Differences Between Self-Directed and Progressive Education
(1) As regular readers of this blog know, I’m an advocate for Self-Directed Education. My research and that of others convinces me that Self-Directed Education works, is eminently practical, and is far less trouble to everyone than the coercive educational system that we all consider “standard.” Self-Directed Education, with capital letters, is the term that is increasingly being used for the educational practice of people who call themselves “unschoolers” or who attend schools or learning centers specifically designed to support self-direction, with no imposed curriculum, such as Sudbury model democratic schools, Agile Learning Centers, and some schools that call themselves “free schools” (Gray, 2017).
(2) I’ve found that when I speak or write about Self-Directed Education some people mistakenly believe that I’m speaking or writing about progressive education. Progressive education has many of the same goals as Self-Directed Education, and its advocates use much of the same language, but the foundational philosophy is quite different and the methodology is very different. In what follows I’ll review the basic tenets of progressive education, then review those of Self-Directed Education, and, finally, explain why I think the latter, not the former, will become the standard mode of education in the not-too-distant future.
(3) Progressive education is the term generally applied to an educational reform movement that began in the late 19th century, around the same time that schooling became compulsory in most U.S. states, and has waxed and waned at least twice since then. The period from about 1890 to about 1940 saw a flowering of progressive ideas in education, the birth of many progressive private schools, and some concerted efforts to bring progressive ideas into mainstream public schools. The leading philosopher of progressive education at that time, at least in the United States, was John Dewey. Other early progressive thinkers in education included Rudolf Steiner (1869-1925) and Maria Montessori (1870-1952), whose traditions live on, respectively, in Waldorf and Montessori schools. Progressive ideas in education tended to fade with World War II and its aftermath, tended to bloom again in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, and have generally been declining ever since about 1980. There is, however, some recent revival of progressive education in schools that emphasize project-based learning.
(4) Progressive educators typically emphasize learning by doing, contextual learning relevant to students’ real life experiences, critical thinking, deep understanding rather than rote memory, group work and collaboration rather than competition, evaluation based on products rather than tests, and the fostering of social responsibility, democratic attitudes, and concern for social justice. They commonly talk about “educating the whole person” and about “student focused” as opposed to simply subject-focused education. Progressive teachers are expected to get to know all of their students as individuals and bring out the best in each of them.