Progressive Learning Definition

Updated July 19, 2017

Progressive learning is an umbrella concept based on the principle that learning occurs gradually through discovery and experience. Rooted in the progressive education movement of the early twentieth century, research such as the Eight Year Study has documented the effectiveness of the progressive learning process. Progressive learning is best understood through the principles of its historical roots and the work of John Dewey.


Progressive learning is a child-centred approach to education. While the progressive education principles of continuity and interaction, and that learning is created and recreated gradually by experience, are at the heart of progressive learning, there is no single method for implementation. In practice, progressive learning emphasises experimentation and active learning rather than lecture and memorisation that are found in more traditional educational environments. However, it also emphasises meeting the needs of the whole child.


Proponents of the progressive education movement such as Dewey believed that "students should be encouraged to be independent thinkers, creative beings and expressive about their feelings." Additionally, Dewey believed that education had a responsibility to do more than 'educate' students in an academic sense. Education should develop students to their maximum potentials and prepare them to become meaningful contributors to the democratic society. Respect for the individuality of each student emerged through the recognition that prior experience and interest played a critical role in each student's ability to create understanding, and, as a result, learning. Therefore, the progressive learning environment was designed to support an active, engaging learning process.


According to Kohn, progressive education is committed to eight values: 1. Developing the whole child, academically, intellectually, civically, socially, and emotionally. 2. Fostering a caring, interdependent community that allows students to learn effectively from one another. 3. Emphasising collaboration, the 'working with' model, for problem solving. 4. Promoting a commitment to diversity and the shared responsibility for one another. 5. Focusing on the role of the student's interests while shaping the learning experience. 6. Challenging the student to seek deep knowledge and understanding rather than acquire facts. 7. Creating opportunities for the student to construct ideas through active participation in the learning process. 8. Putting the student at the centre of the educational process by recognising the uniqueness of each individual.

Accoriding to Kohn, an institution can be characterised as a progressive learning environment to the extent that these values inform and shape their pedagogical practices.


Progressive learning environments are organised to be responsive to diverse learning styles. They typically use inquiry-based projects, problem-solving, hands-on learning, mentor--apprentice relationships, interdisciplinary teaching, service learning, and authentic assessments.


While progressive education is set in contrast to traditional models, there are few learning environments that function at either extreme of the continuum. Many traditional environments may incorporate some of the elements of progressive education just as progressive learning environments are often constrained by some of the structure of the more traditional environments. Likewise, schools that embrace progressive learning methodologies are unlikely to implement all of the tenets of the root philosophy.

Cite this Article A tool to create a citation to reference this article Cite this Article

About the Author

Dr. Lucie Lewis has worked in higher education for 22 years. She holds an Ed.D in Educational Leadership from William Howard Taft University. Lewis has written technical reports for 25 years and written for the “Point of View Community Newspaper” for the last two years ago.