The term "progressive education" refers to the education principles proposed in the late 19th century by John Dewey. For Dewey, progressive education prepared children to live in a democratic society by teaching them the importance of participation, first in school and then in life. Some tradition-oriented educators argue that progressive education often devolves into permissive education and have called instead for the strengthening of educational standards. Educators sympathetic to Dewey's principles have noted that in reality American schools have never fully embraced them and that they are needed now more than ever.
John Dewey's Beliefs
Throughout his life, Dewey espoused his belief in participatory democracy and in an education that prepared Americans to engage and participate in democratic society. He believed that school, rather than a preparation for life, was a part of life and needed to reflect the life of society as a whole. Students should engage in art, history and science and should be trained to become active members of society, imbued with a spirit of service. He believed that the best education prepared the child to be effectively self-directed and that this ultimately guaranteed a larger society "which is worthy, lovely and harmonious."
The Advantage of Active Learning
Dewey and the educators who followed his progressive education path stress the importance of active learning. Teachers engage students to actively participate in learning through group discussion, role playing and journal writing. Students participate in structured learning groups to solve problems and research issues together. Ample research shows that active learning has tangible benefits. Students who learn actively learn faster, understand issues holistically and retain knowledge better.
Students who receive information passively are not well prepared to teach themselves. Advocates of progressive education stress the importance of allowing students time and room to question and clarify issues in the classroom. The teacher serves less as an instructor and more as a guide. Talking and writing about issues in structured learning groups prepares students to learn independently. Because students who learn actively are also learning to read and study critically, they are better prepared to learn on their own.
Advantages of General Education
One of the concerns in Dewey's time is particularly relevant in the 21st century. Dewey saw that many children, instead of being broadly educated, were being prepared through narrow educational means to become qualified in a trade. He stressed that this was both an educational and social dead end. Students who learned only a trade lacked the educational breadth and the habit of independent learning that living successfully in a democratic society necessitated. A 2013 study found that nearly half of U.S. executives believe that the skills most workers lack aren't trade skills but skills in communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration -- the very skills that progressive education teaches.
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