The term "progressive" was engaged to distinguish this education from the traditional curriculum of the 19th century, which was rooted in classical preparation for the university and strongly differentiated by socioeconomic level. By contrast, progressive education finds its roots in present experience. Most progressive education programs have these qualities in common:

Emphasis on learning by doing
Integrated curriculum focused on thematic units
Strong emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking
Group work and development of social skills
Understanding and action as the goals of learning as opposed to rote knowledge
Collaborative and cooperative learning projects
Education for social responsibility and democracy
Integration of community service and service learning projects into the daily curriculum
Selection of subject content by asking what skills will be needed in future society
De-emphasis on textbooks in favor of varied learning resources
Emphasis on life-long learning and social skills
Assessment by evaluation of child’s projects and productions