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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
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.
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