Progressive Education Research Paper Starter

Progressive Education

This article presents an overview of progressive education. Progressive education was part of a larger social movement that began at the turn of the twentieth century. Although conflicting ideas were sometimes proposed under the progressive label, making it difficult to define the movement as a whole, progressive education today is most closely associated with the work of John Dewey. John Dewey, often referred to as the greatest American philosopher of the twentieth century, believed that curriculum should be determined in part by the interests of the child, that education should serve the needs of the whole child, and that schools should help prepare students for participation in a democracy. Importantly, he also believed progressive education could help create a more egalitarian society. Progressivism was the dominant approach to education at various times throughout the twentieth century, but has largely fallen out of favor since the 1980s.

Keywords Dewey, John; Child-Centered Progressivism; Progressivism; Social Re-Constructionism; Social Reform Progressivism; The Progressive Era; Traditionalism


Many scholars use the pendulum as a metaphor to describe the history of educational philosophy and pedagogy in America (Hayes, 2007; Pogrow, 2006). Since the beginning of compulsory schooling in the late nineteenth century, beliefs about education have swung between two extremes known as traditionalism and progressivism. The pendulum has often swung quickly from one to the other, coinciding with larger cultural and social events, so that the history of education in America is characterized by clearly delineated turning points. Since the 1980s, however, traditionalism has dominated the public school system, and many argue that while progressivism may still inform specific educational practices, it is unlikely to emerge again as a broader educational movement (Hayes, 2007).

Before describing the many shifts between progressivism and traditionalism, it is important to first understand how these competing philosophies differ. This comparison is complicated by the fact that contradictory ideas have often flourished under the label of progressivism, so much so that some historians believe progressive education has become a 'meaningless term' (Hayes, 2007). Nevertheless, progressive education today is typically associated with one particular strand of progressivism - known both as child-centered progressivism and pedagogical progressivism - and can be characterized by the following (Labaree, 2005):

• Progressive educators believe education should be child-centered. The curricula should be determined, in part, by the interests and motivations of the individual child.

• Progressive educators believe the teacher should serve as a guide and facilitator, rather than someone who simply transmits knowledge to her students.

• Progressive educators believe students learn by doing. Proponents of experiential learning and problem-solving, progressives are critical of rote memorization, repetitive drilling of students, and lecture as dominant instructional methods.

• Progressive educators believe in the education of the whole child, including the child's intellectual, emotional, spiritual, moral, physical, and social development.

• Progressive educators believe self-control and responsibility should be fostered within each child, so that discipline is self-imposed rather than administered by an external authority figure.

• Progressive educators believe schools are a vehicle for social reform; by giving all children access to education, schools can help alleviate racial and social inequality, and prepare students to become active and engaged citizens in a democratic society.

By contrast, traditionalists favor teacher-centered classrooms; a standardized curriculum that emphasizes the basics such as English, history, science, and math; the use of textbooks and lectures as the primary means through which knowledge is transmitted to students; classroom management principles that rely on the teacher as disciplinarian; and methods of evaluation that measure students' recall as an indication of learning (Labaree, 2005).

Although progressivism is now often associated with education and schooling, as a philosophy it was a part of a much larger social movement. The decades between 1880 and 1930 are referred to as "The Progressive Era" and marked a period of American history during which the country was transitioning from an agrarian society to an industrial one. Reformers sought to address what they viewed as the evils of industrialism, and demanded that the government regulate industry, conserve resources, and look after the welfare of its citizens (Semel & Sadovnik, 1999). Reformers also advocated universal schooling, and believed education could eradicate some of society's ills.

It was within this social and political climate that John Dewey - the philosopher whose name is most closely associated with progressive education - became a major influence in American education. As professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy, Psychology, and Pedagogy at the University of Chicago, Dewey created the Laboratory School in 1894, where he was able to implement and test many of his progressive pedagogical practices. In the decades that followed, a number of independent schools were founded throughout the country, modeled after the Laboratory School and its principles.

While Dewey's contribution to the movement is immeasurable, progressivism was much larger than any single individual or any collection of independent schools. In fact, three different strands of progressive education flourished in the early twentieth century (Semel & Sadovnik, 1999). The first strand, modeled after the child-centered pedagogy of John Dewey and G. Stanley Hall, advocated individualized instruction tailored to the developmental stage and interests of the child. The second strand, known as social re-constructionism, emphasized community and the development of a more egalitarian society through schooling. The third strand, known both as administrative progressivism and social reform, emphasized the role of the environment in teaching and learning. Associated with the work of Edward L. Thorndike, and concerned with efficiency and scientific management of schools, administrative progressivism led to practices such as intelligence testing, the separation of students according to ability, and vocational education (Semel & Sadovnik, 1999). One historian argues that "one cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward L. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost" (as quoted in Laboree, 2005, p. 280).

Yet, child-centered progressivism was a strong enough collective movement in the early twentieth century to support its own organization. The Progressive Education Association (PEA), whose membership peaked during the Great Depression, became best known for authoring the "Eight Year Study." The study proved that students educated in non-traditional academic settings did just as well, if not better, than their traditionally schooled counterparts - on measures of intellectual curiosity, extracurricular participation, drop-out rates, and grades - in both high school and college (Feldmann & Watson, 2003). The study - once referred to as “the best-kept educational secret of the twentieth century” - had little impact on the educational community (as quoted in Hayes, 2007, p. 28).

For 30 years, the principles of the Progressive Education Association and the progressive education movement would “fundamentally alter the course of American education” (Little, 2013). However, in the 1950s a “conservative swing of politics rendered the movement out of favor with the American education establishment” (Little, 2013).

Indeed, when John Dewey died in 1952, he had a mostly pessimistic view of the impact of progressivism, believing that it had failed to penetrate the foundations of educational institutions in America (Hayes, 2007). He may have been his own harshest critic at the time, but he would soon be joined by a chorus of critical voices. It was during this decade that traditionalists accused progressive educators of being anti-intellectual, and argued for a return to the basics of math, science, history, and English. Their concerns were fueled, in large part, by the Cold War, which would dominate U.S. foreign policy in the coming decades. With an aim toward winning the arms race with Russia, educators began emphasizing the importance of science and math education; when the Russians launched Sputnik in 1958, beating the U.S. into space, traditionalists' recommendations took on a new sense of urgency.

Many might have guessed that the launching of Sputnik was the last nail in progressivism's coffin, but once again, larger cultural and social shifts during the 1960s and 1970s impacted education significantly, and the progressive movement found itself reborn. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.; the civil rights movement; the launching of the federal government's War on Poverty; and the war in Vietnam fostered a spirit of rebellion and need for change that trickled down to America's schools. Educators experienced a renewed commitment to issues of equity and access, while once again reevaluating traditional methods of...

(The entire section is 4155 words.)