Home: Where are you? Traditional and Progressive Philosophical Orientations

Updated: Jan 21

The Spectrum and the Survey

I created a somewhat large but not exhaustive list of progressive and traditional descriptors and made a loosely designed spectrum as a frame of reference. When I get to posting lessons and resources, I will use that spectrum to describe where I think each one falls within the spectrum.

Before venturing out and taking the call to seek "whatisarealeducation" or to embark on your educational quest, we prepare by being as connected to who we are, as educators and as people, as we possibly can. We should, among other things, be aware of where we fall on the philosophical spectrum of progressive and traditional orientations. I created this survey as a self-assessment tool to help us in beginning to do just that. Let me know what you think!



What are your beliefs about education right now? How closely to you adhere to your beliefs? How do you visualize education, your attributes as a teacher, the teaching profession, how do you visualize our youth, our society, and the world as impacted by your ideal educational system?

The Spectrum

My plan is to post resources and lesson plans that other educators may find valuable or helpful or that I felt were especially effective or meaningful. I will sell them here on this website somewhere and on Teachers Pay Teachers. For each lesson or body of work that I post, I will try to briefly define the underlying rationale, philosophy and aims then how the item is tied to those aims. I will provide a link to my website with a blog, article, suggested readings, and quotes about this topic, an anecdote or narrative about my use of the lesson, photographs or artifacts when I have them. Finally, I will suggest where the lesson might fall within the traditional progressive spectrum that I’ve created juxtaposing these two educational orientations. I do this as a place to start, not as a foregone conclusion, by any means! I may not place the lesson where you would place it.

The placement of the practices within the spectrum are very much open for debate, too. I object, for instance, to the characterization that traditional education cares about rigor and challenge as opposed to the progressive counterpart. But I placed it in the traditional category anyway. I think of traditional and progressive education world views as similar to republican and democrat. There are some fundamentally opposing viewpoints that are irreconcilable like the degree to which each perspective feels the federal government should play a role in a market economy- republicans would say very little and democrats would quite a lot. There are other viewpoints that are more haphazard and not necessarily consistent with the rest of their philosophy but were probably patched on to that group during a historical period in which that particular issue was important to a key interest group.

Similar inconsistencies occur between the traditional and progressive schools of thought.

The spectrum is made even more haphazard and inconsistent by the fact that, historically, the way we define traditional becomes more progressive over time. What was considered crazy and radical in 1930 became outdated, conservative, and closed minded by 1990. What may have been considered flagrantly Woodstock liberal to one generation might become one of the cornerstones of a traditional framework in the next. A hundred years ago, elective classes were considered radical and a threat to our institutions in America. Now, no one questions the need for electives. Two hundred years ago, Latin would be a core subject for everyone attending school. Now, it's virtually extinct. A hundred and fifty years ago, there wasn't a history department in the United States nor did we teach science or foreign language. Today, the most conservative among us are history fans while progressives want less history and more of the other social sciences. Science wasn't important until the 1950's to prepare students to compete with Sputnik. The pattern in educational history has been less like a pendulum and more like a spiral of progression, and the terms traditional and progressive are defined in dozens of ways across the decades in America and across the centuries in Europe.

Even more confusing, the three major progressive schools of thought are far more contradictory than they are similar or compatible. Social meliorists care about society's problems, Scientific managers care about testing, efficiency and social order with racist and classist underpinnings, developmentalists support no pre-established curriculum and rely on students' natural curiosity. Three other progressive groups that came later care about vocational education, personal actualization and liberation, and the other, eradicating racism and classism. John Dewey, the most famous educator and founder of progressive education, would agree with none of the six, he had the least actual influence in our schools, but he is the most blamed for all the other progressive groups' missteps. Traditional essentialism wants a basic skills education of reading, writing, and math. Traditional perennialism would hate that approach; they want a rich liberal arts curriculum with a concentration on ideas and thinking skills. The words traditional and progressive probably shouldn't even be used at all. Their meanings are confused, convoluted, and fluid. The terms probably cause more misunderstandings than clarity, more conflict than unity.

However, having said all that about the watered down usefulness of the terms, I still thought I should start with them as general orientations. I think they can be helpful to, at least, provide a frame of reference to begin this journey.

For the most part, I would most likely be characterized as a progressive educator although I don’t like to be pigeonholed into any one category. There are many exceptions and contradictions within my philosophy that keep me from being simply and perfectly aligned with progressive education. I’ll do my best to point those out when and if they arise, especially if it’s relevant to an interesting point of discussion or an area worthy of contemplation. I will also write up a brief summary of some of my strongest beliefs and biases that will show up in my lessons and writing.

When I start posting lesson plans and resources for purchase, I will use the following tool to serve as kind of a self-assessment and an invitation for you to assess the work for its philosophical orientation.