Aside

The Tools of a Progressive Education

When this year’s Commencement speaker, Susan Diamond ’56, compared Beaver to Home Depot, saying that the two shared a “You can do it. We can help.” philosophy, she drew laughter from her audience, myself included. But while her comparison may have seemed unlikely, even outrageous, Susan hit on an essential truth about progressive education that remains as valid today as it was in her era. No, our teachers have not adopted orange shirts as their uniform, and our curriculum does not encompass lessons in installing kitchen fixtures. But Beaver, like all schools, is in the “business” of providing tools to help young people build their careers and lives. And while our students acquire the same tools as students in more traditional schools, Beaver graduates know more about how to use them. With its emphasis on hands-on learning and real-world problem solving, Beaver’s curriculum emphasizes that it’s not just acquiring the tools, but knowing how to apply them that is the real goal. Returning to the analogy, Home Depot doesn’t just sell you the lumber, the nails, and a can of wood sealer, its customer service staff gives you instructions on how to design and build a backyard deck that will fit your needs and will last a lifetime.

As progressive educators we understand that in a world that demands innovation, flexibility, and resourcefulness, today’s students need academic tools they can readily adapt to changes in technology, demographics, even climate. As evidence, consider two statistics that I recently found on a blog for forward-thinking educators.

“None of the top 10 jobs that will exist in 2010 existed in 2004.” (Richard Riley, former U.S. Secretary of Education)
Most American workers will change jobs between 10 and 14 times by age 38 (U.S. Department of Labor estimate)
For readers of my generation, these numbers may seem surprising, even scary. As someone whose entire career has been spent in education, the last 15 in my current position, I realize that my students’ career paths will likely be very different than my own, although I do hope some of them will choose teaching at some point along the way. (Here’s another statistic from the same blog: “In the next 10 years, we will need 2.5 million new teachers, roughly half the education workforce.” National Center for Education). Like our ever-changing world, knowledge is not static; beginning almost a century ago, progressive educators were among the first to grasp that students ultimately benefit more from a curriculum that emphasizes thinking over knowing, one that values creativity and curiosity over the rote mastery of facts. While traditional schools put their faith in standardized testing and a one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum, we follow a higher mission – to truly educate our students, as individuals and as global citizens.

At Beaver, we use the word “commencement” instead of “graduation” to underscore that when our students complete senior year they are beginning the next chapter of their young lives. Each June Beaver’s faculty and I say good-bye and congratulations, confident that we have equipped our graduates with a set of intellectual tools they can put to use wherever they go, and in whatever they do. And we are proud to say, “They can do it. We helped.”

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