Traditional versus Progressive: The Clash of Educational Theories

In an editorial piece for Education Week, James Nehring (2006) writes a scathing commentary on the dismissal of progressive education as something innovative, experimental and new, instead asserting that which we know as progressive is actually steeped in long standing traditions of educational philosophies dating back to Socrates. On the other hand, that which has become known as traditional education is actually the consequence of an amalgamation of “practices intended for industry, Army procedures, education ‘innovation’ in the 1800s, and political maneuvering by elites a century ago.”

Blog Post II

In Experience and Education, John Dewey (1938) outlines the main arguments made, during his time, between traditional and progressive educational schools of thought. He recognizes that the answer is not found in one or the other but in a “new order of conceptions leading to new modes of practice.” He goes onto state in his preface, that any reform movement, instead of creating a schism, needs to think about the “actual needs, problems and possibilities” of education instead of becoming reactionary, by which the new movement is controlled by the old. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on the ways in which Dewey defined the contrasting principles of progressive and traditional education, the ways they have developed in modern practice, and their connection to the principles of Universal Design (UDL) and Backwards Design (UbD).

Originally, progressive education was a response to the tenets of traditional education, which stand starkly contrasted with one another. Where traditional education was meant to prepare youth for the demands of life after school (as if life is something that only happens after schooling), progressive educational theory seizes opportunities in the student’s life and respects their individual interests and abilities (Dewey, 1938; Kohn, 2008). In this way, it is tied to UDL, in that progressive theory promotes the variability of learners and recognizes that the personal abilities and qualities in learners are constantly in flux and exist at the “intersection between individuals and their experiences” (Kohn, 2008; Meyer, Rose & Gordon, 2014) When students play an active role in the creation of curriculum and the process of learning, knowledge stops being seen as static, and instead becomes socially constructed in line with the changing world. Knowledge, therefore, is continually updated, revised and expanded (Dewey, 1938;  Meyer, Rose & Gordon, 2014). Additionally, one of the main principles of UbD requires that expectations and goals are framed around genuine issues, questions and problems, whereby students can make meaning of big ideas and transfer their learning to real world situations and contexts. Creating units in this way ties into the principles of progressive theory and UDL, because it  expects students to autonomously make sense of and transfer their learning, as well as provide student choice in learning activities that account for the individual differences in students (Wiggins & McTighe, 2011).

In looking at the role of both the teacher and student in a traditional educational settings, classrooms are solely teacher centered. Knowledge in the traditional model is acquired. The teacher is the gate-keeper, passing knowledge down and filling the student’s mind with new information. This type of model imposes adult standards, interests and methods on students who are not yet old enough or mature enough to actively participate in their own education and learning. Teachers also serve as the enforcer of rules which have been passed down from previous generations to sculpt morality and conformity. In this respect, the student must be a passive recipient of this new knowledge, and obedient to the rules enforced upon them (Dewey, 1938).  In progressive settings, on the other hand, students play an active and important role in the learning process. This type of active role leads to deep understanding that is organized around problem solving, questioning and thinking deeply about issues that matter to students, in turn creating strategic learners (Kohn, 2008; Meyer, Rose & Gordon, 2014). When creating UbD units, the role of teacher is clearly defined as a coach or facilitator of understanding, where the primary goal is to ensure learning as opposed to passing down knowledge. Teachers who create units using UbD guidelines realize the textbook is one resource among many, opting instead to support and guide learner inquiry through experiential opportunities that help students make sense of complex concepts and material (Wiggins & McTighe, 2011).

Tying this back to the first point, students who learn in progressive environments are able to explore their personal interests and delve into topics that respect the many facets of their lives and experiences. Learning becomes meaningful, because it is relevant to the learner. In this way, the teacher becomes more of a facilitator of the learning, allowing a safe space for students to explore their interests and take risks. Learners become active participants in the process instead of docile recipients. This student-teacher relationship contrasts with traditional models, creating a community of “collaboration, caring, interdependence and independence” much more like a family unit instead of school unit that functions differently than other structures in society. Teachers in progressive settings take cues from the children they are presently teaching, from the variability that is present in each child and is based on their interests, with curriculum decided on with student input (Dewey, 1938; Kohn, 2008). In this way, progressive educational theory is very much in line with the tenets of UDL, which state learners must be active and self-aware in order to flexibly solve problems. Teachers are models and mentors for the process of learning, much like the facilitator model in progressive educational theory. UDL believes in a community of practice, where everyone involved is learning from one another. Teachers learn from other teachers and students, while simultaneously students are learning from one another and their teachers. Unlike traditional education, where the textbook and the teacher are the bastion of education, progressive education and UDL understand the importance of the child centered nature of education to promote deep understanding and build life long learners through active participation in the entire process (Kohn, 2008; Meyer, Rose & Gordon, 2014). When creating units through UbD, teachers must create sequences that are flexible, allowing students to move back and forth, as necessary to revisit and revise past learning (Wiggins & McTighe, 2011).


Dewey, J. (1938). Education and experience. New York: Macmillan.

Kohn, A. (2008). Progressive education: Why it’s hard to beat, but also hard to find. Retrieved from

Meyer, A. Rose, D.H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing.

Nehring, J. H. (2006). Progressive vs. traditional: Reframing an old debate. Education Week, 25 (21), 32-33.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2011) The understanding by design guide to creating high-quality units. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


6 thoughts on “Traditional versus Progressive: The Clash of Educational Theories

  1. First, I love the picture visually comparing the the two classrooms! Additionally, I agree with the statement you including by Dewy (paraphrasing) a successful classroom is neither one or the other (progressive or traditional) but a combination of both approaches. I think we need to find our perfect balance!


  2. Nice job Teresa. You’ve presented a compelling discussion that contrasts both of these theories and weaves in the connections with both UDL and UbD. Good connections to the historical pieces that can often add so much insight. Great incorporation of references that connect to this discussion. Clearly Dewey and others had keen insights into the important elements of what we value through UDL and UbD. I’ll be interested in hearing more from your colleagues and how you build upon this in the coming week…


  3. I really enjoyed reading your blog because it really helped to put everything into perspective with progressive and tradition education mixed with UDL and UbD. It is clear that you have a passion for education and you strive to give your students the best and the freedom they need to grow as individuals. You had great pictures to represent each theme; the picture of the progressive classroom just looks so much more inviting than the traditional picture. It is so important that students connect the material to the bigger picture and make connections along their journey through school. With progressive education students are able to make those connections and constantly reflect on their prior knowledge. I believe that in a tradition setting it is more difficult for students to make those connections because teachers are just moving along, seeing if students have memorized material, and assessing what they learned in a quick period of time. Do you find that your students are able to explore and learn more because you give them the freedom to do so? Are they interested and engaged that they really do “dig deeper” when given the opportunity? It is nice when students use that time wisely to further their understanding on subject matter. That is evidence that they want to become lifelong learners.


    1. Jenna – when you first open up these opportunities to students who have previously been restricted in terms of their active participation in the classroom, you have to set expectations and procedures clearly from the beginning. It takes time for them to learn how to be self motivated and productive in these situations and they are children, so they do require occasional redirection and prompting. That said, overall, once they understand their role, if you have presented the tasks in authentic ways that they can relate to their lives, then yes, I find they are normally highly engaged. They struggle with how to dig deeper on their own because they have grown up in a system that values breadth over depth, so it is a learning curve. But they try and they are able to hold conversations about ideas and topics they have never been asked about. They actually think about things and feel strongly about their world, if only more teachers would engage them in the conversations. I’ve had students tell me that they have never learned English the way I teach it, but they appreciate that I ask their opinions on these topics and they usually have very strong opinions on them. Students want to feel valued as human beings who have feelings, interests, and opinions, who make mistakes, who are growing, learning and changing. They want to know that the adults in their lives value the experiences and idiosyncrasies they bring to the table. And most importantly they want to be heard. When you create a classroom that values these things, then students see the value more clearly. They feel part of it. And they become more motivated when they feel valued. (Please excuse typos, I’m doing this on the WordPress app)


  4. Your post really took a neutral standpoint. Kudos to you! It also made me think of my classroom as a whole, leaning neither towards traditional nor progressive theories, but towards what will make an effective learning environment for my students.

    Learning is not static, but shared between teacher and student.
    -We all need a chance to learn and grow from each other.
    Textbooks are a resource, not a repetitive instructional strategy.
    -Other methods should be used frequently and abundantly. Students need to explore information on their own.
    Teachers collaborate, not control.
    -We are not the keepers of all knowledge. The world does not start and stop on our time. Release control, and allow students to make mistakes, self-regulate, and learn from their failures and successes.
    Teachers are flexible, not fixated.
    -Design your curriculum using the UbD model, but do not become rigid in it’s outline. Learning happens in real time, and must be adapted and changed to meet the needs of the learner. Flexibility coupled with the willingness to reflect and be honest with yourself about your students progress is a great trait to possess to ensure that students are retaining the skills needed to be successful not only in your classroom learning the predetermined content,but also successful in how they apply that content in their real world experiences.


  5. Good job with the shading light on the debate between traditional and progressive approaches to education. Your reflection seems to stay neutral but I feel you do lean a bit to the side of advocating for more of a progressive approach than traditional approach in the classroom. Do you feel that teachers need to create a balance between using traditional and progressive approaches in attempt to provide the best educational services to our students? Or, do you advocate for a solely progressive approach? Being in the graduate program and in various leadership roles in your building how would go about getting teachers to adopt the progressive approach as best practice in the classroom?


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