Progressivism and ‘getting it wrong’ in the history of Education

Introducing his Getting it Wrong From the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget (2002), Kieran Egan writes:

During the late nineteenth century, the modern apparatus for schooling everyone was put in place. [This book is about…] the ideas about education that shaped these new state schools into the forms we have lived with ever since, and particularly the ideas about children’s minds, and their modes of learning and development, which have determined the curriculum and the organization of schools.” (p.3)

The later nineteenth century was a crucial period for educational thinking. Rapid population growth, industrial development, and the beginnings of universal schooling coincided with reverberations from the stunning theory of evolution. Herbert Spencer stood at this crux. He drew on a range of new ideas and shaped a set of educational principles that became and have remained fundamental in the thinking of those who have had responsibility for our schools, even if their historical source has become invisible to those who hold them.
The historian of education Lawrence Cremin has described the 1890s as revolutionary for American education [and all the revolutionaries he refers to were profoundly influenced by Spencer’s work…]. ‘If the revolution had a beginning, it was surely with the work of Herbert Spencer’ (Cremin 1961, 91). In the generation after Spencer’s death, it was uncontentious to claim for the collection of educational essays he wrote that ‘more than any other single text-book it is the foundation of the so-called “modern” ideas in education’ (Samuel and Elliot 1917, 176).
‘By the 1950s,’ Cremin has also claimed, ‘the more fundamental tenets of the progressives had become the conventional wisdom of American education’ (1976, 19). And many people today assert that our schools’ ineffectiveness is due precisely to the influence of these progressivist ideas. But those sympathetic to progressivism tend to be irritated by such statements, because from their point of view, schools and teaching are dominated by the same old dull approaches to education that they have been trying to change for more than a century. And they believe that our schools’ ineffectiveness is due precisely to the influence of these traditionalist ideas. Progressivism, in their view, has never been implemented. In the 1960s, Paul Goodman, echoing many before him and echoed since by many others, argued that as soon as attempts are made to apply progressivist ideas in schools, the ideas become ‘entirely perverted’ (1964, 43); their radical nature first is watered down and then sinks into the persisting stale routines of the traditional classroom.
In this book I will show incidentally that both of these claims – that progressivist ideas have become central to educational thinking and that they have never been implemented on a significant scale – are largely true.
What ideas make up progressivism? The central belief – the most fundamental tenet – of progressivism is that to educate children effectively it is vital to attend to children’s nature, and particularly to their modes of learning and stages of development, and to accommodate educational practice to what we can discover about these. That this belief is shared almost universally among educators today supports Cremin’s observation about how widely progressivism’s tenets have become the conventional wisdom of American education, and Western education generally. But it is precisely this belief that I will show is mistaken.” (pp.4-6)

Progressivism has historically involved a belief in attending to the nature of the child, and consequently its research arm (so to speak) has involved studies to expose that nature more precisely. Because the mind is prominent in education, psychology became the consistent scientific handmaiden of progressivism. The psychologist exposes the nature of students’ learning or development and the practitioner then must make teaching methods and curricula accord with what science has exposed. (‘Education, therefore, must begin with a psychological insight into the child’s capacities. …It must be controlled at every point by reference to these same considerations. …The law for presenting and treating [educational] material is the law implicit within the child’s own nature’; Dewey 1964, 430, 435).
One or another form of progressivism has been promoted and tried in the schools of North America since the beginning of mass schooling in the late nineteenth century. Progressivist practices have usually been promoted on the grounds that if only teachers will attend to the new knowledge gained by research about learning or development and follow what that research implies for teaching or curricula, an educational revolution will occur. In each new generation, progressivist educators have first to explain what was wrong with their predecessors’ attempts to implement the ideas – because the promised revolution consistently fails to occur – and then to explain why their new approach will do the job. [-p.7] So we may see the attraction the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) has had for progressivism. Piaget claimed to expose in a new and fuller way the nature of children’s intellectual development, and from his work progressivist educators sought to learn how to apply those insights to educational practice. Or we may see the attraction of the cognitive science research that Howard Gardner uses to support what he has described as his ‘sympathy with the vision generally termed “progressive”‘ (1991, 189). The problems with past attempts to implement progressivist ideas are, he thinks, reparable by drawing on ‘recent advances in our understanding of individual learning’ (246).” (ellipses in original, pp.6-7)

“…most of the beliefs most of the people hold about education today are wrong in fairly fundamental ways.” (p.9)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Kieran Egan (2002) Getting it Wrong From the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. Yale University Press: New Haven and London


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Images of Parent Child and Expert, Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners, Understanding Education and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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