Around 1870 in the United States, the philosophical tradition of pragmatism began, with the most notable early pragmatists being John Dewey, William James, and Charles Sanders Pierce. The core of the philosophy was the pragmatist maxim, which was tracing the hypotheses and their contents back to their ‘practical consequences.’ Dewey, a leader in the field of the study of education, looks at the pragmatic situation as having a pattern of inquiry which he equates to a practical method of solving problems. This system involves checking one’s surroundings, using his scientific method of inquiry to solve problems, and when first faced with a problem, try to gain knowledge of that problem through a description of its elements and being able to identify any relations between them. Being able to create a question to answer is a sign that progress is being made. Pragmatists, especially Dewey, question the dichotomy that other fields of philosophy have between theory and practicality. He believed that all inquiry has some practicality. Dewey also viewed experience as having inference. Many believed Dewey’s teachings, as he had a substantial hold and was a strong philosophical force in the United States throughout about 1970 (Hookway, 2008).
Relationship between Pragmatism and Progressivism
As Dewey is viewed as a pragmatist in education, it is because he views education as a form of communication. It is only one source of life in a democracy that involves communication and all communication helps educate people. Education is just one realm in which the competence of the art of communication is taught, practiced, and perfected, as it needs to be used in virtually all situations. Also, Dewey and his cohorts demonstrate how the social sciences are important in all disciplines as they help people learn how to gain discipline in gaining knowledge and power.
During the 1970s and 1980s, as pragmatism lost favor, progressivism came into the dominant position in educational philosophy. One of the main areas of focus in schools had shifted again to citizenship meshed with some principals from the renaissance. In Europe, the push was bolder, and was labeled political education. In the United States, it was mainly focused as a part of the social studies curriculum. Now, the neopragmatic view of Dewey’s work, which is one of the main street thoughts of this era, enables democracy and education to again reestablish a partnership. This view highlights democracy as a part of the educational program and encourages communication and the exchange of ideas to occur (Englund, 2000).
Progressivists’ Educational Beliefs
Also known as constructivism, progressivism has three basic areas of focus: egalitarianism, child-centered teaching, and social justice. There is a consistent friction with authority and having knowledge that it is strictly structured. Instead, the learners are encouraged to create their own views of the world and decide what their values will be. Each learner should create and individual identity rather than a teacher creating one for the class and transmitting it to the group as a whole. The learners need to understand themselves and their personal identity so that they create a system of values for themselves and learn to respect the ones that others have created as well.
The egalitarianism aspect of progressivism focuses on a dislike of any competition between the learners. There is no desire to have ranking, grouping, or division within the group. This division includes standardized testing, the epitome of the current educational system in the United States. Child-centered learning encourages the learners to use their individual thinking, creative styles, and higher level abilities to solve problems in creative ways, even if it is in a way that the teacher had not intended. Social justice is ensuring that all students learn to respect the rights and values of all learners, including those who are different from their own. This mirrors the learning about the learner’s coming to know and appreciate their own identities as well as respect the identities of others (Scott, 2010).
Contemporary School Practices
Progressivism must be working, to some extent, in the education of America’s youth. In an investigative report, a reporter asked prestigious Wesleyan University to be allowed to participate in every aspect of the admissions process to see if it is at least as difficult and selective as it has been at other times in history. After an investigation which involved reading applications and attending meetings, the reporter learned that competition is stiffer now than ever before in history. Students are also proactive, and encouraged to be by advocates such as Bill Wetzel, who runs Power to Youth, a web-based organization that encourages students to organize their schedule and courses, be active with their local boards of education or run for a position on the board, and be an active part of the educational system. In Boston, women can participate in a four-hour long session through the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development called PEP for Personal Economic Planning where women are encouraged to be proactive in their situations, including those that involve domestic abuse. Through education at the adult level, these women are taught how they can defend themselves and their children from being in difficult circumstances. The adults that participate in these programs or admissions processes are graduating or have potentially recently graduated from high school. It is likely that they were a part of an educational system which practiced student-centered learning and therefore they have learned that they did have the power to be advocates for them and some power to determine the outcomes of their own situations. They were educated in a system that taught at least some aspects of social justice and have learned that there are times when it is necessary, regardless of the circumstances, to stand up for oneself. These would have been focal points of a progressive educational system.
Yale undergraduate students have offered middle school students an opportunity to learn about peace. In the program that 78 middle-school students attended, the Peace by Peace curriculum focused on students and other being able to have a respect for the differences between people. The program also emphasized the importance of people who are different being able to communicate with each other, the ability to overcome stereotyping other people, and the benefits of seeing the world from multiple perspectives. Students were taught how to analyze and resolve conflicts, were given the opportunity to role-play potential situations, participate in educational games, and listen to informative lectures (News, 2000). This is yet another example of how students who have been educated in a progressive system are able to take their education and what has been learned about social justice and share their knowledge with the next generation.
Progressive education is increasingly evident in the present knowledge-based economy. As secondary education has developed in a democratic country, a child-centered system which idealizes communitarian ideals have their foundations in the progressive education movement and continue to struggle to find a balance between those students who are going to college and those who are going to enter the work-force from high school. A century ago, this decision was usually based on socio-economic factors, which is why there were comprehensive high schools and vocational educational programs offered at the academic level. Until the 1950s, academic standards were high in both lines of education. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was more of a focus on equity, social justice, and democracy, fueled by the politics of the time. People were questioning the role of the public school system as a whole in the urbanized areas, in a newly desegregated society, and during the birth of alternative public schools. Then, in 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published a report that described the poor academic standards of the public school system, especially the urban schools. Initiatives that were checking learning outcomes and aimed at improving the quality of the teachers were put into action. High stakes testing and No Child Left Behind (2002) were introduced and passed to reform education. These were some of the movements that were brought into play by public outcry. Teachers focused on trying to reduce class size, emphasized child-centered instruction, and advocating that children with special needs received services that they needed in compliance with No Child Left Behind (Giles, 2008).
Progressivism is Positive
The three main components of a progressive system of education, egalitarianism, child-centered learning, and social justice, are positive components on which to build an education for a kindergarten-aged child right through to a child who is graduating from high school. For a kindergartener, egalitarianism is a way for a child to enter the educational system with no preconceived notions about his or her capacity to learn. There are no judgments based on race, socio-economic status, or prior knowledge. Energy can be focused on the learning process and the excitement of what learning can bring to the child. Exploration, imagination, and learning new skills are what are essential. Everything can begin on a level playing field for the youngest learners. For the high school senior, there is some tainted knowledge as to ability and skill level. But, the right teachers can encourage even a teen learner that every person has worth in the world and that there is a need for people to fill all types of positions, all capacities of intellect are needed to have all occupations covered for this interdependent world to function. Child-centered learning can take the energy of a kindergarten classroom and let it explode with new thoughts, ideas, and concepts. Every day brings new learning, thoughts, and discoveries. For seniors, it helps them discover not only who they are, but where their place is in this world. For social justice, kindergarten can be a foundation of learning the proper way to accept others and appreciate differences. For seniors, this same recognition is an important step towards realizing the importance to peaceful resolution and being able to work with those who are very different from oneself. Progressive educational ideals help not only to educate academically, but teach valuable life skills as well.
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