Progressive education has taken a bit of a battering of late.
Education secretary Michael Gove has no time for what he has referred to its ‘misplaced ideology’ preferring more structured learning techniques.
But what constitutes a ‘progressive education’ and how does it filter through in classrooms in the UK?
Progressive education was an expression coined in the early 19th century when philosophers and educators started putting forward radical new ideas to change the way schools approached education. The movement was led by John Dewey, one of the first reformists to emphasise education as an experimental, child-centred process.
Alongside Dewey, the most influential advocates of alternative, progressive methods of education include Maria Montessori, Kurt Hahn and Rudolf Steiner. But what exactly does progressive mean?
Progressive education is generally taken to encompass a type of education that’s child-centred and matched to each child’s pace of learning rather than being subject-centred and dictatorial. The emphasis tends to be on learning through hands-on, practical experience with high regard for creative expression in the early primary years and with less importance put on competition and testing.
Elements of progressive teaching exist in many schools in varying degrees, while others have wholeheartedly embraced one or other philosophy.
Summerhill School, in Suffolk, is a classic example of the full-on progressive approach. Much criticised, indeed reviled, on the one hand and fiercely defended by its supporters on the other, it is an independent British boarding school that was founded in 1921 by Alexander Sutherland Neill with the belief that the school should be made to fit the child, rather than the other way around. It is run as a democratic community; the running of the school is conducted in the school meetings, which anyone, staff or pupil, may attend, and at which everyone has an equal vote. These meetings serve as both a legislative and judicial body.
Members of the community are free to do as they please, so long as their actions do not cause any harm to others, according to Neill's principle ‘Freedom, not Licence.’ This extends to the freedom for pupils to choose which lessons, if any, they attend.
But even among those who are less radical, the present emphasis on testing children from a young age has sparked interest among parents in progressive methods that are less obsessed with early grading.
The Montessori Method
In 1906 Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was asked to head a day-care centre in a depressed district of Rome. While there she observed how children learn and interact with the world. She concluded that teachers should act as guides and help to facilitate a child’s learning journey. She believed that touch plays a central role in a child’s learning and her child-centred approach is now taught in around 500 Montessori schools in the UK. www.montessori-uk.org
The Waldorf Way
The Waldorf approach is based on the theories and philosophies of the Austrian philosopher and educator, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).
Similar in some ways to the Montessori Method, Steiner believed that early learning should be largely hands-on and experience-based using all the senses but Waldorf children tackle literacy later and this has put advocates of Steiner schools at odds with the government over the Childcare Act 2006, which has laid down the Early Years Foundation Stage requirements that children start reading by age four.
Steiner established the first Waldorf school in 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany, supported by Emil Molt, the owner and managing director of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Company. There are now around 1000 Waldorf schools in 60 countries around the world with 40 officially accredited Steiner schools in the UK and several more waiting to achieve full Steiner status.
There is More in You than You Think
This Hahn family maxim became the motto for Gordonstoun, the school Kurt Hahn founded in Scotland, and the basis of his philosophy: that each of us has more courage, more strength and more compassion than we could ever have fathomed.
Kurt Hahn (1886-1974) believed that every child possesses an inherent spirituality and moral code that can keep them right, but which is eroded by the wily ways of modern life. He believed that the foremost task of education is to ensure the survival of ‘an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion.’
Kurt Hahn’s principles also inspired the establishment of Outward Bound, the International Baccalaureate and the Duke of Edinburgh Award.