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The Lab School,

between research

and education

Image Lab School

What is a Lab School?

A laboratory school is a school backed by a university department or an institution that trains teachers. Three complementary activities are associated with it: teaching, training and research ( Wilcox-Herzog & McLaren, 2012 ). Because of this structure, an organic link is naturally woven between education and research, which allows "to develop and test new approaches, by modeling best practices" ( Cucchiara, 2010 ).


Such schools have existed for a long time on university campuses: according to Cassidy & Sanders (2010) - who do not cite the source of this information -, their existence was documented as early as the 17th century, in Europe as well as across the Atlantic, or still in Japan, where they are called attached schools (Hayo, 1993, cited by Cassidy & Sanders, 2010 ). Lab schools experienced considerable development in the United States between the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries and played a major role in the field of educational research. One of the most famous was founded in 1894 in Chicago by psychologist and philosopher John Dewey (1959–1952) in the course of progressive education . It opened its doors in January 1896 with twelve children (or 16, according to sources) and a teacher, then gradually grew to include 140 pupils (mainly from privileged backgrounds), 23 teachers and 10 assistant students from education in 1901 (Knoll, 2014). Among the most well-known lab schools today are those of UCLA , Washington , New York , and Toronto .


The proliferation of lab schools during the first half of the twentieth century made it possible to carry out a number of educational experiments in a framework where they could be rigorously evaluated as and when they were implemented. They notably brought a lot to our knowledge on the development of the child. It is, for example, in such frameworks that the theory of mind was developed by John Flavell ( Wilcox-Herzog & McLaren, 2012 ) and that the famous marshmallow test developed by Walter Mischel made it possible to discover the link between the ability to defer gratification and the chances of success in life. Depending on the context, variable importance is given to training and research. In Chicago, for example, research clearly occupied a privileged position, while the training of education professionals came second. Conversely, some schools do not focus on research, but endeavor to apply Dewey's theories, such as, for example, the Greenwood Laboratory school of the University of Missouri ( Cucchiara, 2010 ) or to found their pedagogy on recent educational research, such as the Khan Lab School . The latter is not even affiliated with a university, but justifies the choice of the term lab school on its site : As a lab school, we monitor existing and new findings in education research and learning science to inform our programmatic choices.


In any case, by integrating a school into the campus, the university assumes a responsibility that is traditionally outside its domain, as Maia Cucchiara (2010) points out . The creation of most of these schools is inseparable from a more general evolution of higher education, which is reflected in the United States by an increased civic and community commitment on the part of the major research universities.

Lab schools are most often private, since universities establish their own charter schools, but there is nothing to prevent a lab school from being a public establishment. Simple question of political will. There is at least one in the United States: in 1998, the Pennsylvania Gazette announces that the University of Pennsylvania has entered into a partnership with a public school and with the Philadelphia Teachers' Federation to open, first three years later, a first public school lab. This school receives significant assistance from the university ($ 700,000 per year, or $ 1,000 per student), assistance intended to enable the recruitment of additional teachers to reduce the number of students per class and improve thus considerably the rate of supervision compared to what it was before (the problem of overcrowded classes is not, as we know, specific to France).

An international network federated by the International association of Laboratory and University Affiliated Schools (IALS)

Map of Lab Schools around the world

In an increasingly international environment, links have started to be forged between lab schools around the world. Many of them are now affiliated with the International association of Laboratory and University Affiliated Schools (IALS). At the time of its creation (whose precise date does not appear on the Internet), this association had only a national influence and was called the National Association of Laboratory and University Affiliated Schools (NALS). After half a century of existence, an increasing number of foreign institutions having joined the association, the name has been changed to reflect the diversity of the members. NALS has become IALS. But we still find the trace of the original name in the journal published by the IALS which remains the NALS Journal . The INALS brings together around a hundred schools associated with higher education establishments or teams of researchers worldwide. It funds research projects and organizes an annual conference where members have the opportunity to meet.


As the IALS site indicates , the definition used to designate a lab school is deliberately very broad, so as to accommodate very diverse configurations. And indeed, these differ considerably depending on the contexts in which schools are created: a lab school can be an establishment formally integrated into a university department, like the one founded by J. Dewey. This is the case for the majority of North American and Japanese lab schools, such as the Shinwa Kindergarten School of Kobe Shinwa Women's University, one of the lab schools most recently affiliated with IALS.


But it can also be a device set up by a school which brings together the skills of researchers in order to offer an “evidence-based” pedagogy. This is particularly the case of the very recent Labyrinth School in Brno, in the Czech Republic, which opened its doors in September 2016. Based on respect for the individual needs of children, it aims to allow each of them to develop at maximum potential. It operates in association with a think tank made up of school leaders, teachers, academics, non-governmental organizations and representatives of the Ministry of Education and defines itself as a “ modern, open, welcoming school, bilingual, creative, active, community, for everyone, for the future ”. The Labyrinth School was the first lab school to join IALS in Europe.

Sharing knowledge and disseminating practices: “evidence-based” pedagogy

Beyond the heterogeneity of the devices, a lab school is characterized by a participation in the construction of knowledge and by the application to education of a scientific approach or " education based on evidence " (evidence-based) . As researcher Franck Ramus points out , the word "proof" in the expression evidence-based refers to factual data, more than to real evidence. The idea is to promote educational practices based on such data, as opposed to practices based on simple representations or on philosophies. But in fact, this latter approach is still underdeveloped in France, where education and research are still an “ improbable couple ”.


Today, however, more and more voices are rising in our country in favor of increasing links between research and education, such as those of researcher François Taddei or Minister of Education Najat Vallaud Belkacem . Various recent initiatives are likely to strengthen them: this is particularly the case with Associated Education Locations (LéA) set up within the framework of the French Education Institute (IFÉ), the first Carnot Institute of the education (ICÉ) and projects such as La Main à la Pâte , Les Savanturiers or Syn Lab .

However, the number of teachers and, consequently, of pupils who benefit from this development remains limited. To enable scaling up, initial and in-service teacher training must be improved, as unanimously recommended by the studies and reports informed by research published since the start of the 2016 academic year, be it the report on inequalities at the school of CNESCO , the TIMSS study or the PISA survey.

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