Reform in Education – The Quincy Method

Since it is back-to-school time, here is an education-related post:


Some of the leading eastern papers are now discussing what is termed the Quincy experiment. This experiment was a complete revolution in the system of teaching in the common schools of Quincy, Massachusetts.

The State of Massachusetts has long enjoyed an enviable reputation for the excellence of its public schools. Massachusetts is a very progressive State, perhaps because it has more radical thinkers to the square mile than any other section of the nation. So that it is not altogether surprising that the public school trustees of Quincy, instead of remaining satisfied with the system in use because it was admitted to be good, made a searching examination into it to determine its actual value.

They became convinced that the education the children were receiving was superficial, that it was their memory not their reasoning power that was being developed. They concluded that the whole theory of instruction was wrong, that the children were being taught pretty much as parrots are. And, it should be remembered, the system of teaching in Quincy was the same that is pursued in what are called the best common schools throughout the country.

The school trustees of Quincy determined to try a complete change of system. They substituted practice for precept in the schools. They secured as superintendent an enthusiastic young German instructor of radical views. He secured a staff of teachers whom he imbued with his own idea of instruction, and the Quincy experiment began.

The reform began in the primary schools. Instead of learning to read by studying the alphabet the children were made familiar with short words written on the blackboard. They were taught to understand the meaning of combinations of words almost insensibly.

The number of studies in the grammar schools was cut down from seven to three — reading, writing and arithmetic. In the place of the old method of committing lessons from books to memory, the pupils were taught by incessant practice in the school hours. They were obliged to write a great deal in school – not mechanically from copies, but from their heads. Thus by constant practice they rapidly acquired the art of composition and could write almost as easily as they could speak.

Spelling and grammar were naturally acquired by the correction of errors.

The old course of text books was almost entirely abandoned. Fresh and entertaining articles in Schribner’s and other current periodicals were substituted for the time-honored Reader. The new regime did not, however, include the teaching of drawing, which has been advocated by our esteemed contemporary on the Comstock. The idea was to reduce the number of studies rather than extend them; to teach a few branches of knowledge thoroughly, rather than give pupils a superficial smattering of many.

Charles Francis Adams, Jr., lives in Quincy, and is well known to the reading public, by his able articles in the Atlantic. He is a thinker and a close student of social questions. He describes the results of the new system as most gratifying. The new plan, Mr. Adams says, is “a complete negative of the whole present common school system, founded on a faith in the infinite capacity of children to know at an early age a little of everything.”

The new system has been in use three years. Under it the pupils have made greater progress, and take an interest in their studies. The school trustees of Quincy are delighted with the success of their experiment. The tax-payers have reason to be, for the cost of keeping up the schools has been reduced from $19.25 for each scholar per year to $15.68.

Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada) Oct 25, 1879


The “Quincy Method” of instruction which was some time ago described in this column, is attracting widespread attention. It is the system of teaching now in use in the public schools of Quincy, Mass. The same method has long been followed in Germany, in which country most of the reforms in education have originated.

The Quincy method is a radical reform in the whole system of teaching in the common schools. Instead of loading the memory of pupils with a mass of abstract rules and principles, it aims to develop their perceptive and creative faculties, and reasoning powers. The system pursued can best be explained by illustration. Take, for instance, the subject of grammar. The Quincy trustees, in examining the merits of the old system, found that while most of the pupils could parse glibly and were well acquainted with the rules of syntax, the majority of them could not express themselves well and correctly in a simple letter or other form of composition. And so with other studies.

The new method aims to teach children to do things correctly, rather than to fill their minds with rules for analyzing what is done. In composition its object is to enable the pupil to write a perfect sentence, instead of teaching him to analyze and correctly parse an example.

A mother in the kitchen does not show the daughter how to make good bread by giving her a loaf and telling her to analyze it. She gives her materials, shows her how and in what proportions to mix them together, and after repeated trials the girl at length learns how to make bread. She might spend her whole life in analyzing loaves of bread in order to learn their constituent elements, and yet never be able to make a good one. In that way she might become a skilful analyist, but not a good bread maker.

In all the practical teaching of life the same method is pursued as in the forgoing illustration. The Quincy plan is nothing more than the application of the same principle in the school room.

There is no subject of more vital importance than this one of education. If the methods pursued in the common schools of this State are not what they should be, they ought to be amended. The Quincy experiment has proved a success. After several years trial of the new system, it has been found that the pupils are better educated under it than under the old. The cost to the tax payers has also been lessened.

School trustees throughout the country would do well to enquire into this matter of reform in the common schools. Copies of the reports of the Quincy school trustees could doubtless be obtained on application. They contain a full account of the system of teaching now used at Quincy and an explanation of the methods pursued.

Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada) Dec 16, 1879

A Thorough Success.

The “Quincy System” had been given a trial in one of the Boston primary schools, and thorough success was the result. A writer in the Herald, of Boston, says that in a few months the little ones, many of whom did not know their letters, have learned to read and write correctly, not only in printed text-books but in script. They also do sums in simple arithmetic with remarkable facility.

In a class of sixty, all of them under seven years of age, there were at least forty whose chirography was better than that of the average graduate of our grammar and high schools.

Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada) Jan 30, 1880

Such whiners in this next article, ha ha! ** See last sentence.

The Quincy School System.

Under the head “Quincy and San Francisco,” the Pacific School Journal gives the following, with the exception of the item regarding Nevada:

“The Quincy Method is being put into practice by some of the Nevada teachers.” “One of its fundamental doctrines is, that the best teachers should be placed in the lowest primary grades.” “It would seem then, that to secure the best results, the primary teacher should be wide awake, eve enthusiastic, of great tact,  good judgment, versed in child-nature, large-hearted, kindly in word and act, ladylike in deportment, unwearied in well-doing and devoted, heart, soul, mind and strength to her work.” “Our teachers are ready for Quincy, but as long as sixty or eighty children are packed together to be taught by one solitary, unaided energy, so long will there be no Quincy System.”

Daily Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada) Mar 12, 1880

Francis W. Parker (Image from



From the Chicago Tribune, July 2.

Col. F.W. Parker, late Superintendent of the Primary Schools of  Boston, has entered upon his duties as Principal of the Cook County Normal School, at Englewood.

He is a man of 45 years, in robust health, and mentally vigorous. His lifework has been that of a professional teacher, and he is an enthusiast on the subject of reform in the methods of education. Many years ago he became convinced of the radically faulty character of the system now in vogue, and to confirm his newly formed views spent three years in Europe, principally in Germany, studying with the view of becoming a competent instructor of would-be teachers. Upon his return to this country he applied the test of his new experience to the schools of Norfolk County, Mass. The results of this test were shown in the now famous “Walton Report.” In the light of its disclosures Mr. Charles Francis Adams, Jr., characterized the old-school system as “cram and smatter.”

Under Col. Parker’s new system the schools of Quincy were lifted out of the old rut, and they now lead all other schools of the State. From Quincy Col. Parker was called to the Superintendency of the schools of Boston. He accepted the call to Chicago soon after entering upon a second term of two years in Boston because he believes the West affords the best theatre for the development of his educational theories.

To the question, “What will he do with the Cook County Normal School?” the best answer  may be found in a brief exposition of his views on the subject of what constitutes the most efficient instruction. We find these views in an address lately delivered by him before the Lancaster County (Penn.) Teachers’ Institute.

Col. Parker’s reverence for antiquity has this extent, no more. He says: “There is a true conservatism which takes what the past has created and on it builds the future — it is a false and spurious conservatism that holds fast to whatever is old because it is old, and consequently fails to grow.” “The normal school plan,” he says, “is a progressive step in that by it the State recognizes a science of teaching.” He shows, however, that the normal school has been very inefficient, owing to the fact that the pupils generally come from the common schools with poor academic qualifications, thus necessitating much attention to the common branches to the almost entire exclusion of scientific training. In this way it falls out that “the pupil is not much more than prepared to receive the philosophy of education when he leaves the normal school to become a teacher.”

Col. Parker shows that the development of the science of teaching must necessarily be very slow, by the following remark: “Why? Because when an Edison or a Howe, by years of study, has perfected a mechanical invention, it is at once ready for everybody’s use. But with teaching it is different. The science must be discovered by each individual teacher who is to apply it, so that instead of one Howe or Edison we must have a host of great inventors.” When we reflect that there are about 300,000 teachers in the United States we may almost despair of science in education. But Col. Parker does not despair.

Now for some of Col. Parker’s illustrations of the defective character of the old methods of teaching. He starts with the fundamental proposition of Comenius:

“Things that have to be done should be learned by doing them.” In the mechanical world the principle is applied. We do not keep an apprentice studying the theory of shoe-making for the whole term and then send him out to make shoes — he learns to do things by doing them; but how is it in the schools? Why, we have been for 40 years inventing ways to have children learn to do one thing by doing something else. *  *  *

In teaching arithmetic we teach not the science of numbers,  but figures. I have given to pupils who have been nine years in school this example: ‘I have a cord of wood, sticks four feet long, to be cut into three lengths for a stove, for which I pay $2: if I want another cord cut into four lengths how much proportionately should I pay? And they with edifying unanimity answered $$2 66 2/8 — which is wrong, of course. If I pay $2 for two cuts, three cuts are worth $3, but the children didn’t think — they used figures.”

Of grammar he says: “Some man, unfortunately, tried to make an English grammar on the Latin plan, and ever since they have been making it more and more complicated, and we have gone on teaching English grammar, and pretend to teach the child to speak and write the English language correctly. We all know how it does it. Here again directors are paying millions to teach children to do one thing by doing something else. What shall we do about it? Why, apply our principle; let the children learn to talk by talking, and to write by writing, and to compose by composing — that is all. *  *  *

The outcome of your artificial methods is a class of young people who are beneath, not above, manual labor, and are chiefly anxious to find places where there is not much work. *  *  *  We have all seen the young man come from college clothed in all the panoply of words, and at the first spear-thrust of reality the armor falls away and leaves him naked before the world.”

Col. Parker is a disciple of Pestalozzi, who discovered that “things much come before words — thoughts must come from live things.” He applies this principle to geography: “How are these principles recognized by the text-books? We open a geography, and in the very first sentence we find a definition — a generalization, and so it goes on pages at a time. The child learns all this — learns the words, and works his jaws in repeating them, and they mean nothing whatever to him. Happily, Providence has ordained that he may forget them easily.” To illustrate this point, Col. Parker tells a story of his own experience. He says: “I went into school one day and put the question: ‘Children, did you ever see a peninsula?’ No, they have never seen one — seemed to think it unreasonable to ask them, as if one ought to be about 100 years old to see such a wonderful sight — and yet four-fifths of them were born on the beautiful peninsula on which the school-house stood.”

Another principle of the new method is that “The mind grows by its own activity, and in no other way.” On this point he says: “The best expression of mental activity is when the child says, ‘Don’t do that for me — let me do it.’ The more we pour in the weaker they become. What we want is to develop power; yet we do their work while they sit helpless. Would you train an athlete by lifting all his burdens for him and then send him forth to wind the race? Why do the same thing for the child’s mind?”

Attention is called to the fact: “We ride in the cars and have the electric light before our doors; we are progressive in that line of applied science, but we fail to perceive that the science of teaching applied would produce commensurate results.” He proceeds: “The things of which we are most ignorant, as regards the teaching in our schools, are the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the clothes we wear — in short, that which touches us most closely on every side. The true teacher, the one who is trying to learn to teach, uses these things; and so the thought of God in nature becomes the thought of the child — and the revelation of God in nature works out through the child a true civilization.”

The New York Times – Jul 5, 1883

“Study Problems Solved” appears to have been a series that ran in various papers in 1919.

A Good Way to Review

Francis W. Parker School

I had just seen an Indian woman make a splint basket. I was afraid I should forget the process, and I wanted to tell my friends the story. So I said to myself, “What are the important things to remember? Used black ash logs. Pounded log to loosen layers. Wove like a kindergarten mat. I don’t need to remember how long the logs were or how big around or several other things. How shall I make sure that I shall remember?”

I made a collection to show my friends. I got a leaf of black ash and pressed it. I went back and took photographs of the weaver at work. I got a sample of the splints and made a drawing of a cross-section of the log showing the layers of growth. I wove a paper mat to illustrate the method of weaving. I wrote a little story about the work. It will be a long time before I forget how a black ash basket is made, for in making my collection, I had memorized the facts.

A like plan, I believe, will help you some day when your teacher says, “Review this subject.” Think over what you have read and heard in class and pick out the most important points. Never mind about the others. You won’t need them and to try to keep them in your mind would be to crowd out more important points. And then don’t merely go over these facts like a parrot, but do something with them. If you are reviewing history put the important facts together into a story. Make a chart of the dates.

If your subject is geography draw a map of the section you are reviewing and put on it the points you want to remember. Play you are giving a steriopticon lecture on the subject and get your brother or sister to listen. Make a sketch or chart that will show the whole subject in a nutshell.

While you are doing these things, the old facts will be fixing themselves in your mind, and, besides, you will be making something new and interesting to show the class.

Sandusky Star Journal (Sandusky, Ohio) Jan 5, 1919

Title: A Textbook in the History of Modern Elementary Education: With Emphasis on School Practice in Relation to Social Conditions
Author: Samuel Chester Parker
Publisher: Ginn and Company, 1912

NOTE: Samuel Chester Parker does not appear to have been related to Francis W. Parker. Link to a JSTOR biography.


Main points of the chapter. —
1. Froebel (1782-1852) directly influenced by Pestalozzi, conducted experimental schools in Germany from 1816 to 1852. In this way, beginning 1837, he became the founder of the kindergarten.
10. Colonel F.W. Parker and Professor John Dewey have been most influential in applying principles similar to Froebel’s to the work of the elementary school. They have both emphasized (a) artistic and industrial activities as important forms of expression; (b) training in thought through expression, and training in expression through thought; (c) the importance of the real audience-situation as fundamental for training in expression.

Chapter starts on page 431. Most of the parts concerning Francis W. Parker start about page 470. Chapter ends on page 486.


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