“Progressive” Education is Stuck in the 19th Century

This piece explores the 200-year history of progressive education in America. Where did this movement start, what was its inspiration, and why does it persist? While the name itself implies progress, what follows will show how this educational ideology keeps tempting educators to go backwards.

What Is “Progressive” Education?

Progressivism was the dominant educational ideology pushed in my teacher training and framed by my professors as the unquestioned future of education in opposition to more traditional, teacher-led instruction. According to Jeffery Mirel (2003), while progressive education can be hard to capture in a single definition, it does share these four key assumptions:

  • Economic and technological changes demand new approaches to education
  • Curriculum should solve “real-world” problems
  • Immediate community should be source of educational challenges
  • Focus should be on an active student; teacher should be a facilitator

Progressivism is also often characterized as “student-centered,” with students defining the curriculum, seeking out answers rather than being told them, and focusing on understanding rather than knowledge. Rather than a sage on the stage, the teacher becomes the guide on the side. I wasn’t totally sold throughout my teacher training, but I went along for the ride. I certainly didn’t want to be the oppressive, old-school teacher as depicted by my professors.

In my first year of actual teaching a few years back, I realized that the ivory tower ideology of progressivism (and it’s companion theory of learning constructivism) had resulted in some serious implications in classrooms. I noticed many structural issues with the more “progressive” classroom that Greg Ashman articulates in his piece “Why Progressivism Matters” :

  • Systematic Synthetics Phonics (SSP) was given the backseat in the dominant “balanced literacy” ideology, facilitated by minimally-guided readers and writers workshops
  • Reading comprehension continues to be misunderstood in terms of skills rather than content knowledge
  • Newer “reform” mathematics instruction emphasized understanding and student-generated strategy over procedural fluency
  • Student behavior was to be understood only in progressive terms – students’ individual needs not being met or the teacher needing to form a better relationship through bargaining and fidget toys

In that first year of teaching I initially felt, as I believe many teachers do, that I was either an awful teacher or horribly prepared for the job. In despair, I doubled-down on student choice and further reduced my role during instruction, but circumstances only regressed.

Then over the summer I sought alternatives, and was pleased to discover cognitive load theorydeliberate practice, and direct/explicit instruction – important developments in cognitive science and education research that were never once mentioned in my teacher training. I desperately wanted to share what I learned with colleagues, but was largely met with blank stares.

Merriam-Webster defines progressive as “making use of or interested in new ideas, findings, or opportunities.” Why were these new ideas not being taught in dominant, progressive university teacher training programs? The more I read, the more I wanted to know about the fascinating and frustrating history of educational progressivism.

Chapter 1: A Unique Interpretation of European Romantic Thinking

In the article, The Origins of Progressive Education, educational historian William Reese points to the 19th century when “progressive education” began its rise in the U.S., fueled by European romantic thinking.

“American advocates of the new education drew as they pleased from
a large corpus of romantic writings, domestic and foreign. But few Europeans were as influential as Pestalozzi and Froebel.”

-William Reese (2001) The Origins of Progressive Education

In the 1830s, Horace Mann attempted to champion the European romantic ideals articulated by Pestalozzi and Froebel in his Normal Schools, and reform-bent teachers in the U.S. at this time would often journey to Europe to examine Pestalozzi’s whole-child Object Teaching and Froebel’s famed kindergarten classrooms blending naturalism with heavy doses of Christianity.

The Swiss-born Pestalozzi and German-born Froebel had emphasized the importance of motherhood, spirituality, and natural methods in educating little children, sentiments soon embraced by many progressive thinkers.

-William Reese (2001) The Origins of Progressive Education

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi


Friedrich Froebel

While the romanticism of Froebel and Pestalozzi spread, Eric Kalenze writes in Education is Upside Down that the psudo-scientific ideas of Britain’s Herbert Spencer also made their way to America, where they were eagerly devoured by a growing class of professional educators. Kalenze summarizes three main concepts Spencer articulated in his 1860 publication Education: Intellecutal, Moral, and Physical – concepts that to this day are continually re-branded and re-marketed:

“1. Education should be directly experiential…

2. Education should be inquiry-based….

3. Education should be pleasurable and exciting….”

These concepts were in direct opposition to the more traditional forms of instruction which utilized long rows of bolted-down desks, textbooks, and extensive memorization. Moving into the 20th century, criticisms of schools in the U.S. reached a fever pitch as classrooms in many cities became appallingly crowded and harsh corporal punishment was common. Reform was in the air, and cries for an educational revolution were growing louder by the day.

Chapter 2: Progressivism Takes Off

In 1904, John Dewey arrived at Columbia University’s Teachers College, leading the way for successors William Kilpatrick, Harold Rugg and Ann Shumaker to take the progressive revolution to the next, extreme level.

Jeffrey Mirel (2003) outlines in “Old Educational Ideas, New American Schools: Progressivism and the Rhetoric of Educational Revolution” how Dewey, Kilpatrick, Rugg, and Shumaker succeeded in shaping early 1900s educational thinking against more traditional teacher-led classrooms.

“In all, progressives believed that curriculum- and teacher-dominated regimes
represented the worst aspects of education: schools being organized around
academic subjects rather than children’s interests, teachers restraining children
rather than providing them the freedom to learn, teachers taking the initiative in
the classroom rather than creating opportunities for children to do so, and
students being passive rather than active learners.”

Dewey pushed the idea that a different form of education, which encompassed the “full act” of learning, was needed for participation in modern democratic societies. Rugg and Shumaker’s book The Child-Centered School (1929) spread the now-rampant notion that students should “concentrate on understanding, on independent thinking, on critical judgment. The end sought is not the storing up of facts, but the development of the power to think.” Rugg and Shumakers words sound eerily similar to those of a former ed school professor who told me recently “what can be Googled doesn’t need to be the main focus of learning. Critical and creative thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving does.”

In 1918, William Heard Kilpatrick basically took Teachers College professor Frank McMurry’s idea of the Problem Method of and proposed his own Project Method, which envisioned a classroom organized entirely around student-generated projects (rather than teacher-generated problems) that need only be purposeful and carried out wholeheartedly.

dewey kilpatrick
John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick

Michael Knoll’s “I Had Made a Mistake”: William H. Kilpatrick and the Project Method” notes that Kilpatrick has been, and continues to be wildly over-hyped as an originator of the project method, and that he really was an “ambitious entrepreneur” who knew how to market and proselytize a simple message around child-centered sentimentalism:

“The main reason why Kilpatrick was able to become one of the best known—and most controversial—American progressive educationalists was…the rhetoric and simplicity of his message. His motto was to give the children “freedom for practice,” then they will make use of their intrinsic interests and as if without effort acquire valuable knowledge, experience, and attitudes; and the problems that rendered traditional teaching so arduous and aggravating would disappear almost automatically”

In time, even Dewey himself would criticize Kilpatrick’s Project Method, writing that “Any so-called ‘end’ or ‘aim’ or ‘project’ which the average immature person can suggest in advance is likely to be highly vague and unformed.”

Although spread across centuries and different continents, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Dewey, Kilpatrick and Rugg were all held together by their shared desire for a progressive education revolution. Far from a new idea, progressive educational ideology continues to repackage and recycle ideas  hundreds of years old, all the while spreading a romantic sentimentalism that research shows does little to help students actually learn.

Chapter 3: Little Progress in Academic Achievement

Between 1920 and 1990s, Mirel (2003) writes that progressive education became the “most widely shared set of ideas among educational professionals” and even became synonymous with what most parents would associate with an ideal education.

Aligning with what I experienced in my own teacher training, Mirel writes that progressivism would be kept afloat by by “middle-class private experimental schools, university laboratory schools, and a handful of suburban school districts” throughout the twentieth century.

However, the progressive education hegemony would be challenged by the fact that its reforms were simply not boosting student achievement. According to Jeanne Chall:

“The major conclusion of my study in this book is that a traditional, teacher-centered approach to education generally results in higher academic achievement than a progressive, student-centered approach. This is particularly so among students who are less well prepared for academic learning – poor children and those with learning difficulties at all social and economic levels”

-Jeanne Chall, The Academic Achievement Challenge

In addition, Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark’s (2006)  Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching demonstrates that constructivism and the various other names for “progressive,” minimally-guided instruction (e.g. discovery learning, problem-based learning, inquiry, experiential learning) just don’t have research supporting their effectiveness.

“After a half-century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners.”

Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006)

Why then, does progressivism persist even after hundreds of years, various names, and little record of boosting student achievement? Mirel (2003) pinpoints “the seductive quality of the rhetoric of revolution, a quality as seductive to prominent business leaders as it is to educational professionals.”


“Progressive” education is clearly nothing new, and the child-centered “revolution” called for has only further confused teachers about what effective instruction looks like. While direct, explicit instruction may appear old-school to the untrained eye, it is fully supported by recent research in cognitive science, practices of classroom teachers, and cognitive supports to help students learn complex tasks. Unfortunately, even without research supporting its effectiveness, the appeal of progressive, minimally-guided forms of education endures, fueled by long-held romantic sentimentalism and the villainizing of  more traditional, effective forms of instruction.



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