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Traditional vs. Progressive Education: Benefits and Challenges

A casually dressed teacher laughs with a little boy at a table cluttered with books, notebooks, markers, and a globe.

Educators disagree about the best ways to learn and why, and whether students should have a say in their education. Today, school administrators focus the debate on the advantages of traditional versus progressive education.

A Brief History of Traditional vs. Progressive Education

Administrators often question whether they should implement traditional versus progressive education in their schools. To provide all students with direct information and facts, teachers have implemented what is now known as the traditional method of teaching. In this educational model, educators are front and center. As gatekeepers of knowledge, they choose what to teach and how to teach it. They pass information to students that will help prepare them for life beyond school. In traditional education, schools are less concerned about students themselves and what they get out of their lessons. Rather, they focus on shaping students into moral and educated individuals who can contribute to the working world when they become adults.

Beginning in the 1880s, theorists such as John Dewey argued for a different approach to teaching, introducing progressive education. One of the most important distinctions in traditional versus progressive education is that the latter places the student in the center of the educational model. Dewey drew upon the ideas of philosophers John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau when developing his theories that students learn better with hands-on and experiential learning. Progressive education focuses less on how a teacher prepares students for jobs and more on what students are passionate about and what critical thinking skills they can develop. Administrators who implement this style of education in their schools help students understand how they can be lifelong learners, constantly engaging with new ideas and solving new problems.

The Benefits and Challenges of Traditional vs. Progressive Education

Since different students learn better with different teaching methods, administrators and educational leaders must consider the unique benefits and challenges associated with traditional versus progressive education.

Benefits and Challenges of Traditional Education

One of the benefits of traditional education is that it has been around for a long time, and many educators are familiar with it. Many teachers find it easier to implement coursework and curriculum that have already been established. Another benefit is that many school systems have a traditional framework, which provides students with an easier transition from elementary school to middle school, high school, and college. It also allows administrators to oversee consistent teaching methods.

Traditional education’s rigid structure allows students to grow up with a sense of organization and order. However, this benefit can also be one of its biggest disadvantages. One argument in opposition to traditional education emphasizes that traditional schools exist only to develop productive workers and eliminate individuality. Traditional education is often accused of stifling creativity, treating students as machines to be fed knowledge.

Benefits and Challenges of Progressive Education

While traditional education has served students of all ages across the United States for many years, some educators, scholars, administrators, and theorists have considered the drawbacks of traditional versus progressive education.

One of the benefits of progressive education is that teachers recognize and honor the creativity and passions of individual students. Educators do not simply teach students information and expect them to memorize it and get perfect scores on tests. Instead, they have their students engage in active hands-on learning through projects, experiments, and collaboration with peers. In this way, students can pursue topics and subjects they are passionate about.

Proponents of progressive education believe that, under this model, students are more likely to develop a love of education and become lifelong learners. Students use critical thinking skills outside the classroom as they evaluate and reevaluate their perspectives on real-world topics and issues.

Initially, progressive education was met with opposition in some quarters. John Dewey noticed that many institutions were only interested in creating obedient and subservient workers who could contribute to the economy—and the same can still be true today. Teachers and administrators who oppose these notions believe that progressive education can truly benefit students in the long run and give them a reason to love learning.

Pursue a Doctorate in Education

Teachers looking to further their careers and become school administrators should consider which educational style aligns best with their pedagogical views and practices. By furthering their own education, teachers can better understand why they would choose traditional versus progressive education.

If you are considering furthering your career in education, explore how American University’s EdD in Education Policy and Leadership can help you pursue your professional goals.

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