What is progressive education?Posted: May 2, 2015
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.