Thursday, November 05, 2009

Best practice or travesty?

A while back I went to the Progressive Education Network's biennial gathering, held this year in D.C. (well, Bethesda, actually). It was an interesting experience to say the least, and perhaps one I'm willing to wait a couple of years to have again.

I had been invited to present on The New Progressivism, which I did both as a proponent and as a reporter of what I see as going on in the field. (You can find the PowerPoint of my presentation here; I apologize that Slideshare wasn't able to take in the rather nice old display font I used for the titles, leaving some oddly proportioned text here and there.)

First, though, there was the opening ceremony and keynote, given by the redoubtable Marian Wright Edelman. Ms. Edelman was late for the event, having been testifying at the capitol all day on health care issues and children. Not a problem, of course.

What was a problem, at least for me, was the kind of giddy glee I sensed in the crowd as the schedule unraveled--"in the spirit of progressive education," as one of the emcees said while filling in the time.

No! No! No! The idea that progressive education is some kind of loopy, anarchic "go with the flow" version of education is exactly what makes much harder the work of those of us who are trying to convince serious people that progressive education, done well by serious people, is serious. Sure, things go wrong, and sure, as educators we work hard to be responsive to student interests and teachable moments, but let's not start with the assumption that it's all going to get weird, anyway.

The expectation that progressive education is when things don't go as planned--or maybe they aren't planned at all--undermines pretty much everything that serious progressive educators from John Dewey forward have been trying to do. Progressive teaching, the crafting of educational experiences that may feel fluid and spontaneous but that are in fact extremely focused on achieving specific goals, is hard work.

But the next day, at my presentation, things got a bit more strange.

A very nice and thoughtful group of listeners paid polite attention as I went through my spiel. I thought the slides looked nice. So I wasn't quite prepared for a pretty personal tirade from one attendee, who accused me of a kind of intellectual totalitarianism, "pushing" "my" New Progressivism to the exclusion of all other kinds of education.

Jeepers! Hadn't meant to do that. Thought I had been talking about the ways in which some of the thinking of the Old Ones from the Progressive Education Association era had evolved, informed by new understandings about cognition, development, and social issues, into something new that preserved the intent of the founding generations but that used new science and new pedagogical principles to strengthen the educational impact of the work. I had also wanted to convey a sense that this kind of thinking about curriculum, kids, and teaching is becoming pervasive in many schools that are forward-thinking and outside the constraints of the standardized testing monster.

One listener helpfully suggested that what I was saying was that New Progressive teaching is pretty much best practice these days. Yes! That's it; although I'm glad I didn't use the superlative term there or the totalitarian brand might have burned even deeper. An Australian educator wanted to know why what I was talking about even merited discussion; it's the way things have been done Down Under for a while, as we know.

Thankfully, I guess, the conversation in the all-white group devolved into some talk about diversity, and everyone could agree that it posed serious challenges for schools. Then time was up, and I was off to catch my train.

On the way home, and since then, I've been wondering what inspired the philippic and the defensiveness. At best, I might think I hadn't been clear enough in stating my thesis, which was just to talk about how the ways had changed even as the intent remained the same, Dewey to Sizer.

At worst, though, I had to wonder whether the anarchic strain of progressive education as well as the political strain that grew up in the Free School era of the 1960s remains at the core of what many practitioners of "progressive education" believe. The idea, then, that scientific discipline might be imposed on the "child-centered," "go with the flow," "we love kids and you don't" version of progressive education that is regularly ridiculed and condemned in the popular media might just look like being co-opted to folks who got into this work in a certain time period.

And of course, being co-opted--progressive practice as BEST practice; horrors!--would be a terrible thing, selling out your values to a host of straight-line, "traditional" schools whose faculties could hardly appreciate the spirit and genius of kids as progressive educators do. It would be, if you were a true believer in the idea that progressive education meant a kind of affectionate disorder, nothing less than a travesty.

Well, I think that the practices that I call New Progressive are indeed natural outgrowths of the work done by the "old" progressives of the pre-tie-dye era. I also happen to believe that the host of straight-line, "traditional" schools that have begun to grab hold of and thoughtfully, mindfully implement New Progressive practices are on the right track and that what they do every day both defines and refines what can be generally regarded as best practice in education.

I guess I should on the record here as understanding that there are many kinds of education, many kinds of kids, and many kinds of schools. I understand that some kinds of education are based on extreme structure and that these systems work for many kids; and that's more than okay--it's necessary. New Progressivism isn't the only approach to education, but I think that it happens to be a very good one. What I like about it, and what I respect about the approaches of, say, KIPP and Waldorf schools, is that, properly executed, all are the product of thought and planning. The spirit of New Progressive education is a spirit of purpose that accepts serendipity, not a spirit of serendipity alone.

1 comment:

Jonathan E. Martin said...


Thanks for this; I think this is a very important message. I too think that what I call 21st century education can be, very rightly, called a New Progressivism. But like you, I think we need to ensure that however we conduct contemporary best practice education, we need to do so in a way that is rigorous and intentional.

Two references for your consideration which really support your message. Just yesterday I heard a teacher speak about re-tooling her freshman foundations class to be project based, and then struggled to ensure her projects were well structured. But her salvation, she said, came in a book from Buck Institute, which does great work, called the PBL handbook-- it is a resource I think that infuses great seriousness and intentionality into something, project based learning, which has sometimes struggled to achieve these qualities.

The second book is one I adore, and I wish had more currency, called An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger. You may know it well, but I think it speaks brilliantly to blending progressive methods with high expectations and powerful "intentionality." I think Berger really brings to life his classroom, where he exemplifies your point that "Progressive teaching, the crafting of educational experiences that may feel fluid and spontaneous but that are in fact extremely focused on achieving specific goals, is hard work." I wrote about Berger's book here:

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