The Progressives’ Pedagogical Approach

At the beginning of the XX century, the traditional didactic system operating in schools was subjected to widespread criticism for authoritarianism and one-sided intellectualism. The most radical and consistent advocate of school renewal was the American philosopher John Dewey. He proposed a reform of the school system, the main didactic goal of which should not be the transfer of knowledge but the teaching of doing. To do this, Dewey developed the theory of education, according to which knowledge is not the main product of the activity but a side effect of it. In contrast to the traditional education system, Dewey’s concept grew with his supporters becoming known as progressive. The progressives’ pedagogical approach is based on Russoism, equipped with the ideas of pragmatist philosophy.

Progressivism is ideal for promoting critical thinking in students: first of all, this is due to the strategy of building relationships between teachers and students. According to Ryan, Cooper, and Bolick (2015), the teacher should be an adviser, a guide, a companion; he cannot be a traditional authoritarian distributor of the necessary information. Teachers have more knowledge and have gained much more experience than their students. This allows them to be advisors in situations where students face difficulties. Teachers will learn together with the children to use the students’ energy, find their immediate interests, and activate the initiative in their studies. The role of the teacher should be to help children learn how they should learn. This will develop them into independent adults who can navigate well in an ever-changing environment.

Using the philosophy of progressivism in education will also encourage students to participate more actively in decision-making. This is due to the strategy of working in the classroom, which should be focused more on solving real problems than on artificial methods of teaching any subject. Knowledge, the progressives proclaim, is acquired not by accepting information as some abstract substance, somehow transmitted from teacher to student, but «rather as a tool for gaining experience» (Ryan et al., 2015, p. 299). The point is not to reject traditional school subjects but to abandon the conventional method of passing on knowledge in a particular subject to the younger generation. Progressives based their approaches to teaching and curriculum design on questions of their relevance to students.

In addition, the application of the philosophy of progressivism in the classroom eliminates the possibility of having students who are not involved in the discussion. This is due to creating a social atmosphere in the school, which should be democratic and encourage cooperation. At school, children are usually punished for talking or helping each other solve a problem. Traditional education places an excessive emphasis on competition, which is socially unhealthy and ineffective in education. Competition can occur if it serves the common good, but society and learning often progress in cooperation. The position of progressives is a natural product of the belief that school is a microcosm of society and that education is more about life itself than preparing for life. Schools, progressives say, «are full of unnatural rivalry» that should be replaced by healthy cooperation (Ryan et al., 2015, p. 300).

Progressivism denies the authoritarianism of the teacher, the preference for textbooks and book teaching methods, the cramming of information and factual material. The philosophy of progressivism is expressed in the democratic desire to help the children of each person to participate in the creation of culture. The core of the philosophy of progressivism in education is the idea of life as a continuously developing experience of human interaction with the environment. A person adapts to the environment, simultaneously influencing it and experiencing its influence. So, expertise is carried out in people’s communication with the world and is impossible outside of interpersonal interaction. For human society to develop, this experience must be transmitted, for which it must be formulated. To express it in a way that will allow the other to appreciate the significance of this experience, it is necessary to find points of contact with the life of the student.


Ryan, K., Cooper, J. M. & Bolick, C. M. (2015). Your philosophy of education. In C. Callahan (Ed.), Those who can, teach (pp. 298-301). Cengage Learning.

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ChalkyPapers. "The Progressives' Pedagogical Approach." September 2, 2023.