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Progressive (sometimes called “inquiry-based”) curricula attempt to place children’s interests and ideas at the heart of the learning experience. Instead of lessons being driven by predetermined pathways, progressive curricula are often “emergent”, with learning activities shaped by students’ questions about the world. Instead of starting with academic concepts and then tying it to everyday experience, progressive methods begin with everyday experience and work back to an academic lesson. Teachers provide materials, experiences, tools and resources to help students investigate a topic or issue. Students are encouraged to explore, reflect on their findings, and discuss answers or solutions.
The curriculum is often structured in a spiral-like fashion, revisiting the same theme or material year-over-year with increased difficulty. Material will also often be integrated: it will call on different subject disciplines at the same time.
The approach is more concerned with developing process over content: critical thinking and skills over the transmission of factual knowledge. A common mantra for progressive educators is: “Today’s knowledge will be obsolete soon enough, so it’s more important to teach problem solving skills than content.” The approach also emphasizes group work and projects over individual tests, assignments and essays.
Critics of the approach say it de-emphasizes academic work and is inefficient. By rejecting the primacy of core knowledge, criticsargue, the progressive approach undermines the foundation for continued intellectual engagement. This is because knowledge-acquisition is non-linear: the more you know, the easier it is to learn more.
Defenders of progressive curricula say it is the practice of intellectual engagement that leads to more engagement, not the mechanical acquisition of knowledge, per se.