While progressive education had several facets, it essentially followed three teaching strategies. First,it developed an emergent curriculum which responded to children’s enthusiasms, acknowledging that students are most motivated to learn things in which they are already interested. Second, it introduced integrated curriculumsenabling children to learn thematically, rather than study compartmentalized subjects. A third innovation of the movement was of experiential education (aka learning by doing) which requires students to get out of their chairs, work with their hands, and actively cooperate with others to achieve shared goals.
Despite its promise and a number of early successes, progressive education eventually lost momentum in the United States. Much of the decline was due to cultural conservatism of the 1940-50 era, a time when national identity was highly valued and common approaches to subjectssuch as education were emphasised. In that era, the good citizen was one who fittedinto “the system.” The ensuing cold war caused political and education leaders to stress outcomes rather than process -- a philosophy which substantially persists to this day.
As America comes to grips with the 21st century world, however, the precepts of progressive education are once again becoming popular. Mainly because the human skills needed in this century are very different from those of the last. A recent World Economic Forum research studyNew Vision for Education: Unlocking the Potential of Technologyidentifies critical thinking, creativity, communications, curiosity, initiative, persistence and adaptability as life skills students will need to succeed in the 21st century. These skills, states the 2015 report, will be as important as language arts, mathematics and science.
The revived progressive education movement also mirrors the priorities of contemporary American society -- the need to accept diversity in terms of skills, preferences, responsibilities and individuals’rights. It values socially engaged thinkers who can analyse complex issues and come to independent conclusions that benefit theirsocieties.
As much as this modern version of progressive education owes its existence to innovators of the early 20th century, it has been re-shaped by 21st century instructional thinking. Therefore:
Emergent curriculum has become passion-based learning, in which knowledge and skills acquisition are developed to match with students’ interests.
Integrated curriculum is now known as theme-based learning, using topics that not only activate interest in a diverse array of subjects, but also allow students to grasp how each subject plays its part in solving larger challenges.
Experiential education has been enabled -- even transformed -- by technology to provide hands-on, interactive knowledge. Students are enabled through creative use of technology, critical thinking, persistence, communication and collaboration.
Tiny Finland (pop. 5.4 million) is an acknowledged leader of the neo-progressive movement. Music, physical education and art accomplishment are not only required but prized, as is time for self-directed activities throughout the school day. Finnish schools are shifting to teaching by topic rather than subject; students are free to choose topics that can span a number of traditional ‘subjects’. Finland and the US are ranked among the Top 10 countries in the 2015 Global Innovation Index, co-published by Cornell University, INSEAD, and WIPO, an agency of the United Nations. However,while Finland ranks 12th in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment – a maths, science and reading test for 15-year olds), the US is ranked #36 indicating that progressive education can develop both the foundational academic and ‘soft’ life skills needed for success in this century.
Indeed, technology is playing a major role in the re-examination of progressive education. Game-based learning programs are becoming highly valued in elementary and intermediate education because they’re child centered and playful, allowing children to explore complex subjects at will. Game-basedlearning also supports collaboration and the free exchange of views and ideas. Used in conjunction with interactive white boards and touchscreens, students work together to propose solutions, explain ideas, and engage in close cooperation to acquire knowledge and competence.
Similarly, experiential education often – and rightly -- referred to “project-based learning,” with the shorter version called “program-based learning,” requires students to focus on specific challenges. Game-based learning combines very well with program-based situations because they allow students to grow comfortable in new roles as collaboratorsin preparation for larger, project-based initiatives.
A cursory examination of contemporary American education indicates that people are looking for answers. The pushback over high-stakes testing isn’t abating; in New York state alone, 20 percent of all public school students -- more than 200,000 in all -- have opted out of such tests. In Pennsylvania, the opt-out movement has grown by over 300 percent.
As a nation, we need to take advantage of each child’s innate passion for learning, but as long as school districts regard compliance to the mantra of high-test scores as their premier priority, they can never properly support and nurture students. Without a more enlightened approach to education, we’re viewing our children through a narrow single lens.
It’s important that educators look at the bigger picture and find new ways to motivate children to master skills on their own steam. As a pedagogical philosophy for improving schools, progressive education has been debated for more than a century. Hopefully, this is the year in which we will finally embrace it toinfuse a sense of joy into classroom learning around the world.
(Robert Sun is the CEO of Suntex International and inventor of First In Math, an online program designed for deep practice in mathematics)
Robert Sun would be visiting India in the last week of November, 2015