Food For Thought: What is Progressive Education and What Are the Benefits?

Paul Romani (M.Ed.)

What Is Progressive Education?

Whenever an approach challenges the traditional ‘norm’ of education, the reaction tends to be to believe falsehoods.

Progressive education is no exception. Some people find change hard.

However, the harsh reality is that education is a catalyst of change. As such, it should always be at the forefront of reflecting changes that have happened, are happening, and need to happen.

While Progressive education may sound new, the core educational concepts have actually been around for over a hundred years! Nevertheless, as the word ‘progressive’ suggests, Progressive education should also implement new innovations that build upon the core, universal concepts.

Progressive education is a combination of many different factors. The most obvious aspects are:

  • The educational approach
  • The educational philosophy
  • And the purpose of the school.

These three core points should be reflected in each and every aspect of a Progressive school, including the teacher’s role, the assessment methods, the type of classroom resources, the school’s appearance, the classroom’s use, and the uniform.

Only 91 schools within Canada categorize themselves as ‘progressive education’ schools; only 9 of those are in Vancouver; and, far fewer than that can actually be considered progressive schools based on the above criteria.

Nonetheless, as more and more studies reveal the overwhelming benefits of progressive education, it’s almost certain that schools providing Progressive education will become much more common.

What is more, schools that are currently only very loosely ‘progressive’ will become more so as these concepts become more mainstream and widely accepted.


Progressive Educational Approach

Theme-Based Learning

One key Progressive educational approach is the use of theme-based learning.

Rather that teaching through separate subjects (i.e. math, language arts, etc.), theme-based learning blends knowledge and skills meaningfully around common themes.

Schools implementing theme-based learning will use a variety of themes throughout each term and across a school year to ensure a broad range of subject knowledge and skills.

Then, within these themes, schools will likely use project-based learning, problem-based learning and/or inquiry-based learning depending upon which lend themselves best to exploring particular themes.

For example, a theme related to biomimicry might choose to use a problem-based learning approach to solve a particular engineering challenge.

All of these approaches come under the term ‘Constructivist’, which is a Progressive theory about how we believe that people best learn (AKA Epistemology).

In Constructivist thought, knowledge or skills are best acquired through an active learning process in which students experience something new (whether from a teacher or other source) and actively explore that learning experience to better understand it and add it to their existing knowledge and skills.

Constructivist educators and theorists believe that passive learning (i.e. only sitting and listening) is ineffective and inefficient. You don’t learn to do anything just by watching someone; you have to actually experience it hands on!

Inquiry-based learning is a Progressive educational approach that can be used on its own. While there is likely to be an overarching theme and framework for the inquiry, the purpose of inquiry-based learning is to provide students with greater freedom to have more autonomy over their own learning, both in terms of content and skills.

In comparison, theme-based learning puts more control over the content and skills in the hands of the teacher. This is almost always a necessity, since students do not necessarily challenge themselves in all subject or skill areas.

It should be pointed out that project-based learning and problem-based learning on their own are not inherently progressive approaches; for example, a school that has project classes within science or problem-based learning within math classes is not actually progressive, because its still stuck within a traditional disciplinary framework of separate subjects. Hence, theme-based learning serves as the foundation for making these other approaches more relevant and effective.


Progressive Educational philosophy

Working hand-in-hand with the Progressive educational approach is the educational philosophy.

Features of Progressive educational philosophies that you might encounter include ‘creating critical thinkers’, ‘fostering collaboration’, ‘learning by doing’, ‘nurturing creativity’, ‘learning through making mistakes’, ‘preparing students for the 21st century’, and so on.

It is vital that a school’s educational approach directly complements its educational philosophy.

This is where most schools fail, because their Progressive educational philosophy is almost always contradicted by their traditional approach and archaic mindset – similar to how new parents say, “I’m not going to raise my kids like my parents did with me”, and then go on to become exactly like their parents.

A good example of this is with single-sex schools and religious schools. Both come from a place of tradition and do not reflect the diversity of the real-life society they are supposedly preparing their students for.

Likewise, many schools run by either by school boards or school societies can face extreme levels of bureaucracy, resistance to change (AKA stakeholder resistance), and lack of awareness of what is beneficial change (versus change for the sake of marketing, e.g. one-to-one iPad programs).


Purpose of a Progressive School

A Progressive education school should be preparing its students for life, both inside and outside of school, both for the present day and a truly unknown future!

This preparation goes beyond academic and career preparation to also include preparation for social matters, including self-esteem, identity, relationships, conflict management, stress, and happiness.

Any school that refers to itself as a ‘university prep’ school immediately takes itself out of the Progressive education category, since its goal is to prepare its students to get into university. Getting into university is almost solely an academic matter; whereas, real-life success is far more complex. In real-life you need to be successful not only academically, but also socio-emotionally and physically.


Role of the teacher

In Progressive education, the role of teachers changes from that of a lecturer to a facilitator.

In a progressive school, the students should be doing at least 75% of the work. There is a time-and-place for teachers to teach and for students to listen, but that shouldn’t be the norm.

A Progressive teacher facilitates learning. They create opportunities for their students to actively learn. This, in part, is through the development of engaging and relevant educational themes. It is also through mentoring their students. As every child is different, mentoring provides very personalised learning opportunities: socially, emotionally, and academically.

Additionally, Progressive education puts emphasis on the bond between the teacher and the student, as well as students and the schools in general.

A Progressive teacher should know each and every student extremely well. In large schools, particularly high schools, this is rarely ever achieved. As such, it is problematic for virtually any high school to truly consider itself progressive. This is also reflected in the attitude of high school teachers if they consider themselves to be ‘subject teachers’.


Assessment methods

Any Progressive educational approach requires progressive assessment methods.

Traditional methods of assessment consist of paper-based tests with prescribed fact-based answers. Such tests are by no means a true reflection of a student’s ability or knowledge, but more a reflection of their ability to memorise and regurgitate facts (or the teacher’s own words) in written form.

Progressive education uses much more diverse methods of assessment. In particular, this starts with assessing not just the end of learning (i.e. final test), but also the process of learning. This is especially important in project-based learning, problem-based learning, and inquiry-based learning since there are multiple stages involved – each with their own innate challenges and skill requirements.

In their own right, project-based learning, problem-based learning, and inquiry-based learning are ways for students to show their learning. However, some systems of education that use project-based learning can focus almost exclusively on written output for the assessment, relegating all other aspects of the project as window dressing. These systems of education are, therefore, not progressive, since they contradict their own educational philosophies.

Progressive education considers other forms of expression of learning equally important as writing, such as the use of visual arts and performing arts. This allows for such things as movie making, animation, dance, infographics, models, presentations, etc.


Type of classroom resources

Most modern-day elementary school classrooms are full of resources, sometimes too many. Such resources, however, are important for enabling hands-on learning and different forms of expression other than written output.

High schools tend to lack classroom resources, because they are generally designed for one subject.

Where both elementary and high schools can fall short is in the use of textbooks. Textbooks are a traditional tool for learning that treats knowledge as subject based; answers as predefined; and communities, schools and students as homogeneous.

Textbooks – whether paper or digital – do not belong in a Progressive education classroom.

Another area lacking for most elementary schools and high schools is the absence of technology in their general classrooms. Some schools pride themselves in their computer labs. However, computers fixed to a specific room are of little to no practical use for learning. In Progressive education, technology is an extension of the pencil and paper. Would you have to go to a particular classroom to use a pencil and paper?

Schools offering a Progressive education empower students with the knowledge and skills to use technology meaningfully and responsibly in order to be productive, i.e. to get things done.

It should be noted that just because a school has technological devices in their school or classroom does not make their approach necessarily progressive. Since the introduction of computers and tablets in schools, they have generally been used to replace paper-based tests with computer-based versions of the same thing. This is not at all progressive. Many game-based educational apps fall into this traditional category, promoting the memorisation and regurgitation of facts, and behaviourist norms (i.e. like training a dog to do what you’re told to do).


School’s appearance / environment

Just as modern workplaces should reflect changes in how we work together, progressive schools should reflect Progressive education values and approaches.

Part of this involves creating a school that is welcoming and that fosters a love of learning.

Compare pre-schools with elementary schools. The best pre-schools are often the utopia of learning. They are warm, inviting, small and feel safe.

Elementary schools are larger, sometimes very large. This can immediately create a sense of detachment, isolation and fear. Nevertheless, elementary schools feature many of the positive aspects of preschools, especially in that elementary school teachers endeavour to make their classrooms, at least, warm and inviting – even if the number of students is considerably more than in a preschool.

Now compare elementary schools with high schools.

High schools are notoriously intimidating places. Why? Firstly, they are enormous! Unlike elementary schools, high schools don’t have a single classroom for a group of students; instead, each subject teacher has their own classroom. Add to this how large those schools are, and you can imagine how easy it is to get lost! Not the most welcoming feeling for your first week or two at your new school. Also, high schools epitomise the notion of utilitarianism. Corridors and halls are sterile and institutional.
What is more, if they are U.S. high schools, they probably have police officers and metal detectors. What more is there to say?

Progressive education at any level of education (preschool, elementary, high, university) should take place in similar environments. They should all be about fostering community and a sense of belonging. They should be vibrant, cosy and inviting. They should encourage socialising and collaboration.

Universities are catching onto this, but most high schools and many elementary schools are a long way from where they need to be.


The Classroom’s Use

How do you foster student-centered learning, collaboration, hands-on learning, etc. if your classroom consists of desks in rows and walls that are not designed for displaying students’ work?

Walls should not be empty and they shouldn’t be used to display rules, regulations and tips & strategies. Anything that is that important should be practiced constantly without the need for students rely upon reminders.

Instead, walls should be used to display students’ work. This then makes students aware that they have an audience, and that that audience will judge their work compared with their peers. This naturally encourages students to put more thought into the quality and presentation of their work.

Desks, rows and seating plans don’t belong in a progressive classroom. Students should nest, but should have to work with different people at different times. Classes should be about cooperation and collaboration, so using tables allows for people to work together effectively.



Uniforms have their place in terms of fostering a shared school identity, minimising visible differences in socio-economic status, and providing durable and highly-washable apparel.

It also puts an emphasis on the importance of presentation of self, and that we are judged on what we look like, whether we like it or not.

However, once again, many schools make the mistake of pairing extremely traditional uniforms with claims of having a Progressive education.

Traditional uniforms include shirts, ties, and blazers, as well as tartan kilts. These items are a legacy of British colonialism, and really have no place in a modern Canadian school.

Other uniforms can look like something a dowdy 40 year old would wear – hardly flattering for a child!

Likewise, such clothing promotes certain notions about what education is for. In this instance, a traditional uniform suggests that education is for grooming kids to enter traditional occupations – lawyers, doctors, politicians, etc. – that all still require formal business attire.

Progressive education does not have any such notion about grooming kids for any sort of professions. Instead, it is designed to prepare students for future careers that may not even exist yet.


The History of Progressive Education

The roots of progressive education can be traced back as far as the early 1900s. John Dewey, an American philosopher is credited as the educator that pioneered the progressive education movement.

Dewey noted that the current education system was built upon a series of mindless tasks that dramatically reduced the retention rate of the students.

He believed that very little of the information that was taught in school would be remembered by the students once they had finished their educational career.

Dewey also noted that education should not be treated as a separate section of the student’s lives. He believed that school should be interconnected with the student’s life experiences so that learning could occur anywhere and at any point.


Myths About Progressive Education

There are a number of myths surrounding Progressive education, and what the teaching methods involve. It’s important to address them for what they truly are to avoid fiction being confused as fact.

Some of these common myths include:

  • “Progressive education is a lazy form of teaching”
  • “Students fall behind in Progressive education”
  • “Progressive education is only for a certain socioeconomic class”
  • “Progressive education creates children that lack discipline”

These comments are obviously false notions. Ironically, they are more accurate descriptions of traditional education environments.


The Right Progressive Education School for your Child

If you’re interested in enrolling your child in progressive education and giving them a unique learning experience that can help nurture their natural talents and interests, we recommend making an appointment to visit our school today.

After touring the school in person, you’ll be able to ask any questions you may have regarding lesson plans, and how children go about learning in this natural and beneficial education environment.

Contact us today for more information on how to set up your appointment and to begin a Progressive education journey that can last a lifetime.

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215-2678 West Broadway,
Vancouver, B.C.,
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