Education at the beginning of the twentieth century was based on the idea of "Progressivism" (Late 1800's-Early 1900's). The meaning of progressivism is well defined. Today progressivism means pedagogical progressivism. It means basing instruction on the needs, interests and developmental stage of the child; it means teaching students the skillsthey need in order to learn any subject, instead of focusing on transmitting a particular subject; it means promoting discovery and selfdirected learning by the student through active engagement; it means having students work on projects that express student purposes and that integrate the disciplines around socially relevant themes; and it means promoting values of community, cooperation, tolerance,justice and democratic equality. In the shorthand of educational jargon, this adds up to ‘child-centered instruction’, ‘discovery learning’ and ‘learning how to learn’. And in the current language of American education schools there is a single label that captures this entire approach to education: constructivism.
As Lawrence Cremin has pointed out, by the 1950s this particular progressiveapproach to education had become the dominant language of American education. Within the community of professional educators—by which I mean classroom teachers and the education professors who train them—pedagogical progressivism provides the words we use to talk about teaching and learning in schools. And within education schools, progressivism is the ruling ideology. It is hard to find anyone in anAmerican education school who does not talk the talk and espouse the principles of the progressive creed.
Progressive educators frequently invoked the terms “revolution” and “revolutionary” in their writings. To these educators such terms were not mere hyperbole. They sought to utterly transform American schools. Their revolution rested on a series of interrelated and interdependent ideas thathave shown remarkable resilience in educational thought since they were introduced almost a century ago.
The most basic among them is the belief that dramatic social and economic change demands equally dramatic educational change. Specifically, this idea assumes that traditional teacher- and curriculum-centered classrooms are impediments to good education and must be replaced. The next set ofideas flows directly from that core assumption. As John Dewey and Evelyn Dewey succinctly put it in their book Schools of To-Morrow, “There are three things about the old-fashioned school that must be changed if schools are to reflect modern society: first, the subject matter, second, the way the teachers handle it, and third, the way pupils handle it”.
The progressives clearly had a point,especially early in the century when the educational environment and the pedagogical techniques common to most American schools were appalling. Public schools in major cities were grim, crowded, and rigidly controlled institutions in which thousands of children suffered through dreary, repetitious lessons often taught by incompetent teachers. Seated in long rows of desks that were bolted to the floor,children memorized and recited sections from texts, and teachers made little or no effort to determine whether the children understood what they learned or whether the material they had mastered had any meaning to them. As early as 1900, John Dewey decried the absurdities of such education in School and Society.
Perhaps the most important reason why progressive educators sought to dismantle whatthey defined as traditional schools (i.e. schools where teachers dominated the classroom, children followed a rigid curriculum and passively accepted adult authority and knowledge) is that they believed such schools were incapable of educating young people for a modern, democratic society.
Changing the nature of subject matter in schools was essential to bringing them into the modern world. As...