Tag Archive for constructivism

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.


The Importance of Team Preparation

While at the Santa Fe Leadership Center institute, I noticed the the theme of team preparation through personal sharing repeatedly receive emphasis. Invest time and energy into the personal histories and goals of team members, and the team will perform at a higher level and accomplish more.

Tomi Nagai-Roethe shared the Drexler/Sibbet team performance model with us. The model provides a detailed framework for understanding team functions and dysfunctions. Built around the metaphor of a bouncing ball, the model emphasizes the importance of personalized team preparation to the later performance level of the team. Early phases of teamwork include individuals sharing who they are and why there are on the team. This precedes articulation of the work to be done or the methods to be used. The floor represents organizational support. With strong support, the ball bounces faster and higher. The vertical axis represents different behavioral dimensions — intuition, feeling, thinking, and sensing. Exploring personal histories and purposes require intuition and feeling skills. The more work a team does to explore the background and motivation of each team member and their reasons for being on the team, the more momentum the team builds to accomplish great work.

Carla Silver put this theory into action through a wallet building exercise. The ultimate objective of the activity was to build the perfect wallet, but before we were even given our task, we were told to show and explain each of our wallets. This individual sharing of the wallets we had chosen for ourselves gave each person the opportunity to speak, make their preferences known, and show their chosen wallets before group work began. As a result, the group was more trusting and collaborative throughout the entire process.

Debbie Freed explored systems causes for conflict and crises in schools. Similarly to the other speakers, she explained how issues framed around personality conflicts are really about the assumptions that people bring to their jobs as a result of their personal and institutional histories.

IDEO had us practice design thinking to design a better recess for kids. They emphasized personal history through “user-centered design,” asking interview subjects open-ended questions and conducting observations to identify user needs and brainstorm possible solutions.

The idea of personal experience in teamwork seems readily applicable in our work in schools.

Election 2008 as a Moodle site

School started today, and I can see light at the end of the tunnel. We have made our most significant changes to the network for the year, have almost finished annual maintenance on everyone’s computer, and can soon settle in to the daily support of a school in operation. And I can find the time to start blogging again!

Today, I spent an hour with our U.S. History teacher, who is offering an elective titled “Election 2008” this fall. He wanted to build a course web site that would put the students’ ideas front and center and provide many connections to outside resources related to the national and state elections coming in November. We stretched our practice of what Moodle could do to support such a course.

Here is the Moodle site as it currently stands.

screen shot

Why the big blank space? We are using the “social” course format for this course, rarely used at Catlin Gabel. The social format is the most child-centered of the course formats in Moodle. It puts a discussion forum front and center, so that students’ posts about election news, photos or cartoons, and statistics from the race can dominate the page. As the course begins, this part of the page will become an ever-changing river of student thoughts and reactions.

On the right-hand side of the page, we are pulling two RSS feeds into the site, one from the progressive Talking Points Memo and the other the conservative Washington Times. In this case, Moodle’s practice of showing the feeds separately works well.

In the left-hand column goes more conventional Moodle content, especially links to course resources and activities. We did have some fun using embed code from YouTube and election-related widgets to embed interesting content into the sub-pages.

The teacher is planning to Skype in representatives from the campaigns and students from other schools. I have seen Moodle’s Skype plugin but haven’t quite figured out what exactly it does. Isn’t the magic of Skype all in the application? Does it list your online friends or something? Please enlighten me, if you have worked with this before.

I will enjoy watching the students develop this page and engage in rich conversations as the course begins.