Progressive education

From New World Encyclopedia

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.

Progressive reforms in Europe and America

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

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

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:

  1. Become aware of the problem.
  2. Define the problem.
  3. Propose hypotheses to solve it.
  4. Evaluate the consequences of the hypotheses from one's past experience.
  5. Test the most likely solution.

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 administrative progressives

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.[1]

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.

Applications of progressive education in schools

John Dewey instructed: "Our schools must teach understanding of difference and goodwill toward others, as these are essential to a democratic society."[2]

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

The School in Rose Valley[3] teaches children from preschool through 6th grade, and was founded in 1929. The school incorporates the following principles[4] to guide the development of their learning environment:

  • Learning should be child centered. The facilities, curriculum, and teaching methods should be developmentally appropriate and responsive to individual children's strengths, interests, and learning styles. Experiences in self-direction, making choices, and taking risks help children develop into confident, independent, life-long learners.
  • Learning should be active. Children learn best by doing things themselves. They should be given opportunities to explore and discover the world, to use a variety of materials, and to participate in activities and experiences that help them construct knowledge for themselves. Challenges, questions, encouragement, and time for reflection help them integrate and apply their understanding. They emerge as critical thinkers and problem solvers.
  • Learning should engage the whole child. Children have emotional, social, moral, physical, intellectual, and creative needs, and all of these needs should be addressed in the learning environment. Learning that embraces the full scope of children's lives is rich and meaningful. Children who are encouraged to experience all that the world has to offer develop habits of openness, curiosity, and joy in learning and doing.
  • Learning should have purpose. Children need to master the skills of analysis and communication, as well as those of living and working with others. Teaching them to respect all living things and connecting their lives to the larger context of community helps them become sensitive and informed citizens. They develop perspective and judgment, and are empowered to act.

Calhoun School

Calhoun School[5] 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:

  • People learn best through experience and discovery.
  • Calhoun School strives to promote a deeper, broader purpose for education. Rather than just disseminating facts, educators strive to “prepare learners to be critical thinkers and thoughtful citizens” and to educate the “whole child.”
  • Since children have different kinds of "intelligences" and learning styles, multiple styles of teaching should be used in order to address the diversity of intelligences, talents, and learning styles.

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.[6]

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."[7]

The Little Red Schoolhouse and Elisabeth Irwin High School

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[8] 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:

  • Our goal is to educate students to become independent thinkers and lifelong learners and to pursue academic excellence and individual achievement, in a context of respect for others and service to the community.
  • We believe that learning should be active and experiential, with the school providing abundant opportunities for students to excel. We accept students with a range of abilities and talents who can take full advantage of a rich and demanding academic program in which each student is both challenged and supported.
  • We seek to create within the school a community built on understanding and respecting others. Thus, our student body traditionally reflects the racial and cultural diversity of our city, and our curriculum is built on inter-disciplinary studies to promote understanding of many cultures. While individual achievement is encouraged and rewarded, our program underscores the value of shared goals, friendship, and cooperation in mastering difficult tasks.[9]

Israeli kibbutz schools

Yehuda Ron-Polani (Polani), Shmuel Golan, and Mordechai Segal, creators of Israeli kibbutz schools[10] in the beginning of the twentieth century, were all influenced by the educational principles of progressive educators.

  • The kibbutz school aimed at the highest development of each pupil’s individual abilities. Segal instructed that a school should “resolve existing conflicts between an individual and society as well as prepare the individual to fit into society.”
  • The kibbutz strived for “total education” through study, work, and social activities.
  • Segal encouraged the integrative and individual approach so the learning process paralleled real life.
  • Kibbutz educators established a national movement to guide the educational activities through regular meetings during school holidays. Polani, Segal, and Golan developed similar autonomous models in the cities as a part of their work in teacher education. This autonomy over all the educational aspects of the school made it possible for the development of the individual student.

Goddard College

Goddard College[11] is described on their website with these words:

  • Each person who comes to Goddard College comes to be part of a collaborative community and develops individual courses of study. There is no menu-like fixed curriculum. There are no grades. Our transcripts are narrative in form to reflect actual accomplishments.
  • Our academic rigor is exemplary. The Goddard faculty, with degrees from leading universities worldwide, is not only scholarly but also creative. They insist that you test your learning in your experiences. In that way, you understand the importance but also the limitations of assimilated knowledge and ideas.
  • Here education is about the whole person: The enlightenment of the mind is primary, yes—but not a disembodied mind. Through action combined with reflection, your mind sharpens, your activity in the world is more consistent and competent, and your capacity to attend to your spirit and your emotions builds.
  • We ask of you as well to analyze, assess, and deepen your promise to be an advocate for social justice. Imposing no "official" way of thinking about our responsibility to each other, our world, and the Earth, we nevertheless want every Goddard graduate to develop a personal vision of his or her commitment to sustainability of our environment and the necessity to oppose injustice in whatever form it takes and wherever it is encountered.[12]

Critiques of progressive and traditional reforms

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.[13]

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."[14]

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."[15]

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.


  1. David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia: A century of public school reform (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 17–26. ISBN 0674892836
  2. John Dewey, Philosophy of Education (Problems of Men) (Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams and Co., 1958), p. 42.
  3. The School in Rose Valley. Retrieved November 29, 2006.
  4. Educational Philosophy. Retrieved November 29, 2006 from The School in Rose Valley: Educational Philosophy.
  5. The Calhoun School. Retrieved November 29, 2006 from The Calhoun School: Progressive Education.
  6. School and Society. Retrieved November 29, 2006 from Calhoun School: School and Society.
  7. Diversity. Retrieved November 29, 2006 from Calhoun School: Diversity.
  8. LREI: A Leader in Progressive Education. Retrieved November 29, 2006 from LREI: Who We Are.
  9. LREI Mission Statement. Retrieved November 19, 2006 from LREI: Who We Are.
  10. Progressive Informal Education. Retrieved November 29, 2006 from Progressive Informal Education Interpreted by the Founders of Kibbutz Education in Eretz Israel.
  11. Goddard College. Retrieved November 29, 2006 from Come to Goddard as you are. Leave the way you want to be.
  12. From the President. Retrieved November 29, 2006 from Goddard College: From the President.
  13. Julian Weissglass, Education Week (April 1999).
  14. Why Traditional Education Is More Progressive By E. D. Hirsch. Retrieved December 1, 2006 from The American Enterprise: Why Traditional Education is More Progressive.
  15. Building a Passion for Learning. Retrieved December 1, 2006 from LREI: Who We Are.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Dewey, John. Philosophy of Education (Problems of Men). Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams and Co., 1958.
  • Tyack, David, and Larry Cuban. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. ISBN 0674892836

External links

All links retrieved November 30, 2022.


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