Progressive Education

Educators have always been challenged to define what they do in a way that communicates to all; progressive educators are no exception. Since its beginnings in the late nineteenth century, progressive education has evolved to meet the needs of society while holding true to certain beliefs about students and the purpose of education. Children are at the center of all that happens in a school and our purpose is to attend to the whole child in order to prepare him or her for life. Schools uphold these beliefs in different ways resulting in a variety of different approaches.

The High Meadows Center for Progressive Learning provides a unique lens through which to view progressive education and works to continually explore and construct meaning around it through experience.

We embrace the definition provided by the former head of Park Day School, Tom Little, in his text, Loving Learning.

Progressive Education prepares students for active participation in a democratic society, in the context of a child-centered environment, and with an enduring commitment to social justice.

Six Core Strategies

  1. Attention to children's emotions as well as their intellects
  2. Reliance on students' interests to guide their learning
  3. Curtailment or outright bans on testing, grading, and ranking
  4. Involvement of students in real-world endeavors
  5. The study of topics in an integrated way, from a variety of different disciplines
  6. Support for children to develop a sense of social justice and become active participants in America's democracy

From Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America's Schools by Tom Little ©2015


Differences Between Traditional and Progressive Education

Independent Schools, a magazine of the National Association of Independent Schools, has a chart, seen below, that is a helpful guide in understanding the differences between traditional and constructivist/progressive education.


Traditional   Progressive
School is a preparation for life.   School is a part of life.
Learners are passive absorbers of information and authority.   Learners are active participants, problem solvers, and planners.
Teachers are sources of information and authority.   Teachers are facilitators, guides who foster thinking.
Parents are outsiders and uninvolved.   Parents are the primary teachers, goal setters, and planners, and serve as resources.
Community is separate from school, except for funding.   Community is an extension of the classroom.
Decision-making is centrally based and administratively delivered.   Decision-making is shared by all constituent groups. 
Program is determined by external criteria, particularly test results.   Program is determined by mission, philosophy, and goals for graduates.
Learning is linear, with factual accumulation and skill mastery.   Learning is spiral, with depth and breadth as goals.
Knowledge is absorbed through lectures, worksheets, and texts.   Knowledge is constructed through play, direct experience, and social interaction.
Instruction is linear and largely based on correct answers.   Instruction is related to central questions and inquiry, often generated by the children.
Disciplines, particularly language and math, are separated.   Disciplines are integrated as children make connections.
Skills are taught discretely and are viewed as goals.   Skills are related to content and are viewed as tools.
Assessment is norm-referenced, external, and graded.   Assessment is benchmarked, has many forms, and is progress-oriented.
Success is competitively based, derived from recall and memory, and specific to a time/place.   Success is determined through application over time, through collaboration.
Products are the end point.   Products are subsumed by process considerations.
Intelligence is a measure of linguistic and logical/mathematical abilities.   Intelligence is recognized as varied, includes the arts, and is measured in real-life problem-solving.
School is a task to be endured.   School is a challenging and fun part of life.


Source: Robert G. Peters, with thanks to the books Schools of Quality, by John Jay Bonstigl, and In Search of Understanding, by Martin C. Brooks and Jaqueline Grennon, Independent Schools.

Published by the National Association of Independent Schools. Reprinted with permission.