Prescinding from my success in photographing her and recording her words as she talked with Jack, the memory of sitting near her as she in such a strong voice related her whole life story before, during, and after Montessori is so very vivid still in my heart/mind/soul. She told us that she was born in the very pioneer state of Wisconsin (1886), and that when she was nineteen she took a job teaching in one of their “one room” country school houses. In that one room, she went on, she educated forty children of different ages -- as the sole teacher. She must have been quite a “Cracker Jack” at it, for twelve years later her principal sent her to Italy by boat to attend the illustrious Dr. Maria Montessori’s first International Training program in Rome! Holey Smoley!  She began to show us old photographs of her with that famous group and with Maria as well.  Helen became an avid protégé of Montessori, and later when Maria visited the USA for a whirlwind of highly successful lectures, she asked Helen to join her in San Francisco at the spectacular Worlds’ Fair (1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition) and to be the Directress demonstrating a Montessori Learning Environment going on within a glass walled room.

For the next three years Helen worked across the U.S.A. as Montessori’s representative. And also went on to apply all she had come to know about the human learning process while with Montessori to improve the quality of education in the small town of Dalton, Massachusetts. It was there in this little known high school for boys and girls that she began to develop the use of contracts as way of individualizing learning projects. She told us that in 1919 she relocated to New York City, where she opened her first school on West 74th Street.  She originally called it Children's University School, and it was here that she fully developed what she then termed the Laboratory Plan.  Helen said that following her Montessori principles the Plan was so successful because teachers and students worked together toward personally chosen goals. 

In answer to our questions, Helen explained that she observed that whenever a pupil was given responsibility for the performance of a particular piece of learning work (as he is given in her Laboratory Plan) he instinctively sought the best way of achieving it.  He then would proceed to act upon that decision with personal intentionality.  Discussion with his faculty specialist would help to clarify his ideas and also his plan of procedure.  The finished project (or contract of work) took on all the splendor of success.  It truly was felt as his work, for he had thought it out and very really lived with it over the period of time it had taken him to complete.  Helen smiled and concluded, “Can you see this is real experience.  It is culture acquired through individual development and through collective co-operation.  It is no longer school - it is life."

We were already practitioners in the learning environments of nine to twelve year olds at Whitby, so we hungry to get on tape specifics about her Laboratory Plan. To our pursuing questions, Helen told us that the typical Montessori characteristics that guided her in the development of her Laboratory Plan were: 1) fitting each student's program to his or her needs, interests and abilities; 2) promoting both independence and dependability; and 3) enhancing the student's social skills and sense of responsibility toward others.  To accomplish this, she said, she developed a three-part plan as a solid structural foundation: the House, the Assignment, and the Laboratory. 

The House was a familiar aspect of Montessori for us since we already had provided our nine to twelve year olds with a typical “homeroom” experience at the beginning and end of every day.  Helen’s advancement of this strategy was to make such existentially a “home base” centered on a faculty advisor -- importantly a caring educator -- who acted very much like a dedicated mentor would in a university. Each House included students from every “grade” level, a microcosm of the larger community.  It was essential she noted that the House advisor guide each student in his or her learning process as they negotiated their way through the rich and multi-faceted curriculum. The relationship that developed to be as a coach and counselor was a close one that supported students throughout their whole developmental span.

The next important dimension to her plan – and the one that most interested us – was the Assignment which, Helen told us, was truly a “contract of work” made between the student and his or her particular educator. Designed by each special educator of the curriculum for each student, the Assignment was a printed document that introduced the specific work project, made suggestions for study and research, and defined the work obligations and individual projects with suggested time frames agreed upon by the two parties. The Assignment provided the focus for daily work spanning twenty days (with suggested homework options) and was individually tailored to meet the specific needs and to develop specific strengths of each learner.

The Laboratory concept, Helen concluded, was integral to the success of the Plan, for it created the important “climate” or “culture” needed to evoke intentionality in the individual learners. She told us that she chose the word "Laboratory" for she thought it best described the educational atmosphere she wanted to create: one which truly combined study, research and collaboration.  "Lab" time, she went on, was the term they used to indicate the one-to-one and small group sessions between the learner and the particular specialist educator which took place in the Math Lab or in the History Lab. Helen recommended to us that we create special rooms for each subject area that would give emphasis to this independent interaction between that subject’s enthusiastic educator and the individual students. 

By contracting (or agreeing) to a clearly defined, twenty day Assignment of work in a specific subject area, this old Montessorian said,  the learners are presented with opportunities to make educational choices about their learning and in the process discover how to identify their interests and take responsibility for pursuing them.  Fitting to their age span, these learners also learned how to budget their time, seek out faculty and take responsibility for their own education.  She then smiled and said, “This is why when I came to New York I first named my Montessori school ‘The Children’s University’ -- my Dalton Plan would teach them how to take control of their own educational destinies.  Just as within the early childhood learning environments Maria created, I wanted to develop educated students who would be industrious, sincere, open-minded, and independent.” 

Jack asked Helen which of the three did she think was the most difficult to achieve: House, Assignment, or Lab?  Without hesitation she replied: “The Assignment.  The enthusiast we hired to bring the glories of History to the students would have to prepare Assignments designed to cover four weeks of work.  Each Assignment must include an introduction to the unit of study, suggestions regarding resources for acquiring further knowledge of the subject, and a work plan, which actually took on the form of a "contract," which specifies the agreed upon required reading and culminating projects.  Because as Montessorians we must respect the individuality of each learner, the learning (work) projects in the particular contracts are of many kinds, provide choices, and vary in their academic demands.  In some cases the educator and the learner might agree to make some projects on the contract a group endeavor. The goals of the Assignment, as I said before, are to provide individualization of instruction in the specific lab setting, and to teach students to use time in a manner that will prepare them for future success in higher education and the workplace.”

I asked Helen about how much freedom did the students have in drawing up each of these academic “contracts” --  or were the assignments more or less determined by the particular educator of the subject area and lab?
She asked me if I understood the concept of liberty as it was lived within a well prepared Montessori learning environment. She did not wait for an answer but immediately went on telling Jack and me that Maria taught that liberty was freedom understood within a social context. That is why it was always necessary for us first of all to create, beginning with the three to six year olds, a true inter-age community of learners who necessarily had to share the various learning materials and chairs, tables, mats, etc. which were provided for them in the rooms. This way the children had to consider “the other” – all the other students who were there learning with them daily in the social living and learning going on within their particular prepared learning environment. Each child then begins to develop within his life of free choice an overlaying responsibility to wait his turn, and respect the workspace of another. Freedom, Montessori used to say, makes each child personally responsible for the way he is getting on with his freedom. 

Helen went on to explain that upon this foundation of free choice and self- responsibility within a community we then can foster in each child a habit also of independent work on learning tasks. Of course the adult educator must be present to them all – as a shepherd with a flock grazing – indirectly enabling them each to choose where and when to nurture themselves in the pasture provided.

The vital point is that the children are working at their individual tasks together – there exists a visible spirit of cooperation in which the students can actually begin to complement each other – even at times become dependent on each other, and begin to learn from each other – to help each other, and to celebrate successes with other. This is a preparation for real life, for healthy societies, like natural organizations, are based on cooperation. Within the learning environment, she concluded, we want to foster an inter-connection of children in such a natural way that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

We then asked Helen to explain more fully the “contract” aspect of her Dalton Plan. She said the most challenging part for the faculty member creating contracts with the individual learners is that it involves proposing various learning tasks that truly respect the differences that exist between children. As always in a Montessori response, we have to differentiate in recognition of each child’s interest, developmental level, and personal pace of learning. Because the contract is a considered agreement between the learner and educator, it is the essential structure that assures this basic respect for individual differences.

So, she continued explicating what she had outlined earlier to us, each contract is comprised of learning tasks. Tasks can be: introductions to new subject area or topics; general at times when they contain the essential core of a particular subject to be studied; open to providing revision exercises for individuals who need more practice in order to achieve mastery. And of course the tasks should differ in size and level of challenge relating to the ability and maturity of the learner. The educator and the student, therefore, agree on just how much time each task should take to be done well. This estimation then is noted next to each task’s description in the contract in one hour “units” of time. Given the twenty day span of each contract agreed upon, the goal is to designate twenty units of working time for each of the major subject areas in the curriculum. Some tasks make take two hours time (two units) while others may take only a half an hour (one half unit). The balance comes in having all the tasks for that contract time period total twenty hours (or units). If a student has contracts in five subject areas, a month’s academic work would add up to one hundred hours of time spent in various labs and doing “home” work. 

We then asked how the student’s work was evaluated. Helen told us that when a student completed the twenty units of a particular contract, he would turn it into the educator of that subject to be checked. He would not be given a new contract in that area until all his contracts had been turned in to the respective labs. She went on to explain that each educator in evaluating the contracts turned in spent time discussing the evaluation of the various parts with the student and then especially drawing up plans for the next contract in light of this evaluation – adjusting it so that it might be a “better fit.”

With that we ran out of time and recording tape, and Jack and I thanked Helen sincerely and profusely for her hospitality and exciting, helpful sharing with us of her Contract Plan. Jack invited her to please come to visit the children and us at Whitby at anytime that would be convenient o her. I offered to pick her up and personally drive her to our school, if she would like. She smiling but firmly assured me she could very well drive her own car and make her own way to Whitby in Greenwich. And she did!

For the next few years Helen came motoring down (quite slowly and often right down the middle of the country roads) and mentored our faculty and parents on the workings of this excellent extension of the Montessori Method. She was a wonder and a dear colleague until she passed away to join the Doctoressa in paradise – in a well deserved paradise, having so loved children all her adult life.

Thank you, Parkie.  We who had the privilege and joy of knowing you remember you oh, so well!

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Last Updated (Saturday, 15 January 2011 11:44)