A Critique of Progressive Education

Williamson M. Evers, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, offers a critique of progressive education espoused by John Dewey and his followers:

Progressive education did not spring full grown from the head of Dewey. It draws on earlier ideas from the Romantic era (in the early nineteenth century) in Western Europe. According to the Romantic notion, children can and should learn all things naturally. Learning new things easily excites children, according to the Romantic vision. Children are curious about everything. Children are like flowering plants. If they are just planted into good soil (a good learning environment), they will naturally grow and blossom. …

Progressive education’s emphasis on “the immediate instincts and activities of the child” made a lasting impression on Americans and is probably the most widely known feature of progressive education. A famous cartoon of the 1950s shows a class of exhausted and bored students imploring, indeed begging their teacher, “Please, do we have to do what we feel like doing today?” This cartoon, of course, somewhat misrepresents what Dewey wanted in the classroom. But it does accurately represent what other progressives, the advocates of child-centered education, have wanted.


Progressives placed these items on the pedagogic agenda:

  • All learning in school is to come through playing.
  • Children’s social and emotional development and psychological attitudes (self-concept, self-esteem, how well the child works with others) are to be given an overriding importance.
  • A high-school-as-supermarket curriculum, an approach in which core subjects are crowded out, should be adopted. In the words of critic Mortimer Smith: “hairdressing and embalming are just as important, if not a little more so, than history and philosophy.”
  • Drudgery and hard work on the way to mastering a subject should be abolished.
  • Competition among students should be eliminated.

Dewey himself didn’t advocate these things. But many of Dewey’s disciples and other progressives did—and still do. …

There is an alternative to the progressive approach: direct instruction or explicit teaching. Direct instruction receives support from recent findings in cognitive psychology: Although children do naturally pick up what psychologists call “primary cognitive abilities” (such as spoken language and fine motor skills) without being taught, children are born ignorant and need to be explicitly taught most skills and knowledge (“secondary cognitive abilities”) by people who know the subjects. Teachers are expected to know more than students and should seek to transmit that knowledge. Teachers should not respond to all questions from students in class (as some discovery learning teachers do) with “What do you think?”

Subject matter often has an inherent internal logic and can be organized on a ladder of increasing difficulty and complexity—a ladder of learning, if you will. Some material has to be mastered before one can go on to the next step. Much subject matter has this hierarchical character, and students have to learn it step by step.

Most children are not naturally curious about learning the multiplication tables or the long-division algorithm or the rigor of the scientific method. Children have to learn them through explicit guidance and through drill and practice. Disciplined study and books are needed to banish ignorance and instill knowledge. To ascertain whether students have mastered the material, students need to take tests, do homework, and write reports that are their own individual work. They likewise need to respond in class individually (and not just as a representative of a cooperative learning group) to questions posed by the teacher. …


There are some good things about progressivism. Progressive educators seek to motivate the student to take an interest in his or her studies, refusing to rely exclusively on recitation, memorization, and textbooks. In the 1890s, before progressivism, exclusive reliance on these methods was standard instructional practice.

At the same time, we do know that students have to master—to learn so that they are automatic—skills in reading, spelling, and mathematical facts and operations. We know that the need to acquire skills and learn facts goes beyond the 3-R fundamentals. The need is ongoing—continuing through calculus and beyond in math and continuing through college-level reading and writing in English.

In the culturally important academic subjects—math, science, history and geography, foreign languages, literature, and the arts—curriculum planners can and should organize a curriculum that emphasizes content. Education in these subjects should be cumulative and sequential, with each year’s study building on what has been learned previously. Curriculum planners, textbook writers, and teachers should not ignore or discard the tools, terminology, and methods that practitioners have historically used in academic disciplines. These tools and methods, along with the knowledge that practitioners have gained over time by using them, are in fact what define those disciplines.

We know that to attain advanced conceptual understanding in all subjects, explicit teaching is necessary. Conceptual understanding does not come without the hard work of studying a subject for a long time and in depth. The teacher needs to guide the student throughout and often to impart knowledge directly.

Evers, Williamson M. 1998. “How Progressive Education Gets it Wrong.” Hoover Digest, no. 4. ||

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