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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. More recently, it has been viewed 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. Most progressive education programs have these qualities in common:
- Emphasis on learning by doing – hands-on projects, expeditionary learning, experiential learning
- Integrated curriculum focused on thematic units
- Integration of entrepreneurship in to education
- 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
- Highly personalized education accounting for each individual's personal goals
- 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 lifelong learning and social skills
- Assessment by evaluation of child’s projects and productions
Progressive education can be traced as far back as to the works of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with both being respectively known as paternal forerunners to the ideas that would be demonstrated by the likes of Dewey. Locke first speculated, “truth and knowledge… are out of observation and experience rather than manipulation of accepted or given ideas “ (Locke as cited in Hayes, 2007, p. 2). He further discussed the need for children to have concrete experiences in order to learn.
Rousseau furthered this assumption in Emile where he made a standpoint against students being subordinate to teachers and that memorization of facts would not lead to an education. (See:Emile, or On Education)
Another forerunner to progressive education was Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827). His research and theories closely resemble those outlined by Rousseau in Emile. He is further considered by many to be the “father of modern educational science” (Hayes, 2007, p. 2). His psychological theories pertain to education as they focus on the development of object teaching, that is, he felt that individuals best learned through experiences and through a direct manipulation and experience of objects. He further speculated that children learn through their own internal motivation rather than through compulsion. (See Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic motivation). A teachers task will be to help guide their students as individuals through their learning and allow it unfold naturally. (Butts and Cremin, 1953)
The "Progressive Education Movement," starting in the 1880s and lasting for sixty years, helped boost American public schools from a budding idea to the regular norm. John Dewey, a principal figure in this movement from the 1880s to 1904, set the tone for educational philosophy as well as concrete school reforms. His reactions to the prevailing theories and practices in education, corrections made to these philosophies, and recommendations to teachers and administrators to embrace “the new education,” provide a vital account of the history of the development of educational thinking in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.4 Dewey placed so called pragmatism above moral absolutes and helped give rise to situational ethics.
Hayes, William. (2007). Progressive education movement: Is it still a facto in today's schools? Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Butts, Freeman R. & Cremin, Lawrence A. A history of education in american culture. New York: Henry Hold and Co.
Beginning in 1897 John Dewey published a summary of his theory on progressive education in School Journal. His theoretical standpoints are divided into 5 sections outlined below.
What Education Is:
Education according to Dewey is the “participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race” (Dewey, 1897, para. 1). As such, education should take into account that the student is a social being. The process begins at birth with the child unconsciously gaining knowledge and gradually developing their knowledge to share and partake in society.
The educational process has two sides, the psychological and the sociological, with the psychological forming the basis. (Dewey, 1897). A child’s own instincts will help develop the material that is presented to them. These instincts also form the basis of their knowledge with everything building upon it. This forms the basis of Dewey’s assumption that one cannot learn without motivation.
Knowledge is a social condition and it is important to help students construct their own learning, as stated:
“Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently” (Dewey, 1897, Para. 7)
Instruction must focus on the child as a whole for you can never be sure as to where society may end or where that student will be needed or will take themselves.
What the School Is
“Education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed” (Dewey, 1897, para. 17) Dewey felt that as education is a social construct, it is therefore a part of society and should reflect the community.
Education is the process of living and is not meant to be the preparation of future living (Dewey, 1897), so school must represent the present life. As such, parts of the student’s home life (such as moral and ethical education) should take part in the schooling process. The teacher is a part of this, not as an authoritative figure, but as a member of the community who is there to assist the student.
The Subject- Matter of Education
According to Dewey, the curriculum in the schools should reflect that of society. The center of the school curriculum should reflect the development of humans in society. The study of the core subjects (language, science, history) should be coupled with the study of cooking, sewing and manual training. Furthermore, he feels that “progress is not in the succession of studies but in the development of new attitudes towards, and new interests in, experience” (Dewey, 1897, para. 38)
The Nature of Method
Method is focused on the child’s powers and interests. If the child is thrown into a passive role as a student, absorbing information, the result is a waste of the child’s education. (Dewey, 1897). Information presented to the student will be transformed into new forms, images and symbols by the student so that they fit with their development and interests. The development of this is natural. To repress this process and attempt to “substitute the adult for the child” (Dewey, 1897, para. 52) would weaken the intellectual curiosity of the child.
The School and Social Progress
Education is the most fundamental method of social reconstruction for progress and reform. Dewey believes that “education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction” (Dewey, 1897, para. 60). As such, Dewey gives way to Social Reconstruction and schools as means to reconstruct society (See Social Reconstruction in Education). Finally, as schools become a means for social reconstruction, our educations must be given the proper equipment to help perform this task and guide their students.
Dewey, John. (1897). My pedagogical creed. School Journal. 54. pp. 77–80. Retrieved on November 4, 2011 from http://dewey.pragmatism.org/creed.htm
William Heard Kilpatrick
William Heard Kilpatrick (1871–1965) was a pupil of Dewey and one of the most effective practitioner of the concept as well as the more adept at proliferating the progressive education movement and spreading word of the works of Dewey. He is especially well known for his “project method of teaching” (Hayes, 2007, p. 24). This developed the progressive education notion that students were to be engaged and taught so that their knowledge may be directed to society for a socially useful need. Like Dewey he also felt that students should be actively engaged in their learning rather than actively disengaged with the simple reading and regurgitation of material.
Hayes, William. (2007). Progressive education movement: Is it still a factor in today's schools? Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Development in Poland
Janusz Korczak was one notable follower and developer of Pestalozzi's ideas. He wrote The names of Pestalozzi, Froebel and Spencer shine with no less brilliance than the names of the greatest inventors of the twentieth century. For they discovered more than the unknown forces of nature; they discovered the unknown half of humanity: children. His Orphan’s Home in Warsaw became a model institution and exerted influence on the educational process in other orphanages of the same type.
Development in the United States
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 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 related to the 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 Fröbel, 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 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 1912, Dewey sent out students of his philosophy to found The Park School of Buffalo and The Park School of Baltimore to put it into practice. These schools operate to this day within a similar progressive approach.
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.
From 1919 to 1955 the Progressive Education Association founded by Stanwood Cobb and others worked to promote a more student-centered approach to education. During the Great Depression the organization conducted an Eight Year study evaluating the effects of progressive programs. More than 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. 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 Rudolf Flesch's 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 1957 at the height of the cold war gave rise to a number of intellectually competitive approaches to disciplinary knowledge, such as BSCS biology PSSC physics, led by university professors such as Jerome Bruner and Jerrold 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 Robert F. Mager and others foreshadowed the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2002. Against these critics 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. More recently Alfie Kohn has been an outspoken critic of the No Child Left Behind Act and a passionate defender of the progressive tradition.
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 traditional philosophies. The charter school movement has also spawned an increase in traditional programs. Most recently, public outcry against No Child Left Behind testing and teaching to the test has brought progressive education again into the limelight. Despite the variations that still exist among the educational programs throughout the country, most progressive schools today are vitalized by these common practices:
- The curriculum is 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 teachers encourage students to learn by discovery
- Progressive education programs often include the use of community resources and encourage service-learning projects.
Education outside of schools
Organizations like the Boy Scouts of America rose, even amidst concerns by opponents of the progressive movement in the United States, because some people felt that social welfare of young men should be maintained through education alone. After decades of growing interest in and development of experiential education and scouting (not Scouting) in the United States, and the emergence of the Scout Movement in 1907, in 1910 Boy Scouts of America was founded in the merger of three older Scouting organizations: Boy Scouts of the United States, the National Scouts of America and the Peace Scouts of California. Its founder, Chicago publisher W. D. Boyce was visiting London, in 1909, when he met the Unknown Scout and learned of the Scouting movement. Soon after his return to the U.S., Boyce incorporated the Boy Scouts of America on February 8, 1910. Edgar M. Robinson and Lee F. Hanmer became interested in the nascent BSA program and convinced Boyce to turn the program over to the YMCA for development. Robinson enlisted Ernest Thompson Seton, Daniel Carter Beard and other prominent leaders in the early youth movements. After initial development, Robinson turned the movement over to James E. West who became the first Chief Scout Executive and the Scouting movement began to expand in the U.S. As BSA grew, it absorbed other Scouting organizations.
- See also: History of the Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of the USA, and Camp Fire Girls
Changes in educational establishments came about as Americans and Europeans felt they had fallen behind the Soviet Union technologically after the success of Sputnik in October, 1957. A rethinking of education theory following that, along with the subsequent and prevailing conservative political climate, helped to cause progressivism to fall from favor.
However, today many schools use progressive education methods, such as hands on activities and science experiments in Junior High Schools. Numerous schools also self-identify as progressive in educational philosophy.
Traditional Education vs Progressive Education
Traditional education or back-to-basics refers to long-established customs found in schools that society has traditionally deemed appropriate.  Some forms of education reform promote the adoption of progressive education practices, a more holistic approach which focuses on individual students' needs and self-expression. In the eyes of reformers, traditional teacher-centered methods focused on rote learning and memorization must be abandoned in favor of student-centered and task-based approaches to learning.  However, many parents and conservative citizens are concerned with the maintenance of objective educational standards based on testing, which favors a more traditional approach. For further information see, Traditional education.
- Constructionist learning (Seymour Papert)
- Experiential education
- Educational philosophies
- Education reform
- Humanistic education
- Laboratory school
- Learning by teaching (LdL)
- Teaching methods
- Teacher student interaction
- Minnesota State University, Mankato Masters Degree in Experiential Education
- Democratic education
- Oswego Movement
- Positive education
- History of Public Education.
- J. Korczak, Czytelnia dla Wszystkich [Universal Reader], no. 52, 1899, p. 2.
- Lewowicki, T., 1994, Janusz Korczak, Prospects:the quarterly review of comparative education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXIV, no. 1/2, 1994, p. 37–48
- Barrow Street Nursery School--A private progressive nursery school in the West Village of Manhattan. New York, NY 10014
- World Book 2004
- /A Brief Overview of Progressive Education
- / International Journal of Progressive Education
- / Progressive Education: Contrasting Methodologies by Steven Nelson
- Peterson, Robert W. (1984). The Boy Scouts: An American Adventure, American Heritage.
- Peterson, Robert (2001). The Man Who Got Lost in the Fog. Scouting.
- Rowan, Edward L (2005). To Do My Best: James E. West and the History of the Boy Scouts of America, Las Vegas International Scouting Museum.
- includeonly>"Lee F. Hanmer, 89, A Social Worker" (PDF), The New York Times, 1961-04-28. Retrieved on 2008-07-06.
- Peterson, Robert (1998). The BSA's 'forgotten' founding father. Scouting Magazine. Boy Scouts of America. URL accessed on 2006-03-10.
- Macleod, David L. (1983). Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA and Their Forerunners, 1870–1920, University of Wisconsin Press.
- Bernstein, Richard J. “John Dewey,” Encyclopedia of Philosophy, New York: Macmillan, 1967, 380-385
- Kevin J. Brehony, What's Left of Progressive Primary Education. Rethinking Radical Education. A. Rattansi and D. Reeder. London, Lawrence and Wishart: 1992: 196-221.
- Kevin J. Brehony. "An ‘undeniable’ and ‘disastrous’ Influence? John Dewey and English Education (1895–1939)." Oxford Review of Education 23(4) 1997: 427-445.
- Kevin J. Brehony "From the particular to the general, the continuous to the discontinuous: progressive education revisited." History of Education 30(5) 2001: 413-432.
- Beck, Robert. "Progressive Education and American Progressivism: Margaret Naumburg." Teachers College Record, 60(4) (1959), 198-208.
- Bruner, Jerome. The Process of Education. New York: Random House, 1960
- Bruner, Jerome. The Relevance of Education. New York: Norton, 1971.
- Cappel, Constance, Utopian Colleges, New York: Peter Lang, 1999.
- Cremin, Lawrence. The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957. New York: Knopf, 1962
- Dewey, John. Experience and Education. New York: Kappa Delta Pi 1938
- Dewey, John. Dewey on Education, edited by Martin Dworkin. New York: Teachers college Press, 1959
- Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press, 1944.
- Dewey, John. Experience and Nature. New York: Dover, 1958.
- Harms, William and De Pencier, Ida. Experiencing Education: 100 Years of Learning at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, 1996
- Hayes, William, The Progressive Education Movement: Is it Still a Factor in Today’s’ Schools? New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006
- Flesch, Rudolf, Why Johnny Can’t Read, New York: Harper and Row, 1955
- Holt, John, How Children Fail, New York: Pitman, 1964
- Kohn, Alfie. The Case Against Standardized Testing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000
- Kohn, Alfie. The Schools Our Children Deserve. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999
- Kozol, Jonathon. Free Schools, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972
- Kohl, Herb. The Discipline of Hope, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998
- Kohl, Herb. Teaching the Unteachable, New York Review of Books, 1967.
- Mager, Robert F. Preparing Behavioral Objectives, Atlanta, Georgia, Center for Effective Instruction, 1969
- Noddings, Nel. “What Does it Mean to Educate the Whole Child?” Educational Leadership, September 2005, volume 63, no 1
- Progressive Education Network. www.progressiveed.org
- Ravitch, Dianne. Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform. New York, Simon and Schuster, 2000.
- Schutz, Aaron. Social Class, Social Action, and Education: The Failure of Progressive Democracy. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. introduction
- Evers, Williamson M How Progressive Education Gets It Wrong. Hoover Institute.
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