Progressive Education

My blogs here focus on my ideas about curriculum, teaching practices and educational policy, often critiquing what is currently practiced. What this essay will focus on is defining my philosophy of Progressive Education. And as a student and teacher of educational psychology, I feel I can safely say that the practices of Progressive Education match more closely what we know about how the brain works and how people learn in natural settings than what is practiced in the large majority of schools today. As importantly, Progressive Education matches more closely with the ideals and philosophy of a democratic society.

johndeweyquotes31Progressive teaching has deep roots in American education, from the Transcendentalist movement  of the early 1800s to John Dewey and Francis Parker in the late 1800s, early 1900s, and on to modern educators such as Herbert Kohl, Ted Sizer, and Deborah Meier to name just a few. For me, and those listed above, Progressive Education includes both the purpose and the methods of teaching and learning, In term of purpose, progressive education is about preparing students to be members a pluralistic democratic society. In terms of practice, progressive education is about student-centered and constructivist-based curriculum. (Though some use the term progressive education to describe practice that really is more focused on one or the other of those aspects.)

Historically, the idea of student-centered curriculum goes back at least to the 1700s with the ideas of Rousseau and Friedrich Fröbel (the inventor of Kindergarten). There were many experiments with child-centered education in the U.S. going back at least to the early 1800s. John Dewey introduced the ideas of progressive education more widely in the early 1900s.

In the 1930s, there was a famous study which promoted the use of progressive pedagogy in high schools, known as the Eight Year Study, to look at the effects of such student-centered practices in a large number of high schools using such practices (and the study showed it to be quite effective).

In terms of modern psychology, in the 1960s, the work of psychologists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky on learning theory became popularized. Both Piaget and Vygotsky emphasized that children—people—actively construct their ideas and sense of the world from their interaction with the environment, and that they do not just passively receive information and knowledge. Based on their theories, the term constructivist caught on in many circles to describe such practices that put students at the center of instruction as active participants in the learning process, practices that take advantage of what we had discovered about how the brain learns. The ideas of these theorists made their ways into the field of education, and had an effect on teaching practices that were more in line with the philosophies of progressive education.

The terms progressive and constructivist have in common a belief that students belong at the center of the learning process, that they need to be in charge of their own learning, that learning should take place in the context of meaningful and authentic tasks, and that learning is social and interactive.

There is a strong body of research from the field of psychology to support many of the theoretical foundations of the types of teaching practices that progressive schools adhere to. Having students actively engaged, focusing on the intrinsic motivation students bring to learning, having curriculum that is relevant and meaningful individually and culturally, and having students learn through social interaction are all based on solid empirical and basic research in psychology and social psychology, and even recent research of the brain.

There is a smaller body of longitudinal empirical research examining progressive and child-centered schooling, showing it to be effective. These include the Eight-Year Study done in the 1930s, as well as more recent studies of progressive schools, such as one on the well-known Central Park East Schools of New York City. A couple of recent studies of preschool practices, comparing developmental child-centered approaches against academic skills-based approaches, have shown better academic and social outcomes in later elementary grades for those in the child-centered developmental programs. These studies focused mostly on defining progressive or constructivist teaching in terms of the pedagogical side.

The other side of progressive education is the democratic purpose. Traditionally schools have been designed on a hierarchical, rather than egalitarian model. One of the tenets of constructivist thought is that we learn from our environment, what some have called situational learning. We absorb the habits and practices of our culture as Vygotsky might say. Hence, students will internalize the habits and practices of school, even as they study democracy in their textbooks. As the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words.

Democracy requires thoughtful, critical, independent thinkers. Citizens trained in schools only to carry out assigned tasks and regurgitate memorized bits of knowledge are not those needed to drive a democracy. A thriving democracy ought to inspire all its citizens to be civicly active, to educate themselves on society’s issues, and to regularly participate in critical discussion of the daily affairs of society. What is more, to tackle the problems and challenges of an ever changing society requires creative thinkers who do not just know past knowledge.

An alternative paradigm to the hierarchical, and authoritarian structure found in most schools is to have schools include the entire staff, along with the students and their families in making the important decisions. In such a school students experience democracy personally, and grow up immersed in a democratic rather than autocratic environment.

Just as the leader in such a school includes the participation of the staff in the school’s operation, in a democratic school the teacher includes the students’ active engagement in the decision making of the classroom. In progressive democratic classrooms, the students are involved in the planning of the classroom design, in the enactment of classroom norms, and in the management of classroom conflicts. Democratic classrooms include student voice, classroom meetings, and student-selected projects. While the teacher still retains authority in the classroom, students are given choice and opportunity over setting classroom rules and selecting project topics. By involving the students in the running of the classroom, the teacher allows students to take ownership of their learning, as well as modeling democratic culture.

The curriculum in the democratic classroom within the democratic school necessarily is democratic in both theory and practice. Democracy implies community. Community implies working together. Therefore, the democratic curriculum will involve collaborative learning where all students participate in the pursuit of a shared purpose.

Democracy, in part, includes a degree of freedom of choice and freedom of expression. Thus, students will choose many of their educational pursuits in the democratic curriculum. Student-selected projects will be important in the democratic curriculum. Projects will be of both the individual and group design, sometimes allowing for individual pursuits, and other times deferring to group collaboration.

Democracy also means having to confront controversial topics. Most schools avoid, or sometimes even prohibit, the discussion of controversial topics. Being able to discuss controversial topics is difficult. Most of what we see currently in the media is either one-sided presentations, or shouting matches. Public schools are the one place we have as a society to prepare people to actually civilly discuss their differences of viewpoints and differences.

In summary, Progressive Education, at least for me, includes student-centered curriculum that actively engages students in authentic projects and problems. It includes a democratic process of decision-making and inclusion. It includes the preparing students to confront differences with understanding and civil discourse.

Here are a few organizations that support progressive education:
The Progressive Education Network
The Coalition of Essential Schools
Association for Constructivist Teaching

To read more deeply on the meaning and History of Progressive Education:

  • Cremin, L. A. (1961). The transformation of the school; progressivism in American education, 1876-1957. New York: Knopf
  • Little, T., & Ellison, K. (2015). Loving learning: How progressive education can save America’s schools. New York: Norton.

7 thoughts on “Progressive Education

  1. Gosh…I was nodding my head the whole time, Nick.
    When are others going to get their heads out of the sand and realize we may lose our democracy and country if we don’t do something soon!

    • The biggest issue I have with this article–and the comment above–is that it asserts that we have (or should have) a democracy in the United States. This is completely wrong. We have (or are supposed to have) a republic. I am always taken aback when supposedly educated people, particularly educators themselves, make this major mistake.

      • A democracy is a form of a republic, and so therefore not mutually exclusive. It is you who appear to be ignorant of this fact. Very early on democracy was the form of Republic our founders decided upon. Even if we were not “meant” to be a democracy, I certainly would still strive for that. And democracy, while imperfect, is in my opinion, way better than any alternative, to paraphrase Winston Churchill.

  2. On the absence of controversial subjects in our classrooms,
    I thought the following from a book about teaching poetry in a nursing home was extremely apt:
    “All our lives, the things we are interested in –sex and self-knowldege and work and death–are made shameful for us. At every stage of our lives, we are taught not to be what we are, and we end up by not allowing ourselves to be concerned in the things which most concern us. We live stupid lives, we live with blinders on, and we die the way we have lived–in ignorance of what is happening to us. In schools and on jobs, we are screened from the knowledge of our lives. In old age homes and terminal wards, we are screened from the knowledge of our deaths.” –Marc Kaminsky, “What’s Inside You It Shines Out of You.”

  3. The schools of Reggio Emilia in Italy along with the Soka schools in Japan exemplify the kind of education Nick describes. Not only does Nick make sense but we now have almost a century’s worth of successful examples of constructivist education not only in the US but throughout the world. \

    Before NCLB, my sense was that American schools were moving in this direction. It was certainly the focus of my MeD program at UCSD in 2001. I think CC$$ uses constructivist language to promote a test based, top down authoritarian education, but I believe voices like Nick’s are winning. Thank you for posting this.

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