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History of Progressive Education

Near the end of the 19th century, a series of reform movements known collectively as “Progressivism” gained momentum and soon made an impact on politics, culture, journalism, social services, and education in the United States. It arose in reaction to the problems created by the dramatic increase in urbanization and industrialization that characterized the second half of the 1800s.

Although Progressivism was never an organized and unified movement, it found expression through many separate societies (such as labor unions and women’s suffrage groups) and many individual reformers (such as Jacob Riis, Sinclair Lewis, and Jane Addams). In the decades in which Progressivism was at its height, changes were made in the workplace; journalists took up issues such as anti-immigrant bias and urban poverty; women won the right to vote; political corruption, business monopolies, and corporate power were challenged as being antithetical to the public good; and class distinctions were seen as having no place in a true democracy.

One of the concerns of Progressivism was the quality of the life of the child. Its adherents made efforts to improve health care and nutrition, build playgrounds and recreation centers, place humane limits on the hours and conditions of child labor, make education freely available to every child, and alter fundamentally the nature of schools and schooling.

One of the strong voices in that element of Progressivism was that of John Dewey, who was influential in changing the focus of education from the school to the student. He believed that an authoritarian, formal, stultifying school environment was an inadequate preparation for life in a vibrant democracy. He understood that children were naturally playful and curious, and held that it was through these qualities that the most meaningful learning could take place. At the famous University of Chicago Laboratory School, he and others developed curricula and methodologies that focused on activities and projects, discovery, investigation, and real-world experiences. Dewey declared that education was not a preparation for life, but a part of life itself. He believed that adult guidance and control was essential to a well-run classroom but did not need to become oppressive and inflexible. Dewey also had an enormous influence on teacher training, primarily by establishing teaching methodology as a science and ensuring that it was as important as mastery of any subject area on the path to teacher certification.

You can read more about Miquon’s beginnings and history as a progressive school here.

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