Progressive Educators Network Nepal is a platform for individual educators and educational institutions or organisations who want to share experience, build expertise and explore progressive pedagogy to eventually work towards promoting it in Nepal.



By John L.Pecore


Edited by Mustafa Yunus Eryaman and Betram C. Bruce

Progressive education is based in pragmatism, a philosophical movement that began in the United States in the 1870s whose leaders included Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and Ferdinand Channing Scott Schiller. These pragmatists were inspired by earlier works such as Francis Bacon’s scientific method, David Hume’s idea of naturalism, Thomas Reid’s direct realism, and Immanuel Kant’s idealism. Others who influenced progressive education include John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, and Friedrich Frobel, to name a few. While related ideas of progressive education are seen internationally in the schools of Maria Montessori in Italy, Olive Decroly in Belgium, Leo Tolstoy in Russia and Jausz Korczak in Poland, among others, this introduction provides a perspective in the contest of American progressive education.

The term “progressive education”, first used sporadically in the 1880s (Cremin, 1959), has appeared as a generic term in the educational literature for over a century, usually with a commonly understood or misunderstood meaning. In 1933, Reisner wrote the following in response to the question: What is progressive education?

To undertake in this current year of grace an answer to the question put above may to many seem gratuitous and to many others belated. For years the term has been in constant use and presumably its meaning is clearly and comprehensively understood. And yet there remains a great deal of uncertainty regarding just what progressive education is. Laymen, hearing the term so freely used by professional educators, are abashed at their ignorance of what is apparently so well known, and only privately, with an apologetic air, do they confess to their deficiency of understanding, and request that in a very few and simple words the mystery by made plain to them. Even among educators-educators organized in panels for the discussion of progressive education-there appears to be a deplorable lack of unanimity regarding the connotations of the word progressive (p.192)


Progressive education began with the pioneering work of Francis W. Parker in the 1870s and gained popularity through the writings of John Dewey and adoption by the Progressive Education Association as a movement to improve the lives of individuals. The movement entails a focus on 1) quality of family and community life, 2) instruction tailored to educate everyone, and 3) a culture where everyone shares in the benefits of science and the pursuits of arts. Progressive education has always represented different things to different people. For example, social settlement workers viewed progressive education as a means to transform the school into a community centre for social education, while agrarian reformers envisioned a means to educate children on the joys and and possibilities of farm life ( Cremin, 1959). In Schools of Tomorrow, John Dewey and his daughter Evelyn (1915/1962) vividly documented the variety of progressive schools such as the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education in Alabama and the neighbourhood-oriented programs in Indianapolis. They argued for adjusting education to society through a new kind of education appropriate to a democratic society that equips everyone to live intelligently, making for a better and richer society. Thus, for education to have different meanings for different people makes sense.

For one group, the progressive education movement meant a society devoted to human worth and excellence through highly individualistic pedagogy where schools encouraged children to freely develop their uniquely creative potential. A second group, including Elsie Ripley Clapp, advocated for school activities directed at social and economic regeneration of local communities. George S. Counts and his followers were a third group, who sough to build a new social order through political reform. Eugene Randolph Smith and a fourth group of progressive educators concentrated on reorganizing and enlivening the traditional school studies. Finally, the fifth group, including John Dewey, regarded the progressive education movement as an expression of experimentalism emphasizing scientific method, naturalism, and social planning (Cremin, 1959).


While aims provide a vision or goals for education, tenets are the principle ideas for achieving the vision regardless of the means with which to pursue the aims. While the progressive education movement has never been precisely defined, prominent connotations are linked to child-centeredness, guided by concepts of interest, freedom, and self-activity, a psychology of learning by doing, and a social philosophy that stresses individual worth and cooperation over competition (Bode, 1938). Despite being ambiguous, Bode wrote,

A visitor to our schools ordinarily has no difficulty in recognizing a so-called progressive school. He can usually tell the difference the moment he opens the door. The progressive school cultivates an atmosphere of activity and freedom which is all its own. In academic language, the progressive schools is a place where children go, not primarily to learn, but to carry on a way of life. (p,9)

According to Washburne (1952), progressive education is not easy to define, simply because it is always changing. When trying to describe in concrete terms a progressive school, the school has progressed beyond the description. Progressive education is continuously progressing; it is alive and growing with no fixed creed, no unchanging body of knowledge, and no specific method to be applied. Just as science and society are constantly changing, progressive education adapts to the progress of science and humanity. As our knowledge of how students learn, develop, and mature improves, so does progressive education in providing experiences that help students to develop their abilities and interests, to understand their unique role in the changing world, and to view their own well-being as inseparable from the others (Washburne, 1952).

At the suggestion of Marietta Johnson, between late 1918 and early 1919, Stanwood Cobb convened a small group of leaders carrying on experimental programs and their supporters to prepare for the formation of the Association of the Advancement of Progressive Education (renamed in 1931 as Progressive Education Association). As the founder of the School of Organic Education in Fairhope, Alabama, Johnson, at the time, was implementing her unconventional ideas about education, which included no examinations, no homework, and no possibility of failure. Another leading pioneer in the group was Eugene Randolp Smith, first headmaster (1912-1922) at the Park School in Brookline, Massachusetts. Smith (1939) recoganized that what children needed was an education

that helps an individual to develop an understanding of life, and the characters and the power of thinking and doing that will help them live richly, to use his abilities wisely and fully, and to be a useful and constructive member of his community.

The group, with mostly a synthesis of the ideas from Johnson and Smith, crafted seven tenets of progressive education, edited in Table 1.

Table 1. Statement of Seven Principles of Progressive Education

Principle Description
1. Freedom to Develop Naturally Students should manage their conduct according to the social needs of the community rather tan by arbitrary rules and be provided with opportunities for initiatives and self-expression in an environment rich with interesting and freely available materials.
2. Interest, the Motive of all Work Student interest should be satisfied and developed through

1)           Direct and indirect experiences with the world and its activities,

2)          Application of knowledge and integration of subjects, and

3)           Consciousness of achievement

3. The Teacher as Guide, not a Taskmaster Teachers should be facilitators of small classes by encouraging student use of their senses; training students to observe and make judgments; mostly guiding students to use various sources of information, including lived experiences and books; providing support for student reasoning about acquired information; and expressing forceful conclusion reached logically.
4. Scientific Study of Student Development Student assessment should not be limited to grades but should include both objective and subjective reports on the physical, mental, moral and social attention on the all-important work of student development rather than simply teaching subject matter.
5. Greater Attention to all That Affects the Students Physical Development Health of the student should be the first priority of schools by providing adequate space for movement, good light and air, clean and well-ventilated buildings, and easy access to and frequent use of adequate playgrounds and the outdoors.
6. Cooperation Between School and Home to Meet the Needs of Student Life Parents and teachers should intelligently cooperate to provide as much of the natural interest and activities for practical experience, to include homemaking and healthful recreation for both boys and girls. All, if not most, student studying should be done at school, and extracurricular studies should be at school or home to dissipate unnecessary energy. Parents should know what the school is doing and why and ways of effectively cooperate; teachers should help parents develop a broad outlook on education and provide help by making school resources available.
7. The Progressive School a Leader in Educational Movements The school should be a laboratory of new ideas – which, if wanted, are encouraged – and lead movements in education, combined with the best of the past, and added to the sum of educational knowledge, rather than schools being ruled by tradition alone.


Today, progressive education is viewed as “a pedagogical movement that emphasizes student-centered learning experiences and that incorporates aspects such as learning by doing, valuing diversity, integrated curriculum, problem-solving, critical thinking, collaborative learning, social responsibility, democracy, and lifelong learning” (Precore & Bruce, 2013, p.10). As in the early 1990s, progressive education today means different things to different people. For example, while sone progressive education schools focuse on learning by projects and others focus on social justice, the important common feature is the situation of learning within a social, community, or political contest that some progressive educators may more broadly use to actively promote critical pedagogy and democratic education (Pecore & Bruce, 2013).