Monday, September 21, 2009

The Old Progressivism, redux

On my office wall for many years I've had posted a copy of "The Principles of Progressive Education," a seven-point 1924 document written on behalf of the Progressive Education Association by, I am told, Eugene Randolph Smith, a progressive educator who was founding head of both the Park School of Baltimore and Beaver Country Day School, outside Boston.

Mirroring the troubling national rise in politically intemperate speech, I have noted in recent weeks that the U.S. citations on the Google Alerts I receive on "progressive education" are getting weirder and more shrill. Progressive education, as usual, is blamed for all kinds of things and related to atheism, ignorance, socialism, and even (my late favorite) to a progressive educational plot to decrease literacy in America--the blogger who came up with that one found a Dewey quote, or rather a quote from a book about Dewey, that supported this wacky notion. So much for rigorous use of evidence.

I thought it might be time to trot out the 1924 Principles, which graced the inside cover of the PEA's magazine for five years or so and which pretty seriously fail to live up to any of the exciting, crazy things that are being imputed to it by 2009 blogsters.

I'll quote the entire document after the break.

"The Principles of Progressive Education

"I. Freedom to Develop Naturally. The conduct of the pupil should be governed by himself according to the social needs of his community, rather than by arbitrary laws. Full opportunity for initiative and self-expression should be provided, together with an environment rich in interesting material that is available for the free use of every pupil.

"II. Interest, the Motive of All Work. Interest should be satisfied and developed through: (1) Direct and indirect contact with the world and its activities, and use of the experience thus gained. (2) Application of knowledge gained, and correlation between different subjects. (3) The consciousness of achievement.

"III. The Teacher a Guide, Not a Task-Master. It is essential that teachers should believe in the aims and general principles of Progressive Education and that they should have latitude for the development of initiative and originality. Progressive teachers will encourage the use of all the senses, training the pupils in both observation and judgment; and instead of hearing recitations only, will spend most of the time teaching how to use various sources of information, including life activities as well as books; how to reason about the information thus acquired; and how to express forcefully and logically the conclusions reached. Ideal teaching conditions demand that classes be small, especially in the elementary school years.

"IV. Scientific Study of Pupil Development. School records should not be confined to the marks given by teachers to show the advancement of the pupils in their study of subjects, but should also include both objective and subjective reports on those physical, mental, moral and social characteristics which affect both school and adult life, and which can be influenced by the school and the home. Such records should be used as a guide for the treatment of each pupil, and should also serve to focus the attention of the teacher on the all-important work of development rather than on simply teaching subject matter.

"V. Greater Attention to All that Affects the Child's Physical Development. One of the first considerations of Progressive Education is the health of the pupils. Much more room in which to move about, better light and air, clean and well ventilated buildings, easier access to the out-of-doors and greater use of it, are all necessary. There should be frequent use of adequate playgrounds. The teachers should observe closely the physical conditions of each pupil and, in cooperation with the home, make abounding health the first objective of childhood.

"VI. Co-operation Between School and Home to Meet the Needs of Child Life. The school should provide, with the home, as much as is possible of all that the natural interests and activities of the child demand, especially during the elementary school years. These conditions can come about only through intelligent co-operation between parents and teachers.

"VII. The Progressive School a Leader in Educational Movements. The Progressive School should be a leader in educational movements. It should be a laboratory where new ideas, if worthy, meet encouragement; where tradition alone does not rule, but the best of the past is leavened with the discoveries of today, and the result is freely added to the sum of educational knowledge."

I won't comment at length here other than to say I don't see anything crazy here, or for that matter many things that are far removed from what has become educational best practice in the age of New Progressive education. Don't think there's anything here that most of us wouldn't happily and proudly stand by today, 85 years after this was written. Perhaps what's most disturbing is that many of these ideas would seem new to some of our colleagues.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

You've Gotta Be Sincere, But There's More

Had an interesting response from a reader (and former student) to the previous post in reference to the writing I've been doing on school sustainability. She is about to start a job at a nature center that works with a number of independent schools, and she is excited about some of their initiatives in the context of the broader rubric of school sustainability--as long, she says, as "it turns out to be sincere and holistic and not just a gimmick."

She hits the nail on the head, I think, at least from the perception side. Educators everywhere can be accused of grabbing onto any number of great-sounding ideas--the gimmick du jour, it sometimes seems--and of then failing to continue the work that would turn the idea into a sustainable and sustaining part of the practice and learning culture of their institution. Thus do good ideas shrivel into "gimmicks."

I like to believe that the issue is almost never one of sincerity or a failure of holistic thinking. Rather, educational ideas that are bruited about in schools and then fail to take root are almost always victims of a kind of institutional ADD, an almost extreme distractibility that stems from schools' failure to discipline themselves to stand firm in their missions and values as well as from the seductive allure of so many new currents in educational thought--what my boss quotes a consultant as calling "the tyranny of good ideas."

In recent years good ideas, many of which are part and parcel of New Progressive core practice, have swept through schools like Southern California wildfires, causing much consternation and giving birth to a host of committees and strategic goals around technology, globalization, environmental practice, curriculum, service learning, character education--you name it. All of these are good ideas, deeply rooted in sound educational thought and a profound belief in the capacities of children and the promise of schools. How could a thoughtful educator or a forward-thinking school turn its back on any of them?

If it sounds as though I am about to advocate doing just that, hold on. Earlier I made reference to mission and core values, and if a school is going to go "whole hog" in any direction, mission and values dictate what that direction must be. Rather than become an environmental school, or a laptop school, or a global school, or a character-education school, an institution must be the kind of school it is at its core, in its heart, and in its heritage. All the good ideas in the world, pasted on or plunked into the program just because they're good ideas, won't make a wobbly school sustainable or a weak school strong.

My commentator's word "holistic," I think, holds the key to doing it right. Find the parts of the good ideas that resonate with the core and that can be thoughtfully and intentionally integrated into practice, and make them work. Oftentimes they will supplant or replace existing work, and sometimes they will supplement it in a way that enriches current practice. The work may be hard for the school and its teachers and challenging to its students, but if (and only if) it is OF A PIECE with what the school already does and stands for, it will embed itself sincerely and holistically in the fabric and life of the school. It won't be just another abandoned gimmick receding in the rear-view mirror as the school careens into an uncertain future but rather a part of the engine that drives the school forward on a course about which there is shared understanding and excitement.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

New Progressive = Good business

It's been almost six months since I've blogged here, and I apologize to anyone who has been waiting.

My "unassigned time" in the past half year has largely been spent doing some writing for the National Association of Independent Schools Financially Sustainable Schools project. I've been talking to CFOs, admission folks, development officers, and school heads, working to develop a set of principles and best practices for independent schools that would like to make it through a another decade or two. Not surprisingly, a fair number of my conversations have begun as inquiries into financial management.

But, funniest thing, the more I talked to the most creative and reflective people, the more I found myself on the familiar ground of New Progressivist thinking. Smart, forward-thinking schools that are actually DOING SOMETHING about improving their programs and professional practice`tend to be the ones that are thriving. Schools that are sitting on their hands or (worse) resting on their laurels are the ones worried about enrollment and whether they're going to have to lay off more teachers.

I have found myself talking with educators who have discovered in Multiple-Intelligence theory the keys to better curriculum design and who have successfully challenged even the most senior of faculties to attend to new understandings about assessment and evaluation so that their schools will continue to be the centers of excellence that annually bring bright, motivated, and intellectually engaged students into their classrooms--kids who become more engaged as their teachers become more innovative and intentional.

I have spoken with development officers who understand that schools have to be active, vibrant places where resources are used not just to make people more comfortable but to ramp up the level of the educational experiences and challenges that make students go home excited and even exhilarated--feelings that become the kind of word of mouth marketing campaign that no amount of money can buy.

I've spent hours on the phone with business officers who understand deeply not just the operational nuts and bolts that allow their schools to thrive but who are excited by the missions and values of the schools where they work--values that embrace taking care of the school community but that also acknowledge the higher quest for social justice and educational equity.

Smart school leaders everywhere are seeing the clear connections between innovative curriculum, the leveraging of technology, global thinking, and Green awareness. These are the connections that not only mean "doing the right thing" educationally but that also energize teachers, students, families--and even donors.

I'm just sorry that NAIS membership is needed to get access to much of the work that has come out of this project, including my latest big piece, "Alive and Well: What It Takes to Thrive in Hard Times." Over the next few weeks I will try to offer here a summary of the key findings.

When I first jumped into this work I assumed that it would be an interesting task that wouldn't have much to do with my New Progressive initiatives. Now that I've really dug around into what it means for a school to be sustainable, I'm ecstatic to think that sustainability in 2009 is inherently New Progressive. How cool is that?!!!


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