Lessons Learned from Progressive Education

The progressive-traditional education debate makes for provocative discussion, but in reality effective educators blend different educational theories to reach their students. Actual students in actual classrooms are not reduced to a single theory of education to the exclusion of others. Here is the first of at least two blog posts that describe aspects of different education models I have found valuable in my work in education.

Progressive education emphasizes student experience, construction of knowledge, thinking about learning, and the development of lifelong learning. Progressive educators worry that too many students have lost interest in the conventional curriculum, particularly at the high school level. Schools can design more engaging, effective programs that appeal to all learners.

I first started teaching directly after college in a teacher intern program at an independent boarding school. I taught two sections of ninth grade Biology and met daily with an experienced teacher mentor. I was pretty unprepared to teach but did my best to convey and assess the content. When I walked past the classroom next door, I was often captivated by the discussions in Bill Z.’s ecology class. Students developed questions about the campus pond and then designed independent research projects to answer those questions. Class time was spent at the pond, over lab equipment, or in group discussion. Students were highly engaged, defying the stereotype of the non-AP kid. I wondered whether I could make my classes this engaging.

I took my next teaching job in Botswana. The curriculum there was not progressive, tied to the U.K. O-level and A-level programs. However, the school itself was imbued with a strong social justice orientation, founded on non-racial principles during the height of apartheid South Africa. After school activities commenced at 2pm, and students were required to pursue sports, service, and clubs equally. I have not yet since seen a school with such a comprehensive commitment to community service. Global citizenship and cultural competency have since featured prominently among my educational values.

The Stanford University School of Education provided me with access to the study of experiential education, educational equity and school change theory. Nine months of intensive study with experienced professors and student peers helped me develop a comprehensive internal framework for my view of education. I wanted to design educational environments to enhance student experience, assess learning, and prepare students for a democratic society.

I took my next position at a San Francisco public charter school that had opened only the year before. Coming on board in the school’s second year was a real adventure in painting, lab construction, curriculum development, and building new information systems. Growing a school from one grade level to four required a ton of work and many long days. It also provided an opportunity to found a school on new assumptions about students and learning. I have never experienced a stronger commitment to success for all students, experimentation with teaching methods, and heterogeneous student groups. These principles of educational equity became permanently ingrained in my educational philosophy.

Becoming a technology director helped me further explore progressive educational methods using technology tools. I came to see so much potential for electronic tools to connect learners and prepare students to fully participate in a democratic society. Schools that feature students as content creators and teachers as facilitators came to feel so possible, if not likely. Expansive electronic information sources, online discussion forums, multimedia publishing, communication networks could be used to support full student participation and experiential learning.

My current school embraces the term “progressive” in both public-facing materials and internal discussions. We highlight so many examples of active student exploration of knowledge, reflection about one’s own learning, interdisciplinary study, 21st century themes, and school as community. Global education, urban studies, outdoor education, and sustainability all have a place in the curriculum and often dedicated staff. The school also has a tremendous arts program, truly an equal to the other departments and a statement about the vital importance of instruction for arts literacy, creativity, and discipline.

Progressive education has played a significant role in my education history, but it is not the only relevant theory of practice. In the next post, I will explore cognitive psychology and its effects on my conception of learning theory.


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