What is Progressive Education?

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What is Progressive Education?
The promise of progressive education is as the students come to the solution, they’re active, they’re engaged, they’re motivated, and they’re learning. Most progressive schools encourage students to explore other areas of their development where young people find focus or uncover the contentment of stillness. It is about learning how to think, not what to think.

Picture your ideal classroom. What do you see? A line of desks, concentrated students diligently solving math problems? Or do you envision something different? 

Perhaps you picture a classroom electric with energy. Small groups of students stand at whiteboards around the classroom, debating, arguing, and trying to figure out the best approach to a difficult math problem. A teacher circulates, asking questions and making observations. And suddenly, a flash of celebration, as the students come to the solution. They’re active; they’re engaged; they’re motivated. And they’re learning. 

This is the promise of progressive education. 

What is Progressive Education?

Arising out of the ideas of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the progressive educational movement focuses on the process of learning over the rote memorization of facts. Beginning in the 19th century, progressive educators such as John Dewey, Rudolf Steiner, and Maria Montessori began to develop a philosophy of education that became progressive education as we know it today.

A true definition of progressive education is admittedly difficult to pin down – the field is broad and contains many schools of thought. However, there are several values that are shared by the progressive education community.

Attending to the Whole Child

Progressive educators are concerned with the holistic development of the child. Intellectual and academic growth is but one part of the picture in progressive education – the social, emotional, moral, artistic, athletic, and even athletic evolution of the child are equally considered. 

Progressive schools offer a stimulating academic environment. In addition, most progressive schools also encourage students to explore other areas of their development. An athletics or outdoor program might help students cultivate grit, teamwork, and perseverance. Classes in the arts enrich the creative growth of students and allow them to develop their artistic voices. Schools might hold classes in other disciplines like meditation or yoga, designed to help young people find focus or uncover the contentment of stillness.

Learning How to Think, not What to Think

Progressive education has the goal of teaching learners how to think, not what to think. In progressive classrooms, teachers are facilitators of learning. The teacher’s job is to nurture and support students’ innate desire to learn. An interest-based and experiential learning environment taps into the student's natural curiosity and sparks their internal motivation.

Personalization of Learning 

Progressive educators believe that learning is not a “one size fits all” process. Kids learn at their own rate, and often they don’t follow a linear path. By personalizing the learning process, teachers can not only support students' weaker areas but can also challenge learners where they are strong. Moreover, learning can be shaped to appeal to students' interests and curiosities. Progressive education allows students to develop their own needs, capacities, and voices at their own rate.

Using Intrinsic Motivation 

Learning happens best when people are motivated by intrinsic forces. When learning relates to a young person’s passion or a particular interest, the student naturally wants to dive into the content, to learn deeply. Equally, when learning is hands-on and experiential, content becomes more relevant to a student. When a practical application of learning material is apparent, it is inherently motivating. In progressive education, teachers use interest-based or theme-based learning to tap into students’ curiosity. 

Progressive education holds that these intrinsic drives toward learning are far more motivating than the external motivators of grades or tests.

Providing Meaningful Feedback

In fact, many progressive educators question the value of standardized testing or traditional letter grades as a way of evaluating student progress. More useful, they believe, is a comprehensive evaluation of student work, including the learning process. Not only is this type of feedback more meaningful and more actionable for the student, but it is also much more motivating, as it taps into the student’s innate desire to improve rather than the external reward of a good grade. 

An Integrated Curriculum

In progressive education, learning is regarded holistically. Instead of learning being siloed into one subject area, it is more comprehensive. In biology class, for example, learning does not stop at mastering the phases of the Krebs cycle. Rather, when a student wants to learn about cell metabolism, many cross-curricular skills come into play: reading comprehension, research skills, writing, presentation, and perhaps even IT skills as they design an animation of the Krebs cycle. Students expand a broad set of skills as they learn, and these skills are transferable across disciplines. 

Trust in the Process

Built into the progressive approach to teaching is a profound trust in kids’ ability to learn. The progressive model is flexible. It gives space for students to develop at their own pace; it understands that kids often develop asynchronously – their math skills might take a giant leap while reading ability plateaus for a few months. Progressive teachers trust in the learning process – they help create the conditions that will allow their students to flourish, each following their own path.  

What Does Progressive Education Look Like in Practice?

Progressive schools all create a student-centered learning environment. Most progressive schools focus on thematic instruction and hands-on, experiential learning to teach core academic content with the objective of developing students' capacities for critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, creativity, and curiosity. But what does this look like in practice?

In a class called The Physics of Dams, a teacher introduces core concepts in physics through the lens of dams. In class, students practice building dam structures. Through trial and error, they learn about how force and shape interact; they learn about kinetic energy, hydrodynamics, mass, motion, and energy. The students document their experiments on paper or video and learn how to present their findings.

The teacher leads an excursion to a hydroelectric dam site where they can see these principles in action. Students begin to ask questions about sustainable energy, and a new line of inquiry is forged!

Could Your Child Benefit from a Progressive Learning Environment?

Many ideas from the progressive education movement have been adopted by schools worldwide, and a progressive approach to learning can offer benefits to most young people. The progressive model of education is particularly suited for bright young people who appreciate a challenge and the chance to have more autonomy in what and how they learn. This model can also benefit independently-minded kids who find the rigid, linear structure of traditional education too constraining. Progressive education can also be helpful for motivated students with learning differences, as it is adaptable in offering different ways of approaching academic content.

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