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A contentious term when applied to education, and taken to mean anything from a principled opposition to corporal punishment to allowing pupils complete freedom to learn as and when they please. It is often employed to indicate the opposite of ‘traditional’, as in the debate over the relative merits of comprehensive and selective education, where proponents of selection refer to comprehensive education, in pejorative terms, as ‘progressive’. In this sense it implies a slipping of standards of achievement and a tolerance of inappropriate behaviour. On the other hand, it has been used in a very positive sense by those advocating educational reform, such as the abandoning of rote learning in favour of discovery and understanding, which was seen as progress against the draconian methods of 19th‐ and early 20th‐century educators. Under the Conservative governments of the 1970s and 1980s, ‘progressive education’ became a regular target of criticism in White Papers, where it was blamed for a number of social ills, including youth crime and high levels of unemployment. Because of the extent to which the term has become politicized, it is perhaps now better treated as an example of rhetoric rather than as an educational term with a precise and agreed meaning. See also Black Papers; Plowden Report.

Subjects: Education.

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