Progressive Education: Past, Present and Future

I’ve agreed to serve as guest editor for a Special Issue of the International Journal of Progressive Education (February, 2013, Vol 9 – No 1). Here’s the Call for Manuscripts:

The International Journal of Progressive Education (IJPE) plans a special issue on “Progressive Education: Past, Present and Future.” We invite submissions of proposals for articles.

This issue is timely given current debates about the purpose and form of education in an era of rapid technological change, globalization, demographic and political shifts, and growing economic inequities. It asks, “What have we learned about pedagogy that can support democratic, humanistic, and morally responsible development for individuals and societies?”

Background and Scope

Progressive education is a pedagogical movement that emphasizes aspects such as learning by doing, student-centered learning, valuing diversity, integrated curriculum, problem solvingcritical thinking, collaborative learning, education for social responsibility, and lifelong learning. It situates learning within social, community, and political contexts.

In the US, progressive education is often seen as beginning with the work of Francis Parker. It was promoted by the Progressive Education Association from 1919 to 1955, and reflected in the educational philosophy of John Dewey. The movement has continued through efforts to promote project-based learning, whole language, hands-on learning in mathematics and science, and by organizations such as the Progressive Education Network (PEN). More broadly, it is linked with efforts to promote critical pedagogy and democratic education. Recently, the core ideas appear in the social justice youth development model.

But as an approach to pedagogy, progressive education is in no way limited to the US. The ideas grew out of work in other countries, and can be traced back to the earliest theories of teaching and learning. Some other examples may be useful to consider: In France, the Ecole Moderne, developed from the work of Célestin Freinet, showing how to realize the social activism side of progressive education. Loris Malaguzzi and the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education are another manifestation, demonstrating among other things the importance of art in learning. Paulo Freire’s work in Brazil on critical literacy, later extended to many other countries, is another contemporary example, one that emphasizes the political as well as the pedagogical. Similarly, influenced by his experiences in South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi developed a conception of basic education that resonates with progressive education. It was concerned with learning generated within everyday life, relied on cooperation among individuals, and aimed at educating the whole person, including moral development.

It is worth noting that progressive education invariably seeks to go beyond the classroom walls. Thus, the work of Jane Addams and others at Hull House to work with new immigrants might be considered as progressive education, even if it is not situated within a traditional school. Myles Horton and the Highlander Folk School focused on social activism with adults, but a case can be made for their work as exemplifying the progressive education ideals. Similarly, there is much work in museums, libraries, community and economic development, online collaboration, and other areas of informal education that may express progressive education more fully than what we see in schools today. The issue is not restricted to any one educational level, e.g., K-12 or university. Articles may focus on formal or informal learning in any setting, including online.

Themes for the Special Issue

The special issue will develop these and related ideas, considering both the past successes and failures of progressive education, as well as current work and future possibilities. Authors are invited to develop and justify their own definitions for progressive education and not to be limited by official statements.

Articles that show how ideas have evolved will fit well the purpose of the special issue: What has progressive education been? What is it today? What could it become? However, some articles may focus on particular approaches as exemplars of challenges or opportunities for progressive education. Others may focus on the historical or philosophical basis for progressive education. Critiques of progressive education in general, or of particular efforts to realize it are welcome.

There are no limitations regarding age or grade level, or area of the curriculum. To the contrary, articles that can develop connections across the curriculum, across ages or settings, may fit best with the progressive education spirit.

Articles should include the author(s) conception of progressive education as well as a justification for why the particular examples or issues chosen fit within that conception. Some articles may focus on progressive education as it was enacted in early 20th century US, but those that broaden that view in productive ways are strongly encouraged as well.

Schedule and Submission Guidelines

The issue will contain:

  • An editorial highlighting key themes and briefly summarizing the articles;
  • Six-eight articles (~6000 words each) incorporating a range of perspectives on progressive education;
  • Reviews of recent books on progressive education (~600 words each).

Submission of proposals for articles: March 15, 2012. These should consist of a proposed title and a synopsis of no more than 200 words.  The proposals will be considered by the editorial board, and a selection made to ensure a balanced range of content.

Invitation to submit full article: April 15, 2012. A limited number of articles will be commissioned by this date.

First submission by selected authors: June 22, 2012. All submissions will be subject to a review by the editorial board. Submissions should follow the guidelines at

Feedback and requests for revisions:  September 15, 2012. The editorial board will request any needed revisions by this date.

Final submissions:  November 20, 2012.

Final copy to press: January 6, 2013.

Publication: The special issue will appear in IJPE on February 2, 2013, Volume 9 – Number 1. We are also planning a book publication.

The International Journal of Progressive Education (IJPE) (ISSN 1554-5210) is a peer reviewed journal sponsored by the International Association of Educators and in part by the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois. It is published three times a year: February, June, and October, in both print and online versions.

All submissions and questions should be directed to:

Bertram (Chip) Bruce
Professor Emeritus, Library & Information Science
Post: 130 Daniels Drive, Wellfleet, MA 02667, USA

Jane Addams Conference on Social Entrepreneurship

I just learned, too late I’m afraid, about the Jane Addams Conference on Social Entrepreneurship to be held in Uppsala, November 18-19. It’s organized by the department of Sociology at Uppsala University in cooperation with the Nobel Museum, Stockholm.

You may like to look at the conference program, even if you can’t pop over to Sweden for a couple of days. It’s interesting to see the level of interest in Jane Addams (also John Dewey and WIlliam James) here in Sweden. In many other places in Europe, I’ve seen more interest in the more analytical approach represented by Charles Sanders Peirce (e.g., Kaiserlslautern, Germany) or the language focus represented by Richard Rorty (Cluj-Napoca, Romania), among those working in pragmatism.

Navigating the corridor of inquiry

It’s not often that I have an Aha! moment reading an academic article. Many have significant flaws and many of the best repeat what’s been said many times before. But I had a very different reaction to Patricia M. Shields’sPragmatism as a Philosophy of Science: A Tool for Public Administration.”

The paper shows how pragmatism as a philosophy of science is used in a research methods class. The course includes guides to writing an empirical capstone project, such as steps to follow, the notebook method, and the classification of conceptual frameworks.  But what makes it special is the explication of these in terms of their roots in the ideas of Peirce, Dewey, and James.

She quotes from William James (1904), who writes about the relation of pragmatism to theories:

Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid. Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work…

All these [theories], you see, are anti-intellectualist tendencies… [pragmatism] stands for no particular results. It has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method. As the young Italian pragmatist Papini has well said, it lies in the midst of our theories, like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it. In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next some one on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties. In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown. But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.

The paper accomplishes four major feats. First, it serves as an excellent introduction to pragmatism, articulating it in terms of actual experience and concrete action in the world, as pragmatists would have it. Second, it offers a way of thinking about research, which can help anyone who struggles with the relation between theory and practice, or gets stuck in dichotomies such as quantitative/qualitative. It show how theories can come alive, be unstiffened, so that they can help us make sense of experience without overconstraining. Third, the paper describes a creative use of an institutional repository, which helps students enter into a community of inquiry. See, for example, the excellent paper by Robert Brom (2000), Workplace diversity training: A pragmatic look at an administrative practice. Finally, it does a fine job of doing what it sets out to do, to describe the process of designing an excellent approach to a research methods or capstone course.


Brom, Robert A. (2000). Workplace diversity training: A pragmatic look at an administrative practice. Applied Research Projects. Paper 91.

James, William (1904, December). What is Pragmatism. From series of eight lectures dedicated to the memory of John Stuart Mill, A new name for some old ways of thinking, from William James, Writings 1902-1920. The Library of America

Shields, Patricia M. (1998). Pragmatism as a philosophy of science: A tool for public administration. Faculty Publications-Political Science. Paper 33.

Impossible motion: magnet slopes

A gravity-defying illusion has won the 2010 Best Illusion of the Year Contest, held yesterday in Naples, Florida.

Koukichi Sugihara, from the Meiji Institute for Advanced Study of Mathematical Sciences, Japan, developed the illusion, which you can see in the video below. Wooden balls appear to roll up the channels, as if they are pulled by a magnet. We’re fooled by assuming that each supporting column is vertical, and that the longest column in the center is the tallest.

This is is similar to the Adelbert Ames’s illusions, such as the Ames room or Ames window, all of which demonstrate that perception is an interaction of the perceiver with the environment.

The Best Visual illusion of the Year Contest is a celebration of the ingenuity and creativity of the world’s premier visual illusion research community. Contestants from all around the world submitted novel visual illusions (unpublished, or published no earlier than 2009), and an international panel of judges rated them and narrowed them to the TOP TEN. At the Contest Gala in the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts, the top ten illusionists presented their creations and the attendees of the event voted to pick the TOP THREE WINNERS! via Results of the 2010 Contest now announced!

The other finalists are all worth watching, too.

Inquiry-based learning concepts

We talked in my class Monday about the terms that help us describe inquiry-based learning, or that derive from thinking about it. Students made their individual lists, then shared those with a partner, then in the group as a whole. There was to me a surprising diversity of responses, but with a sense that the different clusters of words were mutually reinforcing.

Below is a tag cloud we made of the terms. We could have added “fallibilism,” “adventure,” “moral,” “trust,” “dialogue,” “reciprocity,” and others. We also agreed that it’s the connections among the terms that really matter. Nevertheless, it was interesting to turn this mirror on our class dialogue over the semester.

Outside lies magic, Part 2

I wrote most of my last post while flying from San Francisco to Chicago. Flipping through the airline magazine, the essay by Gerard J. Arpey, “The world is a book” caught my eye. It’s from St. Augustine: “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” That seemed to be the message of Stilgoe’s Outside lies magic.

But on reading the essay, I encountered another quote that seemed hugely at odds with my own experience at the time. It’s from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Wind, sand, and stars, writing about airplanes:

The central struggle of men has ever been to understand one another, to join together for the common weal. And it is this very thing that the machine helps them to do! It begins by annihilating time and space.

Yes, the machine, the airplane, was annihilating time and space, but it was doing so by destroying my connection to the world around me. Instead of seeing more deeply as Stilgoe recommends, I found myself seeking ways to ignore the drone of the engines and the constant pressure on my knees from the seat in front of me. Saint-Exupery’s means for promoting our common humanity has become a factory ship processing fish.

See Outside lies magic, Part 1.

Outside lies magic, Part 1

Gesa Kirsch recently pointed me to John R. Stilgoe’s, Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. It’s a refreshing call for becoming more aware of the ordinary world around us. Stilgoe urges us not only to walk or cycle more, but also to use the advantages of those modes of transport to see the world that we usually ignore.

I finished the book, and am writing now, in the antipode of his call to walk and observe. I’m cramped in an airplane seat near the end of a four and a half hour flight. Stilgoe would say that I should still take the opportunity to observe, to learn, and to make sense of my surrounding, but instead I’m counting down the minutes until we land.

The chapters—Beginnings, Lines, Mall, Strips, Interstate, Enclosures, Main Street, Stops, Endings—lie somewhere between prose poems, history lessons, and sermons about the everyday. They remind me of John McDermott’s summary that John Dewey “believed that ordinary experience is seeded with possibilities for surprises and possibilities for enhancement if we but allow it to bathe over us in its own terms” (1973/1981, p. x).

To appreciate the book, you need to follow Stilgoe as he discovers nature, history, urban planning, ethics, social class, and more through cracks in the pavement, vegetation, telephone poles, roadside motels, angle parking, and other seemingly forgettable objects. The real point is not his own findings, but the demonstration that slowing down to look can open up worlds of understanding.

He shows the value of a camera, despite the lament that “ordinary American landscape strikes almost no one as photogenic” (p. 179). He recognizes the dread of causal photography (‘why are you photographing that vacant lot?’), but ties it to “deepening ignorance” (p. 181). This ignorance makes asking directions dangerous: People question us back, ‘Why do you want to know?’

Stilgoe says, “discovering the bits and pieces of peculiar, idiosyncratic importance in ordinary metropolitan landscape scrapes away the deep veneer of programmed learning” (p. 184). Unprogrammed exercise and discovery leads to a unified whole that reorients the mind and the body together. Someone else may own the real estate, but “the explorer owns the landscape” (p. 187).

Stilgoe’s prescription is simple:

Exploration encourages creativity, serendipity, invention.
So read this book, then go.
Go without purpose.
Go for the going.

See Outside lies magic, Part 2.


  • McDermott, John J. (1981). The philosophy of John Dewey: Two volumes in one. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Originally published 1973)
  • Stilgoe, John R. (1998). Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. New York: Walker.

Banning books

The always controversial Texas State Board of Education added to its tragicomic history with a confusion over Martins:

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, Why Were You Banned?

Bill Martin is a philosophy professor at DePaul University who has written a book called Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation.

Bill Martin Jr., who died in 2004, was a children’s author who wrote Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? The men are not related.

Last week, the two Martins were briefly fused into one persona by Pat Hardy, a member of the Texas State Board of Education, who moved that Bill Martin be removed from a suggested revision of the state’s third-grade social-studies curriculum. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram quoted Ms. Hardy as saying that his books for adults contain “very strong critiques of capitalism and the American system.” –Don Troop

The  issue might be simply amusing, except that the Texas State Board of Education decides what will be taught in Texas public schools. Because the Texas market drives what publishers sell in other states, it plays an extraordinary role in defining American public education.

Recently, the Board has considered reviving the reputation of Senator Joseph McCarthy, to portray him as an American hero. They also debate the Biblical underpinnings of the nation’s founding, the superiority of America, and its divine ordination.

Pat Hardy, is from my hometown of Fort Worth. Unlike many others on the Board, she’s actually an educator. Although she’s a conservative Republican, she’s been attacked in elections to the Board by social conservative groups, who criticize her insufficient support of creation science and lack of solidarity with the social conservative bloc on the board.

Much of the commentary on this incident has focused on its silliness, on the apparent confusion of such different authors and books. But for me, it raises some important questions about the Board, and by extension, American education:

  • What if Bill Martin Jr. (the children’s book author) had written a book on ethics? Would that be a bad thing? Would that justify banning his beloved book for children?
  • Must we agree with Bill Martin (the philosopher) about vegetarianism and animal rights in order to read his book? Is it wrong to read a book that critiques and extends Marxism?
  • Should the role of the Board, or the role for any of us as educators and citizens, be to weed out books with ideas we don’t accept (or perhaps, understand)?
  • Do we want students to grow up unquestioning, and safe from bad ideas only when we diligently purge them from their world?
  • Might we do better to “teach the controversy,” as Gerald Graff says, to open up the world of books, ideas, and learning, rather than to try to shut it down?

Reality and the third rail

The Reading Terminal Holiday Railroad Photos by G. Widman for GPTMC

When I was last in Philadelphia I walked through the Reading Terminal Holiday Railroad and Train Display.

This is a giant model railroad layout (1/3 mile of tracks) at the Reading Terminal Market. There’s a detailed, interactive display featuring historic scenes of Philadelphia and rural Pennsylvania. Trolleys and Reading Railroad trains pass through City Hall and travel over the Schuylkill River.

I couldn’t help noticing that these were Lionel trains, the sign being the characteristic third rail. I remember as a boy having mixed feelings about that third rail.

On the one hand, it was a reminder that my model train layout wasn’t reality. Of course, a cynic might have pointed out that my mountain was a clearer giveaway, since it scaled to 25 feet high, not to mention that the entire world fit within a 4′ x 8′ rectangle with abrupt declivities on each edge. Yet I could somehow overlook those signs and still be bothered by the third rail.

On the other hand, the third rail was a reminder that I didn’t have the less realistic American Flyer train that my friend Jeff had. My locomotive and cars, as well as my accessories, were all more real, and the third rail spoke to that. In a practical sense, the third rail also permitted more “realistic” wiring of the tracks and switches.

One might say that the third rail marked a gateway between reality and fantasy. It was an icon, drawing me into the model railroad world. I spent hours and hours in that world, which felt more real than many other parts of my life. At other times, though I would look at it and be reminded that that world wasn’t as real as I hoped.

Now, as an adult, rushing to catch the “real” train to the airport, I had the opposite reaction. The beautiful train layout caught my eye, and I immediately wished there was more time to study it. But there was easily enough time to notice a key feature, that characteristic third rail.

This time I knew. That third rail told me that this was a real Lionel train, not some second-rate substitute. This train layout was a real world, with City Halls and rivers, trolleys and people. It was a place I’d once again be happy to lose myself within, as opposed to the false world outside, with all its fake products, commercialism, planned obsolescence, and unkept promises, not to mention the wars, institutional violence, and injustice that belie its values.

Schopenhauer’s porcupines

Several years ago, I read Schopenhauer’s porcupines: Dilemmas of intimacy and the talking cure: Five stories of psychotherapy, by Deborah Anna Luepnitz.

It’s a fascinating book, and you don’t need to be a Schopenhauer scholar, a zoologist, or a psychotherapy patient to get a lot out of it. The entry card instead is being someone who relates to others or would like to do so.

It was there that I encountered Schopenhauer’s parable of the porcupines, the last of many from his Studies in pessimism:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.

Schopenhauer presents his parables as telling us just how life is, but Luepnitz takes this one in a constructive way. She shows through five case studies how we all have simultaneous needs and fears for intimacy, thus creating a dilemma for full living. As she puts it (p. 19):

Psychotherapy cannot make us whole, but it does allow us to transform suffering into speech and, ultimately, to learn to live with desire.

I was impressed with the book. Coincidentally, shortly after reading it, I had dinner in Philadelphia with a couple, one of whom was her patient.


  • Luepnitz, Deborah Anna (2002). Schopenhauer’s porcupines: Dilemmas of intimacy and the talking cure: Five stories of psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
  • Schopenhauer, Arthur (1891). The essays of Arthur Schopenhauer; Studies in pessimism (tr. Thomas Bailey Saunders). London: Swan Sonnenschein.