John Jensen: Re-thinking the Progressive Education Movement

by John Jensen, PhD

In “How to Build a Progressive Education Movement,” (Edweek.org, April 2, 2013), David Bernstein scores the turn in recent years toward test-based education, and proposes that values embodied in the progressive movement of past years are urgently needed today.  The initial means he suggests appear unfortunately to be of a negative nature such as don’t oppose all testing, don’t bash business, don’t oppose all school choice, and don’t name it “progressive education.”

While many values of progressive education will always remain valid (in passing he notes educating the whole child, enhancing creativity, and a focus on development), he appears unaware that the influence of progressive education essentially marked the beginning of the decline of American education.

What happened was simply a well-intentioned mistake.  John Dewey, who practically embodied progressive education and whose thinking pervaded its design, wrote this in his influential 1916 book Democracy and Education:

“The development within the young of the attitudes and dispositions necessary to the continuous and progressive life of a society cannot take place by direct conveyance of beliefs, emotions, and knowledge. It takes place through the intermediary of the environment… The deeper and more intimate educative formation of disposition comes without conscious intent, as they gradually partake of the activities of the various groups to which they may belong.”

He builds on the impact of group norms by advocating communication, training, nurturing, cultivating, setting up conditions, direction and especially guidance.

Such a direction might have contributed to education’s transformation except for a crucial mistake.  Note where the element of effort lies in the paragraph cited above; adults are acting upon students, and students are “learning” by osmosis.  Dewey subverted the role of active personal effort. ”We never educate directly,” he wrote, “but indirectly by means of the environment” and specifically discounted “the piling up of knowledge.” The unfortunate effect of this was that it gave teachers permission not to require the effort that had been the key to students’ learning till then. Learning became familiarization in place of mastery.

The presence of progressive education remains enshrined in U.S. education in what I refer to as “the Learn and Lose System,” characterized by ten features.  Note how each one listed below essentially declares that familiarization is sufficient, instead of retained learning.  To transform education overnight, one need only reverse each of these features:

Courses begin and end by plan.

No expressed intent to retain a body of knowledge.

No complete hard copy kept permanently.

Teaching of small pieces not integrated.

Recognition-based tests.

Personal interest usually irrelevant.

Pretest reviews designed to  improve scores.

Scheduled tests encourage cramming.

“Final” exam declares an end-point to effort.

Both learning and non-learning equally dismissed.

I applaud Mr. Bernstein’s appreciation of the need for a national movement. Progressive education, under whatever name, could make many contributions. A solid starting point, however, would be recognition of the enormous damage it has done, and exerting the effort needed to reverse the conditions it has bequeathed upon us.  Effort properly directed is the coin of advancement—whether in system change or student learning.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). He will send a proof copy of the volumes to anyone on request: jjensen@gci.net

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at jjensen@gci.net.