Progressive Education Overview

The term “Progressive Education” is used to represent a movement that began during the late 19th century in response to the narrowness of the formalized, traditional education of the time. Progressive Education aspires to meet every student as an individual and engage both intellectual as well as social intelligence. Creative and manual arts gained importance in the curriculum and children were encouraged towards experiential learning and independent, critical thinking. Progressive education established environments where civics and democracy were embedded into school life reflecting the larger society. Progressive educators pointed out the importance of diversity, multiculturalism, multiple intelligences, cooperative and collaborative learning and what has become known as a “child-centered’ approach to teaching. In progressive circles, education came to represent community, equality, and the honoring of every student as an individual.

John Dewey, philosopher, psychologist, educational reformer, who is considered to be the father of Progressive Education, pointed out that the strict authoritarian approach of traditional education was overly concerned with delivering preordained knowledge, and not focused enough on students’ actual learning experiences. He insisted that education requires a design that is grounded in a theory of experience. He sides neither with traditional education, nor with progressive education, but with the understanding of how humans have the experiences they do, and how this understanding is necessary when designing effective education. Based on Dewey’s philosophy in regard to experience, some key points to consider are:

  • Educators must recognize and understand the connection between education and personal experience.
  • The challenge for experience based education is to provide learners with quality experiences that will result in growth and creativity in their subsequent experiences.
  • When an educator views experiential education as a social process, he or she will no longer work in the position of authoritarian, but will begin in the role as leader of group activities.
  • Movement for physical and mental health is very important creating a sound body and mind.
  • Hands-on activities and personal judgment on what needs to be done and how, leads to higher level learning.
  • Contributions from the experiences of all learners in the group will benefit the overall learning experience.
  • The problem to be solved grows out of the conditions of a present experience that is within the range of the capacity of learners; and,
  • The problem is significant enough to motivate learners to seek more information and to stimulate the production of new ideas.
  • An experience that does not tend to the knowledge of facts, the acquisition of new ideas, and to the orderly arrangement of them, is an experience that is not educative.
  • The principle of organization is not foreign to experience, but rather they go together. Otherwise, experience would become so scattered, it would seem chaotic.
  • The educator must view teaching and learning as a continuous process of reconstructing experience. This occurs only when the educator can look to the future with the perspective of viewing each present experience as a moving force that influences future experiences.
  • Education must be based upon experience if it is to accomplish its ends for both learners and for society. Experience always consists of the actual life experience of individuals.

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

Given the state of our education system today, many educators struggle with a variety of concerns and the ideas espoused in Progressive Education have fallen into the background verses foreground where high stakes testing dominates classroom curriculum at the expense of beneficial teaching methods and true student learning where higher level thinking skills and positive, lasting experiences develop. We are creating generations of students who will not be able to think outside the box and create nor solve problems critical to society and the world. We need to take a stand and advocate for all of our children and their future.

The Children’s Sangha and the programs, consulting services, workshops and events offered under our Long Island Progressive Education Alliance and A Place of Wonder have been created to help restore the value and vision of Progressive Education and advocate for a more balanced presence of these concepts and practices in our schools and communities today. Promoting the design of effective, not mechanized education is our goal. Effective education designs need to be developed and implemented at the school level with community support based on an umbrella of realistic state standards enabling our educators to truly and holistically educate all of our children. We need to work collaboratively so that the pendulum can swing back and forward once more. In regard to the use of the term “progressive”, it is important to note the words of John Dewey below. Yet realize there are times to use such a word in order to enable a meaningful shift and all that it implies. Now is such a time…

… the fundamental issue is not of new verses old education nor of progressive against traditional education but a question of what anything whatever must be to be worthy of the name education. I am not, I hope and believe, in favor of any ends or any methods simply because the name progressive may be applied to them… What we want and need is education pure and simple, and we shall make sure and faster progress when we devote ourselves to finding out just what education is and what conditions have to be satisfied in order that education may be a reality and not a name or a slogan” (Experience and Education).

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