Progressive Education

Progressive Education

A Chapter by Debbie Barry

An essay about progressive education, Written for HIS 324: History of American Education.


Progressive Education



Progressive education, which is sometimes called organic education because it is "highly innovative and flexible" (Osborn, 2005, para. 7), gained prominence from the very end of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century, under the guidance of Marietta Johnson, Junius Meriam, John Dewey, and other like-minded, innovative educators.  In progressive education, educators focus on "the importance of the emotional, artistic, and creative aspects of human development" (Brief overview, 2002, para. 3).

The purpose of the start of progressive education was to oppose "a growing national movement that sought to separate academic education for the few and narrow vocational training for the masses" (Brief overview, 2002, para. 3), and to create an educational model that would reflect the observation that "children move through distinct stages as they grow and that parents and teachers should key their educational efforts to the developmental process" (Marietta Pierce Johnson, 2010, para. 2).  Educators associated with this experimental program believed that by allowing children to learn at their own pace and to be driven in learning by their own interests, educators could produce students who were more confident in themselves and in their knowledge, and who were socially engaged, as well as who were adept at critical thinking.

Progressive education was targeted at children in the elementary grades of school, particularly the lower elementary grades.  The thought was that children were being exposed to too much structured, institutionalized instruction too soon in their educational careers.  An early progressive educator, Marietta Johnson "steered students away from books until the age of nine.  Younger children, she maintained, were not ready for print" (Marietta Pierce Johnson, 2010, para. 5).  Progressive high schools also served the needs of older students, and a report by the Progressive Education Association in 1942 "showed that students in the progressive high schools did at least as well in college as their counterparts in traditional secondary schools and that they were better oriented to adult life" (Pulliam and VanPatten, 2007, p. 219).

Although progressive education did not become the norm for education in the United States, aspects of progressive education found their way into modern education in a number of different ways.  Flexible scheduling and individualized instruction are examples of practices that came out of progressive education, as are open classrooms, team teaching, and nongraded schools (Pulliam and VanPatten, 2007, pp. 222-223).  A modern application of progressive, or organic, education is Bright IDEA, a North Carolina educational initiative that teaches teachers to "use organic principles with ... K-2 Title 1 children" (Osborn, 2005, para. 13). 

Bright IDEA students show strong self-motivation, self-organization and self-discipline and plenty of imagination and initiative. They internalize a metacognitive vocabulary of learning " skills like listening with empathy, thinking flexibly, solving problems, persisting, metacognition ... " and enthusiastically identify these concepts in other people and apply them to their own learning. (Osborn, 2005, para. 17).

Bright IDEA and similar programs bear little outward resemblance to Marietta Johnson's School of Organic Education, but they successfully carry the concepts of progressive education into the twenty-first century.



Brief overview of progressive education, A.  (2002, January 30).  Retrieved January 19, 2010, from     

Marietta Pierce Johnson (1864-1938) -- Organic education, new trends in education. (2010).       Retrieved January 19, 2010, from                                         1938.html

Osborn, H. (2005).  Organic education: update 2005.  Retrieved January 19, 2010, from 

Pulliam. J.D. and VanPatten, J.J. (2007).  History of education in America.  Upper Saddle   River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

© 2017 Debbie Barry

Author's Note

Debbie Barry
Initial reactions and constructive criticism welcome.

My Review

Would you like to review this Chapter?
Login | Register

Request Read Request
Add to Library My Library
Subscribe Subscribe


Added on November 10, 2017
Last Updated on November 10, 2017
Tags: essay, education, progressive, history

A Journey through My College Papers


Debbie Barry
Debbie Barry

Clarkston, MI

I live with my husband in southeastern Michigan with our two cats, Mister and Goblin. We enjoy exploring history through French and Indian War re-enactment and through medieval re-enactment in the So.. more..