Saturday, September 08, 2012

What Is Progressive Education?

I "wrapped up" my series on "Why I Teach The Way I Do" (read from the bottom up) a few days ago, but it's been bugging me that I never got around to addressing reader Atlanta's request that I address what I mean when I use the term "progressive education," which I did repeatedly. It's such a broad and inclusive term, I think, the definition of which would properly take up another 10-part series of posts, but her comment has stuck with me these past two weeks so I thought, in a meager way, to have a go at what it means, at least, to me. I started by digging through the archives, certain that in all the verbiage here, I've at least attempted it before. And finally, I found what I was looking for, written a couple years ago as a preamble to a different piece entirely. I've rewritten it for today, but if some of it sounds familiar, it means you've been reading here a long time -- thank you!

The 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 apprenticing 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 not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. ~Proverb*

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 businessmen, 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 reader Barbara once pointed out the comments on this blog, "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" cubicle 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 which had far more in common with progressive education than not.

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 not as underlings, but as fully-formed people; not as incomplete adults, but rather equal and free humans with whom we form genuine relationships. From those seeds we grow community, and from that a progressive education.

(*Note: Most progressive educators are familiar with this quote, or something like it. Versions of it are variously attributed to W.B. Yeats, Plutarch, Socrates and others. I've tried to find the proper source many times without success. In the days before the internet, we simply attributed common wisdom like this to "the universe," which is what I've decided to do here.)

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share


Unknown said...

I read extensively about best practices for educating boys before settling on Montessori for our children. I would switch to an all outdoor school if there was one in our community in a heartbeat.

Otters Miss Lori said...

Each time I read one of your posts I feel those embers of excitement begin to glow. Thank you for sharing your work with the world because it truly inspires others

Discovery Kidzone said...

Thank you for writing this! I started a Montessori school in an attempt to have a progressive preschool as your described. Over the years we have morphed into Reggio, Waldorf, Montessori ect and I really wouldn't say we are Montessori but progressive. I think it is vitally important that we as educators take a stand and have a voice for the kids. There is so much pressure to standardize and I don't like it. Thank you for being our voice!
Rachel Supalla

carol murray said...

I agree that the best progressive programs are the one that are alive - always changing and growing - reflecting the relationships. We have inspiration from Reggio, waldorf, montessori, but within each of those models we see elements that are often not progressive in the way they are translated and practiced in certain schools. I think the heart of progressive education is about how seriously we take children and their ideas and theories. How well do we observe and listen? Lots of schools call themselves progressive because they are experiential and that's a start but when you look at how curriculum is designed it falls back into an adult frame work of imparting knowledge. Particularly in preschool it is rare to find teachers who think and work like you! thanks for your great work