21st Century Learning and Progressive Education

Many education technology bloggers (1, 2, 3) have issued a call to transform schools into “21st century” learning institutions. Speaking broadly, these schools would emphasize student-centered instruction, project-based learning, and lots of technology use.

These authors make frequent reference to popular new books that describe how society is changing as a result of ubiquitous communication and productivity technologies. Titles include Switch (Heath and Heath), The World Is Flat (Thomas Friedman), A Whole New Mind (Daniel Pink).

I think they’re reading the wrong books. Adding more technology does not change teaching practice. The educational revolution they describe already has a name: progressive education. Over 100 years old, progressive education emphasizes learning through experience, the unique qualities of each learner, and the critical role of education in a democratic society.

Let us adopt a new reading list for 21st century learning, grounded in education theory and schools rather than technology and social change.

John Dewey: Democracy and Education, Education As Experience

Howard Gardner: Multiple Intelligences, Five Minds For the Future

Alfie Kohn: Punished By Rewards, The Homework Myth

Nell Noddings: The Challenge to Care in Schools


  1. Beth Krieger says:

    At The Calhoun School, we maintain a recommended reading list of Progressive Education Resources on our website (www.calhoun.org/per) along with a list of recent articles or books that are being shared with faculty and parents (and sometimes, Upper School students) during ongoing discussions about how we teach and learn (www.calhoun.org/wwr).

  2. Richard says:

    Chris, I’ve seen you make this connection explicit.

  3. Richard says:

    Beth, thanks for this list. I admire how you embrace progressive education and help people learn what it means for your school. Did you attend the recent progressive ed conference at Putney School?

  4. Steve Taffee says:

    I have fancied myself as a progressive educator for my entire career, which is now about 40 years. (Sheesh!) While significant change in school has been too slow for me overall, I am still optimistic that progress is being made. (No pun intended)

    Be it Dewey, John Holt, A.S. Neill, or more recent authors, it is important that every educator engage with the philosophy and practices of progressive educators they come into their own. Progressive education applies equally to professional development for teachers as it does to how teachers work in classrooms.

  5. Richard says:

    Rock on, Steve. I appreciate how your blog posts principally concern learning and then consider technology. I feel that leading edu-bloggers who wish to foment broad school change would do well to partner with progressive schools and colleges of education that have been doing this work for years and prepare teachers for the profession.

  6. Richard, I couldn’t agree with you more that there is little new in the education revolution that is being described and advocated by many who are engaged in the education and technology conversation. We’re all talking about progressive education and we’ve all read the foundational education books you suggest (I confess I’ve not read Noddings, but was very please to see Taffee’s references to Holt and A.S. Neill, and would add that I was greatly influenced by Herndon…).

    But to suggest that some of the non-education books that many of us have discussed through our blogs are the “wrong” books seems a bit anti-educational to me. It does not serve our children to limit the education conversation to any particular movement, theory, or set of theories. Teaching and learning happens within a context that is much greater than the classroom and curriculum — and all of us need to be challenged every now and again by ideas that come from outside our normal frame of reference.

    I do not believe that Scott Mcleod or Will Richardson have ever suggested that simply “adding more technology” will “change teaching practice.” My ten-year refrain has been “Stop Integrating Technology.”

    Again, you make a powerful and too-often forgotten point about progressive education being a long-established and continuing conversation. But it is also important that educators engage in more expanded conversations, to better understand the future, for which we are preparing our learners…

  7. Richard says:

    David, thank you for your comment on this post. I admire your emphasis on progressive teaching methods and student learning and appreciate your response.

    Teachers have limited time, and not all books are created equal. Some very popular books miseducate by overly simplifying complex social factors. For how long did so many bloggers heartily embrace the “flat world” concept before critical voices finally emerged to say, “hold on a minute. The world I live in is very much still stratified, and major power differences persist.” http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/5719.html http://www.cgdev.org/content/article/detail/1423650/

    I do not mean to imply that we should limit ourselves to one education movement. Paul Black and Larry Cuban are very quick to point out that there exists no single best system for instruction or assessment, because contexts vary so much, and success is measured in so many different ways. However, let us read properly cited, well-researched works that help teachers achieve real innovation within challenging school contexts. Such titles may not make the best-seller list, but they may ultimately lead to greater change in schools.

    As one member of your reading audience, I humbly suggest that more teachers and teacher educators would respond to your call for forward-thinking, student-centered instruction if the connection between 21st century learning and progressive education were made explicit. Let us connect the work of education bloggers to that of leading education scholars, schools of education, and non-education work from other scholarly institutions.

    Finally, I submit that “21st century learning” skills were critical for success 100 years ago, are critical for success today, and will be critical for success in the future. I do not agree that technological change has created a new set of skills, substantially different from the old, that we must now begin to teach. The disconnect between teaching and real-world skills has existed for a long time. Furthermore, I find that my teacher colleagues and school leaders I know see this too and are loathe to embrace isolated calls for 21st century learning as a result. Let us call good teaching good teaching and move forward together.

  8. David Warlick says:

    I’m with you!

    — dave.