Progressive Education Versus Traditional Education


As is so common in educational circles, buzzwords abound, as does confusion about their meanings. The terms progressive education and traditional education are often bandied about but with little explanation as to their concepts and implications in the classroom. Progressive education implies the rejection of all that is conformity and standard, while traditional education implies rejection of all that is new and untried. But this is what buzzwords do—the foster a black and white view when there is in fact quite a bit of gray involved. So just what do these terms mean and how do the impact learning? And which sort of educator are you?

Most schools and/or classrooms could not be defined one way or other, as progressive or traditional. That’s because each philosophy has its own inherent virtues. Progressive education is likely more “traditional” than most realize as its roots stretch back, as noted by Jim Nehring at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, “for centuries.” Progressive concepts can be seen in national and state educational objectives set across the curriculum, objectives that have been in place for decades. It is also seen in the philosophies of teaching the whole child, integrating experiential learning and relevance into the curriculum, cooperative learning and group problem solving, fostering higher-level thinking skills and strategic learning, and nurturing a learning environment that builds intrinsic motivation. Progressives put the needs of the student first and not the teacher, even when it comes to the curriculum. When viewed in this way, progressive education doesn’t seem quite so far afield of “traditional” education.

Traditional educators will tell you that they embrace the modalities of promoting comprehension, synthesizing and applying information, basically higher-level and critical thinking skills as well. They are not the didactic educators of old, standing at the front of the classroom insisting on rote memorization and recall. They will also espouse many of the same or similar philosophies of the progressive, but may not construct them in quite the same way. For example, a traditional educator will not design a curriculum for his or her students but will adapt teaching the curriculum in place to the needs of his or her students. See the gray areas?

So which are you—a progressive educator or a traditional educator? Chances are, you’re a bit of both.

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