Progressive Ed

What is Progressive Education?

The roots of our program date back to the early 19th century and the work of educational philosophers and theorists like Froebel, Montessori, Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky. Froebel had demonstrated that play is the learning vehicle for the young child and that young children learn through play. The work of Montessori alerted educators to the importance of materials and surroundings as a means for structuring the learning of young children. 

John Dewey, known as the “father of progressive education,” advocated for a reconfiguration of schools to be more like democratic communities. In his own lab school, Dewey recognized that learning occurs through experience and he advocated for teachers to consider the children’s interest as well as developmental level. His interpretation of curriculum as a whole rather than separate subject areas and of the world outside of the classroom as material for active learning have continued to provide direction for the Informal classrooms of today. 

Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky emphasized that the growth of human intelligence is embedded in the process of children co- constructing their learning with their social and physical environments. The educational implications of these theorists have been clear and challenging: classroom environments should model democratic communities that foster children’s learning through engaging, purposeful experiences that honor the children’s interests and are authentic to the outside world.

History of UA's Progressive / Informal Program

The Upper Arlington Schools progressive / informal program was established in 1972 by a group of educators who were committed to a common educational philosophy reflected through the practices of progressive education. Our program was founded by educators, parents, and Ohio State University professors who felt that our primary responsibilities were to teach children how to learn and become responsible citizens in a democratic society. Today this alternative program is offered at Barrington and Wickliffe elementary schools.

Is this the same program of the 1970s? The answer to that is no and yes. No, from the standpoint that progressive / informal teachers have adapted to the changing expectations of state and national standards. Yes, in that progressive / informal teachers remain committed to our Ten Foundational Principles. These ten beliefs guide our daily teaching practices.

Why do we use the word “Informal?” The terminology for alternative practices was often used interchangeably in different settings such as open education, the open classroom, the integrated day, the British Infant School model, and the informal classroom. All of these practices reflect the work of the progressive movement.

Today, we use it to describe the relationships between children, parents, and teachers. These relationships are family-like, with teachers and parents working together to coach, guide, and support children through their learning. Our classrooms remain trusting, positive, respectful places where teachers and children journey together – a journey filled with joy and wonder, in a quest for knowledge.

10 Foundational Principles

While the progressive programs have adapted to changing state and national standards, we remain committed to the Ten Foundational Principles. 

We believe schools are essential to a democratic society.


  1. We create a community for teaching and learning for all ages.

  2. We raise social consciousness by encouraging the school community to examine and act upon complex issues within a democratic society.

  3. We respect diversity among children and variation in their development.

  4. We collaborate with colleagues and parents as co-educators to meet children’s needs.

  5. We engage in thematic studies and foster authentic and emergent learning experiences.

  6. We structure experiences that actively engage children in the process of learning and guide child choice and decision-making.

  7. We design opportunities to integrate the arts in curriculum as an essential way to acquire and express knowledge.

  8. We use time and space in a flexible manner.

  9. We facilitate ongoing reflection and self-evaluation by children and adults.

  10. We use learning groups and documentation to support and deepen learning.

Multi-age classroom configurations

We offer our students different group experiences while at Wickliffe. 

Our current grade-level configuration is as follows: K, 1st, 2nd/3rd, 4th/5th. 

Research shows that in multi-age classrooms: 

  • Students learn at their own pace rather than being taught skills for which they are not ready or that they have already mastered. Students respond to experiences at a level that is appropriate for them. 

  • Students spend the bulk of their time engaged in conceptual, critical thinking rather than memorizing and repeating basic skills.

  • Students learn skills in an integrated, authentic context rather than in isolation.

  • Teachers develop a deeper understanding of children’s unique strengths and needs over the course of a potential two-year experience, and are therefore in a better position to support their learning. 

  • Children develop a sense of belonging with their classmates and teacher. They become a "family of learners" who support and care for one another socially, emotionally and academically.

“Combination classes allow children to respond to the curricular experiences at the level that is appropriate for them. They create social and academic interactions that support a wide range of child abilities and promote cooperative learning behaviors as children observe and work with others. They provide educators and parents with flexible grouping opportunities that accommodate the developmental uniqueness of each child. Informal teachers are committed to creating learning experiences that are responsive to all children at all levels they represent, rather than trying to conform children to a particular level simply because a child is a certain chronological age.” 

Steven R. Delapp, Thought Ramblings of the Informal Alternative Program Director, Upper Arlington Schools, May 1986

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