Saturday, December 27, 2008

A tale of the New Progressivism (dedicated to Harry M.A. Hart, wherever he may be)

My "progressive education" Google Alert continues daily to dredge up bits and pieces of vituperation aimed at various individuals' odd notions of what progressive education is and why it is to be blamed for the end of civilization as we know it. (I've also noticed that some of the nuttier blogs are actually cloned and published wholesale under different authors' names, a practice that seems to me at odds with moralistic indignation; but then, I voted for Obama, apparently a sign of the feebleness of my own moral fiber. I recently read a piece that seemed, in a masterpiece of ahistorical thinking, to conflate the ideas of the president-elect with those of Horace Mann [1796-1859] "and the Harvard Unitarians" as being responsible for the putative evils of the self-esteem movement.)

But I'm not here to talk politics but rather to take the coming rollover of the calendar as an excuse to tell the tale of my conversion to the New Progressivism.

You'd have to look fairly hard to find anyone with better Traditional credentials than mine. My grandfather and father both taught Latin, English, and History in an age and in schools where they didn't talk about Roman families, contemporary literature, or the history of places that hadn't been part of either the Roman or British empires. In the boarding school where they both spent the bulk of their careers, the key word was "structure," and it was a rare hot evening that was truly hot enough for the proctors of the evening study hall--as teachers, they were called "masters"--to permit the boys to remove their suit jackets. There were plenty of good times and good fun, but education was Old School; Thomas Arnold would have recognized it all, right into the early 1990s, when my father retired.

I learned about teaching and school from these men in this place, even before I entered elementary school. Even in that nice pink brick 1950s edifice, the teaching was traditional. My first and second-grade teacher had taught my father, and most of my teachers had lived through the Depression. We diagrammed sentences and learned long-division the old-fashioned way, whatever that was, and when in seventh-grade I was ready for the selective independent day school my father had chosen for me, I was more or less ready.

The next six years of all-male schooling included more diagramming, more "Sir"-ing the masters, study halls in rows of desks bolted to the floor, and a series of gimlet-eyed old fellows (okay, there was a notably brilliant woman who was invited to teach our tenth-grade English class as an "experiment") who had us toe-ing the line in all respects as they prepared us for our destinies in all-male, Ivy League universities. In time, this would come to pass.

After college and graduate school, I began my teaching career at my father's school, but left shortly and completed my apprenticeship and began my journeyman years at two more all-male, pretty traditional New England schools. It was only a rash move born of personal desperation (I had just earned my "Ask Me About My Boarding School Divorce" t-shirt) that brought me to the progressive school I now inhabit, but even then my traditional leanings and experience served me well; in the post-Permissive early 80's, a teacher with Old Timey chops meant one less headache for administrators.

And so the 1980s rolled to a close, and I was a fairly experienced teacher of history and occasionally English. My textbooks were my curriculum and vice versa, and I had somewhere encountered Bloom's Taxonomy and so was able to construct some pretty clever and intentional assignments and tests. I was surely set to carry on into my Sunset Years, a Mr. Chips-to-be generally liked by students and congenial with colleagues and (generally) to bosses. I was happy; the rhythm of the years was regular, and I could only agree with an older colleague who observed, "It's always the same script; just the cast of characters changes."

I look at that period as something of Golden Age, but it would proved brass quite soon, I think. Fortunately, an older colleague--a man I didn't know well but who for some reason picked me--handed me in 1992 a cassette tape of Grant Wiggins presenting his landmark "The Futility of Trying to Teach Everything of Importance" at the NAIS Annual Conference, probably in 1991. The man who gave me this treasure is the dedicatee of this piece.

One day as I was driving in the northeast part of our state I stuck the cassette in the deck, and for the first and only time in my life I had a "Paul on the road to Damascus" experience. After a few minutes, I had to pull off the road so that I could concentrate on what I was hearing.

From the dashboard of my car I heard Wiggins's voice telling me that everything I thought about "curriculum" and grading, and the purposes of education was, if not wrong, hopelessly off the mark, but that there were new and better ways of thinking about all of it. "Planning backwards," "rubrics," "authentic assessment"--these terms, as Wiggins defined them in swift, broad strokes, were the essence of a new mantra that could change my entire approach to teaching. It wasn't about content, it was about understanding, and students could be engaged in the process not because clever teachers could entertain them into learning but because thoughtful, intentional teachers could pose questions and create learning experiences that would naturally lead students toward knowledge. There were even "habits of mind" that could be defined and used as goals for learning.

I became a Wiggins junkie, and soon enough I heard about Project Zero and a whole host of other educational think-tanks and individual thinkers who were thinking about teaching and learning in new ways. I was lucky enough to be working in a school that was suddenly open, with a change of leadership, to these ideas. In time I was a department chair and the head of a curriculum committee that was given carte blanche (more or less) to look for great new ideas about education that could be incorporated into our work with the simply stated goal of "reaching every student." I served for seven years as academic dean, charged with building up a body of practice and a school culture that was based on the ideas I came to call The New Progressivism. My career has been the better for it, certainly, but most importantly, so has my teaching and all my work with students.

We've fought hard at our school to remind parents, students, and even sometimes ourselves that New Progressivism is about challenging work, deep understanding, and high standards, and we don't jump at every new idea that comes down the pike. Our teachers are expert curriculum designers who understand student-centered education, but they are also hard-nosed practitioners and promoters of their own disciplines. If our students have high self-esteem, it is because they earn it by hard work and authentic achievement.

The New Progressivism is not about fluff, or relativism, or feeling good and knowing nothing. It is about giving students the tools to think hard and critically about the work they do and the world they inhabit, and it is about demanding that they develop a set of intellectual values--habits of mind, or intellectual character--based on the active, critical application of intelligence and keen values-driven moral judgment.

So, that's my journey from traditional to New Progressivist education.

If an older guy feeling a bit reflective can be indulged for another sentence or two, I'd like to suggest that if my forebears had the benefit of the insights of Wiggins and the other apostles of the New Progressivism, perhaps they would have embraced them as joyfully as I did. At heart, you see, my grandfather, father, and I have all been pretty dedicated to doing the best we can to help our students do the best they can. The aims of the two approaches, at their best, aren't really so different.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Origins of The New Progressivism

That we are in the era of The New Progressivism occurred to me a few years back, when I whipped up the following presentation to kick off a professional development event. (It's clear that I could perhaps have used one of those Edward Tufte seminars on PowerPoint design, but that's another story.)

The point here is pretty clear, I hope: that New Progressives draw on their forebears for a number of basic values and ideas, but that a mindless devotion to the dicta and practices of Dewey et al. is not what we're all about.

For example, a good part of the focus of the New Progressivism is on curriculum and assessment, with standards playing a large role in this work. While the Old Progressives would applaud this, I think it's safe to say that their understanding of asssessment, in particular, was rudimentary in comparison to the work that both theorists and classroom educators have been doing in this area for a decade or more. Very early educational progressives were also much more interested in the idea of differentiation as a social tool--to enable educational stratification that would support a more intentional separation of students based on vocational potential (for lack of a better term)--than as a pedagogical tool to help all students succeed at a high level; exceptions to this notion did exist, of course.

Anyhow, this show marks the first appearance in my work of New Progressivism as a concept; it was three years later that what I saw as the pervasively New Progressivist content of the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference inspired my Education Week essay.

The "Third Culture" idea was an attempt to put a name on the idealistic expectations we have for the comportment and belief structures of our students--that in school, and we hope because of school, students will aspire to a more intellectually engaged approach to the world at large and a more socially and ethically circumspect approach to novelty and difference. This set of behaviors represents a "third culture" after the First Culture of the dominant popular culture (think South Park, perhaps) and the Second Culture of their own household and family heritage. The idea needed more work then and still does, but it is an attempt to come up with a shorthand way of discussing the values proposition (!) that progressive education seems to be espousing in the 21st century.


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Progressive School Challenge, Take II

A week or so ago I posted under the title "Is your school progressive?" a kind of Progressive School Challenge, seeking examples of truly progressive practices of the sort that might aggregate to a functional definition of The New Progressivism. So far: a response from a single school.

I repeat the challenge here so that any school or school person interested in submitting--just use the "Comment" form below.

"Let's look at the question, "Is your school progressive?" Here is my challenge to readers:

List three (3) pervasive practices at your school that you would deem progressive; these cannot be practices that exist in only a few classrooms or program areas. Justify your list, citing specific philosophical progressives sources and or practical progressive inspiration. You may also submit documentary evidence (or links to it) such as the school's mission statement, published values, and standards for effective teaching.

I also am of the opinion that effective progressive education doesn't happen by accident. And of course my proposed certification process violates the most excellent Coalition [of Essential Schools] Principle of school being a place of unanxious expectations.

I am looking forward to building a list of self-nominated progressive schools and to some great discussion of the nature of progressive practice."

For those interested in reading the full post in which the challenge was presented, here is the link.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

TEXT: "The New Progressivism is Here"

Since the available links to the article that started it all (see sidebar) all seem to require subscriptions or memberships, here is the article in its entirety, as published in Education Week On-line as "Commentary," April 29, 2008:

The New Progressivism Is Here

In February, I joined nearly 7,000 other educators at a revolutionary gathering in New York City. Probably few in attendance would have characterized the meeting as such, but the discourse, from main themes to individual workshops, was radically different from most mainstream American conversations about education. It promoted educational ideals that combined conventional practice with innovation from the leading edge of educational theory.

Yes, this year’s annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools —an organization many readers may envision as a bastion of elitism and hidebound pedagogy—felt like a countercultural force.

Ever since President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education proclaimed the country A Nation at Risk, 25 years ago this month, the United States has been in the grip of educational forces that are equal parts zealotry and hypocrisy. The zealots have decried “progressive” ideas as the root of all educational evil, from the “collapse” of standards to the enfeebling of character-formation by moral relativism and “multiculturalism.” The hypocrites, meanwhile, have determined that the education systems that produced them could never mass-produce “common” citizens. In compromise, the two sides both have embraced a test-driven, three-Rs-focused, teacher-loathing model of schooling, most succinctly represented by the doublespeak of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Over the same period of time, educational thinkers and a host of individual teachers have developed a body of practice that, when properly executed, addresses the concerns of both zealots and hypocrites. These are approaches to teaching and learning that I call the New Progressivism. Untrammeled by state regulation and the need for instant political accountability, independent schools have become the test bed for the New Progressivism. If the NAIS conference was “about” any single thing, it was a quiet celebration of this New Progressivism.

As represented in the practice of many independent schools, the New Progressivism has features that combine proven instructional techniques with efforts to prepare students for a globalized, diverse, and complex world. The essential characteristics are these:

Assessment against high standards. Along with their strong emphasis on basic skills, these schools have always been known for high standards, which are hallmarks of the New Progressivist curriculum. Drawing on the ideas of scholars and experts such as Howard Gardner, Grant Wiggins, and Robert Sternberg, New Progressives design crafted, purposeful classroom experiences and assessments using those standards as benchmarks of excellence. Examples include “planning backwards,” varied assessment strategies, project- and problem-based learning, and envisioning textbooks and teachers as resources, rather than as the curriculum itself or general founts of all knowledge.

Professional development. New Progressives believe in mission-driven professional development and a collaborative professional culture. Thoughtful induction and mentoring programs bring new teachers into communities of professional practice, while goals-based evaluation programs build teacher capacity. While it is true that independent schools’ overwhelmingly nonunionized teaching staffs may be more easily brought into line with institutional expectations, all schools can learn from their recruiting and training programs, which build committed faculties with a common set of skills, ideals, and approaches.

Real-world connections. Using their own communities as resources, or having students explore the wider world through projects, research, or even travel, New Progressives are committed to having students build understandings beyond the boundaries of their own world. The independent-school dean Nadine Nelson, a diversity expert, speaks of the “all-terrain kid,” a student prepared to engage with new issues and challenges and quick to understand and accommodate to new situations and cultural norms.

Multiculturalism as a process, not a program. New Progressives believe in creating communities whose members can connect, in every aspect of their education, across differences in race, culture, religion, ability, and way of being. “Multicultural” understandings and a commitment to human rights and social justice do not grow out of reactive or didactic teaching, but flow naturally through the curriculum and through all interactions within the learning community.

Character and creativity. Like the Deweyite Progressives who spoke of “the whole child,” New Progressivism inspires and rewards personal integrity, empathy, hard work, optimism, collaboration, and access to the creative self, along with the ability to reflect on experience and analyze one’s own ways of learning and knowing. Character lessons associated with winning and losing—plus the virtues of competition, teamwork, supreme effort, and physical fitness—have long been part of the independent school tradition of mandatory athletics. Whether secular or faith-based, New Progressivist schools, rather than teaching moral relativism, help students discover and strengthen deep and abiding personal values.

Likewise, progressives have always valued the aesthetic sense as well as the ability to think and feel originally and purposefully. In New Progressive schools, the arts are accorded respect, resources, and recognition of their value. Their students are also encouraged to exercise and develop creativity in other areas, from playing fields to research projects.

Civic engagement. John Dewey believed that education must prepare students to become informed and effective participants in democratic society. New Progressives find ways for students to discover the power of individual agency through service, advocacy, and leadership. Most independent schools are explicitly values-based, and their students are expected to discover ways to put these values to work for the common good.

Technology as tool. New Progressives have been both early adopters of emerging technologies and early skeptics about technology’s promise. They understand that technology is only a tool, albeit an often potent one, to enhance learning by freeing the mind for more interesting and worthy challenges.

Each of the several thousand independent schools represented at the conference had its own mission, culture, and history, but in February we found ourselves united by a sense of a collective mission. Historically, our schools have considered themselves aspiring utopias, intentional communities with the highest academic and personal standards that are also highly desirable places to learn or teach. Although some have been cautious in embracing the New Progressivism (and many still shy away from the “P” word and its residue of ’60s-era associations), the buzz at the conference was all about what one participant described as “the message that business as usual isn’t going to be good enough any more.”

With educators filling Radio City Musical Hall to hear messages of radical change from Sir Ken Robinson and Daniel Pink, and the conference program knee-deep in sessions focused on sustainability, service, global education, diversity, and emerging technologies, it was clear that the ideals of the New Progressivism have taken root.

One does not have to believe that his or her students are “the leaders of tomorrow” to buy in to a philosophy of education that prepares them to enter higher education, the workforce, and civil society as innovative, flexible, and resourceful citizens and thinkers. Nor are independent schools the only places where such thinking prevails—many public schools and public school teachers are achieving extraordinary things with these same techniques. Together, these institutions’ successes should convince educational and political leaders to consider what the New Progressivism might mean for all schools, and all children.

© Peter Gow, 2008.


Monday, December 01, 2008

Is your school progressive?

I am asked quite often about progressive schools, and I nearly always disappoint them by failing to have a really good list at hand. I can always think of a few pretty radical places, a la Sudbury Valley (which my oldest child attended for some years), and then there are some pretty progressive chartered schools (I'm using the fussy term here in tribute to Clayton Christensen and the other authors of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. Schools in the Coalition of Essential Schools (see below) tend to be progressive by nature. I happen to think there are a whole lot of schools that have some very progressive things going on--in curriculum, in diversity and social justice ed, in sustainability/green initiatives, in global education, in student services--and so I think a list could be pretty long.

The other way to think about this question, I suppose, is to imagine a set of litmus test practices that would certify a school as progressive. I dare say most people interested in progressive principles could make up their own criteria.

For example, I noted with both pride and some amusement a few years back when our school became a "national affiliate" of the Coalition of Essential Schools that, based on the Coalition's assessment of the lengthy profile I posted as part of our membership, that we were a "very high implementing" Coalition school. We did this without ever having consciously set out to be a Coalition school or to explicitly embrace Coalition practices; we knew about the CES, of course, and we'd read Sizer and other authors with CES connections, but we were already doing what many schools had had to change course to accomplish.

In the end, what "progressive" means to me is what Christensen et al. call "student-centric" in all regards, but going beyond what I think they mean, because it feels as though most of what they have to say about school is really focusing on curriculum and instruction. The roots of New Progressivism, like the old, lie in the way the school thinks about and treats kids, and how the school acknowledges and manages difference, whether racial, cultural, spiritual, or philosophical.

"Progressive" also has a great deal to do with the nature of the professional culture among the adults and how the school sustains and develops its teaching faculty in the service of its students. Do teachers share practice, talk about teaching, and use the opportunity of being with one another in a learning community to grow as educators?

Progressive is about turning away from deficit models of student learning or character or behavior--about not being a KIPP school bent on correcting deficiencies in students' upbringing, I guess, but that's just one way of looking at what they do, I realize--and embracing the idea that there are ways to reach every student and that the job of teachers is to find those ways.

Progressive is about the school enthusiastically embracing the idea that its job is not to create graduates who fit some ideal model of an independent school graduate but who are the very best versions of their individual selves that they can be--and that these students understand and embrace a set of optimistic and activist human values. These values are themselves progressive in a social or even political sense--they must be about peace, understanding, justice, and moving and sharing across boundaries.

I don't think it's so bad to remind ourselves that the roots of progressive education lie in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's notion of human nature: that the individual is born with powerful tendencies for goodness, curiosity, and generosity of spirit, and that progressive education allows these innate moral traits to flourish as it minimizes the constraints that breed selfishness and apathy. The other side, that individuals are by nature weak and self-centered and cruel and that education's task is to systematically suppress these characteristics by imposing external and arbitrary moral order, is clear enough in its manifestations.

So here's a challenge to readers. Let's look at the question, "Is your school progressive?" Here is my challenge to readers:

List three (3) pervasive practices at your school that you would deem progressive; these cannot be practices that exist in only a few classrooms or program areas. Justify your list, citing specific philosophical progressives sources and or practical progressive inspiration. You may also submit documentary evidence (or links to it) such as the school's mission statement, published values, and standards for effective teaching.

I also am of the opinion that effective progressive education doesn't happen by accident. And of course my proposed certification process violates the most excellent Coalition Principle of school being a place of unanxious expectations.

I am looking forward to building a list of self-nominated progressive schools and to some great discussion of the nature of progressive practice.


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