Progressive education

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Progressive education is a pedagogical movement that began in the late nineteenth century and has persisted in various forms to the present, when it is showing a popular reemergence as an alternative to the test-oriented instruction legislated by the “No Child Left Behind” educational funding act.

The term “progressive” was engaged to distinguish this education from the traditional curriculum of the 19th century, which was rooted in classical preparation for the university and strongly differentiated by socioeconomic level. By contrast, progressive education finds its roots in present experience, is more democratic in outlook, and looks forward. Most progressive education programs have these qualities in common:

  • Emphasis on learning by doing – hand’s on projects, experiential learning
  • Integrated curriculum focused on thematic units
  • Strong emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking
  • Group work and development of social skills
  • Understanding and action as the goals of learning as opposed to rote knowledge
  • Collaborative and cooperative learning projects
  • Education for social responsibility and democracy
  • Integration of community service and service learning projects into the daily curriculum
  • Selection of subject content by looking forward to ask what skills will be needed in future society
  • De-emphasis on textbooks in favor of varied learning resources
  • Emphasis on life-long learning and social skills
  • Assessment by evaluation of child’s projects and productions

The most famous early practitioner of progressive education was Francis Parker; its best-known spokesperson was the philosopher, John Dewey.

In 1875 Francis Parker became superintendent of schools in Quincy, Massachusetts after spending two years in Germany studying emerging educational trends on the continent. Parker was opposed to rote learning, believing that there was no value in knowledge without understanding. He argued instead that schools should encourage and respect the child’s creativity. Parker’s Quincy System called for child-centered and experience-based learning. He replaced the traditional curriculum with integrated learning units based on core themes that related knowledge of different disciplines. He replaced traditional readers, spellers and grammar books with children's own writing, literature, and teacher prepared materials. In 1883 Parker left Massachusetts to become Principal of the Cook County Normal School in Chicago, a school that also served to train teachers in Parker’s methods. In 1894 Parker’s Talks on Pedagogics, which drew heavily on the thinking of Froebel, Pestalozzi and Herbart, became one of the first American writings on education to gain international fame.

That same year, philosopher John Dewey moved from the University of Michigan to the newly established University of Chicago where he became chair of the department of philosophy, psychology and education. He and his wife enrolled their children in Parker’s school before founding their own school two years later.

Whereas Parker started with practice and then moved to theory, Dewey began with hypotheses and then devised methods and curricula to test them. By the time Dewey moved to Chicago at the age of thirty-five, he had already published two books on psychology and applied psychology. He had become dissatisfied with philosophy as pure speculation and was seeking ways to make philosophy directly relevant to practical issues. Moving away from an early interest in Hegel, Dewey proceeded to reject all forms of dualism and dichotomy in favor of a philosophy of experience as a series of unified wholes in which everything can be ultimately related. In Chicago, Dewey actively participated in the life of Hull House, founded by reformer Jane Addams. Here he had the opportunity to become directly acquainted with problems of urbanization, immigration and rapid technological advance. In his friendships with workers, radicals, and reformers, Dewey embraced a commitment to democracy and to progressive change.

In 1896, John Dewey opened what he called the laboratory school to test his theories and their sociological implications. With Dewey as the director and his wife as principal, the University of Chicago Laboratory school, was dedicated “to discover in administration, selection of subject-matter, methods of learning, teaching, and discipline, how a school could become a cooperative community while developing in individuals their own capacities and satisfy their own needs.” (Cremin, 136) For Dewey the two key goals of developing a cooperative community and developing individuals’ own capacities were not at odds; they were necessary to each other. This unity of purpose lies at the heart of the progressive education philosophy.

In 1902 Parker died suddenly and Dewey succeeded him as director of the normal school, which by then had become part of the University of Chicago. Parker had left a dedicated group of associates and devotees, who did not always see eye to eye with some of Dewey’s views. Parker’s debt to Froebel in calling the “spontaneous tendencies of the child . . . the records of inborn divinity” (Cremin, 134) may not have sat well with Dewey’s credo against sentimentalism: “I believe that next to deadness and dullness, formalism and routine, our education is threatened with no greater evil than sentimentalism. I believe that this sentimentalism is the necessary result of the attempt to divorce feeling from action.” (Dewey, Pedagogic Creed, 30) In any case, the resulting academic and administrative struggle is widely understood to be one of the reasons Dewey left for Columbia University in 1904, where he remained until his retirement in 1930. (Hayes, 20; Bernstein, 380)

At Columbia, Dewey worked with other educators such as Charles Eliot and Abraham Flexner to help bring progressivism into the mainstream of American education. In 1917 Columbia established the Lincoln School of Teachers College “as a laboratory for the working out of an elementary and secondary curriculum which shall eliminate obsolete material and endeavor to work up in usable form material adapted to the needs of modern living.” (Cremin, 282) Based on Flexner’s demand that the modern curriculum “include nothing for which an affirmative case can not be made out” (Cremin, 281) the new school organized its activities around four fundamental fields: science, industry, aesthetics and civics. The Lincoln School built its curriculum around “units of work” that reorganized traditional subject matter into forms embracing the development of children and the changing needs of adult life. The first and second grades carried on a study of community life in which they actually built a city. A third grade project growing out of the day to day life of the nearby Hudson River became one of the most celebrated units of the school, a unit on boats, which under the guidance of its legendary teacher Miss Curtis, became an entrée into history, geography, reading, writing, arithmetic, science, art and literature. Each of the units was broadly enough conceived so that different children could concentrate on different aspects depending on their own interests and needs. Each of the units called for widely diverse student activities, and each sought to deal in depth with some critical aspect of contemporary civilization. Finally each unit engaged children working together cooperatively and also provided opportunities for individual research and exploration.

The impressive successes of these early teaching schools together with the broad reach of major universities such as Columbia, University of Chicago, and University of Michigan had a cumulative effect in popularizing the appeal of progressive educational program and in spreading the influence of these new approaches. A number of now eminent progressive independent schools were founded during the early twentieth century, including the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, the Miquon School in Pennsylvania, the Rose Valley School, the Banks Street School and Little Red School House in New York City.

From 1902 to 1955 the Progressive Education Association worked to promote the need for a more student-centered approach to education. During the depression the organization conducted an Eight Year study evaluating the effects of progressive programs. More 1500 students over four years were compared to an equal number of carefully matched students at conventional schools. When they reached college, the experimental students were found to equal or surpass traditionally educated students on all outcomes: grades, extracurricular participation, dropout rates, intellectual curiosity, and resourcefulness. Moreover, the study found that the more the school departed from the traditional college preparatory program, the better was the record of the graduates. (Kohn, Schools, 232)

By mid-century many public school programs had also adopted elements of progressive curriculum, but as Dewey protested, the majority of the changes were merely “atmospheric.” At mid-century Dewey believed that progressive education had “not really penetrated and permeated the foundations of the educational institution” (Kohn, Schools, 6,7). As the influence of progressive pedagogy grew broader and more diffuse, practitioners began to vary their application of progressive principles. As varying interpretations and practices made evaluation of progressive reforms more difficult to assess, critics began to propose alternative approaches.

The seeds of the debate over progressive education can be seen in the differences of Parker and Dewey. These have to do with how much and by whom curriculum should be worked out from grade to grade, how much the child’s emerging interests should determine classroom activities, the importance of child-centered vs. societal–centered learning, the relationship of community building to individual growth, and especially the relationship between emotion, thought and experience.

In 1955 the publication of Why Johnny Can’t Read leveled criticism of reading programs at the progressive emphasis on reading in context. The conservative McCarthy era raised questions about the liberal ideas at the roots of the progressive reforms. The launching of Sputnik in 1958 at the height of the cold war gave rise to a number of intellectually competitive approaches to disciplinary knowledge, such as BSSC biology PSSC physics, led by university professors such as Jerome Bruner and Gerald Zacharias.

Interestingly, some of the cold war reforms incorporated elements of progressivism. For example, the work of Zacharias and Bruner was based in the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget and incorporated many of Dewey's ideas of experiential education. Bruner's analysis of developmental psychology became the core of a pedagogical movement known as constructivism, which argues that the child is an active participant in making meaning and must be engaged in the progress of education for learning to be effective. This psychological approach has deep connections to the work of both Parker and Dewey and led to a resurgence of their ideas in second half of the century.

In 1963 President Johnson inaugurated the Great Society and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act suffused public school programs with funds for sweeping education reforms. At the same time the influx of federal funding also gave rise to demands for accountability and the behavioral objectives approach of Mager and others foreshadowed the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2002. Against these eloquent spokespersons stepped forward in defense of the progressive tradition. The Open Classroom movement, led by Herb Kohl and George Dennison, recalled many of Parker's child centered reforms. The social conscience of Jonathon Kozol recalled the social activism of John Dewey. More recently Alfie Kohn has been an outspoken critic of the No Child Left Behind Act and a passionate defender of the progressive tradition.

Unfortunately, while educational reforms multiplied, children were often not well served. Many reforming critics targeted aspects of existing programs that were most vulnerable. Much of the educational debate took the form of pendulum swings as one program replaced another in local public schools. One program was barely field tested before fund was cut and another alternative was put in its place. Most reform programs were not fully funded and were discontinued before a full evaluation could effectively assess the usefulness of the changes. As Dianne Ravitch (Ravitch, Left Back, 62,67) has argued, a century of wrangling over pedagogical principles and the corresponding pendulum reverses of practice had the unwitting effect of doing disservice to the education of children.

Independent schools, less buffeted by the ebb and flow of public funding fashions, have been freer to continue to follow a defined program of progressive education. Many of the progressive schools established in the early 20th century are still flourishing and are among the most eminent college preparatory schools in the country. In the last thirty years hundreds of new progressive schools have also risen to eminence. Taxpayer revolts, leading to cuts in funding for public education in many states, have led to the founding of an unprecedented number of independent schools, many of which have progressive philosophies. The charter school movement has also spawned an increase in progressive programs. Most recently, public outcry against No Child Left Behind testing and teaching to the test has brought progressive education again into the limelight as a model for education that is engaging, motivating, effective, socially committed, forward thinking, and relevant. Despite the variations that still exist among the progressive programs throughout the country, most progressive schools today are vitalized by these common practices:

  • The curriculum in more flexible and is influenced by student interest
  • Teachers are facilitators of learning who encourage students to use a wide variety of activities to learn
  • Progressive teachers use a wider variety of materials allowing for individual and group research.
  • Progressive teacher encourage students to learning by discovery
  • Progressive education programs often include the use of community resources and encourage service-learning projects.

The Progressive Education Network expected a record turnout at its conference on progressive education in San Francisco, California in October 2007. The conference, entitled Challenging our Assumptions: Revitalizing the Educational Vision for America," ran from October 4-7, 2007. The title of this conference points to the spirit of change at the heart of progressivism. As Dewey wrote in 1952, “Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril, and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place.” (Cremin, 350)