Author: Prof.A.Sudharma (Former Dean, Education, MG University, Kottayam, Kerala)

Published in: Education: Philosophy, Sociology and Economics (Edited by Naseerali M.K., 2014).

Progressivism is a cluster of doctrines concerning pedagogy, aims and the curriculum. It is characterized by a distrust of authority in education by an emphasis on the individual child as the centre of pedagogic concern. Progressivism is the orientation that believes that improvement and reform in the human condition are both possible and desirable.

In its origins, Progressivism in American education began as a reaction against the formalism, verbalism and repressiveness of traditional schooling. Progressive education is more a mood, a temperament, a posture and ideology than a fully developed philosophy. Progressives see themselves as agents of an education that liberate human beings. According to Lawrence, progressive education is a movement from 1876 to 1955, he defined it in the following manner. Progressive education meant:

  1. Enlarging the function of the school, to incorporate concern for the quality of family and community life
  2. Developing new techniques of teaching
  3. Fitting the curriculum to the variety of children in the school and
  4. Diffusing culture among the population without diminishing the value of that culture, specifically the science and the arts.

Thus progressive education concentrated on the liberation of the child through to liberalizing of the school. It borrows heavily from William Jame’s pragmatism and emphasizes learn to test the truth of a propose solution or hypothesis by noting the consequences of acting in accordance with the hypothesis.

Proponents: William.H. Kilpatrick, John Dewey, Roussaeau, Pestallozi, Froebel and Montessori.

Characteristics of Progressive Education

  • A focus on the child as the learner rather than on subject matter
  • An emphasis on activities and experiences that are direct rather than on exclusive reliance on verbal and literacy skills and knowledge
  • The encouragement of cooperative group learning activities rather than competitive individualized lesson learning
  • Progressivism in education encourages the use of democratic procedures that are designed to create a sense of community participation and social reform

Progressive Education in Historical Perspectives: Antitraditionalism

Throughout the history, the school has been a formal institution, governed by routine and regulations, in which learning is defined as the study and mastery of literacy materials, especially books. The major outlook of progressive education is in two dimensions.

  1. The long standing attack on the traditionalism of journal schooling
  2. The progressive movement in American society, politics and education

Progressive education meant:

  • Enlarging the function of the school to incorporate concern for the quality of family and community life
  • Developing new techniques of teaching
  • Fitting the curriculum to the variety of children in the public school
  • Diffusing culture among the populace without diminishing the value of that culture, specifically the sciences and the arts

The progressive education is very much concerned about literacy, knowledge and methodology are repacked to involve the learner to a greater degree. (Travers and Rebore; 1990) This includes: The open classroom; Individualized instruction,; Self-paced instructional materials; Grouping by needs and interests; Affective education; Problem–based curricula such as themes focusing on the environment, social issues and political questions; Vocational or career education, Counseling and special education; Creative and social programs such as drama, school newspaper and athletics.

History and sources of Progressivism

The progressive movement has its beginning after the civil war and has gained a wide following among intellectuals by 1900. It grew and gained favour between 1900 and World War I. Then the movement became divided and fragmented in the 1920’s and 1930’s, finally the movement disappeared in the late 1950s. Modern progressives emphasized the concept of ‘progress’, which asserts that human beings are capable of improving and perfecting their environment by applying human intelligence and the scientific method for solving social, political and economic problems.

The different sources of progressivism are

  1. a) Socio-political Movements

Progressivism was rooted in the spirit of social reform that gripped the early twentieth century. Theodore Roosevelt and his ‘New nationalism’, Woodrow Wilson’s ‘New Freedom’ and Robert Laffollette’s ‘Wiscosin Idea’ reforms to control trust and monopolies and to open political processes to more direct, popular participation.

b) Contributions of the pioneers

  1. An early pioneer of child-centered progressivism was Francis W Parker (1837-1902). In his work at the Chicago Normal School, Parker distilled educational concepts of Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel as a base for his own educational method that encouraged children to learn directly from nature and the objects present in their environment.
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    • Marietta Pierce Johnson (1864) founder of the School of Organic Education at Fairhope, Alabama, was also a well known advocate of child centered progressivism. Her theory, sought to educate the whole child – mentally emotionally, physically and cognitively. Organic education emphasized the developments of creativity through fieldtrips, handicrafts and imaginative drama.
    • Neo-Freudian educators who are influenced by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical theory exacting the principle that children should have freedom of self –expression; they wanted purge child rearing and educational practices from anything that repressed child’s impulses.
    • George Green, a leader in the application of psychoanalysis to schooling, found that classroom to be an emotionally charged environment for with children and teacher.
    • Harold Rugg, Lavoline Pratt and other progressives developed concept of the artist –teacher, an educator whose teaching was a form of artistry. Pratt founded the play school in New York‘s Greenwich village stressed creativity as the basis of learning, through trips to Zoos, art galleries, fields, forests and museums.


Significant Contributions

William Heard Kilpatrick: The project method was designed by Kilpatrick, He opposed traditional schooling as being authoritarian, too formal and abstract from the learners, interests. In contrast, he claimed that his project method motivated children to take the initiative for their education by encouraging them to plan, direct and execute their own learning.

Jean Jacqueous Rousseau:  In Emile, Rousseau said only in a society freed from the harmful influence of self–respect, would it that is possible for humans to associate as free and equal beings capable of binding together for the common good. Teacher should not engage in overt interaction of biological maturation of social intercourse. Emphasis on individualistic education where environment is suitable for learning. He said child was naturally good and that learning was most effective when it is followed by child’s interests and needs.

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi: Pestalozzi asserted that education should be more than book learning. It should embrace the whole child-emotions, intellect and body. Natural education take place in an environment of emotional love and security. It should also begin in child’s immediate environment and involve the operations of the senses on the objects found in the environment.

Sigmund Freud: Freud stressed authoritarian parents and home environments had caused children to repress their derives. This  repression, especially in the case of sexual drives, could lead to neurotic behavior that had a deleterious effect upon the child and upon his/her adult life.

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John Dewey: Dewey was the most influential spokesman for this philosophy. Dewey insisted that the purposes and contextual features of schooling should be determined by the students themselves and their own perception of their interests, rather than be determined by adult perception. Education had intrinsic aims, which were essentially defined in educational terms. He emphasized the practical activity in the classroom. Dewey opposed any division between humanistic and vocational education, between theoretical and applied sciences and between thought and action. He placed a great emphasis on actions and experiences. For him, learning was always an active process, the brain was not a passive receiver of knowledge but an active participant in or originator of meaning through problem solving. He believed experiences are crucial for learning but not all. He has five basic beliefs about education.

  1. Participation by the individual in the social consciousness.
  2. Social problems and experiences helps to shape the person from birth to death.
  3. Social is the part of education as a social process.
  4. Social life of the child is the real subject matter of education
  5. Methods of teaching should be given form by the child’s own nature.

In short, learning is the continual reconstruction of experiences.


Progressivism as an Educational Philosophy

The progressives place great faith in cooperation and social learning, rather than in competition. Part of this social learning would be an emphasis on the project method or the problem –solving approach in education. Learning, they believe, can and should be related to the interests of the child. The teacher’s role should be that of an adviser of the child, not a dictator or director of learning.

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Progressives place more emphasis on the process (the means or the methods) of learning than on the end product (knowledge).They insist that education is life, not a preparation for life and learning. Knowledge comes as a part of the problem–solving process. Learning is an active process in which learners investigate and explore their own environment, thoughts and emotions. The atmosphere of the school and the personality of the teacher should be open and permissive.

Progressive Education Orientation

In 1919, educators of a progressive orientation met in Washington.D.C to organize the Progressive Education Association. The association stressed following principles.

  • Progressive education should provide the freedom that would encourage the learner’s natural development and growth through activities that cultivated his/her imitative, creativity and self expression.
  • All instruction should be guided by the child’s own interest, stimulated by contact with the real world.
  • The progressive teacher was to guide the child’s learning as a director of research activities, rather than a task- master.
  • Student achievement was to be measured in terms of mental, physical, moral and social development.
  • There should be greater cooperation among the teacher, school, home and family.
  • The truly progressive school should be a laboratory is innovative educational ideas and practices.

Distinctive features of the pedagogy of American Progressivism:

  1. A strong emphasis on social activity in the school.
  2. The learning of material which is not immediately relevant to the purposes of students is to be discouraged.
  3. Forms of learning that detract from student autonomy, such as rote learning, are also to be discouraged.
  4. Discouraged pre-prepared materials and encouraged the students to learn through experimentation.
  5. A strong emphasis was on subject integration.


The progressive Teacher

The skilled teacher, is the progressive context, did not dominate the classroom as its focal point. Rather, the progressive teacher made the interests of the learner central. The teacher was properly a guide for discussion, planning and the executing learning. Because the progressive classroom was oriented to purposeful activity, the progressive teacher needed to know how to stimulate the students so that they initiate, plan and carry out their project. Teacher should be project directors, stimulators of learning, psychological therapists and learning consultants rather than transmitters of information.

Progressivism’s Philosophical and Ideological Relationships

Progressivism draws heavily from the philosophies of naturalism and pragmatism. It is form naturalistic principle, the child growth and development is child centered behind the inspirational thought. Dewey emphasized the power of the scientific method as the means to active complete and reflective thought along with social issues and problems related to child. Progressivism rejects the more traditional philosophies of idealism, realism and thomism and their emphasis on antecedent reality, hierarchical categories and subject matter.

Progressivism is not compatible with liberalism. Liberalist’s concern for individual rights and freedom finds an educational corollary in progressiveness emphasis on the individual child. Progressiveness, like experimentalism and liberalism is incompatible with both political and social totalitarianism and with education authoritarianism that flows from it.

Decline of Progressive Education

The causes for the decline are

  • The distortions of progressive principles by both its disciplines and its entices were a major factor.
  • More ‘Negativism’- Progressivism appeared many times to be more certain of what they were against than of what they supported.
  • The excessive demands that progressive method like group work, individual projects, learning by doing etc. made on teachers’ time.
  • To keep pace with continuing changes in the mass media and social welfare and the shift in political and social thought after World War II.
  • The students were allowed to learn what they wanted to know rather than what they needed to learn.
  • The school is an artificial learning situation that can never be a real life environment.
  • Self-discipline was ethicized and emphasized external discipline.
  • Self-activity movement of the progressives is taking specific goals and as being too vague to result in meaningful students activities.

Even though progressivism is now formally a deal movement, its contributions live on because educators attempt to fit the curriculum to the perceived needs of children as well as their immediate interests. This kind of philosophy is difficult to implement because the child is seen as a total organism (intellectually, socially, physically and spiritually). Progressives often have broad social, political and economic goals as well the spectrum is diverse.

However, the progressives made a significant impact on education in America today, especially because of the opposition movements in essentialism and back to basics, which progressives spawned. Progressives did promote a belief in using education for social betterment. Educational change is not wholly a rational process, this may not materially affect to medium–term prospects of progressivism as an influence on public education and it became a formidable force despite its vagueness.

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