Progressive education



To meet the needs of an increasing industrialized Canadian society in the late 1930’s, the elementary curriculum was revised. This essay will explore the changes BC curriculum endured as a result of the progressive movement within the Greater Victoria area by way of the Greater Victoria Survey of Schools of 1937-38 and the Curriculum Guide: The New Programme of Studies 1936-7. The new system is commonly known as progressive education or the “new education”. Jean Barman describes new education as “… embodying a commitment to a child-centered, relatively unstructured curriculum allowing considerable freedom of choice to pupil and teacher alike, the expression of humane, egalitarian, democratic philosophy of education”. The modern curriculum was an attempt to move away from the emphasis of memorization, facts, formalism and unrelated or irrelevant material within the classroom. John Dewey, an educational philosopher, can be held accountable for the radical outlook on education in the early 1900’s. Dewey believed there was a theoretical gap between child-centered and subject centered curriculum. This gap was a failure to recognize interaction between child and curriculum. Individual difference, child reaction and interest were vital aspect of education that had been overlooked by traditional curricula. The refreshed program was intended to meet the child’s physical, moral, emotional and intellectual needs through a variety of revisions within the curriculum.

Before browsing through the heart of the new curriculum, it is important to familiarize oneself in the parturition of progressive education before an appreciation for the impact the revisions had within the education system. Pressure from British Columbia Teachers’ Federation initiated a formal inquiry by the government to investigate the devastating situation of rural schools. Lack of facilities, supplies, financial instability, remote locations, incompetent teachers, sporadic attendance and severe weather hampered pupils’ progress in rural locations. Rural schools could not accommodate students adequately in basic education and therefore, were lacking equal academic levels as their urban counterparts, which concerned educators. Complaints from rural teachers and school inspector reports launched the Survey of the School System by J.H. Putman and G.M. Weir in 1925, which gave progressivism the jump-start needed to allow revisions possible. Harold Putman was the Inspector of Schools for the City of Ottawa, when he was appointed to take on this study with George Weir. Weir had recently been appointed as the first professor of education at the University of British Columbia when he agreed to take on the study. Influenced by Dewey, both men embraced the child-centered type of instruction that would later become the foundation of the revised school curricula.
A new educational approach was utilized in elementary schools: an emphasis on child centered schooling, individual differences, activity programs, program testing, and teacher guidance. All portions of the philosophy had equal importance; however the core theory aimed toward child-centeredness; that is, the child’s growth is heavily dependent upon his/her reactions and experiences within his/her surrounding environment. The Progressive Movement initiated the concept that students should be independent thinkers, creative beings, and expressive about their feelings. This was a sharp contrast from the prevalent educational approaches rooted in social efficiency in the early 1900s in Canada. Such approaches did not foster the importance of individualism and creativity, and instead emphasized classroom control, management and a structured curriculum that focused on basic skills. The classroom agenda was to meet the needs of children and cater to them through variety of programs suited for individual differences. Differential treatment was issued to those who were slow learners but also for those students who were fast or keen learners. Mass group teaching was no longer a sufficient approach in the 1930’s. Students required individualized praise or remedial help to ensure overall growth within a subject. The quality of learning was much more important than the quantity being taught in the contemporary system.
Although child-centeredness was the ultimate focus in progressive education, other components within the new education complimented the core focus. To achieve a child-centered approach, an ever-changing environment was essential. Children must learn by doing and to achieve this the unit system was developed. A unit consisted of a central thought, such as, the weather or transportation, and could be merged with all subjects in one way or another. Student interaction and group work outplayed traditional rote, repetition, drill, and standardization methods of