The term “Progressive education” is hard to define in just a few words. It is interpreted by educators and schools in many different ways. As one of its gurus, Alfie Kohn notes, this is not surprising given its practitioners’ reputation for “resisting conformity and standardization”. However amidst the complexity of variations on the theme, there are a number of common principles that are recognizable and present to some degree or another in progressive schools. They may also be partially present in other schools, few of which have failed to move beyond the stultifying educational practices of the 19th century. Progressive schools, though, have a tradition of regularly and thoughtfully examining their practice against the following core ideas.
Attending to each child
Every child is on an individual path to a unique and unknowable destination. Learning structures are created that not only permit but expect and encourage varying paces, interests, styles, and goals. There is institutional flexibility and responsiveness to differences between children and groups of children. Comparisons to standardized benchmarks are seen as of limited importance.
Attending to the whole child.
Schooling is about much more than academic proficiencies. It nurtures the physical, creative, emotional, and social aspects of a child’s nature, with the goal of enabling them to become good people as well as good learners.
Learning is most powerful and lasting when children construct ideas for themselves instead of being passively filled with knowledge and drilled on isolated skills. Students participate actively in formulating questions, choosing topics and activities, researching answers, and evaluating their progress.
Attention is paid to the deep desire of children to learn, their true interest in discovery, and their drive to work at those things. This is distinct from the legitimate gratification experienced through winning or successful accomplishment. The ultimate goal is to foster a life-long disposition to learn.
Facts and skills are important, but only in context and for an authentic purpose. They are presented through projects, problems, and questions. Teaching is typically inter-disciplinary or integrated. Solutions and outcomes may be “messy”, but the process leading up to them has challenged students to think deeply about the ideas and issues.
Children spend time with partners and in groups, problem-solving and sharing their thinking. Movement and busy chatter characterize such learning. Teachers are collaborators too, “working with” rather than “doing to” their students.
Children learn with and from others, in a caring and dynamic community that models intellectual and creative growth by all its members and provides a moral compass. Competitive activities which set individuals against one another and threaten relationships are avoided.
Social justice and democracy
Democratic ideals and practices are visible within the community. The voices of children can be heard and are taken seriously. A sense of responsibility for the community is nurtured. A commitment to diversity is evident. There is a call to action and created opportunities for taking good care of self, others, and the world.