Musings, Pedagogy

Progressive Education

My cousin’s son has just started his high school career at BHSEC, following a year of testing and interviews and worry about the next phase of his academic career. In learning more about what he’d be experiencing there, I started thinking about schools and progressive pedagogy and “flipping classrooms” and all the things that we’re told make for quality education.

During my public school career I was in classes that frequently taught to the middle ground: the students who most needed help were still lost, and those who were extremely capable were bored. Depending on the class, I was either learning something or doodling in my notebook. The teachers were, for the most part, uninspired and uninspiring. My 7th grade history teacher was one of those few inspiring teachers. The English teacher I had in 9th grade tried to be inspiring, holding special sections of instruction on graphology (how we girls could tell if a boy was interested in us) and using Pyscho-Cybernetics as a text (I kid you not).

My time at Emma Willard was much more inspiring, even though most of the classes I took were “traditional” (eg, lecture based). Obviously, back in the ’70s technology was using an overhead and possibly showing a film or filmstrip, but would the addition of tools like Prezi or twitter have made the experience better? Probably not. We were on a trimester system, and that final trimester I took: Economics, Modern Asian History, Algebra II/Trig, French Literature, Science & Ideas (an exploration of Bronowski’s Ascent of Man) and European Fiction. Talk about college prep!

So here’s what I’ve been wondering: what makes for a progressive education?  Is it one where the classroom is filled with toys and technology (on the theory that “engagement” equals “entertainment”?), or is it one where the students are challenged to explore new ideas, whether or not technology is involved?  Is it one that adheres to an advanced curriculum or one that forges its own path?

I’ve had the opportunity to speak to faculty, administration and librarians at a number of schools that bill themselves as being “progressive” and none of them have an answer.  It seems to be a catch-all for “college preparation with lots of technology and a better curriculum/more engaged faculty than the local public schools”.  Why isn’t there a better sense of what progressive means?  Here’s a definition:

During most of the twentieth century, the term “progressive education” has been used to describe ideas and practices that aim to make schools more effective agencies of a democratic society. Although there are numerous differences of style and emphasis among progressive educators, they share the conviction that democracy means active participation by all citizens in social, political and economic decisions that will affect their lives. The education of engaged citizens, according to this perspective, involves two essential elements: (1). Respect for diversity, meaning that each individual should be recognized for his or her own abilities, interests, ideas, needs, and cultural identity, and (2). the development of critical, socially engaged intelligence, which enables individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common good. These elements of progressive education have been termed “child-centered” and “social reconstructionist” approaches, and while in extreme forms they have sometimes been separated, in the thought of John Dewey and other major theorists they are seen as being necessarily related to each other.

Note: technology is not mentioned.  Nothing resembling flipped classrooms or 1:1 programs is in there – that’s not to say they can’t be used, but that the focus is on engagement.  From what I’ve seen of my cousin’s son’s school, they will be engaging his intellect, challenging him to go beyond his comfort zone.  Will there be technology? Yes.  But it won’t be driving his education, it’ll be enhancing it.  Which leaves me to wonder, why are so many schools getting that equation backwards?

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