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.