Pragmatic Roots
Progressivism is the educational philosophy of the “liberal” and it is grounded in the
the process of education. He believed that the procedure could be effectively applied to
problems in the physical or biolo...
unless he has already learned subtraction and multiplication? Progressives say that when a
student shows that he is “ready...
In a progressive’s classroom, there is a desire to deal with open, controversial questions
and problems. By contrast, clas...
and demonstrations. As fellow inquirers, they favor the problem-solving method or the project
method. They prefer to deal ...
feel compelled to cover it all. The progressive selectively uses a variety of materials. Materials
are selected on the bas...
Contemporary Theories of Education by Richard Pratte
Philosophy and the American School by Van Cleve Norris
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  1. 1. Progressivism Pragmatic Roots Progressivism is the educational philosophy of the “liberal” and it is grounded in the “pure” philosophy of pragmatism. As an outgrowth of pragmatic thought, progressivism is completely different from all other educational theories. This is because it wasn’t arrived at through theoretical speculation. On the contrary, man lived his way into this system of thinking. By this, I mean that man tried out his ideas before believing in them. Hence, man’s attitude was very practical. Pragmatic ontology holds that reality is in the realm of everyday, personal experience. Therefore, since none of us have had an identical set of life experiences, reality is somewhat different for all of us. With regard to truth, pragmatism’s view is that ideas should be tested for their utility. If an idea works out in practice, then we can accept it, use it, and call it “truth.” If an idea doesn’t work, the pragmatist scraps the idea, learns from his experience, and tries something new. To a pragmatist then, “truth” is what works! A corollary of this statement is: “Truth is not absolute, but relative to the perceiver and the circumstances in a given time and place.” According to this view, what works for me in a given situation is truth for me. But it may not be truth for you! Why not? Because your circumstances might be different, and all truth is relative to its surrounding circumstances of place and time. For example, would it have been a “truth” in 1955 to say, “man can walk on the Moon”? No! Would this have been “truth” in 1969? Yes! This year, would it be a “truth” that man can create an exact replica of a living human being through cloning? No! What will be the answer to this question in the year 2010? Stay tuned and see. Another example that I have found to be a “truth” for me is that when I’m memorizing notes that I’ve taken, I can get the job done in one-half the usual amount of time if I’ve read the notes through, once carefully, on the day that I took them. This is truth for me, but is it for you? Only practical, individual experience would determine this. Truth then is never absolute to a pragmatist. It constantly changes with time and circumstances. The pragmatist believes that ethically, whether or not something is “good or “bad,” is determined by the public test. In other words, if we try something out, it will prove to be either good or bad. Aesthetically, that which is beautiful is whatever squares with the public taste. For example, if most people think that a certain actress or model is a beautiful woman, then she is by definition beautiful. John Dewey’s Influence The leading spokesman for progressivism was the academic philosopher John Dewey. In his writings, Dewey emphasized a generalized problem-solving procedure, which is quite similar to the scientific method. This problem-solving procedure is a means by which we find out what works in a given situation. Dewey saw this problem-solving procedure as one-in-the-same with
  2. 2. the process of education. He believed that the procedure could be effectively applied to problems in the physical or biological sciences, or to a social problem or even to a personal problem Most progressives are committed to change and progress in our society. They feel that change is inevitable and that we should therefore learn how to manage it so that mankind can be “in the saddle” directing change, rather than having “events in the saddle” leading us to some unknown destination. Most progressives feel that the process of inquiry or problem-solving is the proper tool for managing change. Thus, such a process has utility for us. John Dewey, however, was never really interested in the utility of our education, i.e., whether or not our inquiry would bring us material progress. Dewey was a "purist.” He felt that “education is growth,” and growing or development is life, hence education is life. Therefore, unlike classical educators, Dewey did not view education as preparation for life. He wrote that “….the educational process has no end beyond itself; it is its own end; the educational process is one of continual reorganizing, reconstructing, transforming.” Dewey felt then that the only purpose of education is more education. It must be that way so that we can keep up with our constantly changing environment. In this way, our society can constantly renew, sustain and propagate itself. Progress, then, is just a by-product. Some progressives think that Dewey came on too strong with his growth metaphor. He defended himself, however, in his book Democracy and Education: “Since growth is characteristic of life, education is all one with growth; it has no end beyond itself. The criterion of the value of school education is the extent in which it creates a desire for continued growth and supplies the means for making the desire effective in fact.” Do you agree with this view or is the value of a school education whether or not it can get you a job? Education Theory In essence, progressive education is “learning through living.” In living, we are constantly confronted with changes in things. As a matter of fact, change seems to be the only constant. Progressives want to teach youth how to manage change. In the experience of day-to-day living, we all confront many problematic situations. Some of these are societal problems, and some are personal problems. In progressive education, the learner finds meaningful soultuions to these problems by applying a well-defined process. When he has found a solution, he might express it in a school setting through a project or activity. Progressivism advocates no prescribed curriculum. In other words, there is no predetermined body of essential subject mater. This means that the subject matter actually dealt with in school has no fixed sequence, i.e., it is not studied in any particular order. In history this does no appear to matter. We know that we can learn colonial American history just as well before or after a course in the Civil War and Reconstruction. In mathematics, sequence of material seems logically to be more critical. For example, how can one learn long division
  3. 3. unless he has already learned subtraction and multiplication? Progressives say that when a student shows that he is “ready” to learn long division, he will be highly motivated to do so. At this point, if he does not have the prerequisite knowledge, then this would be the proper time to teach it to him, instead of force-feeding such knowledge to him at an earlier time when he might not be receptive to learn the knowledge. Continuity in the curriculum is also of no great importance to the progressive. In other words, how one day’s learning relates to the next day’s isn’t so important, since all knowledge is related in some way and no part of the vast amount of knowledge can ever be shown to be “essential” to all learners. What subject matter is dealt with in a progressive’s classroom? It is subject matter, which is relevant to the solution of a problem an individual learner is interested in. Does this mean that 35 separate curricula must be taught in a given classroom? Not usually! Progressives just say that the curriculum ought to be based on the manifest needs and interests of the students. Obviously, all third graders would have some of the same needs and interests. Progressives think that it is okay to try to interest students in certain subject matter. For example, third graders often learn their multiplication facts for the digits 0-9. They also typically learn cursive writing. Progressives just don’t want to force a child to learn something if it does not presently cater to his needs and interests. Since there is a vast amount of knowledge, something is bound to interest every student at a given age. Progressives contend that if a student learns that which interests him, it will be “real” learning and not forced teach which merely leads to memorization and regurgitation. Progressives place a heavy emphasis on students working together in the context of a group. This is logical, because several students might be interested in inquiring into the same “problem.” Progressives tend to favor group work as an educational end in itself, because it enables students to be socialized to one another. In other words, students learn how to work with persons of a different race, sex, age, ethnic background, religion, etc. This experience should serve one well as an adult when we must frequently work with others on the job, at church, on community boards, and committees, etc. Progressives are very much aware that circumstances in the world are constantly changing and that knowledge is constantly expanding. Therefore, they think that is futile to try to teach a given body of knowledge in the hope that it will serve the student well in his life for 10 or 20 years. Progressives point out that in certain fields such as biology or astronomy, knowledge is changing so fast that any textbook is outdated in some very important ways as soon as it appears on the market. In view of the dilemmas with knowledge cited above, progressives contend that we should teach students how to think instead of what to think. In other words, students would acquire a process of thinking and learning which will enable them to inquire into any problem or body of knowledge, both now and in the future. To a progressive, the process of learning is far more important than any content or subject matter learned. The process endures, but most content is quickly outdated.
  4. 4. In a progressive’s classroom, there is a desire to deal with open, controversial questions and problems. By contrast, classical educators are more inclined to deal with closed, pedantic questions with safe, right answers. Finally, a very important tenet of progressive ideology is that the teacher is a fellowlearner along with the student. Progressives view the teacher’s proper role as that of a stimulator of interests, a helper and a resource person. Unlike classical educators who dispense knowledge they consider crucial, progressives assist students in inquiring. In a sense, progressives are a kind of research project director. Progressive teachers are less directive in dealing with students than classical educators. Classroom Seating Seating of students in a classroom is an important philosophical issue to many progressive educators. Because of the influence of progressive ideology, we now have movable furniture in most of our school classrooms instead of desks bolted to the floor. Individual desks or tables and chairs or temporary seating on carpeted areas enable the teacher to have infinite seating patterns for different tasks in the classroom. In the progressive classroom, students generally are assigned no seats, so seating charts are not used. Movable classroom furniture facilitates interaction between students in a classroom, and progressives highly value such interaction because they believe that students can learn much from each other. Ability Grouping Probably no single issue philosophically divides progressives and classical educators so much as the issue of homogeneous ability grouping. Progressives are opposed to any type of ability grouping or any type of segregation of students of the same chronological age from one another, whether it is done on the basis of sex, race, social class, or academic performance. Progressives contend that students need to have as much exposure as possible to all kinds of people. They feel that ability grouping destroys the socializing power of the school and yields “undemocratic” byproducts such as snobbery and condescension. Progressives say, for example, that students in upper level ability groups always look down upon students in lower level groups. They say that students in upper level groups benefit from exposure to the best teachers and school resources. Progressives, therefore, argue for heterogeneous grouping into classes where all ability levels are represented. They say that this pattern assures each student of an equal chance to an education. Moreover, they contend that students of all types can learn much from each other. Progressives, therefore, support the concept of “mainstreaming” all exceptional children, e.g., gifted and talented, learning disabled, retarded, emotionally or physically handicapped. Preferred Teaching Method The progressive teacher does not think of himself as a math teacher or a music teacher. He thinks of himself as a teacher of children or young people. This “mind set” is an important one. In other words, the progressive does not view himself as a subject matter expert whose job it is to pass along what he knows. Consequently, progressives use little or no lecture, recitation
  5. 5. and demonstrations. As fellow inquirers, they favor the problem-solving method or the project method. They prefer to deal with problems that arise out of the genuinely felt needs and interests of their students. For example, in an 11th grade English class, after a unit on Shakespeare, some students might be motivated to write and produce their own Elizabethan play as a project. A progressive teacher would encourage this interest and work with them on the project as a guide or resource person. In carrying out such a project, students would have to use or apply much present knowledge. In addition, they would uncover much new knowledge through their research. Progressives feel that it is in the use of knowledge that students really learn in a meaningful way. A “living awareness of subject matter” is superior to memorizing subject matter prescribed by some authority and giving it back on a test. The reflective inquiry method favored by Dewey and other progressives is a generalized problem solving process that can be applied to any problem. It includes several steps: 1. truly sensing a problem. This means facing an indeterminate situation and experiencing some kind of doubt, conflict or disturbance. Ideally, it is the pupil’s problem and not a contrived problem set up by the teacher. 2. articulating the problem. This involves thinking about the problem until you have it is a form that can be realistically investigated. This means stating the problem in a testable form. 3. hypothesizing a plausible solution. This involves generating a number of possible solutions to the problem (hunches) in order to guide your observation or gathering of data, and then adopting the most likely hypothesis (hunch) or hypotheses to test against information uncovered. 4. gathering data. This involves getting relevant information that will elaborate on the hypothesis. Data gathering can be from any relevant academic discipline. Various methods are used. At times one or more techniques such as the following are used: formal empirical experimentation, observation, polling, library research, interviewing, etc. 5. testing the hypothesis. This includes seeing how your hypothesis square with the data you have been able to assemble. One logically would either accept, reject or modify (i.e., change) the hypothesis after comparing it with the data. 6. drawing appropriate conclusions. These conclusions are stated and constitute the solution to the problem. You may recognize the above process as the scientific method. Preferred Curriculum Materials The progressive does not show any preference for curriculum materials. He does not rely solely upon textbooks. When he uses a textbook, it is usually in a selective way. He does not
  6. 6. feel compelled to cover it all. The progressive selectively uses a variety of materials. Materials are selected on the basis of their utility in assembling data concerning a problem under investigation. Preferred Subject Matter Progressives do not give a higher priority to one subject over another one in the curriculum. They believe in an interdisciplinary curriculum. By this, I mean that in gathering data about a particular problem, it would usually be obvious that several academic disciplines bear on the problem. For example, in inquiring into a complex social problem, data from several of the social sciences (such as economics, sociology, anthropology, political science, history, geography, and social psychology) as well as the field of religion might be relevant. Hence, one lets his interests guide him to certain content. Discipline Progressives believe that we must have rules but that the best discipline is student-self discipline. In their view, self-discipline is learned gradually when the child is given opportunities to control himself, while being prompted by a set of rules that he has had an opportunity to help formulate. Discipline for the progressive is a learning experience. Progressives believe teachers should impose few if any rules of behavior. Ideally, a class should discuss and adopt a set of rules by voting. Students should enforce the rules through peer pressure and by policing each other. Progressives reason that this involves students in the moral dimension of discipline. They reject the disciplinary efforts of classical educators by claiming that such efforts just exact a penalty—they do not cause the offender to consider the consequences of his act on other people. Progressives were the first to advocate student selfgovernment. They feel that even young students, with the proper guidance, have the intellectual and emotional maturity to participate in governing their own behavior. Testing and Evaluation Critics of progressivism claim that it has no clear theory regarding testing and evaluation. It may be true that this is the weakest part of the progressive platform. Generally, progressives like to ascertain how well students can solve problems—individually or in a group context. Hence, they often evaluate student reports and projects. Being pragmatic, however, they may occasionally use both essay and various types of objective test questions. One way in which progressives differ a great deal from classical educators is that they often permit some degree of student self-evaluation to figure into the grading process. Critics charge that students are not equipped to do this fairly and objectively and that the practice demonstrates that progressives do not enforce high academic standards. Finally, many progressives advocate a policy of “social promotions” so that even students who fail the work of a given grade level are passed on to the next grade level so that they can avoid being “stigmatized by failure,” and thus remain with classmates of the same chronological age. Critic’s claim that this practice leads to graduating functionally illiterate students who are really “victims” of the process because they incorrectly feel that they have achieved something. In addition, critics claim that diplomas falsely certify to prospective employers that such students have skills and knowledge when, in fact, they do not.
  7. 7. References Contemporary Theories of Education by Richard Pratte Philosophy and the American School by Van Cleve Norris Democracy and Education by John Dewey Education Ideologies by William O’Neill Dialogue in the Philosophy of Education by Howard Ozman