Using science and reason, progressive theorists sought to improve mankind. One part of this effort was the implementation of progressive education, beginning in the late 19th century. A combination of the works of Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel as well as from 19th century social reform movements, Progressive education evolved, growing on the findings of past educators and contemporary ideals. In order to institute changes in society and allow people to live to their full potential, progressives looked towards making fundamental changes in their schools. Shying away from the dreary, skill-based, drill-and-recite curriculum, they wanted something more engaging, more relevant, that would unlock this potential in students and essentially, the future.
John Dewey (1859-1952) Dewey was not the founder of the progressive movement, but easily the most influential spokesperson for the movement. After teaching high school, Dewey studied for his doctorate of philosophy, then teaching at the University of Chicago and later moved to Columbia University in New York City where he wrote about education and philosophy. Dewey's ideal school was one where children could grow physically, intellectually, and socially, as well as be challenged to think independently. Dewey wanted classrooms to be places where children could investigate the world around them, engaged in subject matter which would expand on their natural curiosity. He believed that schools should mirror society and that education ought to be viewed as the life of the child in the present and not just focused on preparation for the future and for adulthood. Dewey also believed that in addition to facilitating learning, schools should provide help to immigrants adapting to a new culture. Progressive educators advocated methods of instruction that are based on individual interest, hands-on activities, acknowledgment of individual differences, and child-initiated activity whenever possible.
According to Dewey, school's should offer children opportunities to practice the democratic practice in a group setting and learning through interesting and meaningful activities. Despite the Froebelian materials in the University of Chicago Laboratory program, the materials were put to use in different ways. Dewey's approach to education placed emphasis on greater freedom and spontaneity in play, as well as involvement in the social life of the classroom. Still used to today, children work through collaborative projects in small groups related to their own interests. Holistic "whole-child" education is key to the progressive movement. Addressing physical, social, emotional, and intellectual development, progressive programs focus on learning by doing, learning by experimenting and experiencing with real, raw materials and self-directed, self-paced activities. Despite the seemingly 'free' curriculum, Dewey clarified that enjoyment and fun were not legitimate educational purposes, that educational activities always needed to support children's learning and development.
The role of the teacher in a progressive education program is to provide a carefully designed environment and curriculum ripe for learning, and to prepare children to be members of a democratic society. The curriculum would include "real experiences" like carpentry, weaving, cooking, and the study of local geography. Teachers duties included observing children, and according to their observations, ask questions and provide experiences designed to integrate different subject and interest areas to assist children in expanding and exploring their world. Teachers were seen as guides, not instructors or disciplinarians.