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Co-author of Newlon-Hanna Speller (1933); Building Spelling Power (1957); First Steps: A Speller for Beginners (1963); Power to Spell (1966); The Foundations of Spelling and Its Teaching (1967); Spelling: Structure and Strategies (1971); Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hanna House: The Clients’ Report (1981); Geography in the Teaching of Social Studies: Concepts and Skills (1966).

Paul Robert Hanna (1920–1988) is best known as the creator of the “expanding communities” curriculum design for elementary school social studies instruction. The design was embodied in several popular textbook series during the middle decades of the 20th century. Hanna’s expanding communities’ model, however, was only one manifestation of his lifelong inquiry into the role of the schools in a democratic society.

Hanna was born in Sioux City, Iowa. Though his family moved often during his childhood, his parents always stressed the importance of education. He graduated from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1924 and moved to New York City to continue his studies with John Dewey at Columbia University. He took courses under William Heard Kilpatrick of Teachers College and changed from the study of pure philosophy to the study of education. To gain practical school experience, Hanna accepted the position of Superintendent of Schools in West Winfield, New York, in 1925. His engaging teaching methods and community-based student activities made him popular with students, but after two years he returned to Teachers College to pursue a doctorate in curriculum and elementary education. He completed his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1929 and joined Teachers College as an assistant professor.

In 1931, Hanna joined Hollis Caswell in the Virginia Curriculum Study, a sweeping project to develop a course of study for Virginia’s schools. Hanna’s plan was to depart from traditional disciplinary divisions and create a social studies curriculum based on topics of natural interest to children. Attempts to identify these topics proved frustrating, however. Instead, Hanna turned to social science research to provide organization for the curriculum. He discovered the concept of basic human activities—social and economic behaviors common to all human populations—and adopted it as an organizing concept.

Over the next four decades, Hanna refined his version of the basic human activities and coupled them with the widening spheres of children’s experience to form the ‘expanding communities’ curriculum design. Scott Foresman and Company popularized the design in several elementary social studies textbook series, known collectively as The Hanna Social Studies Series. In each consecutive school grade, students read storybooks such as Peter’s Family (1935), David’s Friends at School (1936), and Susan’s Neighbors at Work (1936). While developing literacy skills, readers learned about the basic human activities in increasingly complex and ever-widening realms—from the local community to the region to the world. His final series with Scott Foresman was Investigating Man’s World (1970). These textbooks contributed to the elementary school social studies curriculum by replacing traditional history and geography instruction with a truly integrated approach to social education.

Hanna agreed with John Dewey that students in a democratic society should experience democratic processes in the classroom. Consequently, at the 1934 meeting of the Society for Curriculum Study, Hanna proposed the development of classroom materials that would stimulate student discussion of social, economic, and political problems facing the United States. The Building America series of classroom magazines began publication in 1935 and ran until 1948. Each monthly issue focused on a different topic to encourage students’ critical thinking. Building America was popular in schools, but its critical tone eventually led to its demise during the backlash against progressive education in the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1935, Hanna left Teachers College for a position at Stanford University, where he remained for the rest of his academic career. He immediately caused a stir among senior faculty by contracting with architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design his new home. The resulting structure came to be known as the Honeycomb House for its use of obtuse and acute angles at wall junctions. The Hannas donated their home to the university and today it is an architectural showcase.

Hanna’s textbook series and his other activities made him a sought-after educational consultant both at home and abroad. Beginning in 1948, Hanna took part in a decade-long project to develop schools in the Philippines modeled after the community schools movement in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. This led to consulting projects in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Many of these projects benefited Stanford by attracting external funding and raising the university’s profile around the world.

By the late 1950s, Hanna’s focus was almost entirely on the role of education in developing nations. He envisioned Stanford University as a center to prepare ‘scholar-doers’ who would promote development efforts around the globe. His vision began as a graduate degree program and blossomed into the Stanford International Development Education Center, which opened in 1965. Hanna’s overseas work also prompted him to propose regional curriculum development centers in the United States. He announced this proposal in a 1959 speech to Harvard University’s Advanced Administrative Institute entitled “A National Curriculum Center: Threat or Promise?” and in subsequent publications. Hanna’s final publication, Assuring Quality for the Social Studies in Our Schools (1987), reiterated his call for a rational, somewhat centralized, procedure for curriculum development.

Hanna retired from the faculty of Stanford University in 1967, but remained active in educational consulting and publishing and in philanthropy. He worked with the Hoover Institution Library to create the Paul and Jean Hanna Archival Collection on the Role of Education in the Twentieth Century. Hanna’s acquaintances with educational leaders around the world contributed to making the Collection the largest gathering of archival materials in the world on the uses of education as an instrument of public policy.

Contributed by Jared R. Stallones, California State Polytechnic University

Gill, M. 1974. Paul R. Hanna: The evolution of an elementary social studies textbook series. Ph.D. diss. Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.
Stallones, J. R. 2002. Paul Robert Hanna: A Life of Expanding Communities. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

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