INNOVATIVE EDUCATION: Paul Barlow’s Pueblo Experiment

To my readers:  Doc Klein and I were talking about innovations in Education.  I am posting this account of a very innovative teaching experience conducted by my husband long before we ever met.   I asked Paul to write a brief summary of his very creative year with a third grade class in Pueblo, Colorado in 1956-57.  My real regret is that I somehow never was able to video his slide presentations where he told the stories of these children in his University lectures.  The methods are still progressive and applicable to all ages of people who are learning from each other in unusual ways.   Here is the summary in Paul’s own words:

Paul Barlow’s Third Grade Experiment

Unorthodox “Out of the Box” teaching in the 50’s


“In the mid-1950’s, I was a doctoral student of Dr. William E. Hall at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.  Dr. Hall was conducting research in Positive Human Development,  a new field in Educational Psychology.  The basic concept was that each person grows and develops through his or her relationships with other human beings.


One of Dr. Hall’s creations was called “Child Project,” in which each University student in that project was assigned an eight year old child, conducting activities with that child designed to aid in his/her own development though his/her interpersonal relationships with other eight year olds (usually at school).  The basic procedure underlying the project held that in order to assist in the development of an eight year old, one had to find situations wherein that eight-year old could be working on the development, through relationships, of yet another eight year old.  I worked in Child Project with these young students, helping them as they worked with other students in a sort of “pay it forward” scenario.  The students loved it and we saw positive change in all who were involved.


When the time arrived for the writing of my doctoral dissertation, Dr. Hall and I hit upon the idea that I might teach a year with a classroom of third grade students in a typical middle-class public school.  This would allow me to do the two purposes of our research: first, to validate the theory of the Positive Approach to Human Development and second, to continue to learn more about the theory itself.


Charlie Davis, Superintendent of Schools in Pueblo, Colorado had been a fellow Ph.D. student with Dr. Hall at Ohio State University.  He invited me to Pueblo over spring break in 1955.  My description of my research project pleased him and he assigned me to a 3rd grade classroom at Somerlid Elementary School.  My class was one of three, providing the means to compare the results of my year-long experiment with the other two classes, each of which was conducted with normal, standard teaching procedures.


At that time in Colorado, students in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades participated in standard examinations every year.  Scores were “Grade Placement” scores, with the average at the completion of 3rd grade being a 4.2 grade placement.  Allowing for “forgetting” over the summer vacation, most would begin the 4th grade with a grade at 4.0.


The project Dr. Hall and I devised did not concern itself with test scores, even though the children in my class still took these standardized tests.  Basically, I wanted each student to love to come to school each day.   There would be at least one other student she/he could relate to in a developmental atmosphere.  That also meant that each student knew at least one other student who was interested in his/her development.  My methodology was to create a daily atmosphere in our classroom wherein relationships could grow, providing a warm, fun, and pleasurable place to be each day.


The 3rd grade curriculum had to be pursued,  with so many minutes per week devoted to basic mathematics, reading, history, etc.  My experiment was to involve more than me standing in the front of the classroom teaching them.   They would teach each other, especially in areas where they were keenly interested.


I wanted my students to learn from each other whenever possible.  I learned about them from many sources–from the 2nd grade teachers, from my visits to as many of their homes as possible, and from individual chats with each student.  I learned much about how almost every student could be capable of teaching our class something.  Most important was my inquiry into their interests.  I found out what they liked and what they were excited about learning.


For example, Chemistry is not a part of the third grade curriculum but when Donnie Boone received a Chemistry set for his birthday, he became our chemistry teacher.  Each Wednesday, after lunch, he set up a table in front of the classroom, lit a candle (who knows why, but he wanted to so I allowed it).  The very first experiment he taught was called “turning water into wine.”  It involved putting a drop of phenelthaline into a glass of clear liquid.  The liquid turned a wine-colored red instantly, amazing the class.


Betty Cohen taught the class how to add long columns of numbers by breaking the column into several smaller columns—easily done with fewer errors.  At other times, I would privately instruct a student who, in turn, would teach the class according to the lesson I had taught to this one student.


This process of students teaching students was duplicated dozens of times over the school year.  Multiple desk arrangements enhanced relationship building.  We had moveable desks (unusual in those days) and I would have groups of 2, 3, or 4 desks joined together.  The members of each group could answer questions for each other.  When test time came, the groups stayed together and students could help others taking the test AND, all members of a group would each receive the same grade on the exam as that which the highest student achieved.


There was talking in our classroom all day long.  The students listened attentively when one of them was teaching something, including when I taught them.  Yet they were quiet (on their own without me directing them) during certain periods such as during our reading sessions.  Our classroom was one of a positive flow of life where every one of us felt included and knew that we belonged.


On several occasions parents would report that they had trouble keeping their child at home when he/she was ill.  They wanted to go to school and the parent wondered what they could do about that.  The students in my class even insisted on coming to school on Saturdays.  They would come in the afternoon “to clean up our classroom.”  The custodian would have left the room clean on Friday and by late Saturday afternoon, the room was in worse condition than it had been the day before.  They had a feeling of ownership and were deeply engaged.  They wanted to be with each other and they wanted  to be at school.


I will share one example, not academic in nature, that demonstrates how the whole system worked.  Betty Cohen’s parents were highly socialized individuals who knew how to stage memorable parties.  Betty was our party chairwoman.  When Betty’s father was transferred to another city, one of the students suggested we give Betty a surprise farewell party.  And, who did they pick to plan Betty’s surprise party?  Betty herself.  At the occasion of her beautifully planned surprise farewell party, Betty entered the classroom, put her hand to her forehead and acted like this party was the surprise of her life!


In short, my third grade classroom was peopled with children who loved learning, loved being at school, and really related to each other.


Even though our initial purpose in planning this year did not include much concern about grade placement, even though we did follow the standard curriculum in unorthodox ways, even though we were noisy and disruptive (they moved us to the basement), and even though we did most things contrary to current standard school procedures, we met the goals Dr. Hall and I set for the project.  AND, when the results were announced at the end of the year to the public, we learned that our class had surpassed the other two 3rd grade classes,  score wise.


One of the other third grade classrooms averaged 4.6 grade placement; another averaged 4.8.  Our class averaged a 5.2 grade placement in the standardized tests at the end of the year.  Everyone was happy.  The experiment successfully demonstrated that a busy group of third graders could relate to each other, teach each other, and be totally engaged in the learning process through cooperative, friendly relationships in a classroom full of positive emotional energy.”

Note from Marj:  I have asked Paul to write up each child as a separate story, for they are very interesting.  Also, I want him to tell how all the results from this innovative experiment were lost in a fire and he was left with no choice but to write another dissertation!  Paul’s career included this unusual 3rd grade and years later, his unusual venture into play therapy with children.  The strange synchronicity is that both these profound experiments with children ended with a serious fire–and Paul has many planets in the element of fire in his astrological natal chart.  Life is stranger than fiction!