Progressive with a Capital P?

Dr. Amber Strong Makaiau
December 16, 2022
When we don’t use the word “progressive” to describe a school’s philosophy or program–slowly and incrementally over time–the teachers, administrators, families, and the students become detached from the strong foundation that the progressive education tradition can provide.

This work originally appeared on the Hanahau'oli School PDC blog.

In my October 2, 2022 post on the Progressive Philosophy and Pedagogy Blog, I shared one of many engaging questions posed to me at the recent Modern Progressive Education Panel Discussion for Human Restoration Project’s first ever Conference to Restore Humanity! (View a complete recording of our discussion online here.) Organized by Human Restoration Project’s Chris McNutt and including the perspectives of Josh Reppun, ambassador for, and Brendan McCarthy, a scholar-in-residence in the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Progressive Philosophy and Pedagogy graduate program, this conversation continues to stimulate wonderings for me today.

"The American Way" - Has Progressive Education Earned a Permanent Place In Our Schools?

Perhaps the most complex of the questions we discussed centered on how complicated the term “Progressive” can be, particularly in the United States at this moment. Why is the term so complicated? How does “Progressive with a capital P” relate to progressive education? And how does this relationship make it challenging for educators to explain progressive education to parents, students, fellow educators and community members?

I propose that the term “Progressive” has been complicated at various times in history (not all) because it is rooted in change. Usually this change is related to shifting ideas about power, governance, authority and to the fundamental question: How should we live together?

The term progressive education was born out of the American Progressive Era. This was the time period between the end of the Civil War (1865) and World War I (1917) and it was defined by “dramatic, accelerated growth as industrialization took off” (Campbell, 2000, p. xiii). At that time there was a burst of material development and innovation, millions of immigrants streamed into the country, cities doubled in population, entire systems of industry were created, huge disparities between rich and poor emerged, systems of government proved corrupt, and tremendous environmental destruction occurred (Campbell, 2000; Bruce & Eryman, 2015). Much like today, “Americans were aware that their society was in transition, and they endlessly discussed the implications of this realization” (Campbell, 2000, p. xiii). The progressive education movement grew out of that unique time in history and was one response to the rapidly changing world.

Today, progressive education “is defined in different ways, but generally it aims to develop self-actualizing individuals who can take charge of their own lives and participate fully in the creation of a greater public good” (Bruce & Eryman, 2015, p.1). Early progressive education philosophers and reformers included: Francis Parker, John Dewey, Ella Flagg Young, William H. Kilpatrick, Caroline Pratt, and Lucy Sprauge Mitchell. “They conceived students as active learners with an experimental disposition, in large part because they saw those qualities as necessary for a rapidly expanding economy with dramatic social changes” (Bruce & Eryman, 2015, p. 4). The pioneers in the movement envisioned progressive educators as scientists who had “an attitude of eager, alert observation; a constant questioning of old procedure in the light of new observations; a use of the world, as well as of books, as source material; an experimental open-mindedness” (Mitchell, 1931, p. 251). They saw progressive schools as “sites in which the education process itself was more democratic, with the assumption that democratic schooling was a necessary precondition for a democratic society” (Bruce & Eryman, 2015, p. 7).

A booklet cover reading "The Progressive Education Association."

I think a case study, which reveals much about the complexity of using the term “progressive” education in today’s world, is seen in the rise and fall of the Progressive Education Association (PEA) at the start of the movement. The PEA was primarily dedicated to the spread of progressive education in American public schools from 1919 to 1955. This included expanding the reach of progressive education philosophy and pedagogy and taking a stand on social and political issues of the day. Amidst the backdrop of Mccarthyism and the Red Scare, some attribute the 1955 shuttering of the organization to shifting cultural and political trends including rising conservatism and anti-intellectualism. Up until that point, calling yourself a progressive educator or a progressive school did not have serious political implications, but as soon as it did, educators stopped using the word to describe themselves and their institutions. I think we are seeing similar tensions play out in our society today.

One recent example of this was reflected in a conversation amongst a group of progressive educators gathered from California and Hawai'i for an institute hosted by the Hanahau‘oli School Professional Development Center this summer. During our introductions, a number of teachers from different schools -- in this intellectually safe space -- wanted to express to the group that the schools that they work at are indeed progressive, but they don’t dare use the “P” to publicly describe it. When probed further about why, it was because of the recent politicizing of the word progressive and its alignment to terms like woke, social justice, and critical race theory. For a number of teachers and schools, in an effort to not get caught up in the current culture wars, they actively choose to not describe their school as a progressive school even though they embrace the philosophy and align pedagogically.

Another reason some educators and schools choose not to use the word progressive is because progressive education doesn’t come as a pre-packaged curriculum or school program that can easily be summarized in a single catch phrase or soundbite. Instead, the progressive approach to teaching and learning is both an art and a science, which is driven by a philosophy of education, educational ideals, and values. Quite different from more traditional approaches to schooling, it is the progressive education philosophy, ideals and values that define the approach rather than a particular classroom practice, student activity, or textbook. Alfie Kohn further explains all of this by outlining key values that characterize a progressive education in his article Progressive Education: Why it's Hard to Beat, But Also Hard to Find. Unfortunately, these necessary nuances needed for explaining a progressive approach to education can also cause educators and schools to shy away from using the term “progressive,” which eventually can lead to the teachers and school being less progressive.

The introduction to an article from the Progressive Education Association in 1922.

When we don’t use the word “progressive” to describe a school’s philosophy or program–slowly and incrementally over time–the teachers, administrators, families, and the students become detached from the strong foundation that the progressive education tradition can provide. This is where the movement dies. When we do use the word “progressive” to describe our teaching, learning, and schools, we stand on the shoulders of giants. We use the understandings gained by some of the major thinkers who have come before us in order to make intellectual progress and improve education, society, and the lives of individuals. Progressive education becomes a compass or North Star when we lose our way, or more importantly when we adapt what we are doing with children in schools to better respond to our changing world.

Dr. Amber Strong Makaiau
Dr. Amber Strong Makaiau is a Specialist at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Director of Curriculum and Research at the Uehiro Academy for Philosophy and Ethics in Education, Director of the Hanahau‘oli School Professional Development Center, and Co-Director of the Progressive Philosophy and Pedagogy MEd Interdisciplinary Education, Curriculum Studies program. A former Hawai‘i State Department of Education high school social studies teacher, her work in education is focused around promoting a more just and equitable democracy for today’s children. Dr. Makaiau lives in Honolulu where she enjoys spending time in the ocean with her husband and two children.
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