Progressive Education


Defining a counterpoint to the ideology and practices that define traditional education

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … evolving scope of possibility
  • Knowing is … informed participation in democracy
  • Learner is … a social agent
  • Learning is … engaging
  • Teaching is … facilitating




Progressivism arose as a counterpoint to emphases and structures of 19th-century public schooling. Reframing schooling as a participation in life rather than preparation for life, Progressivism was oriented and informed by Pragmatism. However, it is most often characterized in terms of such defining practices as personalized, lifelong, and experience-based learning; problem-solving and real-world contexts for learning; social and collaborative engagements during learning; and responsible and informed democratic citizens as a main goal of learning.


Through the 20th century, debate in education was principally defined by the ideological and pragmatic separations between traditional/standardized education and Progressivism. It is thus not especially difficult to find extensive and condemning criticisms of the sensibility and movement. Notably, strongly reflective of the list-of-features manner in which Progressivism tends to be explained, most of these criticisms are focused on practices rather than underlying philosophy.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi; Friedrich Fröbel; John Dewey; Rudolf Steiner; Maria Montessori; Robert Baden-Powell

Status as a Theory of Learning

Progressivism is not a theory of learning, but original articulations of the perspective were explicit about theoretical commitments around learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

As noted above, Progressivism is characterized in two broad ways, one as a philosophy of education, and the other as a collection of schooling practices and emphases. On the latter count, it can be properly characterized as a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

It would be a stretch to describe Progressivism as scientific, especially given the range of interpretations and practices that have come to be associated with it. However, it does satisfy some of our key criteria for a scientifically informed theory, including being critically attentive to assumptions of learning and being associated with a substantial body of empirical evidence.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Progressivism” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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