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Learning at home has an unexpected history

The home can be a laboratory of practical learning.

Ryder Maldonado, a sixth-grader at Briggs Chaney Middle School, attends his virtual school lesson at home in Burtonsville, Md., on Sept. 1. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

For many students this year, back to school will take place at home. Many school districts and universities are choosing to offer virtual instruction, others blended or hybrid classes and even those attempting in-person schooling know they may have to return to virtual classes at any time. Such home schooling arrangements put tremendous stress on working parents, who have to manage their children’s learning alongside their own jobs and domestic responsibilities. But learning at home may also open up new educational possibilities. In fact, there is a long history of learning from and through the home itself.

More than a century ago, when the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology was the Department of Home Economics, students learned in a Practice Cottage, a house in which they were required to live for a period of time to apply and test what they had learned in their classes. Learning through doing expanded and amplified what happened in the classroom and reframed the home as a place of innovation, change and possibility.

Domestic classrooms — whether houses, apartments or even suites of rooms — were a common part of early 20th-century home economics curriculums across the United States. According to the 1913-1914 University of Wisconsin school course catalogue, the Practice Cottage was a place where “work in house management, household decoration and dietetics have ample scope for practical solution.” In advocating for its support, a university administrator framed it as a “House Laboratory,” a place for applying academic lessons, as well as a laboratory space for researching new approaches in home economics. As Wisconsin Country Magazine explained in 1911, the house should be “furnished and managed to promote the highest well-being of the family.” The small, seven-room Practice Cottage allowed lessons to be worked out materially and within the intellectual and practical frame of a house.

Such home economics classrooms were part of a progressive era educational push to prepare students, often White women, for careers that supported and investigated domestic life. Graduates became designers, researchers and professionals managing complex systems, social workers and teachers supporting those systems and wives and mothers caring for their own homes according to scientific principles. The work of home economics then reflected an understanding of the systems and structures that affected individuals’ lives in both large and small ways. As one pair of commentators noted of the Practice Cottage in 1913, it was place where students could, “Learn to understand the relation of the great world of science to the individual problem of the home.”

Students who stayed in the Practice Cottage, living and working communally, had studied chemistry, physics, art and design, textiles, interiors, dietetics, bacteriology and household management to prepare for their careers. They also engaged in research and studied the economic problems of the food supply, home architecture and sanitation. Rather than the study of texts, these fields required an empirical, applied approach that reshaped every day experiences and choices.

Designed to offer students the experience of applying their academic lessons to the care of a home and each other, the Practice Cottage allowed for the crystallization and application of varied lessons in home economics. When a student was in the cottage, each aspect of it was to be cared for in the context of research-based knowledge about domestic life.

Students who spent time in the Practice Cottage learned the home was a place for applying and exploring ideas, whether decorating spaces or planning meals within a limited budget. Scientific management was not just a set of abstract theories, but also strategies that offered possibilities and challenges. The stakes of this work were emphasized by the reality that while in the cottage, the students were completing all of the work for a household of five or six people communally, while also completing a full course load. Domestic work could be reimagined, even for a short stay in the Practice Cottage, and was not inconsistent with intellectual pursuits.

College-level home economics curriculums like the Practice Cottage were part of a broader material culture project, that sought to use the intellectual frame of the home to transform American society through observation, empirical study and sense training. While those goals were inflected with the cultural biases inherent to a scientific management approach led largely by White women, they also foregrounded the notion that daily domestic choices mattered. Applied work in this field could transform the food on the table, the design and safety of homes, and care of children and highlight and inform the economic choices women had and the major ways those choices impacted the U.S. economy. Daily life could be made more efficient, organized and healthful — in all areas — driven by research and science.

A century ago, the development of the Practice Cottage at UW-Madison, and in home economics programs across the U.S., was a pedagogical choice to enhance and apply university education in the home. Today, while the home has become a forced classroom for students enrolled in virtual classes, it is also grounds for the new kinds of domestic lessons the global pandemic is demanding: shopping and meal planning in new, socially distant ways, finding or making masks, cleaning and disinfecting things, reimagining budgets and financial decisions and assessing changing public health data and risk. In the midst of a crisis, these lessons require an attentiveness to unfolding research about health and safety as well as to material details of the home, as a site of learning and a system of understanding.

The days — weeks, months — many Americans are spending in their own domestic laboratories have also brought vital contemporary issues into clearer focus, whether around systematic racial and financial inequalities or, the precarity of child care and elder care in the United States. Just as in early 20th-century Practice Cottages, the individual, specific, applied challenges of the home may open up new ways to understand much bigger social issues and systems. As schoolchildren and college students continue to learn at home this fall, perhaps the idea of the home as a Practice Cottage, as a place for testing, applying and extending research-based knowledge, may have a new resonance.