“Progressive education” is not the problem — it’s what’s missing that is!

In following a lively and stimulating discussion at EduChatter this past week, I noted that many parents and educators today are turned off with what they see as “progressive” education. Now, while progressive and traditional terminology was not used on that thread, its implicit assumptions were there in relation to the international test results and other related issues. In my opinion, however, any misunderstanding about current pedagogy is not with the concept of “progressive” per se, it is the way it has been distorted that is the problem. For instance, take a look at this Wikipedia site.

Progressive ideas have been around for over a hundred years and John Dewey, the father of progressive education, while opening his first laboratory school in the late 19th century, wrote his books on education in the 1940’s and 50’s. Yes, they were radical at the time, but in my view, they were never about getting rid of all traditional methods. Rather, my interpretation is that progressive and the most effective traditional methods were meant to be integrated in an eclectic way.

Yet, interestingly, it took until the late 1960’s before progressive ideas would begin to affect teacher education and what went on in the classrooms of all publicly funded North American schools. In fact, in Ontario, the Hall Dennis Report came out in 1968. But, the “awakening” as it were, happened all over North America at almost the same time.

Today, however, “liberal progressivism” has become a political ideology more than simply an educational  philosophy. On the Wikipedia site, for instance, readers will find “ideas” that have nothing to do with teaching and curriculum approaches, such as: civil liberties, ethical conservation, economic progressivism, economic interventionism, efficiency movement, environmental justice, fair trade, feminism, labor rights, anti-racism, positive liberty, social justice, social progressivism, techno-progressivism, social welfare, women’s rights, and women’s suffrage.  Nothing wrong with those concepts. The problem is just that there is an assumption that traditional or conservative views don’t encompass fair trade, anti-racism policies, social justice and women’s rights — which they certainly do.

However, the problem, according to the progressives,  was that those traditional methods didn’t encourage problem solving and creative thinking. They also didn’t teach kids how to work with other kids and how to think differently and make connections between subject disciplines. However, the baby was not supposed to have been thrown out with the bath water. Meaning, the best of traditional education was supposed to be integrated with the new progressives ideas. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t. Today, the political left ideology has taken over education from top to bottom, starting as early as the mid 1970’s when “whole language” was instituted. I had just started teaching in 1972 and was part of that wave. Yet, many of us resisted and kept on teaching phonics. I mean, how was it “whole” when so many important parts were being left out? Now, it is almost entirely discovery and language experience, which is not “whole” either.

For example, on the Wikipedia entry, at the very top of the article, is the quote: “A progressivist teacher desires to provide not just reading and drill, but also real-world experiences and activities that centre on the real life of the students. ” (My emphasis.) In other words, progressive education was supposed to be “reading and drill,” as well as the other experiences. It was not one type of learning over the other.

So, maybe, just maybe, Canada’s drop from 7th in the world to 10th on the OECD international test scores, has something to do with this issue.

Updated & shortened December 24,2010