progressive education, movement in American education. Confined to a period between the late 19th and mid-20th cent., the term
is generally used to refer only to those educational programs that grew out of the American reform effort known as the progressive movement. The sources of the movement, however, partly lie in the pedagogy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, and Friedrich Froebel.
Progressive education was a pluralistic phenomenon, embracing industrial training, agricultural education, and social education as well as the new techniques of instruction advanced by educational theorists. Postulates of the movement were that children learn best in those experiences in which they have a vital interest and that modes of behavior are most easily learned by actual performance. The progressives insisted, therefore, that education must be a continuous reconstruction of living experience based on activity directed by the child. The recognition of individual differences was also considered crucial. Progressive education opposed formalized authoritarian procedure and fostered reorganization of classroom practice and curriculum as well as new attitudes toward individual students.
Various Progressive Plans
John Dewey, an early proponent of progressive education, maintained that schools should reflect the life of the society. He suggested that the schools take on such responsibilities as the acculturation of immigrants in addition to merely teaching academic skills. Dewey also proposed a number of specific curricular changes that had strong impact on subsequent reformers. At his Laboratory School in Chicago, for example, Dewey developed (1896–1904) a method in which younger student groups worked on a central project related to their own interests. The division of more advanced work into units organized around some central theme was an attempt to adapt the method to the academic needs of older children.
Other efforts to reorganize the schools included the Gary plan, developed (1908–15) in Gary, Ind. Devised to utilize the school plant more efficiently, to provide opportunity for more practical work, and to coordinate various levels of schooling, the plan divided the school building into classrooms and space for auditorium, playground, shops, and laboratories. Two schools ran simultaneously in this space so that every facility was in constant use. The school day was eight hours long, and schools were open six days a week. The Gary plan was widely adopted. The Dalton plan (1919), at Dalton, Mass., subdivided the work of the traditional curriculum into contract units, which the student undertook to accomplish in a specified amount of time. The Winnetka plan, established (1919) at Winnetka, Ill., separated the curriculum into the subjects handled by the Dalton technique and used the cooperative method of creative social activities developed by Dewey.
A prominent experimental school was established by Francis Parker at the Cook County Normal School (Chicago, 1883). The Horace Mann School (New York City, 1887), the Lincoln School (1917) at Teachers College, Columbia Univ., and the experimental school (1915) at the State Univ. of Iowa were other notable progressive institutions. Activities programs were designed to supply certain aspects of progressive education to those schools in which more radical adjustments were not possible; the activities included clubs, student self-government, and school publications.
Popularity and Long-term Effects
The principles and practices of progressive education gained wide acceptance in American school systems during the first half of the 20th cent.; similar pedagogical innovations were instituted in many of the schools of Europe. From its inception, however, the movement elicited rather sharp criticism from a variety of different sources, particularly for its failure to emphasize systematic study of the academic disciplines. Opposition increased greatly in the years following World War II, and many hold that by the late 1950s the movement had collapsed. By that time, however, the progressive movement had effected a permanent transformation in the character of the American school, and many progressive schools across the country were firmly established. Other educational reform movements that have been affected by or are similar to progressive education are open education, the Summerhill school, and the reforms of Maria Montessori.
See J. Dewey, The School and Society (1899, rev. ed. 1943, repr. 1961), Schools of To-morrow (1915, repr. 1962), and Democracy and Education (1916, rev. ed. 1944, repr. 1966); H. Rugg and A. Shumaker, The Child-Centered School (1928, repr. 1969); L. A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School (1961, repr. 1964); P. A. Graham, Progressive Education from Arcady to Academe (1967); L. Gordon, Gender and Higher Education in the Progressive Era (1990); K. Jervis and C. Montag, ed., Progressive Education for the 1990s (1991).