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Progressive Education: Allowing Students to Make Sense of Their World

Rebecca Kayser

South Dakota State University

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Progressive Education: Allowing Students to Make Sense of Their World

The Boys and Girls Club buzzes with childrens voices and black paint splatters Gerber

baby food jars. The children in the art room engage in a painting project, making Lego heads

from The Lego Movie. I walk up to a table of three third grade boys who are focused more on a

conversation than the project. I sit down and ask, How was school today? One boy responds

saying, We watched the news at school today.

What did you learn? I reply. Another boy responds, About Donald Trump. With the 2016

presidential election just weeks away, many students at the Boys and Girls Club talk about what

they see and hear on the news. What about him? I further inquire. The same boy who just

responded says, If he becomes president, he is going to kick my family out. Taken aback I

question again, What do you mean? The third boy, who has not talked yet, looks up and says,

Because hes Muslim.

My first reaction to the boys was Hold on! Lets talk about this! What did you hear on

the news that makes you think that? My internal reaction after, though, was What was the

news video they watched? Why would the teacher show a news clip with a current controversial

issue? After more reflection, though, I realized that because of that current issue outside

academic content, we held a complete conversation on how the American government operates

and the powers of the U.S. president. Consequently, I have further used current events and issues

to teach middle school reading in the classroom, based on the thought process that students

should be informed about current issues while practicing the most recent collaborative skills they

will need in higher degree pursuits and societal workplaces. Unbeknownst to me until this

semester, this approach is part of an overall educational philosophy that I wholeheartedly believe

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in and currently implement in middle school reading classrooms. This philosophy is called


Progressivism grew in prevalence in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s

with the research and writings of John Dewey. Kandan Talebi (2015) summarizes the beliefs of

Dewy from his early writings: The main purpose of education should not revolve around the

acquisition of pre-determined set of skills, but rather the realization of ones full potential and the

ability to use those skills for the greater good (p. 4). More specifically, Dewey concludes

learning is social and interactive, stating that students thrive in an environment where they are

allowed to experience and interact with the curriculum, and all students should have the

opportunity to take part in their learning (Talebi, 2015, p. 4). Basically, progressive education is

individualized instruction and active learning in the context of current student life outside of the

school building (Christou 2012). Today that looks like inquiry-based learning, multidisciplinary

instruction, and project-based learning (Little & Ellison 2015).

The first place to start implementing my philosophy is in the classroom environment.

INTASC standard three states, The teacher works with others to create environments that

support individual and collaborative learning, and that encourage positive social interaction,

active engagement in learning, and self-motivation (CCSSO, 2011, p. 12)To accomplish this, I

will arrange the students desks into group formations, like the infamous and personal favorite,

desk pods of four desks. Group desk formations emphasizes a student-orientation for learning

and curriculum. Students are more likely to engage in collaboration, cooperative learning,

discussion, and group work, furthering encouraging individual development of skills and

competencies (Gremmers, van den Berg, Segers, & Cillessen, 2016, p. 754). Students will have

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the opportunity to self-reflect at their own desks and space, yet always have a peer to collaborate

and cooperate with at will or teacher direction.

After thinking about the classroom environment, I will then move onto how the academic

content knowledge can be infused with progressive practices of the initial stages of inquiry and

investigation. INTASC standard four states: The teacher understands the central concepts, tools

of inquiry, and structures of the discipline(s) he or she teaches and creates learning experiences

that make these aspects of the discipline accessible and meaningful for learners to assure mastery

of the content (CCSSO, 2011, p. 13). To begin, I will address what skills the students need for

their age and current school and daily functioning. For example, in the reading classroom some

of the first skills addressed are reading comprehension skills. After determining the skills

needed, I will engage in the process of inquiry to develop in-depth, real-world explorations and

applications. The first two stages of inquiry investigation are orientation and conceptualization.

Students are introduced to the study subject and gather information to understand the subject

(Pedaste et al., 2015. In these stages, I will provide the students with an overview of the real-

world subject matter and then proceed to provide students with background knowledge

informational articles, in which students will use reading comprehension strategies. In the

reading classroom, a current subject matter could be President Trumps U.S.-Mexico border

wall. I would begin with the context and proposal of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, giving the

recent history and showing the latest written news story. I would then provide the students with a

day or two of individual background research through teacher-chosen informational texts on the

border wall. While the students read, they will practice the latest reading comprehension

strategy, like graphic organizers or flow charts.

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Moving directly from the initial stages of orientation and conceptualization, I will move

into the last two stages of inquiry to further accomplish INTASC standard five. This standard

states, The teacher understands how to connect concepts and use differing perspectives to

engage learners in critical thinking, creativity, and collaborative problem solving related to

authentic local and global issues (CCSSO, 2011, p. 14). The last two stages of inquiry are

investigation and conclusion. In these stages, students manipulate and investigate the subject

matter to formulate and interpret results or alternative solutions (Pedaste et al., 2015). In the

reading classroom, this then means opening up the process of problem-based learning. Problem-

based learning (PBL) is a student-centered approach to teaching and learning whereby the

students learn in the context of a group-based complex problem solving tutorial (Prosser & Sze,

2013, p. 2). Students work together to develop collaborative work groups with communication,

compromise, and task delegation. I then act as a facilitator, guiding students in acquiring

knowledge without providing direct answers (Prosser & Sze, 2013). With the same example of

the U.S.-Mexico border wall, the student groups will have to synthesize information from

multiple texts, a reading comprehension skill, to formulate an alternative solution or suggestion

to the foreseen problem.

The height of progressivism occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Progressivism

brings the current world in to the classroom for students to learn the skills they need for life,

education, and work through social interaction and subject matter interaction. Though the

practice became less popular after its peak implementation, progressivism is making its way back

into the schools. Schools are coming back to the practice of equipping students with the most

current and needed skills, helping them to be successful in life and society.

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Christou, T. (2012). Progressive education: Revisioning and reframing Ontarios public schools,

1919-1942. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Council of Chief State School Officers. (2011, April). Interstate teacher assessment and

support consortium (InTASC) model core teaching standards: A resource for state

dialogue. Washington, DC: Author.

Gremmers, M.C., van den Berg, Y.H.M., Segers, E., & Cillessen, A. H. N. (2016).

Considerations for classroom seating arrangements and the role of teacher characteristics

and beliefs. Social Psychology Education, 19, 749774. doi: 10.1007/s11218-016-9353-y

Little, T. & Ellison, K. (2015). Loving learning: How progressive education can save Americas

schools. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Pedaste, M., Maeots, M., Siiman, L.A., de Jong, T., van Risen, S., Kamp, E.T.Tsourlidaki, E.

(2015). Phases of inquiry-based learning: Definitions and the inquiry cycle. Education

Research Review, 14, 47-61. Retrieved from


Posser, M. & Sze, D. (2013). Problem-based learning: Student learning experiences and

outcomes. Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, 28, 112123. doi:


Talebi, K. (2015). John Dewey-philosopher and educational reformer. European Journal of

Education Studies, 1. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED564712.pdf

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