Defining Progressive Education

In the admission process, people often ask what progressive education really means today. My answer is that, unlike conventional and traditional education, it is based upon common sense.

• In teaching and curriculum design, students and student learning are at the center of the process.

• As British educator Geoff Petty says, “We used to teach subjects in classes – now we teach students.”

• We stress problem solving, innovation, creativity, and flexibility – not just the mastery of facts.

• We know all students – all students – learn in different ways, and we design classroom structures and assignments that create conditions for the students to succeed at the highest level.

• We focus on what we want students to be able to do, not just on what we want them to know.

So what exactly do we want students to be able to do?

• Students need to know how to work in teams, so we structure and assign collaborative projects.

• Students need to know how to think in non-linear ways, so we design curriculum that goes beyond linear thinking and asks more of students in the area of “right brain” thinking.

• Students need to learn and operate in a culturally-inclusive context, so our curriculum, teaching, and values support that.

• Students need to learn to speak in public with confidence, so exhibitions and presentations are part of the learning process.

• Students need to know how to communicate visually, so the arts are essential for our curriculum.

• Students need to write – a lot – and we design authentic expository writing assignments, assignments geared toward a number of different audiences, not just an English teacher, to help them develop as genuinely effective writers.

• Students respond to intellectual challenge best when the learning is authentic, so we have developed honors advanced classes to take the place of AP classes. A class in Ecology and Field Studies is a much more useful and intellectually challenging class than AP Biology.

• Students need to learn to push themselves in areas where they are comfortable and areas where they are not. It might be chemistry, it might be soccer; it might be drama; it might be finding ways to discover that point of contact with someone who at first glance might not have much in common with you.

• Students need to learn to step back and reflect on their learning.

I attended a meeting where a speaker related the outcomes of focus groups of students at a highly selective university, a university which demanded an enormous amount of work of its students. The common refrain was, “I wish we had more time to learn.”

• Students need balance in their lives. Is it very important for them to have five hours of homework a night, or is it better for them to have three hours of meaningful homework a night?

To me, all of this is simply common sense and represents a consistent theme in the school since 1920.

As it was in 1920 students are at the center, and it all starts with our faculty. That is not a contradiction. Our teachers are true experts in their subject areas, but they are not here to impress students with their expertise. Our progressive teaching is designed to respond to the mantra that “school is for children” and our teachers are so effective because they live that mantra. They are actively engaged in learning more about designing collaborative projects, differentiated instruction, multiple modes of assessment, culturally inclusive curriculum, and technology. That type of teacher and that type of instruction is what remains at the heart of this school.

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