William Heard Kilpatrick: Progressive educator, curriculum innovator, and social philosopher. The impact of his Project Method on today's innovations

Date of Completion

January 2000


Biography|Education, History of|Education, Elementary|Education, Curriculum and Instruction




Historians believe that a study of past events can yield insight into current and future decision-making. In 1918 William Heard Kilpatrick espoused a problem-solving philosophy with his Project Method. After initial popularity and use for twenty years, the philosophy went out of favor due to the difficulty in implementation in large-scale systems. Recently constructivists have used the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky to develop a problem solving system, which emphasizes an adaptive curriculum with students as problem solvers. This instructional process of student-directed learning has been promoted as a new idea, which will solve the problem of student motivation and achievement in the modern world. Kilpatrick's Project Method advanced similar ideas. ^ The purpose of this study was to explore in more depth Kilpatrick's philosophy and its relationship to social constructivism. At his death, Kilpatrick's personal writings were sealed for twenty years. The re-opening of this collection to scholars offers an opportunity to scrutinize these primary sources utilizing standard qualitative historical techniques. Constructivist theories based on Piaget's and Vygotsky's psychologies were studied. The Connecticut Invention Convention curriculum was used as an example of a modern, constructivist-based curriculum for this research investigation. Through a comprehensive study of Kilpatrick's writings, which involved primary data, reviewing films and phonograph records, and diaries, some similarities between Kilpatrick's educative process of purposeful activity, based on the student's own developing experiences, interest and concerns, and today's instructional processes and curriculums, were found. The end goal for Kilpatrick and present-day constructivist educators is learners, who can think critically, judge situations and attack problems independently in a democratic society. Educational success in the 21 st century requires the ability to find answers beyond the traditional teacher directed assimilation of material. Imaginative thinking and creativity is required in real world situations and Kilpatrick's ideas could be relevant in part with modification to prevailing practice. The successes and failures of Kilpatrick's work in the twenties and thirties will prove to be beneficial in examining today's processes. ^