Sorry for the long, late post, but . . .
I have a hundred difficulties which I have promised to clear up, and a thousand distresses and domestic misadventures crowding in upon me thick and threefold, one upon the neck of another. ~from Tristram Shandy, SterneThe single greatest influence on me as a teacher was my own daughter's preschool teacher and North Seattle Community College parent educator Chris David. No matter how many books I read or classes I took, I learned most of what I started out knowing by working as a parent-teacher in her 3-5's class for two years. Our daily schedule, our songs, our stations, our over-arching philosophical approach to working with young children are all rooted in what I learned from Chris. For my first year or so as a teacher, I spent a lot of time consciously trying to be her. I found myself constantly searching my mental files for not only the exact words I thought Chris might say or thing she might do, but even trying to reflect her body language, her cadence, and her vocal tone.
Over time, of course, while I believe I've remained true to the core principles I learned from Chris, my teaching style has become my own to the point that I doubt there are many people who would observe the two of us and find similarities beyond the superficial ones of schedule, songs and stations. And that's how it ought to work, of course, Chris and I are different people. It is only natural to expect that we would form different kinds of relationships with the people in our lives. Yet we are both progressive educators.
The biggest challenge in communicating about how progressive education works, I think, is that it really can only be discussed and understood "in context." When guys like Bill Gates (who for better or worse has become the poster boy for a cookie cutter model of education) promote their versions of education, it's a much easier task because it's a one-size-fits-all theory with a pot of gold (literally, in the form of a "job") as a reward. And like all "beautiful" theories (e.g., Marxism, libertarianism, neo-liberalism) it may be made to work in a small scale, well-funded, incubator-like setting, but it will always fall apart when tried out in the context of actual humans behaving like actual messy, wonderful, diverse human beings, and not the theory's concept of how human beings ought to behave.
Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. ~Socrates
Progressive education, by it's very nature, means different things to different people. To me, it starts with relationships among the people involved: the kids, the teachers, and the parents. Alfie Kohn writes, "Progressive education is marinated in community," and that has been my guiding principle since before I'd heard of Kohn, or indeed, ever really thought about progressive education. The factory approach to education that has been largely in vogue since the Industrial Revolution relies heavily on a hierarchical model of a boss-teacher to fill all those empty vessels with the information deemed important by those higher up the chain of command, which more often than not meant the guys who own the "factories" in which these kids were presumed destined to be employed. Up until this point in Western society, education had been a much more free-form, community-based (what we today might call "progressive") endeavor, but people educated in this way simply don't do so well in the mind-numbing repetitious factory jobs industrialists were creating. So even more important than the information they sought to pour into those kids, they shaped schools to reflect what they saw as the "realities" of the modern workplace, making it more about things and specific skills, and less about people and their relationships.
As it turns out, most of us don't spend our lives working in factories, but this rather radical (in the context of history) educational model has stuck with us, serving business, but not necessarily children or our wider community.
We keep hearing that public education is in crisis, and I don't doubt it, but the solution is not to double down on the factory model, making school more competitive, more standardized, more hierarchical, which is what the Gates-lead reform movement seems to be all about. But, of course, what can we expect from these guys? As our colleague Barbara Zaborowski wrote in the comments the other day, "Remember, Microsoft is just a couple of geniuses and a whole lot of worker bees." In this new age of technology, they still need all the "trained" drones they can get.
As I see it, we need to return to the "traditional" (e.g., pre-Industrial Revolution) models of placing relationships at the center of education.
When I look at progressive schools, no two are alike. We are Reggio Emilia and Montessori and Waldorf and forest and outdoor and alternative and free and cooperative and every permutation and mixture imaginable. My own school, Woodland Park, is even different from year to year, depending on the relationships that form between the children, the parents, and with me. As a teacher, I play to my strengths, as we all should. I learn from other teachers and other programs, of course, but ultimately there is no "progressive template," no one-size-fits-all. Progressive education is not an off the rack endeavor, but rather a community sewing bee in which everything is custom made. And there are no bosses, only relationships between people, who have equal rights and responsibilities even if some of them are "just kids."
That's the context in which progressive educators teach. When I write about putting children in charge of their own education, I'm writing about the struggle all of us have to "forget" our industrial education backgrounds and treat children as people, not underlings.
See what I mean about context? It took me 900+ words to explain my version of one aspect of the context of progressive education. Nine hundred words of preamble to get me to where I feel like I can make my point. (It's a real "competitive" disadvantage to not be able to rely on everyone understanding the shorthand of progressive education the way Bill Gates can count on a general comprehension of the context of his advocacy for an industrial model for education.)
I do not teach children, I teach people. It would never occur to me to resort to, "because I said so," with a person, big or small.
In response to yesterday's post, a few people admonished me, insisting that there must be times when "the adult just as to be the adult" and boss the kids around. While I reject the idea that this is part of the definition of being an adult, I will, however, be the first to concede that teachers in our prevailing system are far too often expected to perform functions beyond that of education, like crowd control. That's because factory education is not about the children as much as it is about adult agendas that dictate with what and when we're going to fill these empty vessels. Children are expected to learn certain things at certain times in certain places, and as anyone knows who works with people of any age, the only way to make that happen is to put them at the bottom of a hierarchy and tell them what to do.
I'm not making the claim that I, or anyone, is so perfect in their relationships with others that they don't sometimes take the shortcut of commanding, especially when health and safety are at stake. But still, we wash our hands at preschool, not "because I said so," but because we don't want to give one another swine flu. And that's actually what I've been saying to the people I teach for the last couple years, "I want you to wash your hands because I don't want to catch your swine flu." I do not command them to wash their hands, I express my desire along with a real reason, just as I would with an adult, and I have never had a child refuse to wash his hands. Yes, a few of them will say something like, "I already washed my hands at home," but when I take the time to reiterate my desire and my reason, they wash their hands.
In my relationships with people I sometimes have responsibilities, one of which is to make sure the people in our school respect the rules that we have made together. When I see a child hitting another child, for instance, I don't make her stop, "because I said so." I make her stop because "you and your friends made a rule against hitting." I'll even say, "I can't let you hurt my friends," because it is my responsibility to this community, not because I'm the adult.
Try as I might, I still boss at least one kid around every single day, and when I reflect on it, I almost always find that it's because I placed my agenda over that of the child's. I suspect that's when most adults find themselves bossing the kids around, especially as parents when we are trying to get somewhere on time, or as teachers when we are following a schedule of bells that dictate when and where children should be and what they need to learn. As in every relationship between people, there is a balancing act between all those agendas. When I must insist on my agenda (like not wanting to catch the swine flu) it's still not "because I said so." It's because "if we're late, we'll miss the ferry and not get home tonight," or "if we don't go inside now, we won't have time for a story." Informational statements of fact, not commands. And this is not just semantics, the difference between directional and informative statements is real.
I'm not suggesting that anyone else can or should do things the way I do, just as I would never presume to tell any person how to manage their relationships. Chris David and I may be very different, but we are both progressive educators who understand that what we are doing is about community, not hierarchy, and we do not have the right to say, "because I say so."
This leads some to conclude that what we are advocating is some sort of hippie dippy, law-of-the-jungle style classroom, in which children are allowed to run wild. Many people, I think, have a hard time understanding how humans can get along without an "iron fist" of some kind, often evoking the novel Lord of the Flies* as evidence.
And I suppose the children in progressive schools do run wild. Their minds are ignited by the prospects of being in a place where their power, imaginations, and abilities are given free rein. They run wild within the limits and expectations of their unique community, which is the thing they come together to build, and by which they are nurtured, every single day. It's not because I say so, but because we say so.
It's not easy and it's not something anyone can manage right out of the box. We need experienced teachers because there's no instruction book on how to do it, and there's perpetual tinkering involved. And, frankly, I think that's what the so-called reformers find so threatening about progressive education: it tells them that teachers are not something you can make in a factory.
(*This book gets referenced so often in these discussions that I must address it. Lord of the Flies is a work of fiction and philosophy. While this is a solid novel from a narrative point of view, the only British novelist I can think of with a dimmer view of the human condition than William Golding is Thomas Hardy. This book gives us a lot to think about, of course, but we can't forget that it's a parable written by a person who saw man as essentially evil in the tradition of Thomas Hobbs. Progressive educators, almost by definition, see the world through the John Locke-Jean Jacques Rousseau prism of man as essentially good, whether we know it or not. That's why I'm much more likely to quote Enlightenment influenced authors like Laurence Sterne -- as I did at the top of this post -- than Golding.)