Celebrating the Legacy of Progressive Food Education & John Dewey

By Antonia Demas, Ph.D.

“The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting-point for all education” — John Dewey

John Dewey was born on October 20, 1859, in Burlington, Vermont, U.S. He died June 1, 1952, in New York City. His father was a shopkeeper who had an interest in books and his mother encouraged his pursuit of higher education.  He graduated from the University of Vermont in 1879, having studied philosophy.  After graduation he taught high school for two years in Pennsylvania and one year in Vermont.  In 1882 Dewey enrolled in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University.

Dewey taught at the Universities of Michigan (1884), Chicago (1894), and Columbia (1904).  After his time at Columbia, Dewey became a world traveler, gaining broad experience to validate his philosophical views.  While at Michigan he married Alice Chipman who became his partner in some of his educational endeavors, most notably serving as principal and head of the English & literature department of the Chicago Lab School.

Though Dewey was trained as a philosopher, he thought philosophy should not be considered an academic discipline detached from daily life but saw it rather as “the theory of education as a deliberately conducted practice” (Dworkin 1959:7).   He was known as the “Philosopher of the Common Man” because his primary interest was in the everyday problems of ordinary people (Johnson 1949:9).

Dewey was concerned about the lack of attention given to human problems in society.  How to live well was a subject that he felt deserved serious consideration.  Thought and action should be applied to daily life to improve the human condition.  Dewey believed that the scientific method and attitudes implicit in the method (inquiry, discrimination, examination), should be used to tackle problems in society.  To him, thinking was a method of problem-solving, development a long process of growth.   Knowledge was not just storage of facts but the result of a problem-solving activity where the learner was actively engaged.

Dewey devoted much of his thought and energy to the question of the education and development of young children.  The purpose of education is “to give the young the things they need in order to develop in an orderly, sequential way into members of society” (Johnson 1949:29).  The child should be the instigator:  “The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting-point for all education” (Johnson 1949:110).  And “The result of the educative process is capacity for further education” (ibid.: 1949: 111).  Therefore, education is a self-perpetuating cycle.

Dewey believed that education was misguided and short-sighted if it dealt only with intellectual development.  Both the body and the mind contribute to an individual’s well-being.  Education should speak to the whole child, addressing the subjects of aesthetics, taste, sound, social skills, and moral development, as well as the intellect.  Only then would children develop the skills necessary to be participants in democracy.

This implies that schools should not be separate from the communities in which they serve.  Schools are just one agency of education.  Children need opportunities to explore their communities and have direct experience with them if they are to learn about them.  Dewey’s theory states that the best way to learn is through actively engaging in hands-on problem-solving experiences.  Thus, a cooking activity could be used to teach chemistry principles, and shop work could serve as a means of educating the body as well as the mind.  Learning should have relevance to a real problem if it is to have meaning.  That is why “learning by drill” is generally not effective since it has little relevance to daily life.

Schools, in Dewey’s view, should be a microcosm of society:

“To do this means to make each one of our schools an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society, and permeated throughout with the spirit of art, history, and science.  When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with the instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious” (Dworkin 1959:49).

Chicago Lab School kids preparing for and having a Tea Party

The Chicago Lab School

The University of Chicago Lab School was run under the direction of John Dewey from 1896 to 1903 as a laboratory for the departments of psychology and pedagogy.  Dewey was head of those University departments as well as the department of philosophy.  The Lab School provided a unique opportunity for Dewey to put his beliefs about education and how people learn into practice.  All children learned sewing, cooking, weaving, and carpentry, regardless of their sex.  Practical skills were seen as an integral part of a liberal education. Teachers, parents, and educators worked cooperatively to carry out an experiment in progressive education that applied many of Dewey’s theories into practice.   One of the hallmarks of Dewey’s philosophy was the active expression of imaginative thought.  It would have been inconsistent and contradictory for him to theorize without practical application of his ideas.

Dewey espoused a child centered philosophy.  The child was innately curious about the world and had a natural desire to explore.  The teacher should capitalize upon the child’s natural curiosity and provide opportunities for its further development.  Learning is an active process that starts from within the individual.  It is the child — not the subject matter– that determines the quality of learning.

“Our tragic error is that we are so anxious for the results of growth that we neglect the process of growing.  Nature would have children be children before they are men[adults].  If we try to invert this order we shall produce a forced fruit, immature and flavorless, fruit that rots before it can ripen . . . Childhood has its own ways of thinking, seeing, and feeling” (Dewey 1915:7).

The Lab School utilized a variety of activities including cooking as a method of learning across disciplines.   Subject matter, in Dewey’s view, was:

“…spiritual food, possible nutritive material.  It cannot digest itself; it cannot of its own accord turn into bone and muscle and blood.  The source of whatever is dead, mechanical, and formal in schools is found precisely in the subordination of the life and experience of the child to the curriculum” (Archambault 1966: 95).

Dewey saw schools as small cooperative societies that prepared children for social life.  He thought domestic and industrial activities such as cooking and carpentry developed skills that could be applied to a variety of concepts relevant to daily life.  Social interaction is an important part of cooking as the child learns to cooperate with his/her peers in preparing and serving a meal.  Individual and group work skills were developed as the individual shared his/her contributions with the group.

Learning how to care for babies and negotiating plans for the future

Dewey’s operating principle in curriculum development was to start with something closely related to the child’s life; this guaranteed the child’s interest from the start.  The problems of daily life such as food, shelter, and clothing, were of special significance to children.  The role of the teacher is to help the child explore a topic through a variety of interdisciplinary means.  The disciplines should not be seen in isolation from each other but as interweaving systems or facets of the same concept, topic, or problem.

Overall, the more direct modes of activity, the construction and occupational work, the scientific observation and experimentation, presented plenty of opportunities for the necessary use of reading, writing, spelling, and number work.  These subjects, therefore, were not isolated studies, but were introduced as organic outgrowths of the child’s daily experience (Baker 1955:150).

Cooking was an activity that fit perfectly into this general framework of starting with something connected to daily life in which the child had a natural interest.  Dewey said:

“Carpentry, cooking, sewing, and weaving–all require different sorts of skill and represent, as well, some of the most important industries of the everyday outside world.  The questions of living under shelter, of living in a home, of daily food and clothing, of protection through the home, and the support of life through food are basic things for all higher civilization.  A child’s interests are so direct and immediate that these things appeal to him.  He gets through such activities, also, a training of the sense organs, of touch, of eye, and the ability to coordinate hand and eye.  They furnish, as well, a healthy sort of exercise.  They are more natural to child life than to keep continually quiet, to work at a book, or to engage in more formal modes of action.  In addition, there is a continual appeal to memory, to judgment in adapting ends to means.  Training in habits of order, of industry, and of neatness in the care of tools, or utensils are also by-products, for the child gets at things in a systematic instead of a haphazard way” (Mayhew 1936:28).

The Lab School had a large kitchen and two dining rooms fully equipped for serving meals.  Tables could be adapted by means of stools to fit the size of the children.  Both boys and girls cooked.  In fact, in the book, Schools of Tomorrow, written by Dewey and his daughter Evelyn, one of the pictures is subtitled, “The boys like cooking more than the girls do” (Dewey 1915:218).  The students were divided into groups based upon their areas of interest rather than by ages.  Thus, there were opportunities for the younger to learn from the older and vice versa.  Domestic science, which included cooking, sewing, and carpentry, was a vital interest area.  Cooking, and all of the related activities that it entails, was done on a regular basis.

“As used in the Laboratory School the activity of cooking supplied the child with a genuine motive and the medium for its expression; it gave him a chance for first-hand experience; and it brought him into contact with realities.  It did all this, but in addition it was liberalized throughout by translation into its historic and social values and scientific equivalences.  With the growth of the child’s mind in knowledge and power it ceases to be a pleasant occupation merely and becomes more and more a medium, an instrument, and an organ of understanding, and is thereby transformed” (Mayhew 1936:297).

The two main cooking teachers, Althea Harmer and Katherine Camp, were trained in domestic science and were experienced teachers.  Their focus was to use cooking as a means to develop scientific concepts.  Many opportunities arose from the children’s natural curiosity and questions about foods.  For example, if a child wanted to know what made popcorn pop, this was taken as a sign that they were ready to learn some basic science principles.  Cooking began at the kindergarten level and was available to all age groups.  The teachers tailored the activities to the developmental level of the students.  As far as a tool for science education was concerned, it was said:

“From the point of view of the teacher of general science, the course in cooking afforded more opportunity for the development of the scientific method than any other activity carried on in the school, with the possible exception of gardening, the general geography of the earth and atmosphere, and some of the textile processes” (Mayhew 1936:298).

Students in the school garden

One approach to cooking that the school utilized was to liberate the cook from the use of rigid recipes.  Ellen Richards, a contemporary of Dewey and founder of the Home Economics movement, had written a book on The Free-Hand Method of Teaching Cooking (Mayhew 1936:298).   The basic concept of this method was to free people from being slaves to recipes and to allow for creative expression in cooking.  This was possible once one understood the general chemical make-up of food, the effects of heat in cooking, and the process of fermentation.  An example Dewey gives in his book, The School and Society, illustrates how the teacher can effectively use the “free-hand” method:

“So undoubtedly the little child who thinks he would like to cook has little idea of what it means or costs, or what it requires.  It is simply a desire to ‘mess around’, perhaps to imitate the activities of older people.  And it is doubtless possible to let ourselves down to that level and simply humour that interest.  But here, too, if the impulse is exercised, utilized, it runs up against the actual world of hard conditions, to which it must accommodate itself; and there again come in the factors of discipline and knowledge.  One of the children became impatient recently at having to work things out by a long method of experimentation, and said:  ‘Why do we bother with this?  Let’s follow a recipe in a cook-book.’  The teacher asked the children where the recipe came from, and the conversation showed that if they simply followed this they would not understand the reasons for what they were doing.  They were then quite willing to go on with the experimental work.  To follow that work will, indeed, give an illustration of just the point in question.  Their occupation happened that day to be the cooking of eggs, as making a transition from the cooking of vegetables to that of meats.  In order to get a basis of comparison they first summarized the constituent food elements in the vegetables and made a preliminary comparison with those found in meat.  Thus they found that the woody fibre of cellulose in vegetables corresponded to the connective tissue in meat, giving the element of form and structure.  They found that starch and starchy products were characteristic of the vegetables, that mineral salts were found in both alike, and that there was fat in both–a small quantity in vegetable food and a large amount in animal.  They were prepared then to take up the study of albumen as the characteristic feature of animal food, corresponding to starch in the vegetables, and were ready to consider the conditions requisite for the proper treatment of albumen–the eggs serving as the material of experiment.  They experimented first by taking water at various temperatures, finding out when it was scalding, simmering, and boiling hot, and ascertained the effect of the various degrees of temperature on the white of the egg.  That worked out, they were prepared, not simply to cook eggs, but to understand the principle involved in the cooking of eggs.  I do not wish to lose sight of the universal in the particular incident.  For the child simply to desire to cook an egg, and accordingly drop it in water for three minutes, and take it out when he is told, is not educative.  But for the child to realize his own impulse by recognizing the facts, materials and conditions involved, and then to regulate his impulse through that recognition, is educative.  This is the difference, upon which I wish to insist, between exciting or indulging an interest and realizing it through its direction” (Dewey 1900:39 -41).

The teachers introduced different categories of foods in sequence.  For example, the six-year-olds studied grains.  They would first learn about how grain grows.  Perhaps they would visit a grain farm.  They would see grain farming as an occupation and learn what was involved in successful grain farming.  The work of the miller would also be studied, and the children might try to grind their own grains to various degrees of coarseness.  The history of grain cultivation and geographical places where different grains are grown could be researched.   The structure of grain plants would be examined and the function of the various parts of the plant investigated.  Next would come experiments in cooking grains.  Each child would conduct their own experiment by adding what they thought to be the correct amount of water to the grain and then cooking it.  Variations in liquids, coarseness of the grains, timing, and temperatures would be recorded.  Everyone would then share their individual results with the group for comparison.  This would not be done in the spirit of competition but rather as a problem-solving activity where everyone learned from each other.  Basic concepts about the composition of the grain — whether it was hulled, cracked, ground, or flaked, and the effect that had on cooking time, etc., would be observed.  The children would start out with the same problem of how to cook a particular grain and through active experimentation and group sharing would gain a genuine understanding of the factors involved.  Once this type of insight about a food is developed, the cook is confident to explore further experiments and be creative.

Cooking was seen as an ideal way to gain an understanding of math concepts.  The use of units of measurement in cooking introduced simple fractions.

“He [the student] used parts of a cup, as units; he then got the relation of these units to a larger whole; and he began to have an idea of simple fractions.  From the manipulation of materials, and comparison of these by weight and measure, he got, in a concrete way, a definite idea of proportion which later on was made use of in his study of abstract number.  In connection with the balancing of the grains to obtain the amount of water required by each, recipes were made for their cooking.  He discovered the practical importance of the recipe:  just what it is used for, namely, to give the materials and quantities required” (Mayhew 1936:302).

Another skill that was developed in this style of cooking was that of estimation, the theory being that when one has a conception of what a cup holds, it is possible to throw the cup out and estimate amounts.

As part of the study of history at the school, the students cooked outdoors using the more “primitive” techniques of roasting in hot ashes or cooking on hot stones.  Techniques involved in fireplace cookery could then be compared with modern methods.

As children matured, the complexity of their projects increased.  Children of eight years, at the end of a long course in experimental cooking, were able to make a general classification of foods, grouping those together which required the same or similar means of preparation by cooking.  At eleven years, when their experience had included experiments in solution and osmosis, and a physiological study of animals, these same children reclassified foods on the basis of their use to the body (Baker 1955:154).

Cooking was viewed as the easiest way to learn the scientific method as well as to develop other skills.  There are many concepts that can be formed through experiencing and experimenting with foods.

“Take a child in the school kitchen; he [child] is not merely preparing that day’s midday meal because he must eat; he is learning a multitude of new things.  In following the directions of the recipe, he is learning accuracy, and the success or failure of the dish serves as an excellent measure of the pupil’s success.  In measuring quantities, he is learning arithmetic and tables of measures; in mixing materials, he is finding out how substances act when they are manipulated; in baking or boiling he is discovering some of the elementary facts of physics and chemistry.  Repetition of these acts by adults, after the muscular and intellectual mastery of the adjustments they call for has been established, gives the casual thinker the impression that pupils also are doing no more than wasting their time on insignificant things.  The grocer’s boy knows what a peck is because he has used it to measure things with, but since his stock of knowledge is not increased as he goes on measuring out peck after peck, the point is soon reached where intellectual discovery ends and mere performance of a task takes its place.  This is the point where the school can see that the pupil’s intellectual growth continues; while the activity of the mere worker who is doing the thing for its immediate practical use becomes mechanical.  The school says the pupil has had enough of this particular experience; he knows how to do this thing when he needs to and he has understood the principles or facts which it illustrates; it is time he moved on to other experiences which will teach him other values and facts.  When the pupil has learned how to follow a recipe, how to handle foodstuffs and use the stove he does not go on repeating the same elementary steps; he begins to extend his work to take in the larger aspects of cooking.  The educative value of the cooking lessons continues because he is now studying questions of food values, menus, the cost of food, and the chemistry of food stuffs, and cooking.  The kitchen becomes a laboratory for the study of a fundamental factor in human life” (Dewey 1915:294-96).

Marketing and accounting were part of the cooking program at the Lab School.  Children were encouraged to do some of the shopping at home and keep records of their purchases.  Many of the children prepared Sunday night supper for their families.  They learned about planning and became discriminating shoppers.  Serving luncheons at the school was a weekly event for the different groups of students. This was a cooperative venture that involved cooking the meal, setting the table, and writing or selecting stories to be told during the meal. The social importance of such efforts cannot be underestimated.  But on a subtler level, attitudes about kitchens and food in history (foodways, a recognized academic discipline), were formed:

“Without knowing it, by successive, carefully interpreted, and guided steps, they had come to a realization that their kitchen was a laboratory, and that a certain phase of their cooking was a study of the chemistry of food.  Thus appreciation grew of the efforts of the past which had given them a heritage of finesse in the science and art of cooking” (Mayhew 1936:256).

The Chicago Lab School, under John Dewey’s direction, provides a wonderful example of cooking used as an effective means of learning a broad range of disciplines and the connections between them.  This type of learning is retained and inspires further investigation.  Children deserve to have the opportunity to use cooking as a springboard for developing interests and skills across disciplines.


Dewey believed in trusting the innate curiosity of children as the starting point of education and promoted learning by doing to understand the environment and how it works. He used foods as a vehicle to teach across disciplines, and linked food activities to science, math, ecology, social studies, art, and nutrition.  These ideas are not effectively utilized in a coordinated way in contemporary education and deserve serious application.

I am convinced that food studies can be used to enliven and enhance the teaching of academic and practical subject matter and lend a creative approach to the school curriculum at all ages.  Children must understand where food comes from, what it takes to grow it, what it can do for your health and the planet, and that it is not just something one buys at the grocery store. When one is actively engaged in food production, they will appreciate the diverse and complex issues involved and will not assume that this will happen without thoughtful intervention which requires experiential education. We live in an increasingly complex and interdependent world.  The importance of food has far-reaching political implications, is fundamental to the health and welfare of populations, and plays an integral role in cultural identity as it connects us to the natural world.

We know that diet is related to health and chronic disease.  We know that multi-dimensional experience with foods can increase dietary acceptance of new foods and promote healthier growing conditions for our soils.   Our children deserve to be served food that reflects contemporary nutritional knowledge and will help prevent chronic diseases.  For this to happen, the school food culture needs to be integrated into the curriculum via hands-on sensory experiences that are enjoyable so people will be able to make informed choices that promote health.

The United States has experienced a growing crisis in diet-related health, education, and behavior. Our environment is suffering from climate change at an increasing level with devastating effects. We have solutions especially if we adhere to the educational precepts of Dewey in our schools and apply what science has taught us about nutrition in the ensuing years. The consequences of not embracing a proven methodology have affected the health of people and the planet in a negative way. Education in the tradition of Dewey gives hope to our future and the time is overdue to honor his brilliant legacy. Our children deserve it.

I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.”
– John Dewey


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