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Educational historians have established that progressive education was a multifaceted, diversified approach to education reform, and have recognized that such a variegated phenomenon is difficult, if not impossible, to define. Instead, historians attempt to capture the complexity of progressive education either by articulating its principal qualities or by identifying different wings, or varieties, of progressivism in education. This paper attempts to contribute to our historical understanding of progressive education by arguing in favor of recognizing a previously overlooked variety of progressive education that reflects not only definitive elements of John Dewey's educational theory, but also major tenets of American philosophical pragmatism, which may be called pragmatic progressivism. The identification of pragmatic progressivism as a variety of progressive education could indicate that Dewey had more influence on educational practice than previously thought.

Several circumstances led to the research reported here. Tanner and Tanner's (1995) conceptualization of curriculum development as a problem-solving process that considers the student, society, and subject matter as fundamental curriculum sources, which drew from a few historical exemplars, is well-known in the general curriculum field (228-234). Examination of Ralph Tyler's work and of the two segregated cooperative educational experiments that occurred in the US South during the 1930s and 1940s revealed a common commitment, not only to a problem-solving approach that considered the three sources for educational experiences, but also to an approach that was locally-focused and participatory. A review of Dewey's writings led to the confirmation of the same four elements in his educational theory. Together, these findings raised the question of whether additional past educational initiatives existed that reflected these four elements sufficiently enough to justify suggesting that they amounted to an overlooked but identifiable variety of progressive education. A systematic examination of published accounts of school improvement activities during the 1920s into the 1960s resulted in the identification of one dozen additional examples of such initiatives that reflected these four elements and that seem to warrant the recognition of a previously overlooked variety of progressive education.

This paper reviews representative historical attempts to characterize progressive education in the US and explains four elements of Dewey's educational theory that manifest tenets of American philosophical pragmatism. It then identifies fifteen historical progressive education activities and theoretical proposals that occurred during the period spanning the 1920s to the 1960s that reflect the four elements of pragmatic progressivism.


Lawrence Cremin opened his classic rendering of progressivism in American education with the flat statement, claiming that, with respect to a definition of progressive education, "None exists, and none ever will" (Cremin 1962, x). Cremin suggested four general meanings of progressive education--commitment to broadening the school program, research-based classroom practice, accommodation of student differences in school, and the belief that "culture could be democratized without being vulgarized" (Cremin 1962, ix). He identified three varieties of progressive education, whose members he called "scientists, sentimentalists, and radicals" (Cremin 1962, viii-ix, 179-239). Progressive scientists focused on the application of measurement and classification through the new standardized tests to educational problems and practices, and sought efficiency by employing quantitative methods to identify the most effective ways to teach subject matter. They also employed activity analysis to identify the adult tasks that should form the basis of curriculum objectives. Among the first group, Cremin included Edward L. Thorndike and Charles H. Judd, among the latter, Franklin Bobbitt and W. W. Charters. Progressive sentimentalists advocated and practiced child-centered education based upon "the notion that each individual has uniquely creative potentialities" that the school should develop (Cremin 1962, 202). This variety included Caroline Pratt and William H. Kilpatrick. Progressive radicals pursued "socially conscious notions of progressive education," enjoyed their heyday during the Great Depression, and included George Counts and the Social Frontier group (Cremin 1962, 227). Cremin also acknowledged "the shifting meaning of progressive education after 1917," and that progressive educators could move between these varieties throughout the course of their careers (Cremin 1962, 184).

Similarly, David Tyack observed that during the early twentieth century, "'progressivism' in education was a label that was loosely applied to diverse reformers, philosophies, and practices" (Tyack 1974, 196). Tyack identified two major and two minor wings of progressive educators. The most influential wing Tyack called "administrative progressives," who accepted the extant school system and "focused upon differentiating the structure and fulfilling the goals of social efficiency and social control" (Tyack 1974, 196). They "were primarily concerned with organizational behavior and the linkage of school and external control, with aggregate goals rather than individual development of students" (Tyack 1974, 196).

The second most influential wing was that of the "pedagogical progressives," who Tyack characterized as "philosophers, psychologists, and curriculum theorists in schools of education who translated John Dewey's ideas into classroom procedures" (Tyack 1974, 196-97). Tyack associated this group of progressive educators with only a narrow range of child-centered practices, namely "the 'project method,' the 'activity curriculum,' and other ways to 'meet individual needs' of children by subverting the hegemony of established school subjects" (Tyack 1974, 197). Pedagogical progressives accepted the extant system that the administrative progressives sought to further differentiate and centralize. Tyack argued that it "was difficult, indeed, to express the spirit of John Dewey's version of cooperative, democratic schooling within a hierarchical bureaucracy" and insisted that the "full expression of Dewey's ideal of democratic education required fundamental change in the hierarchical structure of schools" (Tyack 1974, 197-198). Tyack also identified "the small libertarian wing of educational progressivism" who "sought to make the school conform to the trajectory of the individual child's growth," and the "small group of social reconstructionists" who "argued that schools should undermine the capitalistic system by instilling left-liberal ideology in schoolchildren" (Tyack 1974, 196).

Wallace identified three "strands" of progressivism; one focused on the study of child interests, a second on scientific studies through educational measurement, which Wallace related to the efficiency-minded "administrative progressives," and finally social reconstructionists (Wallace 1999, 301). Also recognizing progressive education's pluralistic nature, rather than identifying varieties of progressivism, Reese articulated its major characteristics, such as child-centeredness, the rejection of academic formalism, the importance of students' needs and interests, learning as active, and the relation of the school to society (Reese 2008). Kliebard eschewed attempts "to define progressive education in broad terms" or to define it in terms of the characteristics of a single preferable subgroup. Instead he suggested that although progressive education cannot accurately be considered a single cohesive movement, it is "possible to identify reasonably coherent subgroups and movements" within progressive education (Kliebard 2004, 286, 287).

The intent here is not to conduct a comprehensive review of historical representations of progressivism in American education. Rather, it is to demonstrate that, in lieu of attempting to define this pluralistic movement, educational historians instead identify general characteristics, or offer some sort of category scheme that attempts to capture major streams of progressive education theory and practice. That historians have offered several category schemes suggests that the categories are, in fact, not fast, but fluid, and therefore necessarily limited in their explanatory power. Nevertheless, they provide a useful conceptual tool for understanding progressive education.


To understand pragmatic progressivism, it is necessary to first identify basic tenets of American philosophical pragmatism. Scheffler maintained that in pragmatism, "the concept of scientific community is taken as a suggestive analogue of democratic society" (Scheffler 1986, 9, emphasis in original). He asserted that this idea meant that "democratic society institutionalizes procedures for the critical examination of social ideas, plans, and policies" (Scheffler 1986, 9). Scheffler explained that pragmatism meant that in a democratic social organization, institutional policies and practices are, in effect, hypotheses that "remain subject to the continuing test of experience, to be revised critically, in the light of experience and in accordance with the underlying unity of democratic methods" (Scheffler 1986, 9). Dewey applied this idea specifically to the school, as did other pragmatic progressives.

In an analysis of the presence of pragmatic commitments in education, Childs maintained that pragmatism's "outstanding feature ... is its empirical character" and that pragmatism "accepts ordinary human experience as the ultimate source and test of all knowledge and value" (Childs 1956, 3). An assumption that stemmed from these commitments was that "ordinary people can develop from within the context of their own ongoing activities, all necessary institutions, and regulative principles and standards" (Childs 1956, 4). For Childs, in short, "Pragmatism ... believes that democracy and experimental science define procedures that make for the liberation of human intelligence" (Childs 1956, 9). The implication of Childs analysis are that American philosophical pragmatism was reflected in educational practice when the latter: 1) directly engaged educators in the tasks of school improvement, rather than imposing improvements upon them; 2) directly engaged educators in solving actual problems in their local educational situations; 3) treated educators as rational agents who not only participate in but also initiate problem finding and problem solving initiatives; and 4) approached education reform essentially as a democratic quest for continual improvement through a collaborative problem solving process.

Similarly, Campbell identified in Dewey's theory the commitment to "intellectual activity as problem-oriented" and "an emphasis upon the democratic reconstruction of society through educational and other institutions" (Campbell 1995, 14). We see in these general representations of philosophical pragmatism three elements that are reflected in the work of Dewey and other pragmatic progressives: a focus on the local situation, the use of a problem-solving method, and commitment to democratic processes.


John Dewey is often considered the quintessential progressive educator, but at the same time unrepresentative of any of the varieties of progressivism in education established by historians--as, for example, Kliebard (2004, xix) suggested. Additionally, educational historians tend to overlook the connection of Dewey's progressive education theory to tenets of American philosophical pragmatism (e.g., Tyack 1974; Reese 2005, 136-42; Kliebard 2004, 26-30; Rury 2009, 146-51). A brief description of Dewey's pragmatic progressive education theory follows.

As a key figure in the development of American philosophical pragmatism, Dewey's commitment to problem-solving as a basic form of thinking was fundamental to his theory of education. How We Think stands as his most elaborate statement of thinking as problem-solving, which was encapsulated in what Dewey identified as the "Five Phases, or Aspects, of Reflective Thought" (Dewey 1933, 107). In Democracy and Education Dewey identified five "general features" of what he called "reflective experience" that included sensing a problem, "collection and analysis of data, projection and elaboration of suggestions or ideas, experimental application and testing; the resulting conclusion or judgement" (Dewey 1966, 173, emphasis in original; also see 150, 225).

Kliebard demonstrated that Dewey's philosophy of education was locally focused. Kliebard contended that, in his call for teachers to make "intelligent observations" of the educational settings in which they teach that appeared in his discussion of method, Dewey was "calling attention to a commonly ignored fact of school life. Schooling is supremely contextual" (Dewey 1966, 168; Kliebard 2006, 115, emphasis in original, also 116). Likewise, the extent to which "the teacher" is "occupied not with subject matter in itself but in its interaction with the pupils' present needs and capacities" (Dewey 1966, 183) curriculum decision making is irrefragably local.

To engage in local problem solving also meant that educational improvement should occur democratically. Dewey argued, for example, that with respect to schools:
much that is unsatisfactory, much of conflict and defect, comes from
the discrepancy between the relatively undemocratic organization of the
school, as it affects the mind of both teacher and pupil, and the
growth and extension of the democratic principle in life beyond school
doors. (Dewey 1903, 229)

Dewey also implored that:
until the public-school system is organized in such a way that every
teacher has some regular and representative way in which he or she can
register judgment upon matters of educational importance, with the
assurance that this judgment will somehow affect the school system, the
assertion that the present system is not, from the internal standpoint,
democratic seems to be justified. (Dewey 1903, 231)

Dewey argued this point again when, after summarizing his theory of democracy as a cooperative problem-solving endeavor, he claimed "it must be said that the democratic principle requires that every teacher should have some regular and organic way in which he can, directly or through representatives democratically chosen, participate in the formation of the controlling aims, methods and materials of the school of which he is a part" (Dewey 1991/1937, 222).

Dewey's educational theory expressly departed from traditional academic, formalistic education by considering not only subject matter, but also the life of the student and the life of society as substantive components of the educational process. In The Child and the Curriculum, for example, Dewey wrote with respect to the relation of the student and subject matter, "The fundamental factors in the educative process are an immature, undeveloped being; and certain social aims, meanings values incarnate in the matured experience of the adult"--that is, the organized subjects-disciplines (Dewey 1990/1902, 182). He continued, "The educative process is the due interaction of these forces. Such a conception of each in relation to the other as facilitates completest and freest interaction is the essence of educational theory" (Dewey 1990/1902, 182). In Democracy and Education Dewey argued that the "problem of teaching is to keep the experience of the student moving in the direction of what the expert already knows" (Dewey 1966, 184). Not only were student needs and subject matter important considerations in creating educational experiences, but so was the nature of society. As Dewey put it,
The scheme of a curriculum must take account of the adaptation of
studies to the needs of the existing community life; it must select
with the intention of improving the life we live in common so that the
future shall be better than the past. (Dewey 1966, 191)

In summary, considering subject matter, the student, and society as curriculum sources, and approaching educational improvement as a local, participatory, problem-solving endeavor comprised definitive elements of Dewey's theory of education. Because Dewey's progressive education theory emerged from and reflected tenets of American philosophical pragmatism, it is reasonable to call approaches to educational practice that reflect these ideas pragmatic progressivism.


The above-mentioned elements of pragmatic progressivism--that is, commitment to 1) problem-solving as the method of school improvement; 2) democracy as the means of educational improvement; 3) a focus on improving education at the local level; and 4) consideration of the subject, the student, and the society as complementary sources for educational experience--together are reflected in the activities of a number of progressive educators active from about the 1920s into the 1960s. The full measure of their work is not adequately captured by the varieties of progressivism in education that historians have identified. These educators did not constitute an organized movement within progressive education; although many no doubt were familiar with each other's work and some actively collaborated, there is no indication of a systematic effort among them to promote a recognizable professional identity. Instead, they were affiliated, and constitute a recognizable variety of progressive education through common elements in their work. Let us consider briefly fifteen examples of progressive education that reflected the four elements of Dewey's pragmatic progressivism.

In the first example, Frederick Bonser identified not only student needs and interests--in his terms, student life processes--but also social realities and subject matter as sources for the school curriculum (Bonser 1924, 2-4). In his classic text, nearly 300 of its 450 pages identified ways conventional subject matter could be applied to personal and social life experiences, thus recognizing the nature of the student, society, and subject matter as complementary sources of the curriculum. Although he acknowledged that curriculum experts could make recommendations for curriculum from afar, Bonser held that the particulars of curriculum development must be decided locally by teachers and other school staff for particular students, and moreover, that student participation in this process was preferable (Bonser 1924, 7-8). Thus, when it came to curriculum making, Bonser advised that "The organization of the work should be most thoroughly democratic" (Bonser 1924, 426). As teachers recommended a revision to the curriculum, it should be "tried out or tested as it is developed" over a period of "two or three years, perhaps a longer time" (Bonser 1924, 427). Only after a revision was sufficiently tested should it be implemented--and then it would "serve as a new starting point for further improvement" (Bonser 1924, 427). Bonser's was a local, participatory, problem-solving approach to curriculum development that considered the three sources of student, society, and subject matter as components of curriculum content.

The Denver curriculum-revision program during the 1920s also reflected the four elements of pragmatic progressivism. Superintendent Jesse Newlon and Deputy Superintendent A. L. Threlkeld reported that Denver organized "a curriculum-revision program that involves every teacher in the study of curriculum problems and in participation in the process of determining what the content of course and method of instruction should be" (Newlon and Threlkeld 1926, 231). They claimed that curriculum-revision "must originate in the initiative of the local school system. It must grow from the inside out" and involved "the discovery and definition of problems" stemming from "the felt needs of the teachers as they arise in the everyday work of the schools" (Newlon and Threlkeld 1926, 232, 233). This discovery led to the search for solutions to problems "by making a survey of the writings, the experimentation, the practices, the controversies, and the unsolved problems of its [the particular curriculum committee's] field" (Newlon and Threlkeld 1926, 234). The solution to many problems was found in the synthesis of the three sources in the life-situation:
Life situations become the criteria by which subject matter and method
are chosen. Subject matter and method become means to the end of the
pupil's growth, instead of idols of worship to which all must conform.
(Newlon and Threlkeld 1926, 236)

In its emphasis on applying subject matter to life situations in the service of pupil development, the Denver program embraced all three curriculum sources.

The description of curriculum making in Detroit, Michigan prepared by educational consultant to the system Stuart A. Courtis for the Twenty-Sixth NSSE Yearbook outlined in some detail the bureaucratic organization of the system and the function of curriculum revision in that system. The administrative and instructional functions in Detroit were distinguished by their respective focus on "maintenance" and "improvement" of programs (Courtis 1926, 192-93). Though Courtis's description was laden with contemporary efficiency jargon, the emphasis in Detroit nevertheless was on improvement through identification and resolution of local problems of curriculum and instruction. This generally occurred through "research activities" (Courtis 1926, 193, 194). Specifically, the process for developing a program of study in Detroit involved problem definition, identifying possible "experimental solutions," "active experimentation" (that is, testing the possible solutions), formulating a new course of study, "sale to the administration" of the new course of study, and implementation of the new program which involved "training of administrative officers" to implement it (Courtis 1926, 199-202, 201). This process would be coordinated by supervisors independent of the administrative function until the final implementation stage (Courtis 1926, 201) and would involve extensive input from teachers. Thus, the Detroit curriculum improvement process was local, problem-focused, and participatory. During this process, "instructional policy" required the consideration not only of subject matter, around which the curriculum was already largely organized, but also of the individual "tastes and interests" and "personality" of students and also the demands of democracy and "the maintenance of a progressive social order" (Courtis 1926, 204). Therefore, curriculum improvement in Detroit proceeded as a local, participatory problem solving process that emphasized all three sources (Courtis 1926, 202-03).

The proposals of the Joint Committee on Curriculum appointed by the Department of Supervisors and Directors of Instruction and the Society for Curriculum Study similarly reflected the four elements of pragmatic progressivism. The Joint Committee declared expressly that "curriculum development should be carried on democratically" (Joint Committee on Curriculum 1937, 113). This would involve "widespread participation in the process by teachers, principals, supervisors, other specialists, and the superintendent" so that decisions about the curriculum would be "made cooperatively" (Joint Committee on Curriculum 1937, 113). For the Joint Committee curriculum planning was clearly local in that it involved "systematic and comprehensive inventory of the situation" so that it "is based on the facts in the situation" (Joint Committee on Curriculum 1937, 119, 115). Curriculum planning would include consideration not only of the contributions of subject matter, but also "careful study of world life and of the child" (Joint Committee on Curriculum 1937, 97-98, 113). Moreover, "curriculum development is of necessity a continuous process," such that the "curriculum must always be in the process of becoming" (Joint Committee on Curriculum 1937, 113, 114). Teachers should be afforded the "freedom and encouragement" "to adapt the products of group thought and experimentation to the distinctive needs and characteristics of [their] particular group of pupils," emphasizing the local focus and interest in not imposing any particular "reform" on the local situation (Joint Committee on Curriculum 1937, 114). Problem-solving was implied in the inclusion in the curriculum development process of provisions for "continuous appraisal" to identify further opportunities for improvement (Joint Committee on Curriculum 1937, 114). The Joint Committee also reflected all of these elements--participation, the three sources, a local focus, and problem solving--in check-lists it offered for evaluating school programs (Joint Committee on Curriculum 1937, 172, 171, 174, 173, 175).

During the 1930s, the Eight-Year Study involved the efforts of about thirty schools from most regions of the US in an effort to identify alternatives to the traditional college preparatory program that would not only meet student and societal needs, but also prepare students for college. The Eight-Year Study reflected all four of the elements of pragmatic progressivism. Based upon a "belief in exploration and experimentation as a method of educational progress," participating schools improved their programs by identifying problems, suggesting solutions to them, trying out the solutions, and adopting solutions that actually solved the problems (Aikin 1942, 130; also see 19). New curriculum solutions were generated based not only upon consideration of subject matter, but also upon consideration of student interests and needs, and of social ideals (Aikin 1942, 46ff, 87ff). Indeed, Kridel and Bullough argued that commitment to the three sources and "an experimental spirit" distinguished the "Eight-Year Study progressives" from other progressives of the day (Kridel and Bullough 2007, 32). Recognizing the reality that "Schools must find their own answers to their most puzzling questions," in the Eight-Year Study improvements emerged from study of local educational problems and particular solutions were not imposed from the outside, but tailored to the local situation (Aikin 1942, 132, 36, 85; Diederich 1943, xix). Administrators, teachers, community members, and even students collaborated to enact these improvement initiatives (Aikin 1942, 41, 42, 130-34).

Two regional counterparts to the national Eight-Year Study were conducted in the US south, the white Southern Study and the black Secondary School Study. Like their national model, the two regional projects also manifested the four elements of pragmatic progressivism. In the Southern Study, which involved 33 white high schools, teachers and administrators from participating schools identified local problems, and then at summer workshops received assistance from consultants to devise plans to implement solutions to those problems during the following school year. This method of school improvement the final report of the Southern Study presented as the combination of "two trends, use of the scientific method and local self-study" (Southern Association Study 1946, 231; also see 34-35, 37, 181-82, 230, 232, 235). The commitment to "cooperative" involvement of teachers in the participating schools was pronounced in the work of the Southern Study, though its final report stopped well short of advocating the democratization of education in the Southern region. Such local improvement efforts frequently used student interests as springboards for relating subject matter to students lives and the life of society (Southern Association Study 1946, 128-38).

Similarly, the work of the Secondary School Study, which involved 17 black high schools, was fundamentally local, as it sought "to provide rich opportunities for teachers to work on school problems that they considered significant, to stimulate thinking and experimentation on basic problems of school development" (Brown and Robinson 1946, 7). Like the Southern Study and the Eight-Year Study, in the Secondary School Study, teachers from the participating schools brought problems from their schools to summer workshops where they received support in identifying ways to resolve those problems. Solutions often involved relating the school experience to the lives of students' and to the life of society, and emphasized application of subject matter to students lives (Brown and Robinson 1946, 33-34, 42).

The Michigan Study of the Secondary School Curriculum, conducted between 1937 and 1942, involved 54 high schools and was structured after the Eight-Year Study using several of its consultants. Rice and Faunce reported that "the underlying policy of the Study has been that of encouraging local improvements in the light of local purposes and problems" (Rice and Faunce 1942, 42). The Michigan Study commenced with a descriptive survey in all schools to establish baseline data for problem identification and resolution. Parker, Menge, and Rice (1942) indicated that "changes in practice have grown out of recognition of problems in local situations" (61). In the identification and resolution of local problems "members of the staff of each school were involved in the development of undertakings agreed upon within the school" (Rice and Faunce 1945, 20). The "experimental" approach of the Michigan Study included conducting a formal "controlled experiment in the teaching of plane geometry" (Rice and Faunce 1945, 13). Program improvements included stress on "consideration of major areas of current living and upon the interests and needs of youth" and involved applying subject matter from subjects such as civics, economics, English, and modern foreign languages to understanding "current living" (Rice and Faunce 1945, 30).

Probably based upon the assumption that college faculty considered subject matter the main source of curriculum, the Cooperative Study in General Education focused on examination of "various factors relating to the individual and to society" as additional sources (Cooperative Study in General Education 1947, 60). The Cooperative Study recommended "careful observation and study of the students and alumni and of the society in which they live" as tasks that would contribute to the identification of general education objectives (Cooperative Study in General Education 1947, 60). The Cooperative Study also identified the "opinions of specialists about what their fields of subject matter can contribute" and the "great cultural and educational tradition" as sources of information that can inform the selection of general education objectives (Cooperative Study in General Education 1947, 61, original in italics, also 188). The Cooperative Study's discussion of selecting objectives indicated that general education programs should be developed for particular institutions. This was confirmed by the call for "opportunity for experimentation and appraisal in adapting concrete course and materials to the particular students in the college at any one time" (Cooperative Study in General Education 1947, 185). Commitment to teacher participation in the development of general education programs was evident in the Cooperative Study's recommendation that, "The tasks involved cannot be done by one or two people but ultimately must be done by all the faculty who will be concerned with instruction in the field" (Cooperative Study in General Education 1947, 185).

Commitment to problem-solving was reflected in the Cooperative Study in General Education's indication that "modifications in objectives" or "necessary revisions in the courses themselves and possibly their plan of organization" would result from program evaluation (Cooperative Study in General Education 1947, 195). The problem-solving approach was indicated in the suggestion that evaluation:
results in a replanning of learning experiences, reorganization of
courses, a re-teaching and re-evaluation. By this kind of recurring
cyclical procedure it becomes possible to develop an increasingly
effective curriculum and to reach the point where a curriculum of
general education is demonstrably effective in achieving its more
important ends. (Cooperative Study in General Education 1947, 195-96)

In its commitment to considering the three curriculum sources, a local focus, faculty participation, and ongoing improvement through problem-solving, the Cooperative Study in General Education manifested the four elements of pragmatic progressivism.

Ralph Tyler, who played key roles in the five cooperative experiments just discussed, characterized curriculum development as:
a continuous process and that as materials and procedures are
developed, they are tried out, their results appraised, their
inadequacies identified, suggested improvements indicated; there is
replanning, redevelopment and then reappraisal; and in this kind of
continuing cycle, it is possible for the curriculum and instructional
program to be continuously improved over the years (Tyler 1949, 123).

He also claimed that in school level curriculum improvement efforts, "it is necessary that there be widespread faculty participation" (Tyler 1949, 126). In his rationale, he advocated developing curriculum for the particular students who would be taught in the local setting, as also indicated in his unpublished class syllabus, which required his students in his course at the University of Chicago to develop curriculum for their local professional setting (Tyler 1949, 10, 12-16; Education 360). Tyler also articulated at length how the nature of students, society, and subject matter should be regarded as sources for educational purposes (Tyler 1949, 5-53).

In their classic curriculum development text, Smith, Stanley, and Shores asserted that "curriculum change begins with a situation requiring action" which "is set in a web of school-community and interpersonal relations" that must be navigated to effect change (Smith, Stanley, and Shores 1950, 645). At the core of their method of "systematic curriculum change" lay what they referred to as a "Cycle of Cooperative Action-Research" (Smith, Stanley, and Shores 1950, 640, 644). This process involved surveying particular "problems and difficulties," identifying "a problem for intensive exploration," gathering "new data to determine the success of the proposed solution," and continuing to modify the solution until it addressed the problematic situation, at which point the web of relations was navigated to implement the problem-solution (Smith, Stanley, and Shores 1950, 645). Smith, Stanley, and Shores' model was a locally-focused, problem-solving approach to curriculum change, which depended on cooperative, "widespread participation" of members of the school and of the local community, providing them "a responsible share" in the process of curriculum change (Smith, Stanley, and Shores 1950, 649). And when planning for curriculum change, for Smith, Stanley, and Shores achieving a "rounded out" curriculum that included material pertaining to disciplinary subject matter, "personal and individual needs, interests, and capacities," and "the social-problems criterion" was imperative (Smith, Stanley, and Shores 1950, 740, 741, 742). Smith, Stanley, and Shores dedicated seven chapters of their comprehensive text to consideration of the student, society, and subject matter as sources for the "set of experiences" that for them constituted the curriculum (Smith, Stanley, and Shores 1950, 4).

Caswell and Associates traced the emergence of and evolving trends in curriculum development during the first half of the twentieth century and identified approved practices in curriculum development prevalent at mid-century. Caswell identified Deweyan experimentalism as "one of the most influential factors in dictating change" in curriculum development during the twentieth century (Caswell and Associates 1950, 9). One of the most significant developments that Caswell documented he called "Exploration and Experimentation," which generally meant "that as a need for curriculum change is identified, means of meeting it will be canvassed and the most promising tried out in actual situations" (Caswell and Associates 1950, 63). He identified the Eight-Year Study, the Southern Study, and the Michigan Secondary Study as examples of such an approach.

The approved practices that Caswell gleaned from an examination of contemporary curriculum development reflected the four elements of pragmatic progressivism. He saw among the functions of curriculum leadership the need "to stimulate and lead the total school staff in analysis of problems and needs and in the formulation of plans" to solve problems and meet local needs (Caswell and Associates 1950, 73). Taking the dominance of subject matter in the curriculum for granted, Caswell noted the imperative of considering "broad community needs" as well as planning curriculum for the "given pupils in a particular environment," thus embracing the three sources (Caswell and Associates 1950, 73, 77). Since he insisted on "developing programs especially adapted to the conditions of the school," and that "planning must be in terms of actual children in actual neighborhoods by teachers who have to carry the plans into operation," Caswell's recommendations reflected the local focus and participatory process characteristic of pragmatic progressivism (Caswell and Associates 1950, 83, 77). Indeed, not only did he call for supervisors working "with classroom teachers so as to draw them out and lead them to assume major responsibility in defining problems and developing plans for solution," but Caswell also advocated substantive "lay participation" of local community members in school improvement efforts (Caswell and Associates 1950, 84, 94). For Caswell, "all teachers are essential participants in curriculum improvement" (Caswell and Associates 1950, 75).

The work of the Horace Mann-Lincoln Institute of School Experimentation at Teachers College, Columbia University also reflected the four elements of pragmatic progressivism. Lawler stated a commitment to designing school programs "to meet the needs and individual differences of children and youth in our democratic society" and "to determine whether or not they include appropriate aspects of rapidly expanding new bodies of knowledge" (Lawler 1958, 1). A commitment to problem-solving and a focus on the local educational situation permeated Lawler's chapter-long discussion of "Problem Definition." She articulated a six-step "process of problem definition," the latter of which was also reinforced by the local nature of the six school-based projects described (Lawler 1958, 161; also see Passow et al. 1955, 3-5, 12). A commitment to teacher participation in program improvement also suffused Lawler's description of the consultants' work, ranging from providing released time for teachers to engage in program improvement to teachers as well as other school personnel serving as project coordinators in their schools (Lawler 1958, 143-44, 83-84; also see Passow et al. 1955, 2).

Similarly, Hilda Taba generated from her experience in the Eight-Year Study and in other curriculum development projects, an approach to curriculum planning that embraced all three sources, that focused on local program building, that involved extensive teacher participation, and that was fundamentally diagnostic in nature. She proposed a systematic process for diagnosing curriculum problems that included "Problem Identification," "Problem Analysis," "Formulating Hypotheses and Gathering Data," and "Experimenting with Action" (Taba 1962, 237-43). She identified a range of opportunities for teachers to participate in that process, from district councils, to school level committees, to teacher study and resource groups (Taba 1962, 449-50). As teachers engaged in local curriculum problem solving for Taba, they would analyze the nature and needs of society and culture, of the learner and the nature of learning, and the nature of knowledge.

In a final example, Ronald C. Doll, who during the early 1950s as a school superintendent collaborated with the Horace Mann-Lincoln Institute, generated an approach to the improvement of curriculum that reflected the elements of pragmatic progressivism. For Doll, curriculum improvement was a process of identifying, defining, and organizing to resolve school problems (Doll 1964, 183-97). Although Doll recognized that broad problems could be identified by actors outside the school system, as they increasingly had been during the 1950s, he emphasized that the identification and unavoidably the resolution of problems was an inherently local affair. He admonished that "the school that avoids improving its own curriculum will soon have its curriculum 'improved' for it" (Doll 1964, 189-90). Doll advocated for widespread participation in problem-solving initiatives, with the participation of teachers paramount, due to "the fact that classroom teachers largely determine the curriculum" (Doll 1964, 224). Doll identified consideration of the learner, society at large, and subject matter as essential to curriculum improvement efforts, devoting extensive discussion to each.


A comparison of the four characteristics of pragmatic progressivism to other historical characterizations of progressive education can highlight its integrity as a recognizable variety of progressive education. To begin with, all of the major characteristics Reese (2008) saw in progressivism in education, including rejecting academic formalism, relating school life to the life of the student and of society, and viewing the school as a social institution and as a vehicle for social progress, are reflected in the work of the pragmatic progressives. But together, the elements of pragmatic progressivism also transcend previously identified varieties of progressive education. The pragmatic progressives employed evidence to identify effective practices like Cremin's (1962) "scientists," included consideration of the child like Cremin's "sentimentalists," and also considered society as a source like Cremin's "radicals." The pragmatic progressives accepted the existing educational system like Tyack's (1974) "administrative progressives," considered the nature of the child as a source for the curriculum and embraced active learning like Tyack's "pedagogical progressives," but also accommodated subject matter. That is, pragmatic progressives, consistent with Dewey, typically were not dedicated to "subverting the hegemony of established school subjects" so much as they were to recognizing subject matter as a complementary source to the nature of the student and the nature of society (Tyack 1974, 197).

Additionally, the pragmatic progressives advocated and practiced "cooperative, democratic" approaches to school improvement that Tyack contended were unfeasible in conventional school bureaucracies (Tyack 1974, 197). Moreover, the pragmatic progressives advocated and implemented problem-solving as the method of school improvement, a definitive element of Dewey's educational theory and of philosophical pragmatism, and also an aspect of Dewey's theory often overlooked by educational historians. Thus, pragmatic progressivism was similar to but also significantly more than pedagogical progressivism, namely in its additional commitment to problem-solving and to consideration of the three sources. Pragmatic progressives managed to implement aspects of Dewey's educational theory and perhaps more fully expressed Dewey's theory in conventional school settings than historians have thought possible. Thus, the work of the pragmatic progressives is not sufficiently captured by existing varieties of progressivism that historians have identified. Recognizing the work of pragmatic progressives as an additional variety of progressivism in education provides a fuller account of progressive education and perhaps suggests that some of Dewey's ideas are more amenable to enactment than previously acknowledged.

In summary, the main elements of the work of the pragmatic progressives were the identification and resolution of local educational problems through systematic, participatory processes that considered the nature of the student, society, and subject matter in planning educational experiences. Their approach was scientific, not in the sense that educational research was to Thorndike and Judd, but in Dewey's sense of the scientific method as a problem-solving process. Their approach was situational in that it identified local problems and generated customized solutions, rather than imposing on local schools' blanket "reforms." Their approach was participatory in that it immersed local educators in the identification and resolution of local problems. Moreover, their approach embraced the student, subject matter, and society as complementary curriculum sources, which was not unprecedented but was somewhat uncommon as many educationists during this period advocated one of those sources over the others. Dewey's influence on these educators may be difficult to document, but major elements of his educational progressivism, as well as definitive aspects of American philosophical pragmatism, are reflected in their work. Pragmatic progressivism represents an overlooked variety of progressive education in the United States. Recognition of this work can provide a more robust historical understanding of progressive education.


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William G. Wraga

University of Georgia
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Title Annotation:ARTICLE 7
Author:Wraga, William G.
Publication:American Educational History Journal
Date:Jan 1, 2019
Previous Article:SEPTIMA CLARK YELLED: A Revisionist History of Citizenship Schools.

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