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Laura Zirbes (1884–1967)

teaching education children science

Laura Zirbes was a leader in elementary education and reading instruction. A professor at the Ohio State University, Zirbes founded its elementary laboratory school and was a strong practitioner and promoter of the Progressive education philosophy.

Zirbes taught elementary school in Cleveland from 1903 to 1919, then worked at the experimental Lincoln School at Teachers College from 1920 untill 926. She received her doctoral degree from Columbia University in 1928. From 1928 until her retirement in 1954 she taught at Ohio State, then conducted workshops and summer sessions until 1964, sixty-one years of teaching in all.

During those sixty-one years Zirbes encountered most of the important issues affecting education in the United States throughout the twentieth century. In Cleveland she taught a class of fifty-six fourth graders, children of immigrants. At Columbia she listened to Edward L. Thorndike, John Dewey, and William Bagley discuss the value of testing, and heard Bagley debate with William Heard Kilpatrick about Kilpatrick's Project Method. She coauthored articles with William S. Gray but turned down his offer to help write the famous Scott-Foresman basal reading series because she disagreed with the philosophy of basal readers. Zirbes's dissertation made her one of the nation's experts on teaching children to read but she never considered herself a reading expert because she did not believe in isolating one subject from other subjects. She founded the laboratory school at the Ohio State University to study the best ways of teaching; the school continued, under her influence, for over thirty years.

The central issue in Zirbes's work was the question, "How do children learn?" She believed they learned best when their interest was high. That was not a unique observation; others such as Franklin Bobbitt argued that teachers should stimulate children's interest in the subject that the teacher planned to teach, while the teacher remained in complete control and dispensed the knowledge. But Zirbes took the child-centered approach that the teacher should find out the child's needs and interests, and then develop units of study around those needs and interests. Yet Zirbes supported the child-centered approach only if the teacher had a firm understanding of the skills and concepts she wanted the children to learn, and carefully guided her class in that direction. Zirbes was not a laissez-faire progressive who let students do what they pleased.

The next step in learning, according to Zirbes, was to provide good learning experiences that would enlarge children's understanding and their vocabulary. Zirbes believed that the child, not the teacher, would make the connections between the new experience and what he or she already knew, following the way it happens in real life, for young and old. When the teacher provided a well-designed experience it would happen the same way in school.

Once a colleague asked Zirbes, "How old must children be before you can teach them generalizations?" Zirbes replied, with wry humor, "Eighty, at least." Then she explained: "You do not teach generalizations. You teach people to generalize" (1959, p.226).

Zirbes believed that several other elements contribute to learning. First, the lesson should be meaningful to the child, and second, learning should be intrinsically motivating. It is better to build on children's interests and to demonstrate that material is relevant to them than it is to force learning. What if, for example, a child is taught reading through extrinsic motivation–the child may indeed learn to read, but he may also learn an unintended second lesson: that he hates to read!

The final two key elements of learning, for Zirbes, were that the lesson should stimulate thinking and should be integrated with other subjects. Zirbes wanted students to make observations, to draw inferences, and to learn to think inductively, in science class and in other subjects too. Learning was science with a lowercase "s." Zirbes considered science part of life, part of learning in all subjects, and a way of thinking. She saw science as Dewey saw it: the exciting probing of the unknown in all fields.

Zirbes's teaching philosophy touched upon another great debate of her time, whether educators should teach the arts or focus more on science. In the 1920s Zirbes shared the belief of her times that scientific methods could and would lead to the improvement, indeed to the perfection, of education and of mankind. Though that hope was severely tested by the Depression, she continued to test her classroom practices scientifically throughout her career. At the same time, Zirbes valued the fine arts. She was an amateur painter and an avid art collector; she sang and played the organ. She insisted that a sound education should include art, music, and physical education, integrated with the other subjects. She valued both science and art as part of the vast world of knowledge to be explored and enjoyed.

A related debate was: Is teaching science or art? Zirbes saw that good teaching was both. Child development was a science, which all teachers must study and understand. Applying that knowledge in classrooms was an art. There should be no fixed rules about how to teach; no one method would apply to all situations. The science of child development showed that children learned in different ways and at different rates, but choosing the right teaching method was an art.

As Zirbes neared retirement, her developmentalist approach to education came under attack from critics like Arthur Bestor, who charged schools with neglecting their basic duty of teaching children to think through rigorous training in the academic subjects. Zirbes responded by asking, how do we teach children to be creative? How do we teach them to adjust in an age of expanding knowledge and unprecedented change? The answer came in her best book, Spurs to Creative Teaching (1959). She said teachers must become creative and realize that conditions in the classroom can either facilitate or block students from becoming creative. All students, not just the gifted, can benefit from an environment in which teachers are open to new possibilities and not argumentative about change. A teacher who just goes through the motions and is bound to his manual is little better than an organ-grinder "who makes his rounds, grinding out his ready-made tunes in sequence, over and over, without really making music or getting much out of it" (p. 41). The creative teacher, then, is not only more of a professional, but finds the profession more rewarding.


CAVANAUGH, MARY P. 1994. A History of Holistic Literacy: Five Major Educators. Westport, CN: Praeger.

MOORE, DAVID. 1986. "Laura Zirbes and Progressive Reading Instruction." The Elementary School Journal 86:663–671.

REID, TONY. 1991. "Laura Zirbes: Forerunner of Restructuring." Childhood Education 68:98–102.

REID, TONY. 1993. "Towards Creative Teaching: The Life and Career of Laura Zirbes, 1884–1967." Ph.D. diss, University of South Carolina. Abstract in Dissertation Abstracts International 51:05A.

ZIRBES, LAURA. Papers. ACEI Archives, University of Maryland.

ZIRBES, LAURA. 1928. Comparative Studies of Current Practice in Reading; With Techniques for the Improvement of Teaching. Contributions to Education, no. 316. New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University.

ZIRBES, LAURA. 1959. Spurs to Creative Teaching. New York: G. P. Putnam's.

ZIRBES, LAURA. 1961. Guidelines to Developmental Teaching: A Booklet for Use in the Education of Elementary Teachers. Columbus: Bureau of Educational Research and Service, Ohio State University.


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