Early Childhood Education

Progressive Education


Progressive education is a term that refers to multiple and sometimes conflicting educational theories and practices. The term does not necessarily refer to one entity, and its origins are associated with many historical figures in the fields of education, child development, and philosophy. Although progressive education has manifested itself in a wide variety of teaching policies and practices, proponents of progressive education share a common desire to create schools that expand the concept of education beyond that of traditional schooling.

Progressive education was prominent in the early 1900s and began as an effort to use schools to improve each individual’s life. This expanded the school’s role to include addressing each child’s health, improving the quality of family and community life, applying new pedagogical principles developed from the child study movement, and adapting instruction to accommodate the increasingly diverse populations of children attending public school. Progressive reformers believed that the schools should prepare citizens to be active participants in a democratic society.

John Dewey is often considered the founder of progressive education. Dewey himself, however, called Francis W. Parker the father of the movement. Progressive education also draws on ideas from Jean Jacques Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, and Fredrich Froebel, dating back to the late eighteenth century. Rousseau emphasized experiential learning, one of the hallmarks of progressive education. Pestalozzi was influenced by Rousseau’s writings, and furthered the ideas of child-centered pedagogy and social justice through education. Froebel opened his own school that emphasized active cooperative learning after being inspired by Pestalozzi’s ideas while working at a Pestalozzian school. Later, Parker and Dewey each integrated the concept that children learn best through actual performance and experimentation into their own work in the Quincy schools and the laboratory school at the University of Chicago, respectively.

Although the progressive education movement was not necessarily a cohesive effort toward a specific model of education, there are many philosophical foundations that pervade most progressive schools historically and in the present. Progressive educators attempt to educate the “whole child”—meaning children as intellectual, social, emotional, and physical beings—and view each child as an individual with a unique learning profile and unique needs. The progressive educator promotes adapting teaching methods to each individual child instead of forcing education on the child using the accepted methods of the time. Progressive educators propose that education must differ for each student dependent on his individual needs, strengths, and weaknesses.

Progressive education claims to be child centered because it focuses on the needs of the individual child instead of the needs of the institution or the school. It rejects rote learning in favor of involving children in active learning by applying ideas to real-life situations. In this way, progressive education attempts to prepare children more fully to participate in society outside the school by placing academic skills in the context of the real world. In addition, progressive education promotes the value of play. In this sense, the early progressive education movement had a profound influence on today’s preschools, where play is often the major vehicle used for teaching and learning. This aspect of progressive education draws heavily on Froebel’s work, which led to the kindergarten movement in the United States. Play-based learning is closely connected to the idea of emergent curriculum, another aspect of progressive education, and involves the practice of creating curriculum based on children’s interests. Close observation of children’s play often reveals their interests and can allow the teacher to build curriculum that incorporates these topics that are important to her students. The progressive philosophy or principle is that children will be more invested in learning if they are interested in the topic and therefore motivated to participate in the learning experience. Progressive education also emphasizes self-discipline and does not use punishment as a way to encourage learning. The child is encouraged and allowed to progress at his own pace and teachers try to avoid competition.

Prior to World War I, the public was frustrated with classic curriculum, and was open to new ideas about schooling. Thus, Dewey and other progressive educators found an audience for their rejection of traditional rote learning in favor of a curriculum based on individual interests to prepare students for participation in a democratic society. Parker embraced an informal school environment as opposed to the traditional formal teaching techniques and Dewey later expanded upon Parker’s ideas by writing about his belief that all areas of a child’s life should be integrated into the school. Dewey was most influential after World War I when his philosophy that the school should be a microcosm of society coincided with public demand that education become more relevant to social needs.

Progressive education was most prominent from 1919 to 1955 when the Progressive Education Association was actively promoting its ideals. Stanwood Cobb founded the organization, and John Dewey served as honorary president from 1926 until his death in 1952. In 1924, the association began to publish Progressive Education, a quarterly publication that discussed the pedagogical practices of progressive schools. However, the association struggled to agree on a consistent philosophy of progressive education and was unable to create alternatives to the traditional curriculum that it criticized. Thus, in 1955, as progressive education became less popular, the association was dissolved.

Dewey in particular brought the ideas of progressive education to the world by writing many landmark books about it, including The School and Society (1899) and Democracy and Education (1916). However, some educators misinterpreted Dewey’s writing and abandoned discipline completely in the name of progressive education. Some took Dewey’s ideas about pupil freedom to such an extreme as to completely overlook the necessity of purpose, continuity, and structure in the learning process. Although Dewey himself criticized this practice, schools where pupils had complete control over their learning experience came to represent progressive education to numerous educators and laymen. This distorted public perception of progressive education led to rejection of progressive education by many who already opposed educational reform. However, the intent of Dewey’s ideas about self-discipline were that children would learn more effectively through guided expression as opposed to authoritarian teaching.

Early progressive schools were characterized by unusually creative teachers and highly motivated students, which resulted in very effective and exemplary schools. However, owing to the lack of a standardized method, progressive education practices did not produce positive results when educators attempted to generalize progressive education into schools with typical teachers and students. In addition, the progressive education movement lost support in the 1950s owing to claims that it was tied to liberal and radical politics. In this era of cold war anxiety, anticommunism, and cultural conservatism, declarations that progressive education was un-American caused the public to reject it in favor of a return to traditional curriculum that focused on rigorous academic studies. In the mid-1950s the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union took over American political consciousness, causing many Americans to embrace stringent standards for education. Today, George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act continues to stress traditional methods of education as measured by standardized tests that will hold educators accountable for the education of American children.

Although progressive education is not as widely known today as it was in the early 1900s, many aspects of its philosophy have been integrated into a variety of educational settings, most notably contemporary preschools. Open classrooms, cooperative learning, multiage approaches, whole language, experiential education, and many forms of alternative schools all have philosophical roots in progressive education. In addition, many private and independent schools still exist that associate themselves with progressive education. The progressive education movement raised aesthetic standards for schools, increased the variety of pedagogical methods available to educators, and increased vocational and manual training opportunities. Although the demise of the Progressive Education Association in 1955 marked the end of the prominence of progressive education, its legacy lives on as educators continue to integrate aspects of this philosophy into modern schools.

Further Readings: Bortner, Doyle, M. (1950). Progressive education, what is it? The Training School Bulletin 47, 21-31; Cremin, Lawrence Arthur (1961). The transformation of the school: Progressivism in American education, 1876-1957. New York: Alfred A. Knopf; Dewey, John (1899). The school and society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Dewey, John (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Macmillan; Dewey, John (1959) Dewey on education. Selections with an introduction and notes by Martin S. Dworkin. New York: Teachers College Press; Unger, Harlow G. (2001). Encyclopedia of American education. New York: Facts on File.

Joanna K. Nelson