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March 4, 2022

3 min

Dr. Jessica Spallino

The Progressive Movement: An Enduring Inspiration in Public Education

The progressive era in education marks as a time period throughout the early 1900’s where the number of schools and students attending them grew dramatically. Some historians praise this period for further developing needed standardized educational systems and shifting practices for an expanding industrial society through vocational instruction, extending schooling hours and addressing the welfare of urban youth and other underrepresented groups. Others criticized the increasingly established system as one that was limiting students to a scientific form of learning and neglecting opportunities to nurture self-development, expression and creativity.

The fundamental principles of the progressive movement during the 1920’s challenged the established clinical approach to teaching and learning aligned to standards-based testing and compliance training. Key progressive educators such as John Dewey, and decades earlier Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, believed that education should include student driven experiences that treat the whole child’s actualization and development, rather than simply memorizing factual information taught to them by their teachers. Some of the primary tenets of progressive education include:

  • Learning by doing or “experiential learning”, including exploratory projects
  • Cross disciplinary curriculum based on themes
  • Focus on problem solving and critical thinking skills
  • Cooperative learning and social skill development through collaborative projects
  • Opportunities to learn about social responsibility and democracy such as community service
  • Learning content geared towards skills needed in future society
  • Less reliance on textbooks and more on varied learning resources
  • Assessment by evaluation of projects

John Dewey’s ideas on progressive education were fully developed and heavily influenced alternate approaches to the dominant traditional model of education at this time. He viewed progressive education as a “product of discontent with traditional education” and believed it was beyond the scope of young learners. A leading educational theorist and professor of philosophy, Dewey believed that the purpose of education was to teach not only content, but how to live, realize one’s full potential and apply the acquired skills and knowledge towards the greater good.

Dewey’s ideas were highly recognized mostly in intellectual collegial and small experimental school settings but found (even in the early 1900’s) that most public schools were not receptive to new approaches to educating students. Dewey in turn viewed public schools as close-minded and limited in their reach to students.

Strikingly aligned to the original purpose of charter schools, per the California Charter School Act of 1992, Dewey’s notion of laboratory schools focused on experimentation and committed to discovering new and more effective ways to educate the whole child. His perseverance and fierce commitment to breakthrough practices and innovation made him a true pioneer of his time and a pillar for which alternative educational approaches continue to strive.

As we look at education today, it's remarkable to still make the same claims 100 years later. Within the variety of educational settings available today, many are still striving to achieve that delicate balance between preparing students for a required annual standardized test and aiming to create a more meaningful experience for students. There is evidence of continued resistance to modernizing the reigning system, despite its misalignment to the needs of students in today’s world. Transforming education is a slow and steady enterprise that consists of persistent blows to useful efforts. Dewey would likely agree that enacting true change in a well-established institution is not for the fair hearted, but it is reserved for those committed enough to see it through for the students.


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