Technology and Progressive Education

Catlin Gabel is a school with a strong sense of purpose and oft-renewed committment to a “progressive” educational mission. Our middle school head asked me the other day to consider what technology could do to support the school’s mission of progressive education. This is the kind of charge I enjoy being given, as a clear institutional mission and vision gives a tech department something to shoot for. Here are some initial thoughts on the question. I hope to continue to develop these ideas over time and implement new tools within the school.

What is progressive education? The father of progressive education, John Dewey, described an educational vision of “education through experience.” That is, children learn best by interacting with content and performing authentic tasks. Ruth Catlin emphasized the “child as the unit of consideration,” another way of saying that instruction should be tailored to each student. Mel Levine focuses on “learning profiles,” the unique set of cognitive strengths and weaknesses that each student possesses. These and other theorists contribute to a model for progressive education that is student-centered, activity-based, fully scaffolded, and authentic.

Today’s national educational environment is relatively hostile to progressive education. The “standards movement” emphasizes high-stakes testing, and President Bush has set the tone by implying that testing along will directly improve student achievement. Missing from the conversation is serious consideration of alternative assessment methods that better measure student conceptual understanding and a strategy for improving teaching and learning once student achievement has been measured. Within these regressive educational times, Catlin Gabel does a great job of reaffirming its committment to educating students in the manner it knows best.

Computer-based technologies may be used to support practically any kind of educational mission. They are certainly well-suited to a high-stakes, testing-based environment, able to deliver tests to students and produce reams of statistical comparisons. However, computer-based technologies may be even better suited to supporting a progressive educational mission. Students may work on their own, at their own pace, on open-ended tasks. The organizational capabilities of a computer are useful in order to manage short-term activities and long-term projects such as multimedia presentations, research projects, and artistic works. Teachers may use online databases to share information about students in order to better tailor instruction to each child.

Social software, probably the hottest area of new growth on the Internet, is an extremely fertile field that is perfectly suited to progressive education. Internet-based services offered by Google, mySpace, Moodle, Flickr, Drupal, Wikimedia, and Elgg are creating new ways for individuals to interact with each other and develop group membership on the Internet. Such technologies support the progressive educational practices of groupwork, public performance, and learning through experience.

The first social software we are piloting is Moodle, which is best-suited to managing course web sites but we will also use as online community software for faculty affairs, student clubs, and parents. Moodle gives people the capability to do course work by posting documents, creating discussion forums, conducting surveys, posting and submitting assignments, and more. One exciting feature is the ability for students to join and leave club web sites at their own will, allowing club membership to organically grow. For instance, by joining a club web site, a student will automatically become subscribed to their announcements email list.

Other instructional software such as ChemSense and CMap Tools also have social components. Both allow students to collaborate with each other on their mental models, whether they are on campus or not.

Check back on this space for more reflections and reports on technology and progressive education.

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