Progressive Education Philosophy: examples & criticisms

Progressive Education Philosophy: examples & criticismsReviewed by Chris Drew (PhD)

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

progressive education definition and examples

The progressive education philosophy emphasizes the development of the whole child: physical, emotional, and intellectual. Learning is based on the individual needs, abilities, and interests of the student. This leads to students being motivated and enthusiastic about learning.

Progressive philosophy further emphasizes that instruction should be centered on learning by doing, problem-based, experiential, and involve collaboration.

When these elements are included in the learning experience, then students learn practical skills, become engaged in the process, and learning will be maximized.

Progressive Education Definition

The progressive movement has its roots in the writings of philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Those postulations regarding education influenced other scholars, including Maria Montessori and John Dewey.

The premise of the progressive movement is that traditional educational practices lack relevance to students and that the memorization of facts is ineffective.

As Dewey stated in his book Experience and Education (1938),

“The traditional scheme is, in essence, one of imposition from above and from outside. It imposes adult standards, subject-matter, and methods upon those who are only growing slowly toward maturity” (p. 5-6).

As a response, progressive educators tend to emphasize hands-on, experiential methodologies that enable the construction of knowledge in the mind rather than mere memorization.

Progressive educators also advocate for student autonomy and the cultivation of democratic values and principles by empowering students to make their own decisions as much as possible.

This pedagogy is distinguished by its less authoritarian structure and more collaborative classrooms, with the teacher acting as a guide and collaborator rather than the sole knowledge holder.

Progressive Education Examples

The following pedagogies and pedagogical strategies are often considered commensurate with a progressive education philosophy:

Real-Life Examples

  • A third-grade teacher places cardboard boxes, paper towel tubes, tape, and scissors on a table so the students can design and construct marble mazes.
  • Dr. Singh has his students work in small teams to write a program that will block a computer virus attack. The teams then take part in a class competition.  
  • On the first day of school, Mrs. Jones allows her students to generate a list of classroom rules and learning principles.
  • Students in this history class work in small groups to write a short play about an event of their choosing in the Civil Rights movement.
  • During a leadership training workshop, the facilitator arranges for pairs of participants to engage in conflict resolution role plays.
  • To build teamwork and communication skills, high school students work collaboratively to create PowerPoint presentations about what they learned instead of taking exams.
  • Mr. Gonzalez has his students debate the pros and cons of political ideologies on social equality.
  • Students in an early childhood education course work in small groups to develop an Action Plan for handling a contagious disease outbreak at a primary school.
  • Every term, this high school awards 5 students for exemplifying leadership in the classroom.
  • Students in this university Hospitality Management course visit one local 5-star hotel restaurant and conduct a customer service analysis.

Case Studies  

1. Service-Oriented Learning: Urban Farming

Progressive education can also contain elements of social reconstructionism and the goal of making the world a better place to live. Today’s version of making the world a better place to live encompasses environmental concerns.

For example, food insecurity is a matter that is not evenly distributed across all SES demographics.

Therefore, schools should help students develop a sense of responsibility and build skills that address a broad range of social issues.

The BBC reports that 900 million tons of food is wasted every year. That is more than enough to feed those in need. It is also a problem that has many possible solutions; one of them being Urban farming.

University agriculture majors can coordinate with local disadvantaged communities to implement urban farming solutions. It is possible to grow food on abandoned lots, rooftops, and on the outside walls of buildings and houses.

This is exactly the type of problem-based cooperative learning activity that progressivists support, for several reasons. The students address a pressing societal need and at the same time develop valuable practical skills.

2. Developing Practical Skills: Minecraft

Progressive education means developing practical skills, integrating technology when possible, and tapping into the interests of students. The Minecraft education package meets all of those objectives.

It offers teachers a game-based learning platform that students find very exciting and teachers find very educational. The education edition includes games that foster creativity, problem-solving skills, and cooperative learning.

Teachers in Ireland use Minecraft to demonstrate the connections between history, science, and technology. In one activity, students pretend to be Vikings. They get to build ships and go on raids to establish settlements in faraway lands.

The students learn about archeological reconstruction and how to storyboard their adventures by creating their own digital Viking saga.

As the principal explains, the kids are having great fun, but at the same time they are developing fundamental problem-solving skills, learning to cooperate with each other, and all the while expanding their knowledge base. It’s a win-win-win situation.

3. Student-Centered Learning: Provocations  

Teachers at a primary school in Australia have developed a unique student-centered approach that motivates students and allows them to explore their own interests.

The teachers write various learning tasks on cards, called Provocations, and place them on a bulletin board. Students select the tasks they find most interesting and then go to a designated place in the classroom that has been equipped with the necessary materials.

Students then work alone or individually to complete the task. When they’re finished, they write about what they did and convey their reflections in a Learning Journey book.

Afterwards, the teacher and student go through the book and discuss the student’s experience.

The teacher can highlight key learning concepts and the student can consider what they would do differently in the future.

One of the key benefits of this type of activity is that students develop a sense of responsibility for their learning outcomes.

4. Cooperative Learning: Think-Pair-Share

In traditional educational approaches, students are passive recipients of information. They receive and then recall input on exams to demonstrate learning. From a progressive philosophy, this approach fails in so many ways. It does nothing to build practical skills, the level of student motivation is low, and the level of processing is shallow.

Originally proposed by Frank Lyman (1981), Think-Pair-Share (TPS) is just the opposite. It utilizes cooperative learning to improve student engagement, allows students to process information at a much deeper level, and builds teamwork and communication skills.

The instructor presents an issue for students to reflect on individually. Next, pairs discuss their views and arrive at a mutual understanding, which is then shared with the class.  

After all pairs have taken a turn, the instructor engages the class with a broader discussion that can allow key concepts and facts to be highlighted.

TPS is a great way to get students involved and build their teamwork and communication skills.

5. Problem-Based Learning: Medical School

One of the key features of progressive education is that students develop practical skills. Problem-based learning (PBL) is often mentioned as a key instructional approach because it helps students develop practical skills and is collaborative. Some of the most respected medical schools in the world have integrated PBL into the curriculum.

Students are presented with a clinical problem. The file may consist of several binders of patient test results and other data. Students then form teams and work together to reach a diagnosis and treatment plan.

A thorough discussion of the patient’s information will reveal the team’s knowledge gaps. The team will then devise a set of learning objectives and path of study to pursue. Each member of the team is allocated specific tasks, the results of which are then shared at the next meeting.

PBL maximizes student engagement, exercises higher-order thinking, and improves collaboration and communication skills. All key goals of progressive education.


1. Practical Skills Development

Progressive education contains many features of other learning approaches such as problem-based learning and experiential learning. These approaches cultivate practical skills such as teamwork, conflict resolution, and communication.

Because students are “doing something” they develop practical skills. For example, in a marketing course, students will design a campaign. In a management course, students will practice giving performance feedback or conducting team-building activities.

These are the types of skills that students will apply later in life at work and in their careers.

2. Self-Discipline and Responsibility

Most activities in progressive education are student-centered. Students are the focus and often this means that they choose their learning goals and work autonomously.

This results in students learning that they are responsible for their learning outcomes. To accomplish tasks, the teacher is not there standing over their shoulder and coaxing them onward. Students must learn how to pace themselves and stay on-task during class. This builds self-discipline and responsibility.

3. Higher-Order Thinking

In a traditional classroom, students passively receive information transmitted from the teacher. The goal is to commit that information to rote memory so that it can be later used to answer multiple-choice questions. This limits the depth and quality of processing students must engage.

Progressive educational activities are just the opposite. Because students must engage in active learning, they process the information much deeper. Because they are required to engage in problem-solving and critical thinking, they must exercise higher-order thinking skills.


1. It Lacks Structure

Not all students flourish in a progressive classroom. Some students benefit from having well-structured lessons that are directed by the teacher. When an activity lacks these components, some students feel uncomfortable and anxious.

However, when there are clear objectives and learning tasks, they feel at ease and motivated. Without structure they can become overwhelmed with uncertainty and reluctant to get started.

2. Clashes with Teachers’ Preferences

Similar to students, not all teachers enjoy working in a progressive school. They find the lack of structure and clarity on learning outcomes difficult to grapple with.

These teachers work much better when they have a firm set of objectives they need their students to achieve; everything is clearly defined.

3. Overwhelming Work Load

The amount of work involved to create several different activities that can suit the variety of learning styles in one classroom can be overwhelming.

It takes a great deal of time just to think of so many meaningful activities, and then, one must prepare a wide assortment of materials; all for a single lesson.

Teachers in many public schools already feel overwhelmed with job demands. Many teachers casually remark that they have not one second of free time from September to June, and that includes weekends. It is hard to justify such a demanding job when taken in the context of the level of commitment required, and of course, a disappointing pay scale. 


Progressive education seeks to help students develop skills that they will need throughout their lifespan. By implementing activities that foster problem-solving, higher-order thinking, cooperation, and practical skills, students will graduate well-prepared for their future.

Although these are admirable goals, there are some drawbacks. The demands on teachers are substantial, as it takes a great deal of time to think of and prepare all of the necessary materials for a single lesson.

Moreover, not all students benefit from such an unstructured environment. Some students function better in an atmosphere with clearly defined goals and teacher guidance.

Ultimately, each parent must decide on which approach they consider best for their child and try to locate a school that subscribes to that philosophy.


Hayes, W. (2006). The progressive education movement: Is it still a factor in today’s schools? Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. Toronto: Collier-MacMillan Canada Ltd.

Lyman, F. (1981). The responsive classroom discussion: The inclusion of all students. In A. Anderson (Ed.), Mainstreaming digest (pp. 109-113). University of Maryland College of Education.

Macrine, Sheila. (2005). The promise and failure of progressive education-essay review. Teachers College Record, 107, 1532-1536. https://10.1177/016146810510700705

Wright, G. B. (2011). Student-centered learning in higher education. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 23(3), 93–94.

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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