Stacey Hoover

Dr. Ann Nauman

EDF 607- Philosophy of Education

March 13, 2003











The World Book Encyclopedia defines progressivism as the principles and practices of progressives; the doctrines of a progressive party. Progressive education is defined as a system of education based on the principles of John Dewey and his followers, characterized by emphasis on fitting a course of study to the abilities and interests of the pupils rather than fitting pupils to a given curriculum.

            The progressive movement dates back to the eighteenth century. Educationally it is necessary to go back to at least the pre-civil war period for a significant base. Compulsory education laws were passed in 1647 in Massachusetts, but it wasn’t until the 1840s when a serious commitment to universal education was initiated (Perrone, 4). Schools grew faster than anyone had planned; but, fewer than twenty-five percent of those who began school in the nineteenth century completed the elementary programs (Perrone, 4). Those that weren’t of means did not continue to secondary education.

Fiscal support was inadequate and school facilities could not be built rapidly enough to take care of the numbers of children who wished to attend. In addition, precedents for mass schooling didn’t exist and the surrounding social order was in a state of rapid transition (Perrone, 5).

            The progressive movement was underway, but it lacked intellectual leadership. John Dewey provided the intellectual leadership needed. According to Archambault (1964), Dewey believed that “all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race” (Archambault, 427). Dewey believed that this process began at birth and it is developed. All the formal and technical education in the world could not change this process. Education simply helps organize or shape the process. Dewey also said that “the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself” (in Archambault, 427). This is the basis for the belief that the curriculum should be molded around the child rather than the child molded around the curriculum.

            There were many great philosophers, leaders, and educators who were supporters of this movement. This philosophical idea is still very prevalent in today’s society. The best-known progressivist in education is Dr. Maria Montessori. Dr. Montessori was born August 31, 1870, in Chiarvalle, Italy. She was an only child. At the age of five the family moved to Rome. At the age of six, she began school. Maria possessed a driving ambition and a strong sense of duty even at a young age. As a young child she decided that she didn’t want to be a teacher, she wanted to be an actress (Pollard, 12).

            That changed when she was twelve. It was at that time in a young girl’s life that a decision would have to be made regarding her future. Maria chose to stay in school and really enjoyed mathematics. She decided to become a doctor. Maria was the first woman in Italy to begin that training. This was a great choice, but a hard road to follow. Not only did Maria’s father not approve, but also the men with whom she attended medical school treated her poorly (Pollard, 12).  In 1896, twenty six year old Maria became the first woman in Italy to graduate with a medical degree. It was at this time that that she left Italy for the first time (Pollard, 12).

            As her career blossomed she became involved with adults and children with mental retardation. During this time she began to study the work of Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin. Dr. Montessori realized at this point that these ideas needed to be furthered, these people (mentally retarded people) needed special schools instead of mental hospitals, and she needed to know more about education (Pollard).

            Dr. Montessori had a son between 1898 and 1901.  Her son was taken from her to live with a family in the country. He was a teenager before he found out who is mother was. The fact that she had her child and lost him could have been a big part of why she began to take a bigger interest in the lives of children.(Pollard, 24) She left her post as director of the school in Rome to return to the university as a student. The irony in that was at the age of twelve she didn’t want to be a teacher; she wanted to be an actress (Pollard).

            Dr. Montessori developed “sensory materials” to be used in “sensory education” (Pollard, 32). These materials were to give a variety of experiences through the senses. One example of this is a box of material designed to attract the attention of a child from two and a half to three years old. In the box is a row of cylinders that vary in size. The object of the exercise is to have the child remove all the cylinders, mix them up, and put them back into the correct compartment (hole). The teacher may intervene in this exercise by removing the cylinders and mixing them up, but most often this is not necessary. This is accomplished through trial and error, but the child will eventually succeed (Montessori, 67-69). “The education process is based on this: that the control of the error lies in the material itself, and the child has concrete evidence of it.” (Montessori, 71)

            This concept ties back into the Dewey concept that the learning process begins at birth and is developed throughout one’s life. Dr. Montessori believed that teachers were the tools to develop these thoughts instead of the teacher,s giving all the thoughts to the students. Dr. Montessori continued to develop her ideas on education.

            Dr. Montessori began the Casa dei Bambini or the Children’s House in 1907 (Pollard, 5). This was the first ‘Montessori School”. Because Dr. Montessori was not a trained teacher but had studied educational theories she began to develop her own ideas on how children should learn (Pollard, 7).  Dr. Montessori described the Children’s House as

the environment, which is offered to the child that he may be given the opportunity of developing his activities. This kind of school is not of a fixed-type, but may vary according to the financial resources at disposal and to the opportunities afforded by the environment (Montessori, 37).

            Dr. Montessori questioned whether society was doing ‘all that it could’ for the children. Science was playing a large part in how children were physically being cared for. As a result infant mortality rates were decreasing (Montessori, 29).

For example, it is science which suggested maternal feeding, the abolition of swaddling clothes, baths, life in the open air, exercise, simple short clothing, quiet and plenty of sleep. Rules were laid down for the measurement of food adapting it rationally to the physiological needs of the child’s life.

Yet with all this, science made no contribution that was entirely new. Mothers had always nursed their children, children had always been clothed, they had breathed and eaten before.

The point is, that the same physical acts which, performed blindly and without order, led to disease and death, when ordered rationally were the means of giving strength and life (Montessori, 30).

            Dr. Montessori began to reflect: “Are our children only health little bodies which to-day are growing and developing so vigorously under our eyes? Is their destiny fulfilled in the production of human bodies” (Montessori, 31)? Dr. Montessori said that children must not only grow in body but in spirit (Montessori, 32).

My method is scientific, both in its substance and in its aim. It makes for the attainment of a more advanced stage of progress, in directions no longer only material and physiological. It is an endeavor to complete the course which hygiene has already taken, but in the treatment of the physical side alone (Montessori, 36-37).

            Everything about a ‘Children’s House’ or Montessori school is or should be about the children. The house is designed for the children’s needs. The furniture is child size so that the children can be in control of their learning. The black boards are fixed at a low level so the children may use them to write or draw. There is a ‘club room’ for the children to play games and socialize. There are cupboards or shelves for each child. (Montessori)

            The technique of the Montessori Method may be divided into three parts: motor education, sensory education, and language. “The care and management of the environment itself afford the principal means of motor education while sensory education and the education of language are provided by my didactic material” (Montessori, 50). Motor education played an important role in the Montessori method. The writer feels that this form of education helps define the underlying belief that the child guides his/her own education. The child who is without guidance appears disorganized and “never keeps still,” and “touches everything” (Montessori, 52). Adults perceive this as unruly and naughty. (Montessori, 52) However, Dr. Montessori felt that the opposite is the case. “The child is seeking the very exercise which will organize and coordinate the movements useful to man.” (Montessori, 52)

            Dr. Montessori felt that children should learn to write first. This totally turned the traditional world upside down. She felt that by teaching them to write words the children would be ready to read. She taught them to write and then handed them books. This didn’t turn out like she planned. The children weren’t interested in reading the books. She did notice that the children did want to read notes, messages on the board, and things that were relevant to day-to-day life. The parents began to complain that the children were stopping to read ALL the signs in the stores and on the street. This was making it nearly impossible to walk down the street. This surprised yet pleased Dr. Montessori. She did find that it took several weeks before the children took an interest in the books. It was as if the books weren’t important because they were out of the ‘real’ world (Pollard, 32).

Dr. Montessori was in increasing demand to lecture and be a consultant to new schools. There was also a need for more Montessori-trained teachers. She was still in private practice, lecturing in science and education at the University of Rome, and at a woman’s college (Pollard, 42).  In order for her to be able to concentrate on her educational impact a choice had to be made. She decided to concentrate solely on education. This meant that she now had to depend on the Montessori Method to provide her a living. A group of wealthy people in Italy formed the Montessori Society to support her work. Montessori societies were founded in Europe, Britain, and the United States (Pollard, 42).

            By 1911, four years after the first Casa was open Italy and Switzerland adopted the Montessori Method as the approved teaching method in their state schools. Montessori schools were planned in India, China, Mexico, Korea, Argentina, and Hawaii. The Russian tzar opened a school for his five children in the St. Petersburg Palace. The Montessori movement was worldwide. (Pollard, 42)

            John Dewey was active in the United States at the same time Dr. Montessori was active in Italy. In 1915, Dewey published a book Schools for Tomorrow, “which presented his educational views in a fairly concrete fashion as well as his analysis that American Education was characterized by a lack of democratic practice” (Perrone, 8). He recognized that many schools throughout the country were attempting to implement progressive practices.

In 1907, the same year the Children’s House opened in Italy, the School for Organic Education was founded in Fairhope, Alabama, by Marietta Johnson to, “occupy one of the hallowed niches of progressive education” (Perrone, 8).  Many of the apprentices at the School for Organic Education were later founders of progressive schools in the 1920s.

            Marietta Johnson came from Minnesota where she taught for several years in St. Paul. “While she was there she asked the superintendent why the school programs had so little relationship to children’s natural development. His response – to paraphrase – was, Isn’t it a disgraceful that they don’t?” (Perrone, 8).

            Progressive education began to take hold.

“There was the University of Missouri Lab School in 1904; Caroline Pratt’s City and Country school in New York City, The Park School in Baltimore, Bryn Mawr elementary school, and the Edgewood School, Greenwich, Connecticut in 1913; Margaret Naumberg’s Walden School in New York City, the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the University of Iowa Elementary School, and the Oak Lane Country Day School in Philadelphia in 1915-16; and the Lincoln School associated with Teacher’s College of Columbia in 1917 among many others” (Perrone, 8-9).

Progressive education was on the move and spreading fast.

            Although progressivism was growing, many of the original beliefs were being misconstrued. Dewey published Experience & Education in 1938 “to explain the theory and practice of progressive education by contrasting its components to those of traditional education” (Knapp, 9). Dewey (1938) characterized progressivism as:

1.      Exalting the learner’s impulse and interest and the current problems of a changing society (9-10);

2.      Expressing and cultivating individuality and free activity by learning through experience (19);

3.      Acquiring skills and techniques as a means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal (19);

4.      Making the most of the opportunities of present life (20);

5.      Committing to some kind of empirical and experimental philosophy (25);

6.      Believing that experiences must lead to further quality experiences (27).; Acquainting students and teachers with the conditions of the local community (physical, historical, economic, occupational, etc.) in order to utilize them as educational resources (40);

7.      Believing that subject matter shouldn’t be learned in isolation (48);

8.      Emphasizing the importance of learner participation in the formation of the purposes which direct the activities (67);

9.      Focusing on intelligent activity rather than activity as an end (69).

10.  Valuing the importance of personal impulse and desire as moving springs  (motivation) (70);

11.  Deriving subject matter from ordinary life-experience (73);

12.  Beginning instruction with the experience learners already have (74);

13.  Using problems as stimuli to thinking and present experience as sources of problems (79);

Pignatelli states that there has been a resurgence in the progressive movement since the late 1980s. (1) There has been a renewed interest in and the need to define a progressive theory of education and reassert its value. Originally in the aftermath of the progressive movement and despite the best intentions of educators to bring progressive pedagogy into the public schools it did not succeed (Pignatelli, 11). Progressivism remained mostly in the private sector. There was scattered success in the public realm. (Pignatelli,11).  Moore contends that progressivism is a form of psychologism (26). Pignatelli feels that

“progressivism has fallen short and largely failed to extend its influence in an increasingly hybridized educational arena and inhospitable political climate. For progressivism to become viable and forceful, more broadly influential within our present context, it needs to argue that a concern for equity is fundamental to such a project. It is further proposed that postmodern considerations can effectively critique and extend progressive limitations.” (14)

            Progressivism is not a philosophical school of thought, but a theory of education. Education has changed throughout the years and will continue to change. Progressive ideas are still evident in many of today’s schools. There are still Montessori schools throughout the world. The writer feels that there are elements of many educational theories and philosophical schools of thought evident throughout education today. The height of progressivism may have passed, but progressivists have left their mark on education today.

            The writer feels that the common thought in education should be the importance of the children. It is acceptable for an educator to adapt concepts from the different educational theories or philosophies and combine them into personal thoughts or feelings. If all people were the same the world would not function successfully. Teachers need to effectively develop their own ideas that are successful in their classrooms and feel confident using them. A good educator is one that is always teaching and learning.










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