Progressive Education: How Children Learn

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Progressive education is a reaction to the traditional style of teaching. It's a pedagogical movement that 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 educators decided that there had to be a better way.

Learning How to Think

The progressive education philosophy says that educators should teach children how to think rather than relying on rote memorization. Advocates argue that the process of learning by doing is at the heart of this style of teaching. The concept, known as experiential learning, uses hands-on projects that allow students to learn by actively engaging in activities that put their knowledge to use.

Progressive education is the best way for students to experience real-world situations, say advocates. For example, the workplace is a collaborative environment that requires teamwork, critical thinking, creativity, and the ability to work independently. Experiential learning, by helping students develop these skills, better prepares them for college and life as productive members of the workplace.

Deep Roots

Though progressive education is often looked upon as a modern invention, it actually has deep roots. John Dewey (Oct. 20, 1859–June 1, 1952) was an American philosopher and educator who started the progressive education movement with his influential writings.

Dewey argued that education should not simply involve making students learn mindless facts that they would soon forget. He thought that education should be a journey of experiences, building upon each other to help students create and understand new experiences.

Dewey also felt that schools at the time tried to create a world separate from students' lives. School activities and the life experiences of the students should be connected, Dewey believed, or else real learning would be impossible. Cutting students off from their psychological ties—society and family—would make their learning journeys less meaningful and thereby make learning less memorable.

The "Harkness Table"

In traditional education, the teacher leads the class from the front, whereas a more progressive teaching model sees the teacher as a facilitator who interacts with students and encourages them to think and question the world around them.

Teachers in a progressive education system often sit among students 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...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." 

Harkness's thinking led to the creation of the so-called Harkness table, literally a round table, designed to facilitate interaction between the teacher and students during class.

Progressive Education Today

Many educational institutions have adopted progressive education, such as The Independent Curriculum Group, a community of schools that says education should include students' "needs, capacities, and voices" as the heart of any program and that learning can be both an end unto itself and a doorway to discovery and purpose.

Progressive schools even enjoyed some favorable publicity when former President Barack Obama sent his daughters to the progressive school Dewey founded, The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

Article edited by Stacy Jagodowski

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Your Citation
Kennedy, Robert. "Progressive Education: How Children Learn." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Kennedy, Robert. (2020, August 26). Progressive Education: How Children Learn. Retrieved from Kennedy, Robert. "Progressive Education: How Children Learn." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).