Progressive education, a pedagogical movement that defines most schools across the United States today, began as a niche, innovative idea that sought to reimagine the purpose of education in the late 19th century. One of the founding theorists, John Dewey, proposed the idea that the goal for education should be to prepare students for an active and well-balanced life in our global society. This idea came in stark contrast to the then widely accepted traditional purpose that the goal of education was to prepare students with the necessary skills either to enter the workforce or to prepare for university depending on one’s social class.
Since its early founding principles, schools have been incorporating and expanding on the ideas of early progressive education theories. Defining progressive education in today’s school landscape is complicated and an often highly debated and controversial topic subject to interpretation. Arguably most schools in the United States consider themselves “progressive”, but “progressive” exists on a continuum subject to how schools perceive themselves as well as how they are perceived. In our conversations with families and educators, we often discuss “little p progressive” and “capital P progressive” schools to distinguish where on the continuum a school seems to fall. A “little p progressive school” may incorporate more “traditional elements” in contrast with a “capital P progressive school” that is intentionally more experimental and, perhaps, more “provocative” or “edgy” in its approach and pedagogical choices.
We tread into this discussion cautiously as “progressive education” has characteristics without absolutes, and it can be a quagmire for educators and parents trying to parse out differences between school settings. It’s a topic subject to interpretation, subjectivity, and many misconceptions.
Pedagogical Core Principles
At its core, progressive education views students as active participants in their learning. The overall goal is to foster an intrinsic motivation for lifelong learning stimulated by a sense of ownership and independence. Progressive education seeks to prepare students for a democratic society that emphasizes social responsibility and global citizenship. Moreover, progressive education makes use of evidence-based research and intentionally evolves its pedagogical practices over time. Progressive educators seek to create a learning environment that both adheres to common core standards or grade level concepts and skills while also promoting a sense of autonomy and freedom to explore an individual student’s learning journey. There is plenty of room and encouragement to differentiate the learning experience for diverse learners within the classroom.
Progressive schools encourage their students to explore intellectual curiosities and inquire deeper into personal passions and interests while utilizing the concepts and skills being instructed by the teacher. Furthermore, progressive schools value autonomy and personal expression, thus believing we learn best when working towards a personal creative project or endeavor. Pedagogically, a progressive education plans for Bloom’s Taxonomy in better balance with more opportunities for higher-level critical thinking, synthesis, analysis, evaluation, and creation rather than getting too stuck at the lower levels of just “remembering and understanding”.
In progressive school settings, teachers have more creative freedom and act as facilitators, often curating a learning experience by making use of various curricula and programs in addition to creating their own materials: think “artist’s palette” versus “painting by numbers”. This approach stands in contrast to more purely relying on textbooks, packaged programs, or a scripted sequence. In progressive education classrooms, the teacher is really “the guide on the side” rather than “the sage on stage”. There’s an intention to make authentic, real-world connections, and the experience is intentionally student-centered.
In progressive classroom settings, you’ll typically find table groups, desks organized in pods, or students seated in a circle to facilitate discussion. At the upper school level, a progressive education may specifically make use of the Harkness Method, where students are seated around a conference table, so that the teacher can facilitate conversation and discussion.
As expected, there can be drastic differences in learning experiences in progressive schools. A progressive education values learning experiences that are guided by student interests and timely relevance. The teachable moment is seized in a way that’s more organic and natural. Students will mostly learn through experiences, collaboration, and play. Assessments are typically project-based, where groups of students will work together by utilizing different skills to complete the assignment. The culminating learning outcome is often presented as a final project centered around an interdisciplinary approach where all or several subject areas are interwoven into a singular curricular theme.
A progressive education emphasizes socialization and preparing students to be active participants in our democratic society (not to be confused with progressive schools having a particular political leaning, which is not inherently a characteristic of progressive education). Units and discussions are centered around inquiries into the ethical nature of our decisions as individuals and communities. Social-emotional development is addressed through classroom meetings and use of a social-emotional curriculum that is delivered by the school counselor and/or the classroom teacher. For example, read alouds often focus on problem-solving as well as interpersonal skills.
Some progressive schools create multi-age classrooms so that children are given the opportunity to learn from older students. This approach is rooted in the firm belief that education is meant to be socialized, and who better to teach you than a peer? You’ll especially find this approach in Montessori or Waldorf School programs, or progressive schools inspired by these approaches but not purely adhering to them.
Furthermore, some progressive schools view education as the exploration of learning, where students are given a great amount of freedom to chart out their experiences and explore, or perhaps co-construct units under the guidance of a teacher. Students are encouraged to identify a passion and follow it, which often leads them to learning experiences in a variety of settings. Classes can often be broken into micro-classes where groups no larger than ten are assigned to a teacher. While it may seem like learning through exploration and socialization is giving students the freedom to choose whatever they want or, more to the point, an “anything goes’ approach, this is hardly the case. Students are still given clear expectations and guidelines on how to effectively learn within this exploratory framework.
Education on the continuum
Progressive education is most definitely not a “one size fits all” approach. To try to define progressive education one way or another is an oversimplification and a mistake. Different learners have different needs, thus traditional elements and progressive elements are both beneficial and are often fused together for better balance. It’s more typical for schools to fall somewhere along a continuum of progressive education. The experience at the elementary school level (Lower School Divisions) may differ from the experience at the middle school or high school level (Upper School Divisions). Many schools promote a progressive approach to education with traditional elements embedded and used strategically. For example, rote memorization of math facts for automaticity (math fluency) remains important and can co-exist within a larger progressive project-based math unit. Moreover, there’s absolutely a need for benchmarking reading and math levels and using achievement test data for instructional planning in balance with “alternative assessments” and project-based learning in order to track growth over the course of the student’s learning journey.
Depending on the student, certain pedagogical approaches might work better. For example, a student needing reading or writing remediation may benefit from a more “traditional” approach that provides direct, explicit, and systematic instruction. A student with significant attentional and/or executive function challenges may need an environment with extremely clear and predictable routines, which could be found in a “progressive” or “traditional” school, but certain schools may be “too loose” or conversely “too rigid” to foster success for that particular student, hence the notion that schools exist on a continuum and trying to rely on a single definition for “progressive education” is not useful or practical.
Rather it is important to think critically about the student’s learning style or intrinsic curiosities as it relates to the different pedagogical approaches schools offer. Initial learning diagnostics and/or psychoeducational or neuropsychological evaluations can help provide insight into a student’s learning style and needs. It is also helpful to read a school’s mission and/or vision statement as it will often be an insight into the pedagogical approach along with the type of education that a particular school values (wherever the school may fall on the continuum of progressive education). Visiting and exploring schools is mission critical in the application and decision-making process. Parents need to feel comfortable and confident with the school setting and faculty in balance with understanding their child’s learning profile and learning needs to ensure a successful experience.
To maximize the effectiveness of the learning outcome, it is important that the pedagogical approach chosen is supported at home. Parental buy-in to the school’s mission and approach is essential. Strong communication and understanding between the school environment and home environment leads to greater continuity in a child’s overall growth as they learn that educational experiences do not end with the school day, but continue on throughout each moment of their life. It’s also important to note that students may need rounding out at a particular point in time whether they’re in a setting that is arguably a more or less progressive education in terms of the continuum.
By Brad Hoffman, Board Certified Educational Planner, Faya Hoffman, Board Certified Educational Planner, Laurie Gross, Reading Specialist and Special Educator, and Sam Kleinman, International Educator.