Progressive Education Research Paper

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Progressive education (education nouvelle, Reformpaedagogik) is an international movement which originated in Western Europe and North America by 1900 in different national contexts. It can be seen as a reaction to the decisive educational fact of the nineteenth century that, with the introduction of compulsory schooling, education had been achieved for everyone in the younger generation, even the inhabitants of the smallest rural villages, even the inhabitants of the working-class areas of growing big cities. Education thus institutionalized as a system for the masses showed its deficiencies. Progressive education tried to overcome these defects while maintaining education for all.

1. Origins And International Spread

Progressive education started in the UK with the ‘new schools’ such as Abbotsholme, founded by Cecil Reddie in 1889; Bedales, founded by John H. Badley in 1893; and King Alfred’s School, set up by a group of parents in northwest London in 1898. A generation later, Alexander S. Neill, a former teacher at King Alfred’s, who had been in contact with child-oriented education in Homer Lane’s self-governed ‘Little Commonwealth,’ and who had grounded his experiences in psychoanalytical theory, founded Summerhill in 1921 as an experiment of antiauthoritarian education.

Progressive education in the USA is linked with the practical and theoretical activities of educators, such as the Columbia University teacher trainer William H. Kilpatrick with his famous project method; the school superintendent of Winnetka, Illinois, Carleton Washburne, who successfully modeled the schools of his district on progressive principles; the Harvard psychologist William James, who was influential on progressive preand in-service teacher training; Helen Parkhurst, who in her Dalton Plan developed an institutional model of individualized learning; Jane Addams of Hull House, Chicago, who introduced progressivism into social work; and above all John Dewey (see Dewey, John (1859–1952)), who gave progressive education a sound foundation in pragmatist philosophy.

In the French-speaking countries of Europe the French primary schoolteacher Celestin Freinet, the inventor of the methodology of the ecole moderne, a prominent feature of which is ‘the printing press in school,’ the Swiss cofounder of the Geneva International Bureau of Education, Adolphe Ferriere, with his idea of the ecole active, where the children were to make their own textbooks as a result of their learning processes, and the Belgian medical doctor Ovid Decroly, the founder of the reform school L’Eremitage in Brussels, are key figures of the education nouvelle. In Italy, the most prominent representative of progressive education is the preschool educator Maria Montessori, who through her specifically designed didactic materials introduced the idea of self-directed learning into early childhood education. In Germany, the basic patterns of the English new schools were institutionalized by Hermann Lietz and Paul Geheeb in their ‘rural education centers’; the Munich school superintendent Georg Kerschensteiner brought learning and practical work more closely together in his ‘working school’ concept; and the director of the Hamburg art gallery, Alfred Lichtwark, inspired the art education movement. In the Scandinavian countries, the Swedish teacher Ellen Key published the 1900 programmatic pamphlet of progressive education ‘The century of the child.’

With the school Lev Tolstoy had erected at his estate in Yasnaya Polyana, progressive education was prepared in the USSR. Stanislav T. Sackih, who had transferred the Anglo-American idea of the settlements into summer camps for children even before the Soviet revolution, built the bridge between progressive and Marxist ideas in the education of the early USSR. The main propagator of melting progressivism into a Marxist–Leninist perspective of education was Pavel P. Blonsky, with his program of the production school. For realizing these efforts in educational policies, even more influential was Lenin’s wife, Nadeszhda Krupskaya. The Polish physician and orphanage educator, Janusz Korczak, sealed his view of the dignity of the child by accompanying the Jewish children entrusted to him into the Holocaust.

By the end of World War I, progressive education had grown from local and individual initiatives into national movements and even, despite the nationalist cleavages the war had evoked, into an international network. The founding of the American Progressive Education Association in 1919 and of the international New Education Fellowship in 1921 mark the beginning of that new phase of the movement.

Progressive education now spread from its countries of origin into other parts of the world. Theoretical forerunners, like Tomeri Tanimoto and Kanjiro Higuchi, transferred progressive ideas to Japan which were later on institutionalized in experimental schools. Small group education, self-directed learning, and the working school were tried out by educators like Heiji Oikawa, Kishie Tezuka, and Taneichi Kitazama. Progressive education with its more individualist though socially responsible approach became an oppositional force against the nationalist imperialism that led Japan into World War II. Brazil is a good example of the adaptation of new education to the Latin American context. It was especially the ‘three cardinals’—Lourenco Filho, who made efforts for a psychologically grounded theory of instruction, Fernando de Azevedo, who was envisaging the structural reform of the Brazilian education system, and Anısio Teixeira, who was striving for a democratic educational policy—that were defending educational progressivism against the conservative Catholic educational theory of the country. Later on, these progressive impulses merged with elements of the ‘educacao popular.’

On the African continent a mass education system in the 1920s was not yet developed. Consequently there was only a scarce influence of progressive education on the educational activities of the African countries. The school farms and school workshops of different missionary societies linked primary schooling for students and adult literacy programs to manual and agricultural activities. The Phelps–Stokes Commission, which in 1919 evaluated the education situation in the British territories of Africa recommended a practical orientation toward basic education. The skills taught at school should be directly useful in family and community life. In Kenya in 1925 there was an attempt to train teachers as community development workers.

On the Australian continent progressive education was ‘very much a series of side eddies, and not the main stream of education’ (Connell 1995, p. 351), but teacher educators such as G. S. Browne of the University of Melbourne had acquainted their students with the Dalton Plan or the project method, or the educational philosophy of Dewey.

A quantitative content analysis of educational journals proved that by 1930 progressive education concepts had become the leading educational semantics worldwide; progressive education had indeed developed into an international movement (Schriewer et al. 1998).

2. Core Elements And Comprehensive Principles

The intertwining educational philosophies, political semantics, pedagogical programs, theories, projects, foundations of institutions, and teaching methodologies which progressive education consists of are not easily summarized. In spite of Cremin’s verdict concerning a capsule definition of progressive education—‘None exists, and none ever will’ (Cremin 1961, p. x)—the common structural origin and the mutual international criticism of progressive educators, which distinguished between that which was pluralistically proven and that which was blinded by ideology, allow for pointing out some core elements or comprehensive principles and practical approaches of progressive education. These can be reconstructed by looking at the classic historical accounts of Cremin (1961), Boyd and Rawson (1965), Mialaret et al. (1976), or Roehrs (1998b), which together with Roehrs and Lenhart (1995) at the same time contain biographical and work-related references to the aforementioned progressive educators:

(a) Progressive education stood for the democratization of the industrial society by opening up chances of participation on an educational basis. This referred to the induction into technical-industrial processes of production and their social structuring as well as to the authorization to the exercise of political rights. Progressive education brought (sub)cultural group identities into focus. The concept of enabling the individual to cooperate included social feedback on the individual possibilities of action that were opened up by education. The interrelations of society as a whole were thus changed via the spheres of proximity of everyday life. An expression of this is the communityoriented approach of progressive educational endeavors. Education is conceived as an aid for everyone to cope with life.

(b) Progressive education is distinguished by its orientation toward the child’s individuality. This means a child-centeredness that provides the educands with enough time to find and do things themselves while playing and learning. In life philosophy’s metaphor of the ‘opening of the eye,’ the pedagogical effort is to let the children themselves experience and recognize ‘things.’

Progressive education’s intellectuality includes a new relationship to the body. The model is a simple, healthy life-style: there is no cult of athletics, but no neglect of the body either. The concept of human nature is rather pragmatic or positivist—Mialaret et al. (1976, p. 12), following Freinet, ‘mechanize the functions (of the body) with the aim to free the vigor of life for the use of the higher activities of the mind.’ It does not rule out an ultimate religious bond, but does not put it to the fore either.

(c) As a classical-modern reform movement, progressive education is (social and behavioral) scienceoriented. It holds that a scientific foundation for and advice on practical education are both possible and necessary. The concept of science here is pluralistic, including different paradigmatic orientations. Progressive education above all refers to psychology, especially developmental psychology as it was constituted in empirical research and theoretical construction, for example in the works of Piaget (e.g., 1963). Next it refers to a sociology as it was put in concrete forms by J. Dewey (e.g., 1966) or G. H. Mead (e.g., 1967; see Mead, George Herbert (1863–1931)), for instance, with a pragmatic intention. Finally, it refers to education as an academic discipline as well, as this has, in its idealist-humanistic variant, become almost an accompanying theory of the German pedagogical reform projects.

(d) Progressive education at its heart is a school reform movement. The evolution of school as an educational institution is not completely to be reversed; still, teaching and learning at school is to be brought closer to the learning processes taking place in the family, workshop, workplace, and community. At the same time, the roles of those who encounter each other at school are changing. There is a friendly relationship between teachers and pupils, based on partnership and companionship, and the opportunities of involvement stretch as far as to the rights of participation (‘government’) in school communities. Progressive education disseminated into further educational fields apart from school: parallel to school and partly supported by the reform movement, kindergarten education, adult education, and social work were irreversibly institutionalized as fields of pedagogical action in their own right.

(e) As heritage of the philanthropist education of the Enlightenment, progressive education is concerned with a free relationship within educational interaction. This is especially manifest in teaching. The reformers invent, or at least accentuate newly, ‘the teaching dialogue, small group teaching, the various sorts of projects, (the) use of teaching aids, (they emphasize) self-governed activity…, (they aim at) a plurality of teaching methods, that (cause) as an ‘‘education by peers in the classroom’’ …a change in the direction of the activity’ (Roehrs 1998, p. 319). The change of direction finds expression especially in those didactic models that transfer the planning of work and learning at least partly to the pupils. While acquiring and applying a basic knowledge on methodology the children prove their self-governing abilities.

3. Progressive Education In Practice—Two Examples

What internal reform of the school on progressive lines means in detail can be illustrated by the famous project method. This approach was theoretically explained by Kilpatrick (1918) and in the following decades practically spelled out worldwide in many variations (cf. Kliebisch and Sommer 1997). For Kilpatrick, a project was a ‘wholehearted purposeful activity proceeding in a social environment’ (Kilpatrick 1918, p. 330). This formal definition covers different project types which the educationist structures according to learning objectives and content matter, but he also gives hints to classify them into the categories of individual and group projects. A project has four phases: ‘purposing, planning, executing, and judging.’ The learners take all steps autonomously; the teacher only interferes if they are asked for advice or if the learning process is threatened by total failure. Later on, Kilpatrick embedded the project method into his philosophy of the school and of teaching procedures:

(1) Count that the school is properly a place of living. Work for the finest quality of living that teacher and pupils can together devise, reaching out as much as feasible into the community… (2) Let the principles of interest and purposeful activity set the predominant pattern… (3) Run everything on a basis of democracy and respect for personality… (4) Work in season and out, depending on pupil maturity and development, for the finest and most inclusive aims of life, these to be increasingly exemplified in everything done in school and out.’ (Kilpatrick 1959, p. 429)

Progressive education in its linkage to social work can be illustrated by the example of Jane Addams. Although she wrote several books and contributed articles to academic journals (e.g., the American Journal of Sociology), the focus of her activities was not the production of academic theory but practical political, educational, and social work efforts. These activities had their institutional basis in Hull House, a community center which Addams had set up in a Chicago slum area in 1889 after the model of the English ‘settlements.’ For 46 years the house under her leadership has been a center that has intervened in local educational policies to improve the educational situation for immigrant children, organized its own educational activities—such as a Shakespeare Club or a Working People’s Science Club—provided meals for the poor, and improved hygiene standards by establishing public baths. Production and consumption cooperatives were operating; for some ‘residents’ common households were organized. Hull House built the first public playground in Chicago, and coinitiated the Juvenile Protection Association, which, through social activities and political pressure (e.g., on shop owners who sold alcoholic beverages to minors), tried to prevent youth delinquency. Addams and her friends succeeded in having a youth court set up that was no ordinary criminal court but acted loco parentis. The house was active in reducing child labor, and it fought against the ‘white slave trade,’ the ‘import’ of young women for prostitution. Hull House supported the trade unions, backing up the laborers in conflict situations, such as the big Pullman strike of 1894. The activities of Hull House finally contributed to the differentiation of sociology and social work theory and—against Addams’s intentions—to transform social work into a profession (Eberhart 1995).

4. History Or Ongoing Movement

Historians of education dispute the question whether progressive education was a historical movement in its time or whether it is a continuous ongoing stream of theories and activities. US theorists such as Sol Cohen (1995) tend to see it as history (and the US school reform efforts of the 1990s even as a countermovement to restore the moral-intellectual discourse of education), while the German contribution of Oelkers (1996) doubts whether there was an epoch of progressive education at all, and that of Roehrs (1998b) conceives of it as a continuing story. The overt history of progressive education in the USA ended in 1955 when the Progressive Education Association was dissolved. In fascist Italy and Germany progressive education with its liberty-oriented and democratic tendencies was politically banned, and some of its German proponents, such as Kurt Hahn, the director of the famous Salem School, were driven out of their home country. A few others, however, such as Andreesen, Lietz’s successor in the leadership of the rural education centers, tried to establish links to Nazi ideology, thus enabling several measures of progressive education to be abused by totalitarian educational practice. In the USSR progressive education was suppressed by Stalin’s dictatorship from the early 1930s. He even threatened Krupskaya with using another woman to ‘replace’ her as Lenin’s widow, unless she stopped publishing about polytechnic education.

Conversely, the New Education Fellowship, as the organization of the progressivists, made important contributions to the establishment of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) within the United Nations (UN) system after World War II. Many progressive education institutions have continued their activities into the present. More important, perhaps, is the fact that since the 1950s progressive ideas and practices have trickled down into the day-to-day activities of education worldwide. In this reduced form the movement is still a reservoir of innovation, and this is reflected in the alternative schools that have been established from the 1970s onward. The progressive movement has even made contributions toward meeting the most recent educational challenges, such as peace education, multicultural education, and human rights education. These must now be transformed creatively to build the ‘four pillars of education’ enumerated by the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century: ‘learning to know,’ ‘learning to do,’ ‘learning to live together, to live with others,’ ‘learning to be’ (UNESCO 1996, pp. 86–96).

Bibliography:

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  3. Connell W 1995 The influence of progressive education on Australian schools. In: Roehrs H, Lenhart V (eds.) Progressive Education Across the Continents. Lang, Frankfurt, Germany, pp. 351–6
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