What is Progressive Education?
In today’s increasingly complex and interconnected world, progressive education is central to helping students become lifelong learners and engaged citizens ready to build a better, more just society.
According to the Bank Street mission statement, the aim of progressive education is to nurture the creative, independent, and problem-solving talents of all children by “applying to the education process all available knowledge about learning and growth.” Through the progressive model, students learn by doing and are encouraged to make sense of the world around them by entering it and engaging with it. Progressive educators employ a deep understanding of child and adult development as they create responsive, nurturing relationships within the classroom. Through deep connections with teachers and peers, children develop an appreciation for human difference that enables them to work collaboratively and effectively toward common solutions to shared challenges.
The Origins of Progressive Education at Bank Street
Bank Street’s longstanding history in progressive education began with its founder Lucy Sprague Mitchell. In 1916, Mitchell started the Bureau of Educational Experiments to discover the kinds of environments in which children learned to their full potential. They found that children’s emotional lives are inseparable from their learning, interests, and motivation and, thus, educating the “whole child”—the entire emotional, social, physical, and intellectual being—became a hallmark of progressive education in preparing thoughtful and engaged citizens of tomorrow.
Bank Street School for Children, as it is known today, developed out of the Bureau of Educational Experiments in 1954 as a full-scale elementary school operating under a progressive model. In stark contrast to the rote learning practices prevalent in schools at the time, the School for Children encouraged students to be active and to venture out and inquire about the world around them. Bank Street teachers saw children as complex human beings with an avid desire to learn which, if nurtured, would fuel a lifetime love of learning and set them up for success in school and in life. Learning environments were carefully constructed to allow children to learn more naturally, joyfully, and deeply.
Bank Street’s model later became known as the developmental-interaction approach, which recognizes that individuals learn best when they are actively engaged with materials, ideas, and people and that authentic growth requires diverse and nurturing opportunities for ongoing social, emotional, and cognitive development.
These ideas are the basis for our thought and practice at the School for Children and continue to influence the work of other programs and divisions at Bank Street College and other institutions around the world.
The School for Children Today
Today, the school educates children from preschool through eighth grade under a model that continues to build off of the progressive vision of Mitchell as well as other educational theorists like John Dewey. Many of the underlying principles that inform the school’s practice today have their origins in the progressive movement of the early 20th century, and are also being validated more and more by research on human development and the brain.
The School for Children’s approach uses every opportunity to foster intellectual mastery and cognitive development by creating a school climate guided by inquiry and wonder. At Bank Street, we build on children’s intuition and capacity for emotion to encourage them to think in ways that are both reflective and ethical as well as ambitious and goal-directed. As a result, children achieve a deeper understanding of themselves, their community, and their world, as well as a command of the academic disciplines, including math, science, literacy, and writing, among others.
Progressive education emphasizes a child’s social environment, and Bank Street builds one in which children are known and respected as individuals—every interaction between adults and children is supportive of learning, perspective-taking, and confidence building. At Bank Street, we believe that when children are educated in such ways, they grow into fulfilled young people who are prepared and motivated to contribute to a better world.
Progressive Education in Context
To learn more about progressive education in practice at the School for Children today, explore a collection of articles below written by community members. For more articles, please visit the navigation on the left-hand side of this page.