Many people have heard the term progressive education but are not sure how to define it. Progressive education is a time-tested philosophy, not something new and trendy. Progressive education is documented in university studies with proven results that benefit our children in the 21st century as much as they benefited the early adopters more than a century ago. The traditional approach to education is to compartmentalize subjects, each taught in isolation.
To give a bit of background on the reasoning behind progressive education, we can look back to one of its most vocal founders, John Dewey. Dewey writes, “The method is focused on the child's powers and interests. If the child is thrown into a passive role as a student, absorbing information, the result is a waste of the child's education” (Dewey, 1897). It is this shift from passive to active that creates deep learning in progressive settings. Teachers of progressive education find that some parents question the academic rigor and standards, mostly because the hands-on learning that takes place in a progressive model does look more fun and exciting than rote memorization. When children are engaged in the process of learning, it is exciting and fun, but that does not mean that it is any less rigorous. In fact, the opposite is often the case. Children who are motivated by what they are learning and who take part in making decisions find joy in taking on more challenges and push themselves in ways that are not possible in traditional classrooms. They also remember what they have learned and are more likely to be able to extend this understanding.
As adults, we should think of our own learning to put ourselves in our children’s shoes. Imagine being taught to drive a car from a text book, worksheets or even a video, or learning about the ocean without touching sand or shells. Now picture learning to drive, as most of us did, by being behind the wheel of the car with a teacher to guide you, or studying the ocean by collecting samples from a beach. While progressive education uses classroom activities, books and other methods to enhance learning, the experiential learning is what drives the study and generates questions to investigate. Teachers are very involved at every step, and are critical in shaping these investigations, but as in the driving example, the teacher guides the student. The student is the one who must master the material and demonstrate the skills necessary to be independent.
This leads to another question that often comes up; How do teachers assess children’s learning in a progressive model? Teachers rely less on traditional modes of assessments, such as tests, but more on individual assessments. Depending on the study and the student’s choice of presentation, this can vary in form. Some projects involve collaboration, and children build a model together. Others may result in individual projects or creative pieces. Children are asked to reflect on their learning and answer questions about the process, and teachers interview the students to measure their understanding. The difference between this and a standard test is that in the progressive model, there is an emphasis on problem solving, critical thinking, trial and error and collaboration. The learning process is valued as much as the final product, although children do delight in their creations as a culmination of their learning. How the problem was solved is as import as the answer. Did the child understand the process, can the child apply the process to other problems? Was a curious approach to the problem respected and given time to be explored? These are a few of the ways progressive education respects and encourages a child’s viewpoint and learning.
Progressive education is about challenging children to become creative problem solvers and independent thinkers who are motivated, resourceful, and collaborative communicators who are able to take risks. It is an approach to learning that places value on the process of learning within a strong academic environment. It is an understanding that children will need to enjoy the process of learning, to reach deep understanding in their studies. Children who learn through exploration, collaboration and investigation develop real-life skills that will pave the path to a successful future.