Monday, May 13, 2013

Overcoming Stereotypes

After several weeks of continued research and review of the notes and recorded interviews from my travels, I would like to share reflections that have arisen as I work toward a larger piece on the state of progressive education in this country. I start with thoughts on the stereotypes that progressive educators have faced for many years.

Since the 1950’s, stereotypes have plagued progressive educators. Perpetuated by caricature depictions in the post-war popular media, to this day, they continue to contaminate the reputation of the movement. Not a single educator with whom I spoke failed to have at his/her fingertips the nauseating list of depictions: loosey-goosey (the most popular); crunchy granola (more contemporary); “hippie schools” (from the 1960’s resurgence); not rigorous academically (the most harmful yet enduring characterization). The typical description (rap) of/on progressive schools depicts undisciplined children running wild without boundaries, freely choosing their activities, and adults waiting to follow their lead.

What saddens me about this set of stereotypes is the morale-eroding impact they have on teachers. I lunched with the faculties of many progressive schools during my tour and a recurring observation I made was how very serious-minded the teachers are about their students and their teaching practice. These are not dilettantes. These are well- trained, intelligent professionals who toil endlessly building their curriculum, pursuing professional development opportunities, collaborating with their colleagues, and deeply understanding the learning profile of each of their students.

Equally as corrosive to its reputation is the perception that progressive education leans left politically, and that progressive schools promulgate a liberal agenda. Certainly to the extent that progressive education arose during the progressive era, its humanitarian impulse to improve the lot of society is indisputable. However, each progressive school emerges as a product of many factors including its location, the philosophy of its founders, the practice and pedagogy of its faculty and staff, the leanings of its cohort of parents, and the beliefs and values of its leaders.

I visited a very large self-proclaimed progressive school in a red state, for example. Here, school leaders carried what I sensed was an unspoken admonition to toe a centrist political disposition. They let the program speak for itself and shied away from too much talk about the tenets of progressive education. Since the school was founded during the progressive era (early 1920’s), it keenly reflects the pedigree through its teaching pedagogy: project based learning; integrated, interdisciplinary and thematic curriculum; focus on critical thinking and problem solving; and constructivist teaching.  Notwithstanding this flagrantly progressive program, I would venture that there are as many politically conservative families enrolled in the school as those with more liberal inclinations. But it works for the area.

There is also the entrenched notion that teachers in progressive schools operate at a high level of autonomy at the expense of program continuity within a school. I found in my travels that indeed, progressive schools championed teacher autonomy. Allowing the professionals to pursue their passions and craft a classroom program is important for teachers to feel supported. One administrator said, “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Teacher autonomy has allowed us to hire more men and teachers of color at the elementary level. I want the teachers to feel that they have the freedom to be creative and develop their own curriculum and materials. The last thing they need is an administrator breathing down their necks”

Other school leaders, however, acknowledged that teacher autonomy can be problematic, if the school does not vigilantly administer to its scope and sequence, and if the teachers are not collaborating. At the far end of the spectrum would be the teacher suffering from the “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie syndrome, “ who operates wholly at his/her own imperious whim, with wholesale disregard to the school’s curriculum and mission, disrupting morale more than supporting it. More insidiously, however, is the teacher whose classroom becomes a silo; who cares little for the notion of scope and sequence, and who pursues little or no professional development on the grounds that he or she is already competent enough. One will often find that such a teacher has been ensconced on the faculty of a school for many years, outlasting school leaders and becoming untouchable.

Needless to say, this phenomenon is not particular to progressive schools; any school public or private can suffer from teachers who fail to see that they are part of a learning community and tread only along their own pathway. But progressive educators are compelled to avoid being their own worst enemy, lest the caricatures are deemed all too true.


  1. I agree that educators must communicate and collaborate across grade levels and subject areas. We are at our best when we are leveraging our collective wisdom about how students learn and what they need. But one of the most energizing elements of my version of 'progressive' is the emergent curriculum. That is not synonymous with 'loosey-goosey'. When a student in the midst of a unit on the Oregon Trail expresses an interest in learning about rattle snakes or prairie grass or the Sioux the opportunities for powerful learning are immense. I have learned so much when I have allowed the student's questions to drive the curriculum. A scope and sequence that develops a common vocabulary and expectations for the development of skills and a framework of knowledge is great but if these things push us into a lockstep approach to achieve coverage something special is lost. One of the most memorable comments of last Sunday was when you asked Sanders and Francis what they liked to watch on television. Sanders answered, "I don't like to watch TV too much. I would rather play on my iPad." Sanders agreed.

    1. Dear CWK,

      Seeing the implementation of emergent curriculum was a highlight of my tour of progressive schools. I could not agree with you more!
      If you see my entry from February 20 when I visited the Children's School in Berwyn, Ill., you'll see a prime example of this approach.
      Many thanks for your comment.
      Tom Little

  2. Tom, thanks for your reply! I will certainly find your post on the Children's School. I have just started reading your wonderful blog. I am only reading 1-3 posts a night so I have lots of catching up to do. Yikes! I have no idea how the last line was posted in my comment. Perhaps I should refrain from writing late at night! The gibberish was from an instant message conversation I was having with a television producer and entertainer. I confess I was chatting with him at the same time I was writing my comment on your blog.This is clearly evidence that multitasking is dangerous! Somehow the two converged. The context of that conversation is a bit related to our conversation about emergent curriculum. I recently facilitated a play session for 5-7 year children and my friend from the entertainment world. As two boys were drawing my friend asked them what they enjoyed watching on television. Perhaps he was expecting that they would mention his series, which is well known and admired by many. They were fans. But the boys did not mention his series or cartoons. Instead one boy answered, "I don't really like TV. I would rather play on my iPad." The other boy readily agreed and commented that he 'almost never just watched". I was struck by how different their responses were than what I think they would have been a decade ago. It was a bright reminder that children do not want to be entertained (and certainly not lectured to). They want to create their own explorations. They really expect to drive their own learning. Of course children have always learned best when they perceived learning as purposeful but their experiences with today's technology are strengthening their desire to create and collaborate, not just consume. Thanks for the great blog!