Monday, March 3, 2014

Progressive Education: What it isn't

This was written by Alfie Kohn who writes and speaks about parenting and education. His website is here and he tweets here. This is an excerpt from a larger article found here.

by Alfie Kohn

Misconceptions about progressive education generally take two forms. Either it is defined too narrowly so that the significance of the change it represents is understated, or else an exaggerated, caricatured version is presented in order to justify dismissing the whole approach. Let’s take each of these in turn.

Individualized attention from caring, respectful teachers is terribly important. But it does not a progressive school make. To assume otherwise not only dilutes progressivism; it’s unfair to traditional educators, most of whom are not callous Gradgrinds or ruler-wielding nuns. In fact, it’s perfectly consistent to view education as the process of filling children up with bits of knowledge — and to use worksheets, lectures, quizzes, homework, grades, and other such methods in pursuit of that goal — while being genuinely concerned about each child’s progress. Schools with warm, responsive teachers who know each student personally can take pride in that fact, but they shouldn’t claim on that basis to be progressive.

Moreover, traditional schools aren’t always about memorizing dates and definitions; sometimes they’re also committed to helping students understand ideas. As one science teacher pointed out, “For thoughtful traditionalists, thinking is couched in terms of comprehending, integrating, and applying knowledge.” However, the student’s task in such classrooms is “comprehending how theteacher has integrated or applied the ideas… and [then] reconstruct[ing] the teacher’s thinking.”[3]There are interesting concepts being discussed in some traditional classrooms, in other words, but what distinguishes progressive education is that students must construct their own understanding of ideas.

There’s another mistake based on too narrow a definition, which took me a while to catch on to: A school that is culturally progressive is not necessarily educationally progressive. An institution can be steeped in lefty politics and multi-grain values; it can be committed to diversity, peace, and saving the planet — but remain strikingly traditional in its pedagogy. In fact, one can imagine an old-fashioned pour-in-the-facts approach being used to teach lessons in tolerance or even radical politics.[4]

Less innocuous, or accidental, is the tendency to paint progressive education as a touchy-feely, loosey-goosey, fluffy, fuzzy, undemanding exercise in leftover hippie idealism — or Rousseauvian Romanticism. In this cartoon version of the tradition, kids are free to do anything they please, the curriculum can consist of whatever is fun (and nothing that isn’t fun). Learning is thought to happen automatically while the teachers just stand by, observing and beaming. I lack the space here to offer examples of this sort of misrepresentation — or a full account of why it’s so profoundly wrong — but trust me: People really do sneer at the idea of progressive education based on an image that has little to do with progressive education.

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NOTES

3. Mark Windschitl, “Why We Can’t Talk to One Another About Science Education Reform,” Phi Delta Kappan, January 2006, p. 352.

4. As I was preparing this article, a middle-school student of my acquaintance happened to tell me about a class she was taking that featured a scathing indictment of American imperialism – as well as fact-based quizzes and report cards that praised students for being “well behaved” and “on-task.”

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