Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Toward a Definition of Progressive Education

In  his definitive 1961 history of progressive education in America, The Transformation of the School, Professor Lawrence Cremin of Columbia Teacher's College describes a movement “...that had for half a century enlisted the enthusiasm, the loyalty, the imagination, and the energy of large segments of the American public and the teaching profession.” However that same educational vision that had so captivated the American educational establishment of the early to mid-1900's, lacked a commonly held definition. Indeed Cremin wrote in the same volume, "The reader will search these pages in vain for any capsule definition of Progressive Education. None exists, and none ever will; for throughout its history progressive education meant different things to different people, and these differences were only compounded by the remarkable diversity of American education."

Such was Cremin's assessment in 1961, on the heels of the demise of that chapter of Progressive Education.

Now, a half century later, notwithstanding Professor Cremin's admonishment to the contrary, our search leads us to try and bring flesh to the bones of that elusive definition, and to invite others to help in the effort. We'll search for published definitions and chronicle the latest versions we have found from as as many sources as we can locate. The fun will be in the collaboration of those who believe, as I do, that once and for all, a basic definition should be crafted for Progressive Education. 

Here, a starting point, from the website of the Progressive Education Network (http://www.progressiveed.org/about_pen.php):

Though educators have been challenged in agreeing upon a single definition for progressive education, consensus builds around these defining principles:
  • Education must prepare students for active participation in a democratic society.
  • Education must focus on students' social, emotional, academic, cognitive and physical development.
  • Education must nurture and support students' natural curiosity and innate desire to learn. Education must foster internal motivation in students.
  • Education must be responsive to the developmental needs of students.
  • Education must foster respectful relationships between teachers and students.
  • Education must encourage the active participation of students in their learning, which arises from previous experience.
  • Progressive educators must play an active role in guiding the educational vision of our society.
Alfie Kohn leans in Cremin's direction in his article for Independent School Magazine in 2008:

          "If progressive education doesn’t lend itself to a single fixed definition, that seems fitting in light of its reputation         for resisting conformity and standardization. Any two educators who describe themselves as sympathetic to this tradition may well see it differently, or at least disagree about which features are the most important."

Brilliantly, though, Kohn continues in his article to outline the eight components (each well explicated in quintessential Alfie Kohn fashion) that he believes comprise the progressive tradition, including collaboration, social justice, intrinsic motivation, deep understanding, active learning, and taking kids seriously.

Now we're getting somewhere, but each source so far seems to arrive again at Cremin's conclusion that a definition is elusive. Is the "resistance to conformity and standardization" such an obstacle to finding a workable definition?

Last year, we rewrote the mission statement for Park Day School , and in a section of the statement we try and capture the essence of progressive education: Continuing the legacy of the progressive education movement, Park Day School prepares students to be informed, courageous, and compassionate people who shape a more equitable and sustainable world. 

So, on our way to a definition, we want to refer to progressive education as a movement whose intent it is to influence the way students are prepared to exist in the world. The mission statement of Park Day School leans toward the values inherent in the movement: that citizens be "informed, courageous and compassionate people who shape a more equitable and sustainable world." This is a statement of aspiration, which can provide some scaffolding on which to build a definition.

And other progressive schools? Here is a sampling:

The Calhoun School in Manhattan refers to their "approach to education that values intellectual pursuit, creativity, diversity and community involvement."

At Bank Street School for Children (Manhattan), "Education...is experience-based, interdisciplinary, and collaborative. The emphasis is on educating the whole child -- the entire emotional, social, physical, and intellectual being -- while at the same time, the child's integrity as learner, teacher, and classmate is valued and reinforced."

At Wingra School (Madison, Wis.), "Progressive education is about creating an environment in which children's strengths and unique ways of learning are supported. We teach children to be in charge of their learning – to be thinkers, challengers, and wonderers."

The mission of The Common School (Amherst, MA.) is to "develop strong academic and social skills while nurturing each child’s love of learning, respect and compassion for others, and commitment to the environment."

Children’s Community School (Pasadena, CA), "is dedicated to teaching children to think for themselves, collaborate successfully with others, and take responsibility for their own education. Founded on the democratic principles of diversity and citizenship, CCS instills a lifelong love of learning, compassion for self and others, and confidence in one’s ability to explore, discover, and create in a non-competitive environment."

So what are the common threads? And can this begin to bring us to a definition?

I will be visiting scores of progressive schools around the country in the winter of 2013. This will be one of my framing questions in a quest to find a working definition for this approach to education.

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