Progressivism: Overview & Practical Teaching Examples

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  • 0:01 Progressivism
  • 1:03 The Whole Child
  • 3:05 Active Learning
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

How do students learn best? And how can teachers help students grow? In this lesson, we'll examine progressivism, including the way that education can focus on the whole child. We'll also discuss active learning and the scientific method.


Jonah is a new teacher, and he's heard a lot about different types of teaching philosophies. When he was growing up, the teacher just stood in the front of the classroom and told him what he needed to learn. For homework, he would read his textbook, and that was that.

But some of the other teachers at his school say that he should focus more on progressivism, or the idea that education comes from the experience of the child. This theory was started in America in the late 19th century and continued to develop through the first half of the 20th century.

American educator John Dewey was a key figure in progressivism. He believed that children should experience democracy in school to make them better citizens. Instead of having an all-knowing teacher standing up front and talking, the students themselves should be an active part of their education, according to Dewey.

Jonah is intrigued by these ideas, but he isn't sure how to apply them in his classroom. Let's look closer at how he can put together a progressive classroom for his students.

The Whole Child

Remember that progressivism believes that education comes from the experience of the child. As such, children are the focus of a progressive classroom.

Take Jonah, for example: when he was in school, the teacher was the focus of the classroom. The teacher stood in the front and told the students what he or she wanted them to know. The center of gravity of the classroom was with the teacher; everything revolved around him or her.

But in a progressive classroom, the center of gravity is within each child. That is, progressive education revolves around the child's needs, not around the teacher or a prescribed curriculum. If Jonah wants to teach fractions, but one of the students is still struggling with basic division, then Jonah will have to work with that student on division until he or she is ready to move on to fractions.

Another major part of progressivism is teaching the whole child. That is, teaching students to be good citizens and not just good learners. For example, Jonah could design a unit that explores issues like human rights or why voting is important. He could choose literature that teaches students values, like honesty and justice. In this way, he would be teaching the children how to be good citizens and not just teaching them facts and figures.

A final concept of progressivism that focuses on children is the idea that children live and learn in a community. That is, children aren't isolated from others in the real world, and they shouldn't be isolated from others in their learning community. In progressive education, children often collaborate on projects and learn from one another.

How can Jonah use the learning community to help his students? He could design assignments so that the students are working in pairs or groups so that they can learn together. He can also encourage a community that values learning and encourages students to talk about what they are doing in class, even when they are in the lunchroom or on the playground.

Active Learning

The idea that education revolves around the students is a major tenet of progressivism, but it's not the only one. Remember that progressivism says that students learn from their experiences. As such, hearing someone talk about something or reading something out of a textbook is not seen as the best way to learn.

In progressivism, the curriculum is guided by the children, a concept known as active learning. Students formulate questions and seek out answers. For example, Jonah can have them list off questions they have about plants and use their questions to help him shape his unit about plants.

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