Progressive Education

Progressive education is based on the belief that students should be at the center of the educational experience, encouraged to pursue their interests and exercise their natural curiosity. In this way, children become active learners, as teachers guide them to discover the pleasures and rewards of education and develop into adults for whom learning is a lifelong pursuit.

For young learners, teacher-directed play and free play are essential parts of this process; in a healthful setting, children discover the joy of learning while developing skills in social interaction, language, communication, creativity, perseverance, and problem solving. Their positive early experience with education develops them into mature learners who are self-motivated, independent thinkers.

Central to progressive education is experiential learning, an approach based on extensive research showing that students are naturally inclined to learn by experience; learn more deeply when that experience has real-world relevance; and become more engaged when they have agency and ownership in their school environment. Traditional academic content and skills have value, but they serve as a means, not an end.

Progressive schools believe that the most beneficial learning environment is one where all members are open to diverse backgrounds and points of view. In this context, the term “progressive” refers to a forward-thinking approach to education, and not a political ideology.

Progressive educators foster a school environment that prepares students to be active citizens who work together to identify and address common concerns. A progressive school’s purpose includes developing in each child an understanding of society and their responsibilities within it, and a commitment to principles of democracy, equality, and inclusion.

Progressive Education at Catlin Gabel School

Progressive education began as a reform movement in the late 19th century, as a response to the dramatic increase in industrialization and the concern that education had become mechanized as well. At a time when American education was based on rote learning and memorization, proponents of progressive education advocated for a system that focused on what they considered to be the most important factor in any education setting: the life of the child.

In the first decades of the 20th century, the progressive education model—by then substantiated by research and practice—was adopted by schools throughout the world. In Portland, Oregon, educator Ruth Catlin founded a progressive school in 1911, and a second progressive school was founded by Priscilla Gabel in 1931. The two schools merged in 1957 to become the progressive institution known today as Catlin Gabel School.

In recent decades, schools are increasingly seeking to adopt progressive practices as a changing world demands creative and critical thinking, and strong interpersonal skills. In that regard, Catlin Gabel serves as a model for what education can be.

Principles of Progressive Education at Catlin Gabel School

Experiential Learning

Experiential learning is a process by which students learn through a cycle of direct experience, reflection, analysis, and experimentation. It encourages deep learning, inspires personal growth, and promotes active citizenship.


* Student-directed, teacher-guided, student-choice

* Students apply knowledge and skills

* Trial and error, and failure as part of the learning process

* Authentic purpose and meaning-making in real world context

* Rubric and demonstration-based assessments

* Opportunities to reflect and make sense of the experience

Teaching the Whole Child

Teaching the whole child means knowing and nurturing individual children and designing learning opportunities that honor and develop their full identities so they can thrive now as children and grow into happy and fulfilled adults.


* Teacher curiosity and interest in students’ whole selves

* Children and families are known and valued

* Safe and trusting relationships are nurtured

* Differentiated and responsive approaches with opportunities for student-directed learning

* Children are represented in the curriculum, in the classroom, and in the adults on campus

* Growth and support of students’ physical, emotional, academic, ethical, and interpersonal skills is cultivated

* Opportunities are provided for children to learn in a variety of settings and modalities

Inquiry Based

A spirit of inquiry promotes curiosity, self-motivated learning, and joy of discovery.


* Student-directed, curiosity-inspired opportunities to pursue authentic learning

* Creative, multiple perspectives, and original thinking

* Generative (students generate questions and paths to pursue them)

* Iterative process through which students learn

* Reflective (analyze outcomes and process, incorporate into next learning cycle)

Educating for Democracy

Educating for democracy equips students with the mindset and skills to increase their self-awareness and understanding of complex issues, with the goal of taking responsible action in their communities.


* Fostering empathy and awareness of others, including those with differing experiences and viewpoints

* Developing a sense of agency and voice

* Building the knowledge and skills necessary to be informed, participatory, and engaged community members

* Engaging in discourse about power and privilege

An independent preschool through 12th grade day school in Portland, Oregon
8825 SW Barnes Road,
Portland, Oregon 97225 |
503-297-1894 |

Explore why Catlin Gabel is a national leader in progressive education.

We welcome more than 100 new families annually to our inclusive community from the Portland area and beyond.


A demanding and engaging program in which each student is the unit of consideration

Playing sports involves life lessons in determination, grace, and resilience. We invite everyone to be part of a team.

Extensive support ensures our students are successful.

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We foster a community that appreciates our differences and recognizes our essential unity

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