Does Progressive Education Affect The Poor?

Breeze - Education Uncontained

Progressive education is one of those ideas that just won’t go away. It all started in the late 19th century but the ideas behind it have persisted to this day. And many of these have garnered mainstream attention and adoption. A lot of education systems around the world take ideas from the progressive education movement. Many experts criticise these teaching methods for failing to help all pupils and limiting the prospects of some students. But what exactly is progressive education? Where does it come from? And what effect does it have on the poorest in our society?

Progressive Education – A Dictionary Definition

Any of various reformist educational philosophies and methodologies since the late 1800s, applied especially to elementary schools, that reject the rote recitation and strict discipline of traditional, single classroom teaching, favouring instead more stimulation of the individual pupil as well as group discussion, more informality in the classroom, a broader curriculum, and use of laboratories, gymnasiums, kitchens, etc. in the school.

What Is It?

The dictionary definition cited above explains progressive education in principle. But there are a lot of different systems of progressive education that come from a number of different thinkers. There are several common features and ideas that are incorporated into most progressive education systems:

  1. Emphasis on learning by doing.
  2. Integrated curriculum focused on thematic units.
  3. Integration of entrepreneurship into education.
  4. Strong emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking.
  5. Group work and development of social skills.
  6. Understanding and action as the goals of learning not pure knowledge.
  7. Collaborative and cooperative learning projects.
  8. Education for social responsibility and democracy.
  9. Highly personalised learning.
  10. Integration of community service into the daily curriculum.
  11. Selection of skills looking forward to what will be needed in the future.
  12. Emphasis on lifelong learning and social skills.
  13. Assessment by evaluation of child’s projects and productions.


Most of the ideas of progressive education are rooted within the romantic’s movement. According to this, a child can and should learn all things naturally. It compares children to plants and hypothesis that so long as they are planted in good soil (a good learning environment), they will naturally grow and blossom. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is often cited as one of the original philosophers who developed these ideas about education. The real prominence of progressive education came with American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952).

Dewey And Widespread Adoption

Taking up the romantic themes mentioned above John Dewey wrote and taught about how to change schools along these lines. He is one of the most prominent thinkers on progressive education and has deeply influenced educational systems around the world. He deplored the classroom, where the focus was on textbooks or teachers. Instead he thought education should focus on the immediate instincts and activities of the child. His ideas became very prominent in the inter-war period and were used to develop a national education system in many countries. Its reach goes well beyond this with reforms in the 60s also being linked to this important progressive school of thought. But many have criticised the progressive education methodology that has been interpreted from Dewey’s writing for a number of important reasons.


There are many different criticisms of progressive education. But the main theme running throughout is the way progressive education encourages inequality. And that is fails to help students from a poor background progress socially and economically later in life.

In a progressive system teachers are expected to focus on ‘relevance’ or teaching what interests the child. Such a focus reinforces the already existing inequalities. Differing experience and focus on this into the classroom only seeks to benefit middle class children with a richer curriculum. That has been gained from generations of family knowledge that is stored in the home and by their parents.

Discovery or enquiry learning also fails students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. It takes the view that they should discover knowledge for themselves. But our success as humans stems from our ability to build on and learn from what is already known. Therefore, disadvantaged children are more likely to give up because their home-life may not have provided enough background to discover more for themselves. Also are children really interested in learning things like multiplication that are tedious but have significant applications later in life? It is giving children a responsibility for their learning that they are simple unable to cope with.

Discipline is another key area where progressive education is a failure. Badly behaved children are allowed to act out – disturbing the education of their class. Then they are lavished with special attention. This doesn’t help either the poorly behaved child or the other pupils. Instead it wastes the teacher’s time, wastes the pupil’s time and restricts the amount of learning that can actually be undertaken.

A national education system is there to help build a common culture. And as William C. Bagley of The Teachers College at Colombia said, a progressive education does not support this vital function of education. This is because of the highly personalised nature of it and the self-discovery. It means all children will learn something slightly different and have a diverse understanding of what they have learned. It creates more division within society rather than the unity that education should provide.

Worse than all of these criticisms is the fact that progressive education has lower expectations for children from poorer backgrounds. And the fact that this type of education fails to prepare students for the future only compounds the limited ability of this system to solve the long term problem of inequality. The child who determines their own education can’t foresee the future. But a prescriptive curriculum can predict the skills that child will need for the future and ensure they are taught them.

Whilst there are limits and clear criticisms of the progressive method, education should not rely only on recitation, memorisation and textbooks. Instead, education should take a mixture of these but be more prescriptive in what should be targeted and assessment should be clear. Only then can education truly help the poor climb the social ladder.

What do you think about a progressive education? Could a mixture of progressive and traditional work best? Let us know your thoughts on our social media pages.

Tags: Progressive Education, Dewey, Hands-On Learning, Education Philosophy.

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