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Henry C. Morrison (1871–1945)

New Hampshire state superintendent of public instruction, superintendent of the Laboratory Schools of the University of Chicago, professor, and author, Henry Clinton Morrison developed an approach to learning in which material is organized into units students must master in order to progress to the next level. His five-step general pattern for the instructional process became well known as the Morrison Plan (also called the Morrison Method). Morrison's conception of mastery learning served as precursor to the "individualized instruction" and "mastery learning" educational movements of the 1970s and 1980s.

Morrison was born the son of John and Mary Louise (Ham) Morrison in Oldtown, Maine, a rugged fishing and lumber town in the middle of the Penobscot River. He worked in the lumber camps, but his own and his parents' earnings from the general merchandise store they ran could not finance his college education. Because Morrison had distinguished himself in his preparatory work for college, a local banker and the selectmen of the town raised money to finance his education at Dartmouth College. Morrison chose the college's classical course, with a concentration in philosophy. Robert Frost was a classmate. Morrison was graduated from Dartmouth with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1895, one of two students to graduate magna cum laude.

Morrison served as a teaching principal at the consolidated high school in Milford, New Hampshire, from 1895 through 1899. Although he taught mathematics, history, Latin, and the sciences, he quickly became known for his abilities to organize and manage unruly students. The reputation Morrison built for Milford as a well-disciplined school earned him, at age twenty-eight, an appointment as superintendent of schools for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He served in this position from 1899 to 1904. In 1902 he married Marion Locke; the couple had three sons.

In 1904 Morrison was appointed commissioner of public instruction for the state of New Hampshire. He served in this role as state superintendent until 1917 and during this time Morrison examined and approved all schools within the state, served on the state medical board, conducted teachers' examinations, and supervised attendance and child labor laws. In addition, during the summer of 1905, Morrison lectured on school administration at Dartmouth. In 1908 he was elected president of the American Institute of Instruction. In 1912 Morrison was invited by Charles Hubbard Judd, dean of the School of Education at the University of Chicago, to be guest lecturer for the summer session at Chicago; Morrison thus strengthened initial ties with Judd, whom he had first met in 1911, that were to be most important later in his educational career. Morrison concluded his service as state superintendent of New Hampshire abruptly in 1917. From 1917 to 1919 Morrison lived in Connecticut and served as the assistant secretary of the State Board of Education.

In 1919 the position of superintendent of the Laboratory Schools of the University of Chicago became vacant. By then, Judd was well acquainted with Morrison's educational accomplishments and administrative expertise. On July 1, 1919, Morrison became professor of School Administration and superintendent of the Laboratory Schools, a position that he held until 1928.

In Morrison's educational career up to 1919, he had "insider" knowledge, as both teacher and administrator, of problems that plagued public education in the United States. From 1919 through 1928, he conceptualized theories for approaching these problems, tested tentative solutions within laboratory school contexts, and conducted a vast amount of empirical observation.

From Morrison's studies, he posited that genuine learning consisted of the student adapting or responding to a situation. Rejecting the notion that learning referred only to the acquisition of subject matter, Morrison instead concentrated on actual change in the behavior of the learner, what he called an adaptation. The unit was the procedure used for the teaching of an adaptation based on a stimulus-response psychology. This concept stems, in part, from Morrison's categorization of learning into a cycle of three phases: stimulus, assimilation, and reaction.

Morrison configured the secondary school curriculum into units of five types: science, appreciation, practical arts, language arts, and pure-practice. Acknowledging that instruction would vary among the different types of units, Morrison nonetheless identified a five-step instructional pattern. Morrison's general pattern for the instructional process (his plan or method) involves the following sequential steps: (1) pretest, (2) teaching, (3) testing the result of instruction, (4) changing the instruction procedure, and (5) teaching and testing again until the unit has been completely mastered by the student. In developing his concept of mastery learning, Morrison distinguished between learning and performance. Mastery, according to Morrison, is when students focus on learning a skill and acquire a fundamental grasp of subject matter. Once students have achieved a certain level of learning, they attempt to apply the skill; this application is called performance. The next step achieved is adaptation, the stage at which students become able to apply their learning to any situation.

Morrison's landmark publication, The Practice of Teaching in the Secondary Schools (1926), was the synthesis of his teaching, administrative, and research experiences. His book is widely regarded as one of the best known and most widely used systems of teaching from the late 1920s through the early 1940s. In this book, Morrison also drew a distinction between curriculum and instruction, thus marking the beginning of a major conceptual distinction between these two areas in the field of education.

Although Morrison's historical significance stems primarily from The Practice of Teaching in the Secondary Schools, he also brought important empirical analyses to the areas of school finance and organization, and administration of schools. Toward the end of school term in 1928, Morrison requested that he be transferred to the Department of Education and relieved of his position as superintendent of the Laboratory Schools. On July 1, 1937, Morrison retired from the University of Chicago; on March 19, 1945, he suffered a heart attack in the garden of his Hyde Park residence and died.


BAYLES, ERNEST E. 1934. "The Objectives of Teaching with Special Reference to the Morrison Theory." Educational Administration and Super-vision 20:561–568.

BECK, HUGO E. 1962. "The Contributions of Henry Clinton Morrison: An Educational Administrator at Work." Ph.D diss., The University of Chicago.

BROWN, HARRY A. 1945. "Henry C. Morrison and His Contributions to American Education." School and Society 61:380–382.

HENRY, NELSON B. 1937. "Mr. Morrison's Contributions to the Study of School Finance." Zeta News of Phi Delta Kappa 22:6–12.

MORRISON, HENRY C. 1924. The Teaching Technique of the Secondary School. Ann Arbor, MI: Edwards Brothers.

MORRISON, HENRY C. 1926. The Practice of Teaching in the Secondary School. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

MORRISON, HENRY C. 1932. The Management of School Money. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

MORRISON, HENRY C. 1943. American Schools: A Critical Study of Our School System. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


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