Foundations of Education


Chronicles the rise of progressive education, including the pioneering work of John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick.

Key Concepts

  • progressive education
  • John Dewey
  • William Heard Kilpatrick
  • problem-solving method
  • inquiry approach
  • project method

The Rise of Progressive Education

As noted during Week 8, the early 20th century was a period of economic and social transformation in Ontario, underpinned by advances in scientific progress, growing urbanization, waves of immigration, and the rise of a professional class. Accompanying this transformation were new ideas for teaching and learning - many inspired by the educational reformers of the 1800s - which challenged the direct instruction approach to education, also aiming to recast the role of teachers and students in schools.

The book excerpt below (written by the developer of this course website) traces the philosophical underpinnings of the progressive education movement which over the course of the last century has endeavoured to introduce more student-centred teaching and learning approaches into schools.

CREDIT: The text below is excerpted from: Hutchison, David. (1998). Growing Up Green: Education for Ecological Renewal. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 40 - 42.
The progressive education movement in North America is [little more] than a century old, yet during its brief history it has undergone several incarnations, formed allegiances with an assortment of causes, and been variously glorified or condemned by parents, teachers, and the public at large. Emerging in reaction to the authoritarian and anti-democratic nature of traditional schooling in the late 19th century, the movement's initial influence reached a peak in the 1920's and 30's under the leadership of educators such as John Dewey (1859-1952) and William Heard Kilpatrick (1871-1965). Through his writings, Dewey provided the conceptual foundations for progressive education and related the movement to the larger social and political vision of which it was a part. Kilpatrick, perhaps the chief [early] interpreter of Dewey's philosophy, popularized the vision of progressive education and developed a number of its most important practical elements.

Fundamental to Dewey’s thinking was the notion of the democratic society as the basis for community life. For Dewey, the term ‘democracy’ implied more than a particular form of government. A truly democratic society fostered an experimental temperament within its citizenry and advocated community-based participatory approaches to decision-making. The effectiveness of this type of social arrangement was largely dependent on a well-informed public with skills in critical decision-making and community building. Hence the need for an educational system which fostered skills in independent thinking and cooperative learning.

Dewey's conception of the educational process contrasted sharply with the traditional, authoritarian, and hierarchical view of learning that dominated the history of schooling up to his time. Underlying traditional education was an atomistic conception of a fixed and predetermined universe which revealed a set of 'permanent values' and 'static knowledge' that could be transmitted piecemeal to each successive generation. Taking an opposite view, Dewey argued that humans live in an indeterminate world that undergoes constant change and flux.

In order to create a sense of meaningfulness and purpose out of this 'universe in process', humans did traditionally turn to the fixed authority of various religious and philosophical systems which provided an overriding context for daily life (and the roots of traditional education), but in an age of rapid progress and technological advancement, a reliance on such outdated systems was neither wise nor warranted.

Rather, argued Dewey, it was that vanguard of the modern experience - experimental science - which provided the best tool for understanding the world in which we live. And it was through the disciplined use of the scientific method and the problem-solving process which extended from it that humans could learn to solve most problems and direct the course of future experiences.

Dewey’s aim was to create a participatory democracy whereby people from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds could utilize an experimental model of inquiry as the basis for rational planning and decision-making. By instilling an experimental temperament in students and helping them to develop basic skills of inquiry, schools fulfilled an important function within such a design.

The Problem-solving Method and Inquiry Approach

The problem-solving method and inquiry approach form the methodological foundations of progressive education. Dewey argued that they provide a means by which learning experiences can be grounded within the context of the scientific method and the experimental model of inquiry, thus reducing the role of arbitrary authority in educational decision-making and learning.

Dewey (1916) proposed a five step approach to problem-solving which formed the basis for Kilpatrick’s project method and the modern day inquiry approach. First, the rise of a problematic situation which perplexes the student and/or threatens the student's current understanding of a particular idea or situation. Second, the defining of the problem in a clear and overt way. Third, the search for information on the problem with the aim of further clarifying the problem and identifying avenues for further exploration. Fourth, the stating of a potential solution and/or a tentative hypothesis. Fifth, the implementation and testing of the solution or hypothesis and evaluating of its effectiveness in resolving the problematic situation.

The inquiry approach extends from the above methodology and draws on and reinforces a number of important learning and research skills. Mary Aggus and her associates (1985), for example, have simplified and adapted Dewey's methodology to include the following steps: exploring, inquiring, predicting, planning & collecting, deciding, communicating, and evaluating.

The inquiry approach teaches children to formulate questions and hypotheses, organize their ideas, collect, interpret, and evaluate evidence, and draw conclusions. Working alone or in small groups, students plan their research agenda, develop inquiry skills, and work toward an understanding of specific theme areas. Teachers assume the role of facilitators of learning. They organize the classroom environment, ensuring that it is conducive to learning and the inquiry process, and help students to develop research skills. Moreover, they serve as resource persons for students.
Kilpatrick (1927) adapted Dewey’s problem-solving process into the project method of teaching and learning. By closely following the experimental model of inquiry outlined by Dewey, the project method gave students the opportunity (with the proper support of their teachers) to plan and direct their own learning experiences and pursue their own research interests. Moreover, it radically transformed the nature of the educational experience for both students and teachers. No longer were students the passive recipients of externally imposed subject matter. Now they were free to be the constructors of their own learning experiences, following the path laid out by the experimental method. Likewise teachers, released from their traditional role as indoctrinaires, became facilitators of experience and resource persons to whom students could turn for guidance.

Progressive education clearly revolutionized educators' conception of the 'cognitive' in education, but it also introduced another form of consciousness to schools. A focus on the individualized learning needs of children naturally led to a greater concern for their emotional and social development. Beginning in the 1960’s and 70’s, with the rise of the humanistic movement in psychology, affective goals in education began to gain prominence, especially at the elementary level. The traditional definition of schools as sites for the transmission of knowledge was now expanded to include a concern for the emotional and social lives of children, the culture of the classroom (which was now seen to be a community), and the role of the peer group in socialization. Similarly, curricular activities and programs designed to raise students’ self-esteem and build social skills began making inroads into the classroom….

…Progressive education is clearly evident in many schools today under the labels of 'child-centered education', 'discovery learning', and 'the inquiry approach'.


Dewey, John. (1916/1966). Democracy and Education. New York: The Free Press.

Kilpatrick, William Heard. (1927). Education for a Changing Civilization. New York: MacMillan.