Lucy Sprague Mitchell was born a mere seven years after the Great Chicago Fire, and though she isn’t nearly as well known as that natural force, she was quite a natural force herself, having a much longer-lasting effect on the population of both Chicago and America than the result of that unfortunate incident involving Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Lucy Sprague Mitchell lit a fuse that burned a trail though the educational system of America, questioning how anyone could possibly hope to educate children without understanding not only how they learned, but what they were interested in learning.
Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s impact on the educational system in America is all the more surprising considering that she herself did not receive a formal education at school until she was sixteen years old. Lucy’s progressive—some might even say radical—approach to reforming education might be less surprising. Although she grew up with a domineering father in a repressive atmosphere, she also benefited greatly from her father’s own interest in education reform. As a result, young Lucy was not only exposed to the reformist ideas of such philosophical heavyweights as John Dewey and Jane Addams, she actually met them! The differences between father and daughter were most explicitly realized, however, in the fact that while her father pursued these relationships for material gain, Lucy adopted the philosophies and reformist ideas.
After spending a brief sojourn in California mostly spend taking care of her ailing father, Lucy attended Radcliffe, where she truly began to come into her own. In addition to furthering her education and understanding of the ideas of Addams and Dewey, she also received hands-on experience by volunteering at the Henry Street Settlement in San Francisco. Her journey eventually took her to New York, following her marriage to Wesley Clair Mitchell, and the Mitchells not only developed a close relationship with Dewey, but Lucy also took classes under him at Columbia Univ. Lucy came to view Dewey’s theories of stimulating the creativity of children and encouraging each child’s individuality as the key to effective education.
It wasn’t until Lucy’s cousin was able to use an inheritance to subsidize what came to be known as the Bureau of Educational Systems that she was finally able to put into practice what she had been both taught. What came about as a result of the Bureau would doubtless be considered the status quo today and hardly the revolutionary and radical approach it was thought at the time. In the words of Shapiro and Nager, what was radical then is now thought “essential to knowing how to teach” children. The interdisciplinary approach to classroom management, the study of student behavior, psychological profiles recorded and updated, family background and environment checks: all of these were incorporated by Sprague Mitchell into how educating children was conducted at the Bureau.
In addition, Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s study of children in action at school revealed that language development was much more important than previously thought. Sprague Mitchell found that language was not only utilized by children for communication, but also for aesthetic and sensual purposes. One key component to come out of this understanding was the movement toward teaching language in a more concrete fashion; instead of teaching language arts strictly as an abstraction of words on a paper, tactile connections between the words and what the represent were encouraged.
Lucy Sprague Mitchell also impacted the educational system by teaching the teachers. She opened the Cooperative School for Teachers to instill her reformist ideas to a new generation of educators. Quite possibly her greatest accomplishment was in getting teachers to understand that all children do not develop at the same rate. Under her tutelage, teachers for almost a century have come to understand that neither behavioral nor intellectual maturity in children are created equal.
Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s longest-lasting legacy of failure may be that she never successfully taught school administrators the same lesson.