History Of Pedagogical Reform Movement Research Paper

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1. History Of The Concept

Theories on educational reform have been current since Greco–Roman times, in all three directions of reforms related to school, life, and society. Reform movements in the Middle Ages initially occurred on the basis of religious motives, above all where deviations from church doctrines were associated with an alternative practice. Heresy always suggested new education, because the divergences from the main doctrine picked out alternative forms of salvation as a central theme, to which the life of an own group had to be adapted. Education was not centered on children and youngsters, but it focused on religious and social renewal. It was envisaged that the ‘new’ education would bring about ‘new people,’ a central theme which was developed in Baroque didactics into a program of holistic renewal of mankind. Proofs of this theme can be found in many contexts right up to the pedagogical reform of the twentieth century, in this respect ever more closely related to the mythology and cult of ‘the child’ (Boas 1990). The original sacred theme was continuously secularized, without weakening the appertaining religious power. The division of education and religion had shifted Messianic expectations onto education which, since the seventeenth century, was supposed to ensure perfection in this world.

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‘Reform,’ therefore, was never just pragmatic; it was, at the same time, a utopia that did not lose track of the salvation concept and could also understand education as a power and cause of the radical renewal. The success of this was considered to be all the better the more education could appear to be methodically mastered—a concept that was promoted by the ‘inwardness’ of belief within the European Reformation. The ‘inner belief’ should be granted by new education, and this required means of influence. The Baroque programs convinced by way of a mixture of ‘whole-ness’ and ‘method.’ Similarly, sensualistic psychology in the eighteenth century was understood as a strengthening of the effectiveness of education, and pedagogical doctrines were developed with the promise of methodical innovation. At the same time a literary image of the child was created between Rousseau and the Romantic era which particularly excluded technical expectations. The reform movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries developed in this field of tension of ‘natural education’ and ‘method.’

2. Reform Movements In The Nineteenth Century Up To World War I

‘Education nouvelle,’ ‘progressive education,’ ‘Reformpadagogik’ or ‘nuo a educazione’ are subsequent historiographic descriptions of widely divergent reform groups and reform concepts which, from the final third of the nineteenth century, opposed the foreseeable damage and weaknesses of the developing educational system. The ‘grammar of schooling’ (Tyack and Cuban 1995), i.e., the institutional form of the modern school, developed during the nineteenth century as a single comparable system in the individual national states. Compulsory schooling was created everywhere, teachers were professionally trained for undertaking tasks of the state, and schools developed specific institutional procedures and forms such as the grading of pupils in age groups, the dominance of subjects, largely frontal forms of lessons, the assessment of pupils’ performances using grades or marks, and so on.

The weaknesses of this system were the initial theme of the reform movements, which already had international links by 1914, but in a practical sense were largely geared towards their respective national systems. Influential authors of the nineteenth century were guided by parameters laid down by Jean-Jacques Rousseau or J. H. Pestalozzi. Rousseau was considered a pioneer of natural education, while Pestalozzi was an authority on education according to moral ideals; both concepts were employed more and more against the institutional development of the school. Friedrich Frobel’s Kindergarten was of particular importance to the development of the reform movements. Central motives of the reform movements at the end of the nineteenth century, such as the focus on children, the playful manner of learning, or active methods of teaching, were disseminated in the kindergarten media, even if the practice did not always comply with the theory.

Compared with the state school development, these attempts were marginal during the nineteenth century, albeit much discussed and widely published. Significant school-reform movements were only established at the end of the nineteenth century, in a manner which covered three issues. In England and continental Europe private alternative schools in the area of higher education (‘Landerziehungsheime’) were established which replaced or supplemented the former private school institutions. In the area of elementary school education, reform initiatives were established, above all, where social democracy gained an influence. And third, life reform movements were linked in a very different manner to the school initiatives. One of them was the Theosophical Society, which can be seen as the most influential international individual grouping of educational reform at the end of nineteenth century. In Germany it resulted in the establishment of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical movement (founded in 1912). The establishment of the ‘Waldorf School’ (1919) in Stuttgart was the start of the largest private school reform movement to date. The new ‘ecoles nouvelles,’ which were established in England, France, Switzerland, Germany, and various other nations, represented the successful utilization of a pedagogical niche. In 1910 some 100 schools were registered; these operated on the basis of full-day boarding schools as ‘educational communities’ with a particular curriculum. These schools created a demand because they were able to respond to the dissatisfaction, above all of middle-class parents, with the rigid forms and outdated contents of the grammar schools. Furthermore, country boarding schools often provided the only opportunity to actually achieve university entrance qualifications.

School establishments on the basis of political and social change have been undertaken time and time again since the Owenite Movements in England and the USA. In 1825 the first socialistic school community was established in New Harmony, Indiana. However, most of these did not enjoy lasting success. Only a few alternatives outside the nineteenth-century association of home, school, and church were successful. The pedagogical reform movements were not only grounded in spiritual and/or political world views. Theories of child psychology were to permanently strengthen the intuitions of ‘new education’: the physiological evidence of the independent development of the senses and feelings, the description of the development of the child according to natural ‘phases’ or ‘stages,’ and the recording of the milieu and behavior of children in research facilities.

Together with the exemplary models of the school reform, this knowledge was authoritative for the development of teacher training. The focus of attention of the reform movement in the USA was Columbia University’s Teachers College, established in 1897. Its Kindergarten and Elementary School became the experimental focus of child-centered education in the 1920s (Rugg and Shumaker 1928, Ravitch 1986). However, the Teachers College was, above all, a research center. Thus, it was not only activism, but psychological and educational research that was responsible for the success of ‘new education.’ In 1912 the Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau was established in Geneva. The year 1915 saw the establishment in Berlin of the Zentralinstitut fur Erziehung und Unterricht, while in 1920 Ovide Decroly established his institute of psychological research, which had previously been private, at the University of Brussels. In 1922 the London Institute of Education was set up on the lines of pedagogical reform.

These developments were favored by the cultural and social cesura of World War I. After 1918, political educational reforms were called for in all continental European societies, which were aimed at reacting to the devastating effects of the war. In England a radical education sector came into being; it was, however, intended to, or was forced to, operate outside the system of public education. In the USA, April 1919 saw the establishment of the Progressive Education Association (PEA), which was aimed at changing nothing less than the entire American school system (Cremin 1964, p. 241). Its public influence was considerable, also because after 1930 the academic world was opened up for ‘new education’ mostly via Teachers College (Cremin 1964, p. 250). The French education nouvelle gained considerable influence at the same time in the entire francophone educational world, to the extent that at the end of the 1930s the term ‘expansion mondiale’ was being applied to the new education.

3. Pedagogical Reform Between The Wars

Three developments are of considerable importance to the period between World War I and World War II: the establishment of canonical convictions of what ‘new education’ is, including the appertaining major figures of eminent reformers, the development of international structures, and the very divergent politicization of the ‘new education.’ The core of the doctrines was child-centeredness. Education should follow the spiritual, physical, and mental growth of the child. The educational institutions must adapt their actions in line with the natural development. The mode of education dispenses, as far as is possible, with external determination, and thus dispenses with authority.

The reception of Freud’s psychoanalysis and the beginnings of child therapy were of great public importance, alongside the liberal concepts of sexual education, which were discussed and practiced in all European major cities up to 1933. It was envisaged that there should be great liberty in early childhood sexuality, and considerable credit was given to Freud for this discovery. The pedagogical reception of Freud, however, is contradictory and selective—not only because of Freud’s late theory of drive and aggression but also because its related cultural criticism does not fit in with the optimistic picture of a child developing in accordance with its good nature. Most reformers subscribed to the picture of the good and independent child that cannot become neurotic or destructive unless pedagogical authority causes it to be so. This picture was simultaneously that of a gender-neutral, culturally independent and socially free child which, precisely as Rousseau had stipulated, exists for itself and needs only to be protected from damage.

The Montessori pedagogy, which became influential in England, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, was probably the largest international education movement of the 1920s and 1930s. It saw the establishment, in each case, of independent, usually female sponsor groups, with their own communication organs and an international network. The case in Italy is particularly interesting from a political point of view, because Montessori here was not considered the actual pioneer but the theorist of the ‘nouva educazione.’ Montessori cooperated with the Fascist regime between 1923 and 1993 to promote her method. ‘New’ education’s focus on the child was the subject of a dispute between Dewey and the Progressive Education Association; they were, however, never able to dissolve the dualisms ‘child’ and ‘curriculum’ or ‘child’ and ‘society.’

The international meetings of the New Education Fellowship, which began in 1921 in Calais (topic of conference: ‘The Creative Self-expression of the Child’) and which ended in 1941 in Ann Arbor (topic of conference: ‘Education in a World of Nations’) demonstrate the scope of tension between pedagogical reformers’ concentration on the child, the creative powers within the child, and the drama of world politics. It is not by chance, therefore, that the pedagogical reform appeared to be torn between the fronts of the Cold War. The Progressive Education Association was dissolved 1955 without much ado under the impression of massive criticism of the liberal and child-centered education which was held responsible for the backwardness of the American education system.

4. Radical Years

In 1960 Paul Goodman recollected, with reference to Bertrand Russell and Alexander Neill, the courageous 1920s and the ‘revolutionary’ attempts of the progressive education movement (Goodman 1960, Sect. IV/6). These attempts had, in fact, failed (Goodman 1960, Sect. IV/7), but they had not been in vain, because the education of the ‘beat generation’ had to link up with the movement. In the same year, 1960, the New York publisher Harold Hart put out a compilation of texts by Alexander Neill from the 1920s and 1930s under the title Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing which, by 1970, had reached a circulation of more than two million copies in the USA alone.

Neill, Holt, and Goodman were initially under- ground authors, at least in America. The international student movement of the 1960s ensured that the concepts of the 1920s could be once again understood as for avant-garde society’s innovations. John Holt’s How Children Learn (1970) was a strong confirmation of the child-centered pedagogy without these themes being particularly historicized. They were rewritten and adopted for a new generation. Goodman’s ‘beat generation,’ which is actually a negative description that fits with the deficit formula of educational reform, could be related to an experience of emancipation which applied, in particular, to the educational institutions. The cultural revolution was directed against the pedagogical authorities, while projects focussing on self-experience were promoted. Again, formal school education came under attack; the ‘new education’ (Postman and Weingartner 1969, chapter 8) was aimed at binding school knowledge to subjective meaning (Postman and Weingartner 1969, chapters 5 and 6) without further following a state curriculum. Compulsory education was called into question as ‘compulsory mis-education’ (Goodman 1964).

The radical approach of the educational reformers in the 1960s was not new. What is new in the USA is the link between progressive education and society reform movements which extend beyond the New Deal positions. This includes the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and minorities, as well as third world movements. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) is perceived by the leftwing American pedagogy as a change in the traditional European-centered reform discourse. The same applies to Ivan Illich’s radical criticism of schooling, which goes back to ideas of the Centro Intercultural de Documentacion in Cuernavaca, Mexico, established in 1964. Subsequent to this criticism, the matter in question was no longer school reform, or applying the avant-garde position in the life reforms movements or cultural criticism; the focus now was on education and training.

The ‘new education’ was understood on one hand as a political strategy of liberation in view of third world problems. On the other hand it was seen as a withdrawal of all demands which were not compatible with the ideal of human liberty. Therefore, it was not by chance that John Holt’s Escape from Childhood (1975) brought the radical years to an end. Even free and alternative schools such as Summerhill, Holt said, can fail, and, in fact, in greater numbers the more they have tied the happiness of children to their masts (Holt 1975, chapter 14). The problem can only be solved if the pedagogic differentiation between ‘adults’ and ‘children’ disappears, and children are granted the same rights as adults (Holt 1975, chapters 15 and 16).

In Europe and England there were comparable radicalizations which allowed for the fundamental negation of education from the linking of education with emancipation in little more than 10 years. This ‘anti-pedagogy’ is often justified with theories of depth psychology which also demonstrate how strong the effect of educational reform was in the 1920s; only what was previously understood as a radical start of the ‘new education’ is now seen as a negative development. The brief recurrent link between movements of societal reform and ‘new education’ could not be renewed, among other reasons because it became evident that the ‘new education’ had been merely a historical project that did not allow for general applications such as change of society.

5. Conclusion

The real history of education of the twentieth century has confirmed rather than changed the national systems in place, irrespective of the political catastrophes and the affiliated radical breaks in culture and society. Evidently schools are robust systems which renew themselves from within and in this respect adapt those aspects of progressive education that are acceptable. These innovations never put the entire system at risk. During the 1990s this structural conservatism produced entirely different reform movements which linked up neoliberal economic theories with the old positions of freedom of learning or self-determination. Looked at from the point of view of privatization, efficiency, and commercialization (Chubb and Moe 1990), the criticism of school bureaucracy of the nineteenth century has reappeared, along the renewal of the theory of ‘death of the school,’ through the revolution of the interactive learning media (Perelman 1993). The critique of schooling substantiates the home schooling movement, accompanied with an internet service for freedom from schooling.

The new movements founded in the 1990s are not turning their backs on reform pedagogical motives. Criticism is now leveled at ineffective and inactive institutions whose organizational form and sponsorship should be radically changed, but there is little consensus concerning the direction in which this change should proceed. The motives are based on political change as much as on maintaining family values, and they have liberal as well as community justifications on which agreement is ultimately unlikely to be reached. As ever, the discourse on how to reform education is ongoing.


  1. Boas G 1966/1990 The Cult of Childhood. Spring Publications, Dallas, TX
  2. Chubb J E, Moe T M 1990 Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools. The Brookings Institution, Washington, DC
  3. Cremin L A 1961/1964 The Transformation of the School. Progressivism in American Education, 1876–1957. Vintage Books, New York
  4. Freire P 1970 Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Seabury Press, New York
  5. Goodman P 1960 Growing Up Absurd. Problems of Youth in the Organized Society. Random House, New York
  6. Goodman P 1964 Compulsory Mis-education. Random House, New York
  7. Holt J 1964 How Children Fail. Pitman Publishing, London
  8. Holt J 1970 How Children Learn. Dell Publishing, New York
  9. Holt J 1975 Escape from Childhood. Dell Publishing, New York
  10. Perelman L J 1993 School’s Out. Hyper learning, the new technology, and the end of education. Avon Books, New York
  11. Neill A S 1960 Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing. Hark, New York
  12. Postman N, Weingartner C 1969 Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Delacorte Press, New York
  13. Ravitch D 1974/1986 The Great School Wars, New York City, 1805–1973. A History of the Public Schools as Battlefield of Social Change. Basic Books, New York
  14. Rugg H, Shumaker A 1928 The Child-centered School. An Appraisal of the New Education. World Book Company, Yonkers-on-Hudson Chicago
  15. Tyack D, Cuban L 1995 Tinkering Toward Utopia. A Century of Public School Reform. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA London


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