Published Online: April 16, 1997

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Polishing the Progressive Approach

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Why an 'endangered educational species' should be protected.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what brought me to the progressive independent school where I work. Why did I land here rather than somewhere else? I know the answer lies in the school's mission--not its mission statement, or its heritage, or image, though all these count, but in its defining purpose.

All the people at my school arrived here, I imagine, by different routes. Some always knew they'd be educators, some tried other fields. Some have taught around the globe, in other schools and with other approaches. Some are dyed-in-the-wool progressives. Whatever the path, we all now find ourselves the spokespeople for a tradition, a specific belief in children, and a philosophy. Today we are the protectors of an endangered educational species.

My own route began when I had children in 1972 and started to read educational writers of the 1960s like John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, Herbert Kohl, Robert Coles, George Dennison, and Ned O'Gorman. These writers made education, and teaching in particular, feel like a mission. In their own unorthodox ways, they were each helping children live more fully and work more resolutely to better their world. This soon felt like a meaningful career avenue for me--and so it has been. The progressive approach seemed to make sound child sense, though I didn't have a fully formed notion then of what progressive education actually meant.

In the early 1970s, as my sons started preschool, I got to know the Reggio Emilia pedagogy, and so gained another slant on empowering, bottom-up teaching. Among the many conceptually based underpinnings of this approach, three resonated for me at that time: respect for the learner's experience and current developmental perspective; a valuing of collaborative endeavor; and a use of the cultural surroundings as primary resource. I remember that teachers put children's quotes, verbatim, on the classroom walls for parents to read and that birthday books were made by the whole class for each child. These contained a drawing and a dictation; individual messages becoming a group gesture. And one of the richest activities I remember from that time was the class replicating the fall vendemmia, or wine-making process. Parents brought in plastic bags to cover children's feet, then the children stomped big buckets of grapes to make themselves grape juice. It was exciting because it was so relevant to the children's lives and culture. The approach valued children's voices and brought academic learning close to real-world experience. As parent and educator, I was won over.

This kind of thinking is summed up well in the following description of "the beliefs that underlie progressive methods" written by Carol Samuels Montag for the 1983 Miquon Conference on Progressive Education. They are:

  • That intelligence is not fixed by genetic inheritance, but responds to experience.
  • That to have the greatest beneficial effect, any experience the child gains must bear some relation to what he or she understands already, and be such that further new experience can be added to it. This means it may have to be individual.
  • That children are geared toward growing up: They seek maturing experience.
  • That education in situations based on experience and active individual participation may cut right across the barriers between "subjects."

It all felt very different from the see-saw learning I'd had: learn/forget, learn/forget--all beneath an umbrella of angst. The learning of facts and putting them in correct form greatly outweighed decisionmaking, problem-solving, opinion forming, and creative endeavor. There were good feelings, of course--satisfactions of being a good student, of doing well, of accomplishing--but the cost was high, and my dependence on teacher directive nearly total. My education was about adult expectation.

Progressive education is hard to read. Consequently, it is also easy to write off. It has been borrowed from, misread, and maligned.

When I began my first teaching experience in Rome, I wasn't sure about what role expectation should play in a progressive approach. I worried about drowning out children's voices, and so became guilty of slippery expectations, of leaving too much room for individual interpretation and having too much faith in the late-bloomer dynamic. I didn't realize that this approach only works if it works. In other words, if the education piece is of a very high caliber; if the stuff and substance that kids have to examine, understand, think over, and communicate are powerfully intelligent. Without high standards, progressivism loses its punch.

For most of its defenders, progressive education is a meaningful, even powerful approach to teaching. Yet I have referred to it as an "endangered species," a philosophy whose growth is currently threatened. By threats, I don't have in mind schools with different approaches. We all know there are many fine avenues. It's not my goal to promote a "one way only" kind of thinking. But there are fewer progressive schools than there were even five years ago. While many schools have adopted progressive language, terms such as "child-centered" and "active," "integrated" learning, bits and pieces of progressive practice, they may not be committed to the philosophy itself. There are many parents who prefer more easily defined rungs for their children's educational progress--pages, scores, and the basics.

There's also an image problem that makes progressivism sound outdated and loose rather than challenging and current. There are many versions of misinterpretation: Last summer, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole remarked that "while students in Japan are learning math, sciences, and languages, our kids are getting in touch with their feelings. Let's get rid of all that 'PC' stuff and move on." Progressive education is a hard read. Consequently, it is also easy to write off. It has been borrowed from, misread, and maligned.

We now must ask what we can do to "polish the progressive approach" and make it shine so it can be appreciated for what it really is? I don't believe our mandate is to be more radical, but to be more consistent, united, and clear; eloquent advocates of this philosophy. Through our work and our language, through children's work and the walls of our classrooms, we can make the statement that children are worth respecting; that meaningful teaching includes listening, questioning, responding, and refocusing. By always clarifying what kind of learning is taking place and what kind of work is going on--because we all know that what is obvious to us is often unclear and unconnected for parents and other educators--by clarifying, we become leaders.

Certainly one cornerstone of progressive education is its respect for how children learn. We know that students want to learn to know and grow competent, to become their own brand of expert. Meaningful learning opportunities for them include problem- and conflict-solving, theorizing, defending a view, and composing a poem; critical, analytical, reflective, and creative thought. They also embrace organized work habits, neatness, clear communication, and good form. And maybe even "getting in touch with feelings."

This foundation broadens to value social studies as the hub of relevant learning--from the community of students to larger, more diverse groups. So our philosophy embraces civic commitment and citizen-shaping activity. But does that stop at empathy and appreciation? I'm wondering if active response might be what we risk losing if progressive education falls by society's wayside.

Pat Carini, the former director of the Prospect Center, also spoke at the 1983 Miquon Conference on Progressive Education. She said: "Classrooms are bellwethers of society and anything in the atmosphere comes back to schools through the children. Because of this, schools have an unusual opportunity to grapple, and I mean grapple, with the larger issues of society. Society's hopes, aspirations, and values are right there before us--if we'll look. ... Some of us may decide to go out and effect public policy. Not all of us will, but in our classrooms we are shaping our common destiny and our individual perspectives right along and with the children."

At my school, we've been talking about the dynamic of educating activists, and I think that may be one corner of the educational platform still owned by progressive thought. It means being unafraid to take a community stand when it counts, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient that may be. It includes, but goes beyond community service. In her book Schoolhome, Jane Roland-Martin warns against what she calls the "education of spectatorship" and talks about the difference between educating "consumers" and educating "voters."

Collaboration in a progressive community calls for the kind of collegial support that enhances both our teaching and our school's leadership position.

She says: "John Dewey wanted us to educate 'the whole child.' I have been talking about educating all our children in our whole heritage. That valuable capital includes ways of living as well as forms of knowing, societal activities and practices as well as literary and artistic achievements. It is all too easy, however, for school to instruct children about their heritage without ever teaching them to be active and constructive participants in the world--let alone how to make it a better place for themselves and their progeny. This is especially so in the United States, where school is thought of as an instrument for developing children's minds, not their bodies; their thinking and reasoning skills, not their emotional capacities or active propensities."

Ralph Nader said recently that "politics has been corrupted not just by money, but by being trivialized out of addressing the great, enduring issues of who controls, who decides, who owns, who pays, who has a voice and access." Maybe this is part of our mission.

Debbie Meier, a co-founder of the Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, describes schools that nurture citizens as those that promote skepticism, empathy (both an affective and cognitive quality), hope, and respect. She says what we know, that "it is doable to create schools that are respectful places." Which brings us to the stuff of a progressive community. Are we really a team that works together as we encourage our students to do; benefiting from the same dynamics of interdependency that color classroom life and curriculum design? In discussing this aspect of progressivism, the director of my school talks of "doing, dignity, and diversity." Jane Roland-Martin speaks of "care, concern, and connection." Both imply shared burden and shared gains, and are equally applicable to classroom and faculty communities.

One aspect of a progressive community is its group-decisionmaking stance, which often requires a lot of effortful, time-consuming "process." But collaboration in a progressive community involves more than this. It calls for the kind of collegial support that enhances both our teaching and our school's leadership position. Really working together requires opening up and allowing oneself to share the rough edges with colleagues, not just the shiny gems of our programs.

While that can be very hard to do, for a progressive school, interdependency is the starting point. For example, there are no desks in my lower school's classrooms--a statement about the value of collaborative endeavor. Though in true progressive fashion, we do also have an exception. We ask our students for collaborative effort across lines of race, class, gender and gender preference, age, and family configuration. We also ask them for openness and flexible thinking--compromise and change, balanced by all-out stubbornness when it's called for; for respect for their own work and for others'--for accomplishments as well as good tries. We ask for willingness to take risks and explore what is new, for the ability to find pleasure in group work. And finally, we ask them to build an interdependent world and to start here.

Christopher Reeve, in a great moment from his speech to the Democratic National Convention last summer, remarked about how often in recent years he'd heard reference made to "family values." He'd been working to figure out what was meant by the phrase, he said, and he'd come up with this answer: It meant, Mr. Reeve said, that "we are all a family and we all have value."

In this "family" spirit, progressive educators need to think about ways we can let some barriers and defenses fall and help each other with our work. The answer lies not in a list of how-to's, but in the knowledge that progressive education can only survive within a truly progressive community. We can't fake it. By becoming a stronger community, we can make a stronger statement. That is a worthwhile goal to share.


Elaine Winter is the lower-school principal at Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City. Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City.

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