Educators: What The 20th Century Progressive Education Movement Did For You

The American school system of today is the product of centuries’ worth of educational reform and revision. One of the biggest movements that laid the foundation for modern education was the progressive education movement of the 20th century.

The progressive education movement surfaced in the 1880s, and continued well into the 20th century. Progressive education in the 20th century embraced democratic concepts such as participation and engagement of all citizens, in ways that affected social, economic, and political benefits for all.

The underlying convictions of progressivism rested on respect for diversity and development of an engaged population that could effectively participate in community affairs.

John Dewey, the leader of the movement, was a fervent believer in education for human development and democratic participation. He tested many of his ideas at his Laboratory School at the University of Chicago published books, and gave lectures to advance the ideas of progressive education from 1896 to 1916. In 1919, the Progressive Education Association was founded. Progressive educators sought to advance a “reconstructivist” approach where students respected diversity and participated in their communities. Leading school reformers, like Francis W. Parker and Ella Flagg Young, as well as the Teacher’s College at Columbia University, lent support to this movement.

During the Cold War, cultural conservatism caused the disintegration of the movement. However, progressivism experienced a revival in the 1960s and 1970s. Concepts such as open schools, experiential education, and schools without walls are based on progressive principles. John Goodlad’s concept of “nongraded” schools, Theodore Sizer’s “essential” schools, Elliott Wigginton’s Foxfire project, and Deborah Meier’s student-centered Central Park East schools have elements of progressivism as well. Paul Goodman and George Dennison furthered Dewey’s ideas to give rise to the free school movement.

Maria Montessori was another prominent educational theorist, whose materials and methods are still in use today in Montessori schools. She emphasized observation of each child to determine how to best tailor their education and believed that education should be developmentally appropriate for each child.

The progressive education movement expanded the idea of whom schooling should be for and how it could occur. It moved education thoroughly away from the “one size fits all” approach of one-room schools from the days of the early settlers, and brought it closer to the diversified, increasingly individualized schooling of today.

To learn more about where education has come from and where it’s headed, check out our series of other articles on the subject.

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