The History of Progressive Education in Canada


The progressive education era in North America involved years when the federal governments grew increasingly active in educational issues, regulating the sector that was believed to form the core of America’s future. It was also the period when the government regulated several other sectors of the economy such as businesses, industry, and labor. Through World War I, the US government got into the business of Americanizing immigrants and fostering patriotism (Axelrod, 1997).

The impact of the progressive era was characterized by a sharp increase in the number of children who attended school. For example, by 1900, a mere 11% of children attended secondary school (Cremin, 1962). However, by 1930 more than 50% attended secondary school, triggering a long-standing debate on what type of education and skills America needed (Cremin, 1962). The belief of the progressives was that a curriculum of memorized classics, math, science, and history should be replaced and that schools should take into consideration the nature of a child as well as society’s needs in carrying out its mission. From Dewey in 1915 to attempts to unify subjects in the core curriculum, progressive educators believed in the concept of democracy in education, where all citizens would be allowed to participate in the design of a curriculum that would suit both students and match with the societal demands. This paper discusses the history of progressive education in North America, from the time of Dewey. It also analyzes how progressive education has been implemented in Canada, and finally, how “progressive” has progressive education been in Canada.

The School and Society (1915-1920): John Dewey

John Dewey was a progressive educator who believed in a democratic form of education that would see both the interest of pupils as well as that of society taken into consideration during planning and implementation (Bulmer-Thomas & Coatsworth, 2006). Dewey, therefore, believed in a form of educational structure where all members of the society would be allowed to actively participate in the entire process. This participation would take the form of political, social and economical perspectives, with all members of the society contributing to the process of design and implementation.

During this period, some other progressive educators advocated for social efficiency, where children would be given significant tests to determine their probable careers and then be tracked into segmented curricula. It is during this period that placement and testing of IQ became integrated into the education curriculum. In his support of the progressive system, John Dewey believed that every study emerges from the relationship between people of a common world, where children live in a unified societal system with diverse knowledge, hence there would be no problem in correlating studies (Bulmer-Thomas & Coatsworth, 2006). He, therefore, proposed a system where teachers would not be hard-pressed to devise strategies to integrate technical subjects with humanities. This correlation would be beneficial to both students and society in general.

Region of Columbia got itself in the history book as Lincoln School of Teachers College was established to build a curriculum for elementary and secondary schools that would help education administrators do away with “obsolete materials” in the older system and build powerful materials to match the modern needs of the society (Harms & De Pencier, 1996, p.67). The argument was that the then-education curriculum had very little connection to the needs of affirmative action.

1918 saw the emergence of “The Cardinal Principles”, which reorganized secondary education, triggering a massive overhaul of the educational system (Holt, 1964, p.89). The changes were brought about by the “Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, which highlighted some seven principle objectives of education as health, command of fundamental processes, worthy home membership, vocation, citizenship, worthy use of leisure, and ethical character, all achieved through a unified approach: the comprehensive high school” (Holt, 1964). Curricula were built on the basis that each child would be concentrating on one area of specialization, depending on their interests. Additionally, the system focused on the ability of students to cooperate in order to increase productivity in research and development (Holt, 1964; Hayes, 2006).

Earlier, Dewey had decided to test his hypothesis on the proposed integrated but specialized education system through practice. This was through his efforts to make philosophy more directly relevant to the practical issues of educational theory (Kohn, 2000). That is, he moved away from the theory that dualism is the most integrating educational system for students. He also rejected the notion that his proposed specialized and practical curricula would cause dichotomy and proposed a specialized and unified approach to this goal that would ultimately help build interrelated and much-needed curricula. His main interest was on how schools could become cooperative communities, which would help build individuals according to their own ability and help them fulfill their own needs as well as building the societal needs and desires (Kohn, 2000). According to Dewey, the major goals of education were to; develop cooperatives and, to build the capacity of individuals (Kohn, 2000). From these two goals, he believed that they were not at odds with each other, but were complimenting one another in practice. Every unit in this new curriculum was also based on the need to include multiple activities, which would go hand in hand with the needs of contemporary society and modern civilization.

The development of Progressive Education Association (1919- the 30s)

Stanwood Cobb and other scholars worked jointly and founded the Progressive Education Association, which focused on the promotion of students’ needs and desires (Hayes, 2006). The aim of this association was to help individuals to not only understand but also deal with social problems in society, particularly in a country that intended to be more democratic in its social order. It, therefore, called for a curriculum that was not only learner-centered and project-oriented but also included the values of democracy as well as practices (Hayes, 2006). The issues of integration were the core theme, where the common debatable strategies were on how to develop a unified standardized curriculum with studies subjects that are correlated. The most active progressive educational advocates included Dewey John, Francis Parker, and Merriam J among others. It also involved issues to do with “content of the curricula vs. experience of the learner curricula” (Hayes, 2006); with the goal of tackling broader field and core areas as well as integrating a system that would see the societal needs are taken into consideration in design and implementation.

The quest for a new social order was facilitated by the trauma brought about by the Great Depression. Many scholars proposed a social system that would regulate a capitalist economy. This was the period of George Counts’ “Dare the School Build a New Social Order” message (Noddings, 2005, p.167). He believed that a new social order would be necessary to help avert problems from the Great Depression; and that no amount of revolution would correct the problem. He, therefore, proposed a system of education that would direct a new generation and help them change some fundamental values in the economy (Noddings, 2005).

The 8-Year Study of 1930 to 1942

The Great Depression period saw the Progressive Education Association conducting an 8-year study to evaluate the impact of the progressive program on the pupils and to the society (Bruner, 1960). Over 1500 students from progressive schools were used as samples in the study. A comparison was made between these progressive students and an equal number of those from conventional schools. The findings revealed that students from progressive schools either surpassed or equaled those from conventional schools in virtually all areas such as “academic grades, co-curricular activities, rate of dropouts, curiosity to know, and resourcefulness” (Bruner, 1960). Additional results revealed that the more a school adopted the progressive system, the better the performance of the students was realized in all areas highlighted in the curricula (Bruner, 1960).

The other area that was investigated was how high schools and colleges interrelated- a common factor that was found in this system. The result indicated that students from progressive schools performed much better in colleges than those from conventional schools. It was revealed that secondary schools could engage in whatever curriculum they desired and they felt was more appropriate according to their plans and programs. According to Thomas Hopkins, the term integrated meant a system of education that “does not seek to produce integrated personalities who may function satisfactorily in an integrated society, but rather integrating persons living dynamically in an integrating society” (Kohl, 1998, p. 269). By this time, secondary schools in North America had developed 80% of their curriculum into an integrated version. It was also believed that the integration involved a democratic process of management where administrations attempted to foster the relationship between their subjects with other issues outside their normal life, hence “their ability to breakdown subject line and subject matter” (Kohl, 1998, p. 271).

After the Second World War

From World War II through to the 1950s, many of the Public Schools had adopted some practices of progressive education in their school program. However, Dewey still doubted the success of progressive education curricula in penetrating and permeating the educational institution’s foundations in the public institutions (Ravitch, 2000). The growth of progressive curriculum became broader with time and even regenerated into a more diffuse system. This subsequently led many practitioners to change their strategies and principles for the implementation of progressive education. The different approaches to strategies and applications created a lot of difficulty in the assessment of the system, leading to a proposal for a complete overhaul of the program and a call for alternative approaches to the process (Ravitch, 2000).

The elements of constant debate over progressive education are visible through these periods. The over-arching issues over time involved the questions of: how much curriculum needed to be designed and implemented in the overall system, from the lowest to the highest grade; what level of pupils’ interests would be used to design classroom events; the value of student-centered; the value of societal needs in the educational program; the relationship between individual growth and societal development; and finally, how emotions, thoughts, and experiences are interrelated in the center of educational development and implementation (Ravitch, 2000 Noddings, 2005). Moreover, there was the unending debate of who would be in a position to oversee all these issues as they unfolded throughout the implementation process.

The Call for Return to Basics

The loud debates about the success and nature of progressive education revealed a scenario where many politicians and other opinion leaders criticized progressive education and called for a return to basics, more memorization and teaching of ‘facts’ (Flesch, 1955). This was mainly common during the Cold War decade of the 1950s when the Russians launched the sputnik, the first-ever artificial satellite, which sparked massive criticism of the progressive educational system as failing to teach the skills needed for the nation’s survival in an increasingly hostile world (Flesch, 1955). This is when the National Education Defense Act (1958) was created to fortify national defense, leading to the shifting of attention to strengthening education in math, science, and foreign languages (Flesch, 1955). This led to many schools getting consolidated into large district high schools with a more differentiated curriculum and with advanced courses that are scientific in nature.

The Issue of Equity in the Curriculum Policy (the 1960s – 1970s)

In the 1960s through to 70s, curriculum policy was secondary to the issue of equity (Ravitch, 2000). A growing number of civil rights movements, coupled with the legal challenge of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people spearheaded the campaign for equity in education. Earlier in 1954, the United States Supreme Court declared racial segregation in education to be unconstitutional. It is noted that the process of desegregation was slow and difficult (Ravitch, 2000). Ravitch states that the seriousness of the government was seen when “in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act allocated one billion dollars annually to schools with high concentrations of low-income children” (Ravitch, 2000, p.91). Schools were put under pressure to accommodate diversity. In the 1970s, more accommodative programs were included in schools. In this way, schools recognized the educational rights of girls, the disabled and non-English-speaking students.

Canada’s Experience

The progressive education in Canada took a progressive look in the 1930s. This kind of education was mainly focused on reforming the elementary level of education, with a few reforms in secondary education (Hayes, 2006). Areas that were mainly focused on were health education, which was included in the curriculum and in subjects to be learned in class. Some of the components of health education entrenched in the system were based on “activities like assessing appropriate habits, physical inspection, and sporting activities and well as games” (Hayes, 2006, p.67).

In Canada, unlike many other regions of North America, history as a subject was well entrenched and made part of the social studies in the overall course outlook. Another subject that was incorporated in social studies was geography, in addition to citizenship training. On the side of Natural science, students were introduced to plant and animal studies, and life science. On the side of art and design, progressive education introduced art, design and music. These subjects were introduced to help the elementary students cultivate their knowledge and ability in aesthetic studies and how sensible they were to the pieces of art produced (Axelrod, 1997). English on the other hand was the core subject and it occupied a good chunk of the time allocated to subjects. It comprised of reading and writing as the core values of its components. The last part of the progressive subjects was arithmetic, which focused on equipping students with skills to enable them to understand the significance of numbers in their lives. It also provided them with numerical skills for their own practical application (Axelrod, 1997).

The organization of students in the class was based on age, with tests being common criteria for assessment in class (Axelrod, 1997). Teachers also tested attendance, punctuality, attitudes as well as the interest of individual students. However, immediately after World War II, a lot of emphasis was put on students to learn more about how to live in a democratic society, through school curricula, with the introduction of war-related studies in course subjects (Axelrod, 1997).

At the secondary level, school programs that were introduced in 1937 focused on more improved areas from the elementary subjects. It focused a lot on areas such as “English, social studies, health and physical education, business practice and writing, mathematics, general or agricultural science, French, general shop for boys, home economics for girls, music, and art” (Bruner, 1960). Some events after 1950 emerged where many students still lefts school for work after accomplishing grade 10. In general, the aim of education during this period was mainly focused on the need to make students acquire literacy and numeric skills, and acquire basic knowledge on their rights and duties as citizens of the region.

Those who proceeded with education beyond grade 10, were made to learn other aspects of professional courses or university level. They followed a more uniform curriculum with some specific options that depended on the available school resources. These kinds of options were more common in urban settings. However, the inclusion of such subjects as physical and health education was highly opposed by the traditionalists in the education sector and society as a whole. For example, Gydney (cited in Harms & De Pencier, 1996, p.214) claimed it was one of the “gatekeepers of the social system, and at the same time, a guardian of the cultural order”.

In 1950, the Royal Commission on Education in Ontario published Hope Report, where they applied “progressive educational language, and increased the promotion of causes such as kindergarten extension and reorganization of grading structure that would ease the students’ transition phase, from elementary to secondary level of education” (Harms & De Pencier, 1996, p.16).

Students Diversity and Methods of Instruction

The instructional methods reflected the need to take care of the growing diversity of students. Some schools in Toronto tested some unconventional methods of instruction, more so at the elementary level. For example, one researcher found out one unconventional method of instruction was attempted in certain schools in Toronto, where a new method of teaching and reading was developed to identify early those underperforming children and to address the illiteracy in adults (Flesch, 1955). The experiments started in kindergarten schools where students were taught and tested, and then their performance was used to divide them according to their skills and ability (Flesch, 1955). This would form their approach to further education, with a more specialized approach to match their skills and ability. Teachers who used this strategy did approach it by stimulating students’ thinking and engaging them in practical areas of their preferred subjects, with reading and comprehension being the core to every subject of preference. Some schools also applied the “film strip flashcard technique when they introduced reading and arithmetic” (Noddings, 2005, p.492). The use of such film particularly took effect during and after wartime, when fleeting pictures of war aircrafts’ pictures were shown to students so that they would be in a position to interpret and comprehend what was happening in wars.

The desire to continuously teach and stimulate students’ interests lasted for a longer period of the 1950s in some major schools of Toronto (Noddings, 2005). For example, the Principal of Davisville Public School, R.A. Cook, gave a report suggesting that when students were visiting circus, his staff held a meeting to discuss some of the following goals in their educational initiatives: “To develop in the child more inner drive to solve his or her own problems; to develop in the child ‘Mrs.’, ‘Sir’, ‘Miss’ habit; to help the children discover the importance of good work and facilitate their desire and ability to pursue their desired goals” (Noddings, 2005, p.21). Similarly, the progressive design emphasized the teaching of art at the elementary level. For example, Noddings (2005) observed that teachers at this level of education used encouraging techniques to motivate students to be more creative. That they wanted to learn new skills in an unconventional way through the use of paints and brushes in painting and sketching pictures (Noddings, 2005). In this design, technical skills were believed to be preserved for the future levels of skill acquisition, hence pupils concentrated on the development of their concepts. Most high schools had bands, hence their concentration on artworks than any technical skills.

It was a common phenomenon to find students grouped according to their previous school performances. The grouping took the design of ‘low’ to ‘high’ mainly after grade nine. Those students who occupied the lower end of the academic ladder were offered extra coaching so as to enable them to catch up with those at higher levels. For example, they were offered more home works to assist them master needed skills and improving their exam performance ability. The ‘high’ group of students just needed little improvement and was enriched further.

This kind of classification was criticized by many scholars in Canada who felt the system affected the student’s abilities by discrimination, hence attracting the common use of such terms as ‘idiots’, ‘dummies’ and many derogatory terms in describing such students (Noddings, 2005). The special attention paid to the so-called gifted students led to problems with many observers stating the need to abolish the system. For example, Kohl (1998) reported that only students with IQ exceeding 130 were admitted to the universities. The problem emerged from the fact that while some faced financial difficulties, others were not wholly motivated, and eventually dropped out of school. Kohl (1998) states, “the lack of challenge to ingenuity has been the cause in many cases of delinquency, social and psychological maladjustment, laziness and downright failure” (148).

Efforts to Address the Problems

In an attempt to address the problem that relates to these shortcomings, the Education Board appointed an inspector of special education. One of his first responsibilities was to initiate about thirty-six pilot projects that involved gifted students in elementary schools. In this design, gifted students, especially in science and social studies were assigned projects, with the goal of implementing intensive research initiatives, selection as well as the organization of materials that would define their ability and skills (Harms & De Pencier, 1996). In their effort to initiate these disintegrated programs, the educators believed that gifted students, the retarded ones, academically oriented, and the vocationally oriented students had their needs well responded to.

However, the same educators still maintained the belief that they were initiating a regime of cultural uniformity as a means of securing social order and cultivating strong attitudes towards nationalism. In effect, Christianity became privileged in the design of the educational programs. In fact, regulations that required religious instructions to be adopted were put to use after World War II so as to bring back the moral nourishment needed after the war. Although non-Christian families were allowed to remove their children from these Christian schools, there was a lot of pressure to conform to the ways of Christianity. For example, some Jewish educators accused public schools of trying to convert some Jewish families to Christianity by imposing a no alternative option in schools (Harms & De Pencier, 1996).

Despite the promotion of Christianity, communism was openly rejected in classroom teaching. This was initiated by “a motion which was passed in 1948 banning individuals and groups who practiced or associated with communists from using school facilities for their political ideology initiatives” (Harms & De Pencier, 1996).

The Funding of Progressive Educational Programs

The Canadian government initiated a funding program for schools that practiced progressive programs in their syllabus. The use of progressive philosophy was encouraged, leading to an increase in a number of chartered schools which practiced the system. In the recent past, the Canadian and American public has complained the No Child Left Behind teaching and testing has not lived up to its billing. There is still a lot of variation in the implementation of progressive educational programs all over Canada. However, some of the common practices in these schools are: the flexibility and student-interest based programs; teachers are designated as facilitators, where they offer students with encouragement to adopt various activities in the learning process; application of a wide range of materials that facilitated individual and group research; encouragement of students to learn through the art of discovery; and the encouragement of students to make use of local resources and adopt service-learning strategies (Bulmer-Thomas & Coatsworth, 2006).


The progressive era saw an increase of pupils in schools with the adoption of a variety of strategies in the implementation phase. The advocates of progressive educators believed in curriculum associated with the nature of a child’s ability and the needs of the society. Progressive educators such as Dewey in 1915 to attempt to unify subjects in the core curriculum, believed in the concept of democracy in education, where all the citizens would be allowed to participate in the design and implementation of the curriculum. This particular curriculum would suit both students and society.

Students were grouped according to their previous school performances, with such strategies as ‘low’ to ‘high’ for the 9th graders. Although this strategy was somehow beneficial in identifying individual students’ special abilities, it was regarded as discriminatory by many scholars and observers alike. They highlighted the need to develop a more accommodative strategy that would be less biased in the overall educational goal.

Reference List

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  2. Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of Education. New York. Random House.
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  6. Flesch, R. (1955). Why Johnny Can’t Read. New York. Harper and Row.
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  13. Ravitch, D. (2000). Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform. New York. Simon and Schuster.