Educational Progressivism

What is it and why does it matter?


In the winter of 1918-1919, a small group of experimental educators and other interested parties began to meet at the Washington home of Mrs Laura C. Williams to form what would become the Association for the Advancement of Progressive Education. The group quickly set about the task of drafting seven guiding principles that would appear in each volume of the Association’s journal from 1924 through to 1929. They are:

  1. Freedom to Develop Naturally

  2. Interest the Motive of All Work

  3. The Teacher a Guide, Not a Task-Master

  4. Scientific Study of Pupil Development

  5. Greater Attention to All That Affects the Child’s Physical Development

  6. Co-operation Between School and Home to Meet the Needs to Child-Life

  7. The Progressive School a Leader in Educational Movements

Expanding on these principles, the authors claim:

“The conduct of the pupil should be self-governed…

Progressive teachers will encourage the use of all the senses, training the pupils in both observation and judgement; and instead of hearing recitations only, will spend most of the time teaching how to use various sources of information, including life activities as well as books… Teachers will inspire a desire for knowledge, and will serve as guides in the investigations undertaken, rather than as task-masters…

School records should not be confined to the marks given by teachers… Such records should be used as a guide for the treatment of each pupil, and should also serve to focus the attention of the teacher on the all-important work of development, rather than on simply teaching subject matter.”

Does any of that sound familiar? I suggest that anyone trained as a teacher today in the English-speaking world will recognise these principles, even if some seem strangely worded to a contemporary reader. And yet the Association for the Advancement of Progressive Education (later to become simply the Progressive Education Association) were already drawing on a long tradition.

It is easy to forget that for much of the last two thousand years, children in the West were viewed as being born into original sin. They were certainly not thought capable of being ‘self-governed’. That view began to change within social elites during the enlightenment and, more determinedly, the romantic movement that followed. We can trace this thinking at least as far back as Rousseau and his book, Emile, which dealt with the subject of how to educate the eponymous hero, free from he corrupting influence of a degraded world.

Another thread leads back to the philosopher, Herbert Spencer, and his racist view that, just as societies historically progress from the savage to the civilised, so too must the education of individual children recapitulate this process.

To be fair to the group who gathered in Washington, their principles also called for clean, well-ventilated buildings and adequate playgrounds, and the progressive education movement has been instrumental in abolishing physical punishment, the absence of which we take for granted now but that was never obvious or inevitable and perhaps would not have occurred without the intervention of these undoubtedly well-meaning activists.

Are you wondering why the Association stopped publishing their principles? According to Lawrence Cremin in The Transformation of the School, the members had become increasingly concerned with being identified with a definable pedagogical position. Why? Well, it is hard to know the real reason from this distance, but the fact that the methods most closely associated with the progressivist philosophy do not work very well may have been a part of it. Indeed, John Dewey, the enigmatic Gandalf of progressive education personally progressed from serving as a president of the Association to writing, in Experience and Education, of his concerns about its excesses.

Why is any of this important today? Unfortunately, the truths that began to dawn on John Dewey in 1938 have yet to become universally acknowledged. The beautiful lie that, with the help of a genial guide, self-directed learners can experience the complexity of the world and naturally develop the highly unnatural and technical capacities that will enable them to successfully and rewardingly navigate modern life is as seductive as ever.

We see the philosophy of progressive education underpinning contemporary approaches such as problem-based learning and inquiry learning. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority have even attempted to bake these teaching methods into their draft version of a new Australian Curriculum. Thankfully, these efforts have met with some resistance, but they do highlight that progressivism is simply the water educationalists, both academic and bureaucratic, swim in (recall the Association’s principle number seven). And as the wheel turns, we will again be told that progressive education does not exist and that it cannot be defined (because definitions are inconvenient).

Just as you don’t have to have heard of Edmund Burke to be political conservative, you don’t have to have heard of Rousseau, Dewey or Spencer to be an educational progressivist. Ideas permeate through the education system. A concept that someone once invented becomes a spoken assumption, then a tacit assumption, then just the way it is.

Despite the call to ‘progress’ - and who could argue with progress? - educational progressivism now represents a step backwards. They did not know in 1919 what we know now and so they can be forgiven their mistakes.

History will look less kindly on us.