History & Philosophy of Education & Special Education

History & Philosophy of Education & Special Education

The Progressive Era

Progressive education developed at the end of the nineteenth century and was wrought out of ideological and theoretical growth concerning education. Progressive education took form during this period but its development was a process that began with other philosophers who discussed education in terms of liberalism and its necessity for good citizenship. Locke, Rousseau, Mills, and others would lay the foundations for progressive education as education pertained to the development of citizens and well-ordered societies. These philosophers laid the groundwork as they provided many of the links between education and social class and the necessity of public education.

At the end of the nineteenth century, progressive reform was occurring not just in education but also in many other areas such as justice, health, religion, and many other aspects of society. The progressive era, which encompassed progressive education, was spurred by the objective to reduce government corruption and many social movements and activist groups were formed in this era. The progressive movement was a reaction to the many issues caused by industrialization. Progressive educators were attempting to create and education system with more equity which did not exclude individuals based on class. Ultimately, progressives wanted to created free-thinkers or individuals who could think creatively and critically and they believed that this was only possible through a more liberal education process. Progressive education can be seen in the broader context of the progressive movement but it far outlived the movement and continues today.

The progressive education directly impacted the teaching profession and the role of teachers. The most impactful elements of progressive education include the emphasis of education in terms of critical thinking, experiential learning, and understanding vs rote knowledge. These elements changed the fundamental way that teachers approached education and altered the profession from being a strict discipline to being a more autonomous and democratic process.

Teachers today can utilize more experiential learning techniques such as thematic strategies and scenario-based learning. Prior to the progressive movement, teachers followed the same education strategies that were used in the past and there was little divergence from lesson plans. There has also been a shift in the view of learning from being a state of pure memorization to being a process of understanding information and being able to utilize it. This is an important shift in thought because as a professional teachers could design curriculum that was intended to teach concepts through means other than just memorization or understanding specific formulas. More importantly the progressive movement provided a change in the concept of thinking and learning as it shifted from a point of understanding knowledge that is skill specific to a point of critical thinking and assessment. This was a significant shift in education because it meant that teachers were not merely passing knowledge along but instead providing the means for using the knowledge in a meaningful manner.

The progressive movement culminated in the theories of John Dewey. Dewey’s view of education and learning is based on experiential learning which was a central element of his education philosophy. The key to understanding Dewey’s education theory is that all learning and advancement in thought occurs within a social environment. Teachers organize knowledge into logical content and small parts and increases the knowledge based on the ability and readiness of the student. As such learning is a social process that is contingent on experience and this makes education and social process (Cahn, 2012).

Dewey views education in the traditional sense as being a barrier to learning because it is based on a pattern of organization such as the rules, schedules, and strategies for learning that schools create (Cahn, 2012). These patterns limit education because learning is based on experience and the system is no designed to foster social relationships that promote the sharing of knowledge (Gutek, 2011). This can be seen in the fact that society places education responsibility on the school and the teacher rather than viewing it as society’s task and responsibility.

In Dewey’s theory, the role of the teacher is to facilitate appropriate experiences for students rather than an authority. As such, the teacher becomes a facilitator of knowledge that is disseminated through activities that students can experience rather than spooning out information for students to memorize. Teacher must be skilled not just in the knowledge that they intend to teach but they must also have an understanding of the types of experiences and focus of the experiences for students in order to properly teach (Cahn, 2012).

Dewey’s theory lends itself to special education because it provides the basis for inclusive classrooms. If people learn in a social context, then separating students from the mainstream environment is a barrier for students- especially those with disabilities. In Dewey’s theory, education for the developmentally challenged is dependent on their ability to interact and to be apart of society as much as any abled child. This theory has been implemented in classrooms today as part of progressive education as inclusion is a requirement rather than a goal.

Dewey’s theories are still relevant and viable in education today. In many ways, Dewey’s contributions have only begun to be tapped in a beneficial manner. As late as the 1980s, children with disabilities were still being ostracized from classrooms and areas of socialization that would have benefited them. Many of these changes have only begun to evolve in the last 20 years (Gutek, 2011).


As education continues to grow many of the progressive trends have begun to fade over time. While there are many aspects of progressive education that are beneficial such as social learning, there are many concepts that grew out of progressive thinking which did not work well. One of the major issues with progressive education is that it emphasizes autonomy over disciplined rote knowledge (Gutek, 2011). While taking an interest in subjects is important, there needs to be some form of basic core knowledge that can provide the ability to perceive and analyze new concepts. This emphasis on freedom of education has led to liberal practices which are questionable such as schools that do not use a grading system or lack of competition which does not prepare students for the workplace. As a progressive thinker, Dewey believed in democracy and his view on education is designed on the idea that education must be flexible and can evolve with the changing world but not that it should lose its effectiveness. Many of the issues in progressive education were the result of educators who pushed the limits of Dewey’s theories.


Cahn, S. M. (2012). Classic and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Education. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Gutek, G. (2011). Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education: A Bibliogrpahical Introduction (5 ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Photo by Anthony Da Cruz on Unsplash


Triola Vincent. Mon, Feb 15, 2021. History & Philosophy of Education & Special Education Retrieved from

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