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.


bill01370 said...

Nice piece, Peter. Your ideas on the New Progressivism have been inspiring to me, and I enjoyed following your path.
For me, the transforming revelation was Mark Springer's work with the Soundings program at Radnor Middle School - at once the logical extension of the beliefs and values about teaching which I held dear, and first time I ever sensed the potential was so far beyond what I had ever seen.

Jake Giessman said...

I'm walking the tight rope in my own school between the left and right parents, who both see in Academy Hill all the promise of their own ideologies.

One key has been to seek the overlapping areas: Caring for the kid, pushing them hard, the obvious ones. But also, interestingly, both sides place an almost higher value on character education than book learning. This is particularly notable in a school designed to challenge smart kids.

The righties and lefties both love that their kids can stand up in front of the school and give a speech, that they can look you in the eye and shake your hand, that they can converse intelligently and compellingly.

Everybody wants their kid to grow up to be successful, and these "habits of highly effective people" hit on both the leftie predilection for higher-order, EQ, collaboration, 21st Century, etc. They also hit on the boot-straps, hard-nosed, board-room ideals of the right.

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