Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


The Progressive Education Association is founded

This year, after two decades of rapid and continuous development, the progressive education movement of the United States reaches a moment of institutionalization and creates the Progressive Education Association.

Building on previous critiques of the traditional teacher-centered and curriculum-centered educational approaches, what was known as "the progressive education movement" was formed by educational reformers who were particularly active in the United States from the 1890s to 1930s, promoting the ideas of child-centered education, social reconstructionism, active citizen participation in all spheres of life, and democratization of all public institutions. Progressive educators believed that a new education program, based on the development of cooperative social skills, critical thinking and democratic behaviors, could play a pivotal role in transforming a society of greed, individualism, waste and corruption for one based on compassion, humanism and equality (Rippa 1997).

During the early 1900s, the Progressive Movement had come to the forefront of what Herbert Kliebard has called "the struggle for the American curriculum." Progressivism consistently challenged traditional ideals concerning the foundations upon which students' education in schools was based. The movement was greatly influenced by the writings and lectures of John Dewey, who in turn was inspired by political and educational theorists such as Vittoriano da Feltre, Campanella, Comenius, Pestalozzi, Rousseau, and Bronson Alcott, and by the social theories of people like George Herbert Mead, Auguste Comte and Thorstein Veblen. He was also deeply influenced by Darwinism, which contributed to his shift from the focus on the study of philosophy as a discipline to experimental research.

Indeed, Dewey began to test his theories in the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, which he had opened in 1896. Even before the end of the previous century, he had published two influential books: My Pedagogic Creed (1897) and The school and Society (1899). In those books, Dewey argued that education was the fundamental method of social progress and reform, and that all reforms that rested only upon the law of the fear of punishment were transitory and futile. Dewey believed that through education society could formulate its own purposes, and organize its own means and resources to move in that direction. Colonel Francis Parker, who was Dewey's friend and shared those ideas, opened a progressive school in 1901 in Chicago.

Although Dewey was probably the most recognized leader of progressive education, there were many other important educators who significantly contributed to that movement during the early half of the 20th century in the United States. Among them were George Counts, Jane Addams, Margaret Naumburg, Ella Flagg Young, Francis W. Parker, Theodore Bramald, William H. Kilpatrick, Harold Rugg and Marietta Johnson.

The Progressive Movement promoted the idea that students should be encouraged to be independent thinkers, creative beings, and expressive about their feelings. This was a sharp contrast from prevalent educational approaches rooted in social efficiency in the early 1900s, particularly in the United States. Such approaches, which would be described several decades later by Callahan in "Education and the Myth of Efficiency" (1962),  did not foster the importance of individualism, creativity and critical thinking, emphasizing instead classroom control, management, obedience to authority and a structured curriculum that focused on memorization and rote skills.

Two of the main principles fostered in the Progressive Movement were continuity and interaction. Continuity is the principle that each learning experience be nurtured by the previous experience. Therefore, from a Progressive standpoint, the learning process is gradual. The organizational thought process that relates all experiential processes is something Dewey named the "Logical Organization of Subject Matter." The second principle, interaction, denotes the concept that what was learned may possibly need revisions, adaptations, or be discarded all together because further research has claimed it to be false. Essentially, from this standpoint, assumptions need to be challenged in the continual search for absolute truth. Thus the interaction principle encouraged experimentalism, verification, and reconstruction.

Many who supported the movement felt there should be less authoritarianism in the schools, an elimination of set standards for school curriculum, and an emphasis on teaching what the pupils desired to learn. The Progressive Movement was at its peak in the 1930's, during the Great Depression. However, the movement did have its share of critics. Among them were those who felt that education needed a foundation of basic skills and more discipline, and those who believed that progressive education was corrupting the minds of youth. By the late 1930s, such concerns came to the forefront of curriculum theorizing, and also to the public forum through the Robey investigation of Harold Rugg's textbooks. During the 1940s and 1950s, in the context of the Cold War, the attacks on progressive education continued, for example through the work of Allen Zoll, who published pamphlets such as "Progressive education increases juvenile delinquency" and "The commies are after your kids." By that time, the progressive movement had lost its centrality in terms of influencing school practice. Although many principles of the progressive movement were partially adopted by educational systems and institutions in the second half or the 20th century, it would never recover the prominence that it enjoyed during the first decades, except for a short time during the 1960s when it rebounded under more radicalized versions, such as the free school movement, the nongraded classrooms, the deschooling proposals, and emancipatory education programs in adult education.

In retrospect, the Progressive Movement made a lasting impact on education worldwide. It challenged traditional practices in education and conceptualized the student as an individual with special interests and needs. Without question, the child-centered curriculum emerged as a result of the Progressive Movement. It was within the tradition of Progressivism, too, that the vision of schools as sites for transforming society was maintained, laying a significant theoretical foundation for the work of critical pedagogues and radical education theorists (like Paulo Freire and others) during the last decades of the 20th century.


Fink, Rychard, Alfred Lawrence Hall-Quest, & I.L. Kandel, Colliers Encyclopedia, New York, 1995, volume 8, pages:578a, 587c, 571c, 610b.

Rippa, Alexander (1997). Education in a Free Society. An American History. NY: Longman.

The John Dewey Project on Progressive Education. (accessed April 28, 2002).

Prepared by DS & Natalie Aguirre

Citation: Schugurensky, Daniel & Natalie Aguirre. (2002). 1919: The Progressive Education Association is founded. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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