What is progressive education?

I think that people might be getting the wrong idea about progressive education.

A recent piece by William Stewart in the TES discussed a talk given by John Hattie. Apart from revealing Hattie’s seemingly instrumental view of education – baristas and panel-beaters apparently don’t need to know about Shakespeare or chemistry – there is a throwaway line that particularly jarred. Hattie was asked about Daisy Christodoulou and Robert Peal who have written books on education. It’s not clear from the article whether Hattie has heard of Christodoulou or Peal or read their works. However, the piece describes these books as ‘polemics against “so-called progressive” education.’ I am not sure whether this is a quote from Hattie but it seems to suggest that progressive education is a bit of a myth or that the term is being mistakenly used; a straw man that has been created by certain writers as something to argue against. A position that nobody actually holds.

And so I started to wonder whether people think this more generally. Perhaps, in discussions on Twitter and blogs, some teachers think that the term ‘progressive’ doesn’t actually stand for anything and is just a rhetorical flourish. It also concerns me that people might conflate progressive education with progressive politics and that would be a mistake.

In 1919 the “Progressive Education Association” (PEA) was formed in the United States. This was a significant stage in a journey that had started with the writings of a number of philosophers such as Rousseau and Spencer. John Dewey briefly served as president of the association, although he did express some doubts about the movement in later works.

Some of the aims of the early progressives, such as having science labs in schools and the elimination of corporal punishment, are now not serious issues of debate. They have been normalised and this is to the credit of the movement. However, other ideas like giving students control over the learning process are still promoted as new and innovative and are much more open to debate. If you are interested in the early progressives then I would recommend Keiran Egan’s excellent book on the subject.

There is an unbroken thread that links these early, self-described progressives with modern education. Dewey is still studied by trainee teachers, particularly in the US. Approaches such as inquiry learning are direct descendants of the “project method” promoted in 1918 by William Kilpatrick, a key figure in progressive education – his essay is almost the foundational text of the PEA.

If you want a modern view of what progressive education stands for then a good source is Alfie Kohn. He is a keen advocate of progressive education and so his definition is a sympathetic one (even if he seems to invoke its irreducible complexity). Key features include students helping to direct the curriculum, students seeking and finding their own answers, a focus on intrinsic motivation that eschews coercion and the drawing of a distinction between knowledge and understanding in order to focus on the latter.

When Christodoulou or Peal are arguing against “so-called progressives” then it is ideas like these that they are arguing against.


9 Comments on “What is progressive education?”

  1. ‘Key features include students helping to direct the curriculum, students seeking and finding their own answers, a focus on intrinsic motivation that eschews coercion and the drawing of a distinction between knowledge and understanding in order to focus on the latter.’
    I don’t think any teacher of my generation would argue with that definition, except that we might quibble about the ‘distinction between knowledge and understanding’. We’re more likely to go for the ‘false dichotomy’ position.
    I also think we’d just assume that it’s the only way in which education can er ‘progress’. Time and again teachers have been surprised to find that (wow! Who’d have thought it?) children have something valid to contribute to planning the curriculum and guiding the course of their own learning. But then we get over it and stuff them back in their boxes (behave!) And as for ‘eschew coercion?’ Think of the opposite. Who believes in promoting coercion?
    It’s particularly sad to see young educationalists promoting a backward leap. Anyroad up. That’s enough from me.

  2. debrakidd says:

    What you seem to be saying then Greg, is that the attacks on progressive education are on a limited strand of it, not on progressive education as a whole. In which case, the books do not state this – they offer a limited and restrictive view of progressive education. This habit of looking at a limited strand and condemning it is one of the things you have written about in frustration both as yourself and as your alter ego, in relation to the attacks on Direct Instruction. You can’t defend that approach from one perspective when it focuses on something you dislike and then attack it when it is pointed at something you like.

    Dewey is an interesting case in point. He argued less for child led learning, and more for a communication led model in which the classroom was a dialogic space in which teachers AND pupils explored content. Gert Bieta’s chapter on communication in The Beautiful Risk of Education explains this very well. Daisy Christodoulou dismisses Dewey’s work, which is complex and nuanced while admitting she didn’t fully understand it. A little like saying Maths is rubbish (because I don’t get it). I think it’s this simplistic view that gets people’s backs up when they read hers and Robert Peal’s book.

    Moreover, the way that progressive ideas are parodied by those who don’t know the positive impacts they have brought to the classroom (you rightly point out science labs for example) are damaging to debate. I’m sure you’re aware, for example, of the spoof progressive web site for Tait Smoogen. While very funny, this attempt to ridicule another camp by people standing firmly in opposition to child centred learning, is a symptom of the hubris underpinning and characterising this debate.

    • gregashman says:

      I am not sure about this idea of attacking a limited view of progressive education. I have given Kohn’s definition which is by someone sympathetic to the concept.

  3. Debra Kidd, as she has done before, brings a nuanced, knowledgeable and wise approach to a subject that is so often oversimplified by critics who have an irritatingly myopic agenda. For myself, on a rather simpler level, I still find it mystifying that Kohn’s reference to children ‘helping to direct the curriculum…seeking and finding their own answers’ is in any way controversial. That is, unless you choose, as some apparently do, to interpret it as, ‘Letting the kids run the school’. They are valid pedagogic techniques, used appropriately, every day, along with others, such as direct instruction, by teachers who would not lay claim to any ideological label.

    • Nick says:

      Mr. Kohn is on the record several times disparaging any thought of teaching knowledge to children if they don’t want it: “If standards comprise narrowly defined facts and skills, then we have accepted a controversial model of education, one that consists of transmitting vast quantities of material to students knowledge to students that they don’t want to know.” http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/national/

      Also, in this video of a speech given to the Regina (Canada) Teacher’s convention just last year, he says (after an almost full hour of talking about how tests hurt kids) that he finds it “horrifying” that it should be dictated that grade 6 kids should have to be taught about the solar system and suggests that that if a child in the class wants to talk about cats then the magnetism unit should be skipped. (56:40). It does seem to me, as a parent, that he is advocating ‘Letting the kids run the school’. And, again as a parent and taxpayer, I do find it controversial that the curriculum can be seen as so much jetsam depending on the whims of some of the more vocal students. I can only assume that you are unaware of his published views on this point. Also, please note that he explicitly states that these are “Progressive” ideas. (Also notice that he seems to be lecturing the entire time). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blhh6W4QCoY

      I also find it concerning that readings from Kohn are being used in Alberta to drive the new approach to Curriculum here. At a curriculum Symposium in Calgary (Alberta, Canada). there was the breakout session entitled “What are the ‘basics’ and how do they support Real World, Innovative and Engaging learning?” the recommended reading was a piece by Alfi Kohn where he quotes Lauren Resnick as support for his claims. http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/moving-beyond-facts-skills-right-answers/

      However, in discussing Alfies’ book and his claims Lauren Resnick says:
      “Kohn doesn’t grapple with the important role that knowledge plays in the development of intellectual capacity. Research on learning over the past three decades makes it abundantly clear that:
      • Knowledge matters. What one already knows is the foundation for new learning as well as expert performance. It pays to build a foundation of knowledge in any area of human competence that is valued. The idea that people can learn generalized skills for learning, reasoning, and gathering information and then get the facts later doesn’t survive scientific scrutiny.” http://educationnext.org/the-mismeasure-of-learning/

      This approach of Kohn’s is in line with what Willingham says of him when he says:
      “Kohn consistently makes factual errors, oversimplifies the literature that he seeks to explain, and commits logical fallacies.” http://blogs.britannica.com/2009/02/alfie-kohn-is-bad-for-you-and-dangerous-for-your-children/

      Also see what he is accused of in this academic paper from the Journal of Behavior and Social Issues on his views of behavior (which drive his views on education) when the authors say:
      “This paper provides a critique of Kohn by noting his misrepresentations of behavior analysis and discussing their potential sources. This paper also discusses the marketing of behavior analysis in the context of Kohn.” http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/bsi/article/viewFile/3914/3284

      There is also this paper that, when discussing Kohn’s approach to research on discovery learning says:
      “Kohn’s comments about our discussion of discovery learning seem to typify his approach to critique. In fact, he quotes us accurately, but takes our comments out of context and then uses those decontextualized comments as evidence of our intent to mislead the reader.”
      …and ends with:
      “What is one left with after examining Kohn’s commentary on research and researchers? First, it appears that his conclusions about research studies can be quite different from the conclusions of those who have conducted those studies. Readers might be well advised to read the studies themselves as opposed to accepting Kohn’s analysis of those studies.”. https://secure.marzanoresearch.com/downloadable/download/link/id/MC4yNDEzNzEwMCAxNDIwNjc2NDA2NzY5NTEwOTYzMTQ3/

      Please feel free to tell me the nuance I have missed in Mr. Kohn’s attitudes to the education of my child and his interpretation of the research that drives these views. Please also explain to me how, when Mr. Kohn describes these views as “Progressive” to a thunderous applause- which would indicate to me that many of his audience accept this definition- in what way they are not seen as such by these very same people?

  4. Interestingly, Daisy Christodoulou rejects the use of the term “progressive education” right at the start of her book, and does not use it again. Yet that doesn’t seem to have stopped people from tweeting comments like “It become a catch all term used by DC & Peel as a bogeyman to label anything they don’t agree with in ed…”

  5. Excellent overview Greg. The fact is many of us have suffered at the hands of doctrinaire progressives who refuse to let teachers teach. We know it is no myth. We have seen it embodied in powerful forces of management and inspection, and we have seen the havoc it has wrought in the classroom. And that’s not even considering the ignorance that so often frustrates those who have been victims of it themselves. I first memorised a poem by Shakespeare after leaving school. But I was denied the opportunity to do this for all those long, mostly wasted years of my bog standard education. By the way, I would recommend E D Hirsch, ‘The Schools We Need’ for a thorough overview of the progressive thoughtworld.

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