School Choice

What’s the Difference Between Traditional and Progressive Schools?

What’s the Difference Between Traditional and Progressive Schools?
July 24, 2023

As you approach the decision of where to send your child to school, particularly in an educational landscape as complicated as New York City’s, you’ll encounter a lot of terms and approaches that merit consideration. As teachers and educational consultants, one of the questions we receive most frequently is “what’s the difference between traditional and progressive schools?” 

Before we dive into the ways that traditional and progressive schools differ, it’s important to note that this topic is very nuanced: “traditional” and “progressive” don’t mean the same thing at every school. Even more complicated, these terms can apply to either a school’s educational approach and curriculum or to its environment and community - and some schools may be traditional in one of those domains but progressive in the other. Additionally, a school may vary in its traditional/progressive orientation depending on a student’s age - the lower school may take a different approach than the upper school, for instance. It’s a complicated distinction! Nonetheless, read on for a few factors that define the difference between traditional and progressive schools. 

Characteristics of Traditional Education

Traditional education, which is also sometimes called “formal” education, typically relies more heavily on teacher instruction than progressive schools. This is the type of education that many parents are most familiar with, whether you’ve experienced it yourself or via popular culture: it’s a teacher standing at the front of the classroom, with students sitting at desks listening to a lecture, taking notes, and working through exercises. Of course, traditional education for younger students may involve more free play than sitting at desks, but their classrooms are still led by a teacher who facilitates activities. 

Traditional education often includes setting forth a curriculum and benchmarks in advance and following a set plan for the duration of the school year. Students are expected to hit predetermined milestones in key subjects like reading and math. Many teachers and curriculum developers believe that this is the best way to ensure that students stay on pace for their age and take in sufficient knowledge. Other benefits of traditional education include easier transitions between elementary school, middle school, high school, and college, given that the educational structure remains similar in each phase. On the other hand, some would argue that traditional education can be too rigid and de-emphasizes creativity. 

In terms of school culture, traditional schools are more likely to require students to wear uniforms or follow a dress code. Students are more likely to use “Mrs.” or “Mr.” to address their teachers, and some schools emphasize more formal traditions and rituals, like shaking hands with the head of school at the beginning of the day or attending daily chapel. 

Characteristics of Progressive Education

Progressive education is typically more student-centered than traditional education. Regardless of grade level, progressive education offers a more experiential and hands-on learning approach. For younger students, this might mean more unstructured play time; for older students, this might mean project-based assignments. Critical thinking skills and active student participation are seen as important markers of success, with a specific focus on preparing kids for the world outside of school; standard testing is often not an emphasis. Students often sit in circles or pods to encourage collaboration and discourse with each other, rather than attention toward a teacher. 

As students in a progressive system move through their education, they gain more and more control over what they learn and how they learn it. For example, students at a progressive school may be able to opt in to more challenging science or language classes in middle school, and their high school classes may be “electives” that are more specific than traditional courses in a particular subject (for instance, a class on 1900s American Literature rather than a more general English course). Advocates of progressive schooling believe that this ownership and choice builds a love of learning in students, without sacrificing educational rigor. On the other hand, some students may not thrive in an environment that offers less structure and benchmarking. 

Culturally, progressive schools are less likely to mandate uniforms or a strict dress code. There’s less emphasis on traditional rituals, and sometimes a more varied school day experience with field trips and school-wide events. 

Hybrid Education (Traditional and Progressive)

As you conduct school research, you may notice that many independent schools in NYC exhibit both traditional and progressive attributes. For instance, a school may have a more traditional approach toward history and English, but a more progressive or project-based approach in science. A school might place emphasis on traditional extracurriculars like sports, but offer a more progressive classroom experience with small, discussion-based classes. These hybrid models are quite common, further emphasizing how fuzzy the distinction between traditional and progressive often is. 

As you build your school list, it may be useful to make an initial determination as to whether a traditional or progressive model is a better fit for your child’s unique personality and learning style. (This post offers a variety of reflection questions to help determine a fit for your student.) 

Working with education consultants, like our expert team at Admit NY, can be a great way to further explore whether traditional or progressive education is a better fit for your child. We’re deeply familiar with the variety of schools available in NYC, and can guide you toward environments that prioritize the characteristics that are important to your family. Reach out today to learn more about our services.