Progressive education is based on the belief that students learn best in real-life activities with other people. A progressivist teacher provides not just reading and drills, but also real-world experiences and activities that relate to the actual lives of the students. A typical progressivist slogan is "Learn by Doing!"
Although there are various differences of style and emphasis among progressive educators, they share the point of view that democracy involves dynamic participation in social, political, and economic decisions. Therefore, education of active citizens involves two principles. First is the respect for diversity where each person is recognized for his or her unique characteristics. Second, critical, socially engaged intelligence should be developed so that individuals are able to comprehend the issues concerning their community and enable them to participate in a collaborative effort for the betterment of society.
The term progressive in education has been used somewhat indiscriminately; there are a number of kinds of educational progressivism, most of the historically significant kinds peaking in the period between the late nineteenth and the middle of the twentieth centuries. Two major theorists influential in this movement were Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Dewey.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau has been called the father of the child-study movement. His principal work on education, Emile, laid out an educational program for a hypothetical newborn from birth to adulthood.
Rousseau provided a dual critique of both the vision of education set forth in Plato's Republic and also of the society of his contemporary Europe and the educational methods he regarded as contributing to it. He held that a person can either be a man or a citizen, and that while Plato's plan could have brought the latter at the expense of the former, contemporary education failed at both tasks. He advocated a radical withdrawal of the child from society and an educational process that utilized the natural potential of the child and its curiosity, teaching by confronting the child with simulated real-life obstacles and conditioning by experience rather than teaching intellectually. Although Rousseau's ideas were rarely implemented directly, they were influential on later thinkers, particularly Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel, the inventor of the kindergarten.
John Dewey, the American philosopher and educator, influenced approaches to education during the first four decades of the twentieth century. An important member of the American pragmatist movement, he carried the subordination of knowledge to action into the educational world. He advocated experiential education that would enable children to learn theory and practice simultaneously; a well-known example is the practice of teaching elementary physics and biology to students while preparing a meal. He was a harsh critic of "dead" knowledge disconnected from practical human life, foreshadowing Paulo Freire's attack on the "banking concept of education."
Dewey criticized the rigidity and volume of humanistic education, and the emotional idealizations of education based on the child-study movement. He presented his educational theories as a synthesis of the two views. His slogan was that schools should encourage children to "Learn by doing." He wanted people to realize that children are naturally active and curious. Dewey's understanding of logic is best presented in his Logic, the Theory of Inquiry (1938). His educational theories were presented in My Pedagogic Creed, The School and Society, The Child and Curriculum, and Democracy and Education (1916).
Most progressive educators believe that children learn as if they were scientists, following a process similar to Dewey's model of learning:
Dewey's influence declined in the time after the Second World War and particularly in the Cold War era, as more conservative educational policies came to the fore. Although Dewey's ideas never gained mainstream acceptance in public schools, progressive education continues to find champions in the debate about schools. Numerous charter and private schools have continued to implement many of Dewey's ideas.
The form of educational progressivism that was most successful in having its policies implemented has been dubbed "administrative progressivism" by historians. This began to be implemented in the early twentieth century. While influenced particularly in its rhetoric by Dewey and even more by his popularizers, administrative progressivism was in its practice much more influenced by the industrial revolution and the concept of "economies of scale."
The administrative progressives were responsible for many features of modern American education, especially American high schools. They advanced counseling programs, the move from many small local high schools to large centralized high schools, curricular differentiation in the form of electives and tracking, standardization of curricula and assessment, and an increase in state and federal regulation and bureaucracy, with a corresponding reduction of local control at the school board level.
These reforms have since become heavily entrenched, and many today who identify themselves as progressives are opposed to many of them, while conservative education reform during the Cold War embraced them as a framework for strengthening traditional curricula and standards.
John Dewey instructed: "Our schools must teach understanding of difference and goodwill toward others, as these are essential to a democratic society."
Generally speaking, progressive education values the thoughts and experiences of each individual student while addressing the needs of society as a whole. Numerous schools have found their own methods and styles to implement democratic principles while maintaining the ideals of individualized learning in action. Some examples include The School in Rose Valley, Calhoun School, The Little Red Schoolhouse, Israeli kibbutz schools, and Goddard College.
The School in Rose Valley teaches children from preschool through 6th grade, and was founded in 1929. The school incorporates the following principles to guide the development of their learning environment:
Calhoun School was founded in 1896 and is a college preparatory school for students in preschool through twelfth grade. Calhoun’s philosophy of teaching consists of three major precepts specifically influenced by educational theorists John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and more recently, by Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences:
During the 2003–04 school year, Calhoun established the “School & Society” program.
Calhoun’s School & Society program is designed to challenge the school community to reflect on our practice of progressive education and to create an even more porous relationship between Calhoun and the wider world. School & Society addresses this mission by organizing school-wide projects and outreach programs, by involving all constituencies in its projects, and by fostering a continuing dialogue about the progressive approach of the school.
The Calhoun school also states that it is “committed to promoting and preserving a community that values and celebrates racial, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity.… Through faculty workshops, performing arts programs, films, and curriculum development, we will explore these topics within all dimensions of the community."
This high school was established and the name, Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School (LREI), was created in 1921. The Little Red School House stays in touch with its original spirit and public mission “to be a vital part of the life around it, not an exclusive refuge from it.”
The LREI's mission statement includes the following goals:
Yehuda Ron-Polani (Polani), Shmuel Golan, and Mordechai Segal, creators of Israeli kibbutz schools in the beginning of the twentieth century, were all influenced by the educational principles of progressive educators.
Goddard College is described on their website with these words:
The first step in comparing the progressive and traditional methodologies in education is the question of what comes first. Is it skills and information or curiosity and passionate investment? Both educational approaches can experience discipline and rigor. Progressive education emphasizes depth of understanding of disciplines as well as creativity, analysis, critical thought, and a desire to investigate more. Traditional and classic forms of education stress the value of acquiring a discrete set of skills and knowledge and to check each student’s progress through annual testing.
Traditional and progressive approaches to education approach the nature of education in the context of society:
The debate between traditionalists and progressives…is essentially a debate…about the nature of learning, the nature of society, and the purpose of schools in a democracy. Traditionalists structure schools to prepare students for filling roles in society—not for transforming it. They do not see that traditional approaches may contribute to maintaining the inequity and injustice that exist in our society. Progressives see society as needing improvement and the schools as serving the function of helping students become thinking citizens who can contribute to creating a more just society.
The traditional view is to teach students to be able to read and interact with others. A person needs to know certain facts that speakers and writers assume other educated people know. Also, if one can master certain facts, he or she can use one's learning skills. In other words, by learning a broad base of knowledge, one can learn more. Opponents of progressive education argue that the progressive way of "thematic" or "project-oriented" instruction fails to teach "the most basic elements of the different subject matters."
On the other hand, progressive educators stress the need for passion in learning and personal inquiry. If students are given enough time to "focus and engage with material in depth," a passion for learning can be generated and students can "filter and process the knowledge and skills that constitute each academic discipline through the prism of their own perspectives, purposes, values, and prior understanding."
Taking into account the benefits of both the traditionalist view and the progressive view, perhaps an ideal classroom would be filled with facts that are organized with theories, providing a rich environment to feed children's natural preferences. At the same time, to reduce the limitations of depending only on natural preferences, all children should be required to learn both important facts and important forms of reasoning. The motivation behind education should prepare students to become contributing members of society with a heart to live for the sake of others.
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