What is Progressive Education, and Why Isn’t it New?

When asked to describe Einstein Academy, we often start by telling people that it is a model of progressive education, but what does that term mean? What, exactly, is progressive education, and what does that mean at Einstein Academy?

Progressive Education

Progressive education finds its roots in experience, emphasizing learning by doing and integrating the curriculum around themes or driving questions with an emphasis on the skills that will be needed in the future. It involves a strong emphasis on life-long learning, problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and social-emotional learning. It values highly personalized, differentiated learning that puts the student at the center, with the teacher as the guide of that learning and uses authentic means of assessment, evaluating student learning through projects and real-world tasks. Additionally, progressive education emphasizes the community and service learning, encouraging students to consider their impact on society and their obligation to do good. 

While some might consider progressive education to be a modern movement, its roots in the United States began in the late 19th century with John Dewey. Dewey believed that, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself,” and he believed in integrating elements of the student’s life into education, such as recognizing the learning that took place at home and the role of the parents in that education. Dewey strongly believed in cultivating motivation amongst students in order to promote learning and focusing on educating the whole child through experience and reflection, saying, “We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience.” Additionally, Dewey believed in giving space for students to grapple with real problems, saying, “We only think when confronted with a problem,” and also giving them the space to be challenged, sharing, “Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.”

Jewish Roots

While Dewey, who lived from 1859-1952, was responsible for bringing progressive education to the United States, the movement actually has deep roots in Judaism. Ethics of Our Fathers 1:14 says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?,” emphasizing the need for continued self-improvement as a first step to impact the world. This text also shows the emphasis on community and the need to take action.

Additionally, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 90) says, “He who studies but does not repeat his lessons is as one who plants but does not enjoy the fruit.” Learning is life and is meant to be integrated and infused with experience. Also, the concept concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world, has its roots in the Mishnah (codified around 200 CE).

Furthermore, the Passover hagaddah includes the section about the four sons, advising parents (as educators) on how to answer four different types of learners, focusing on the power of the learner’s question and the differentiation needed in facilitating learning. Along those lines, Proverbs 22:6 states, “Train a child according to his way; even when he grows old, he will not turn away from it,” showing the importance of differentiation and reaching students where they are. 

Seen at Einstein Academy 

With our mission as the “what” of Einstein Academy, we use progressive education as the “how,” engaging students in authentic, real-world learning and empowering them to be facilitators of that learning. Our units are interdisciplinary so that students can use their knowledge and skills from various disciplines to solve problems and make an impact (see more about our approach to REAL Learning here). Additionally, we believe students are individuals, and their learning should reflect that (see more about our approach to differentiation here). With the basis in Jewish values and culture, students also engage in the community through the lens of doing good. We see the home and community as extensions of the classroom and appreciate the learning that happens everywhere. And believe school should be fun (for the students, teachers, and even the parents when they are in the building). 

Dewey once said, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” Through progressive education at Einstein Academy, students are prepared for whatever tomorrow brings.

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