Progressive Education: How Children Learn


Progressive education is a reaction against the traditional style of teaching. It's a pedagogical movement which values experience over learning facts at the expense of understanding what is being taught. When you examine the teaching styles and curriculum of the 19th century, you understand why certain enlightened educators decided that there had to be a better way. A Brief Overview of Progressive Education chronicles the influence of progressive educators such as John Dewey and William H. Kirkpatrick.

The progressive education philosophy embraces the idea that we should teach children how to think and that a test cannot measure whether or not a child is an educated person. The process of learning by doing is at the heart of this style of teaching by taking advantage of hands-on projects. The concept of experiential learning is one that many feel enhances the student's experience the most, that by actively engaging in an activity that puts the knowledge to use, a student develops a stronger understanding of the task at hand. Exploring the goals of learning is of more value than rote memorization. 

Progressive education that is based on experiential learning is often considered to be the best way for a student experience real world situations. The workplace is a collaborative environment that requires teamwork, critical thinking, creativity and the ability to work independently. Experiential learning focuses on developing these important skills within students, helping them better prepare for college and life as a productive member of the workplace, regardless of the chosen career path. 

The more progressive model of education instills in students a love of learning that makes school a part of their life, not just something that is a part of childhood and ends. As the world rapidly changes, so do our needs, and students must be hungry to always learn more, even as adults. When students are active learners who problem solve both with a team and independently, they are prepared to tackle new challenges with ease.

The traditional teacher leads the class from the front, whereas a more progressive teaching model is the teacher serving as more of a facilitator who encourages the class to think and question the world around them. Gone are the days of standing at the front of the classroom lecturing before a blackboard. Today's teachers often sit at a round table embracing the Harkness Method, a way of learning developed by Philanthropist Edward Harkness, who made a donation to Phillips Exeter Academy and had a vision on how his donation might be used:

"What I have in mind is teaching boys in sections of about eight in a section ... where boys could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where the average or below average boy would feel encouraged to speak up, present his difficulties, and the teacher would know ... what his difficulties were ... This would be a real revolution in methods." 

Check out this video from Phillips Exeter Academy about the design of the now widely used Harkness Table, which was carefully constructed taking into consideration the ways in which students and the teacher interacted during class.

In the most basis terms, progressive education is teaching today's students how to think rather than what to think. Progressive schools place high value on teaching children to think for themselves through a process of discovery. One of the champions of progressive education is Independent Curriculum Group. Learn why AP courses, for example, are absent from curricula in progressive schools.

The International Baccalaureate Program, or the IB program, is another example of the changes in the ways in which learning occurs in the classroom. From the IB website:

The IB has always championed a stance of critical engagement with challenging ideas, one that values the progressive thinking of the past while remaining open to future innovation. It reflects the IB’s commitment to creating a collaborative, global community united by a mission to make a better world through education.

Progressive schools enjoyed some favorable publicity in 2008 as President and Mrs. Obama sent their daughters to the school John Dewey founded in Chicago, The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

Article edited by Stacy Jagodowski