Setting the Record Straight on Progressive Education

Earlier this year, Defending the Early Years published Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose. The report, which elicited tremendous interest—in the early childhood community and beyond—shows that  research does not support the Common Core requirement that all children must read with purpose and understanding by the end of kindergarten.


Recently, Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College, who regularly blogs at Psychology Today, posted to his Facebook page one of his columns, from 2013, on reading instruction.  Here is a response from Diane E. Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, senior advisors to Defending the Early Years.

Diane E. Levin, a professor at Wheelock College, is the author of Beyond Remote-Controlled Childhood and a founder of Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment.  Nancy Carlsson-Paige is a professor emerita at Lesley University, the recipient of numerous awards, and the author of Taking Back Childhood

By Diane E. Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige

There has been much well-deserved criticism of the increase in direct instruction in reading skills to young children, resulting from the demands of the Common Core State Standards. However, when we and others argue for abandoning the current one-size-fits-all approach to early literacy, we are not proposing “natural learning environments,” where children learn to read on their own with little teacher intervention.

Yet this is the only alternative to direct, skills-based instruction that Peter Gray describes in “The Reading Wars: Why Natural Learning Fails in Classrooms,” a column from his archive at Psychology Today.

In his essay, Gray argues that learning to read in and out of classrooms is different, by its very nature. This is true. But we do not agree with his assumption that the progressive alternative to direct teaching of phonics and reading skills is to set up natural conditions that allow children to learn to read on their own. He is creating a dichotomy that illustrates an enduring misconception of progressive practice.

Decades ago, in the Harvard Education Review, Lawrence Kohlberg, an American psychologist known for his theory of moral development, and Rochelle Mayer, now a professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown, astutely described a “romantic” view of learning which grows out of psychological theories that promote inner growth and development. They argue that Romantic educators create an environment where children are free to flourish and grow based on their innate and inner needs, through self-discovery.

Kohlberg and Mayer contrast this view with progressive education—the outgrowth of cognitive theory, as seen in the work of Jean Piaget, and the educational philosophy of John Dewey. In the progressive approach, the main focus is not on the skills to be learned or on the individual child, but on the interaction between the two. It’s a dynamic and complex process in which the teacher has a vital role to play.

With respect to reading, the teacher must understand the developmental progression of skills in oral language, reading and writing. The teacher must know the level of each child’s skills, as well as understand his or her unique learning needs and abilities, culture and linguistic background. With this knowledge, the teacher can purposefully build curriculum for every child that is developmentally appropriate, meaningful, and lasting.

In Lively Minds, a short paper that Lillian Katz wrote for Defending the Early Years, this beloved professor emerita  at the University of Illinois draws a distinction between academic goals and making meaning through learning.  Education, she argues, must “provide a wide range of experiences, opportunities, resources, and contexts that will provoke, stimulate, and support children’s innate intellectual dispositions.”

Teachers in progressive classrooms are intentional about literacy education and employ many strategies to expose children to rich oral language and print. Among them are telling and enacting stories; reading picture and chapter books; singing, reciting, and reading from posted charts (teachers using pointers to read along and helping children isolate specific letters and sounds); drawing and writing with invented and conventional spellings; taking dictation from children; and helping children write their own stories.

In organic and meaningful ways, teachers use print throughout the day—labeling block structures and interest areas, writing recipes, transcribing children’s stories, making charts for attendance and classroom jobs. Teachers tune these activities to the developmental skill levels of individual children, scaffolding new learning in ways that will build a strong foundation for lifelong success in reading.

In contrasting the whole-language and phonics skills-based approaches, or what he calls “training,” Gray ignores the complex role of the teacher in a progressive classroom. Good literacy programs integrate both phonics and meaning; for effective learning, skill-building must be connected to children’s interests and developmental levels in meaningful ways.

In these times of policy mandates and standardized education for even our youngest children, it is vital that critics be clear about the alternatives.  And it’s equally important that critics not misrepresent appropriate practice, or what its proponents are advocating for. We hope that clarifying these issues will help us move forward toward best educational practice for all of our children.


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3 comments to Setting the Record Straight on Progressive Education

  • Thanks for sharing this. I, in turn, shared this important article with 3 of my LinkedIn groups.

  • Grace Friedman

    To my best recollection, the final say of the reading wars report was that neither extreme was a panacea for developing full literacy. But that reading was to be taught in a manner that both direct instruction (read phoenetic approaches) and naturalistic were in combination the best way to reach children. I believe they avoided labels like progressive approaches, or traditional and focused on methodology. Side stepping the never ending tension between traditional and progressive ways to teach literacy. Terms like progressive and traditional obscure.

  • Kevin Strawn

    I agree with Grace that in this case the labels cloud the issue to a degree, though this needn’t be the case. Confucius- “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name.” Be clear with the semantics.

    In regards to Gray’s ignorance of the teacher’s complex role, it’s true that teachers can make all the difference even within an ineffectual system; however, the proposition that teachers not only keep track of each student’s interests and motivations for learning, but also customize their lessons in each case, seems a silly one. Perhaps this is possible, but it cannot be expected that a teacher will do so successfully, especially when the child isn’t forthcoming with their particular needs. Additionally, the very nature of this schooling system is corrosive to kids’ natural inclination to learn, which is likely why Gray skates over the role of the teacher in these cases.

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