Saturday, March 5, 2011

What is Progressive Education?

My father was brought up by two progressive educators who taught at and later ran the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education in Fairhope, Alabama. For those of you who don't know, Fairhope itself was a pretty radical concept: every household could be a shareholder in the town, but shareholders did not own the land itself - that was owned in common by the town. Marietta Johnson offered very radical ideas in the 20s and 30s, including child centered education, no tests, no grades, and an approach to curriculum that included Morris Dancing and shop on an equal plane with reading, writing and 'rithmetic. His educational experience was, my whole life, the gold standard for education, and, like many teachers I know, I have spent my entire adult life thinking about, promoting, teaching in or parenting in progressive schools.

I currently teach at a child-centered school with no tests or grades and a rich variety of drama, music and art along with all the rest of the academics. We consider ourselves progressive, without having any common definition for what we might mean by that word. I think that each one of us at my school has a few strongly held tenets - and that they probably overlap and conflict with each other in interesting ways. We have a powerful mission statement - and we all have different ways of interpreting how to achieve it. (I purposely said "and" not "but" because I think that leaves us open to exciting philosophical discussions.)

Before coming to my current school, I taught at a progressive school whose founder was still actively teaching and administering. The discussions about progressive education were lively and frequent, and because the founder participated in them, and because we were all so passionate about the vision of the school, our philosophies were much more closely aligned.

I have been associated with my current school for about eighteen years, but only employed for six of those years, as I took a LONG time to return after having children. Meanwhile, I was a parent and board member at yet another progressive school, where I had the opportunity to share in the growth and development of a school choosing to expand to eighth grade instead of fourth grade.

Throughout those years, there's been more than enough to reflect on about progressive education, and I have reached some level of clarity about some of what matters most to me as a progressive educator.

I see the picture with a wide-angle lens, taking in the relationships between all parties, administration, faculty and staff, parents and children as well thinking about what the curriculum is and how we create and "deliver" it. It's about seeing opportunities to help people (all the people in the school!) flourish and grow, and giving them the tools, time, support and love to do so. In a progressive school, the way we teach, the way we talk, the way we make decisions - it's all vital to the lifeblood of being progressive. We're learning all the time as well as teaching students to think, be compassionate, be open-minded and responsible, be problem-solvers, work together, work alone - - and in the midst of that most important curriculum, we teach them to read and write, do sums, create, explore and express themselves in all the variety of classes we offer.

In a progressive school, it's imperative that the kids, parents and teachers feel they can speak up or share their interests or concerns, that they are invited to share their thoughts openly and honestly, that they'll be heard and responded to respectfully and honestly, that trust and communication underlie everything that goes on in the school. There's no good replacement for those relationships and that trust. That's why I give out my cell phone number to the students and parents of the kids in my class; that's why I spend so much time reading their work or preparing for their classes; that's why I bring small groups and large groups of kids together to discuss disagreements or other issues that arise; that's why we sit in a meeting area where we can look at each other and respond to each other's ideas many times a day and why we take it very seriously if anyone laughs at anyone else's ideas or insults anyone; and that's why, before I have 9 and 10 year olds spend much school related time on a computer, we put so much time and thought into paying attention to face to face communication. We need the community and trust to come first.

Once all that trust, respect and communication is in place as the most important boulders of a classroom's foundation, then we can set about working on the mortar. Are we going to teach phonics? Are we going to use writer's workshop - and which model do we like? Are we going to use textbooks for any subjects? Will we teach spelling? Handwriting? How does our social studies curriculum progress throughout the grades? How do we make the learning experiential? How do we make sure learning is intrinsically valued? At what age do the children write research reports? Who makes the curriculum decisions? What type of assessment do we use? What is the role of homework in the curriculum?

There aren't necessarily right or wrong answers - progressive and traditional answers - to those specific questions. There are only progressive and traditional ways to go about answering them. That's what defines a progressive school far more than which math text they do or don't use. A progressive school values the community and the trust above all else and from that flows all the opportunities for students to learn to be compassionate responsible problem-solving creative and fabulous citizens of the complicated future we are leaving for them.

I keep thinking of more points to make and more questions to ask, but I'd love to hear your thoughts about what progressive education means to you!


  1. Hi Jan! I love your blog! I just added it to my "Blogs I Follow" list. I read an interesting article this morning about the importance of small class sizes (a concept which is apparently up for debate in the political world right now...). I think small class sizes are key to successfully implementing progressive education. Here is the article...

    Class Sizes Rise as Budgets Are Cut:

  2. I'm jumping into the progressive education fray, but I really am not sure what a progressive education means. I've heard about Marietta Johnson for more than 65 years and it has made me very defensive on the subject of my own schooling. I went through 8th grade in a large old public school on the west side mid Manhattan. I did well in composition, we memorized some poems, history was all American history, and we had to look things up in books and write about the subject. I took tests; I sat in a row - generally in the front of the room becauese I couldn't see the blackboard. Rotten math tests. When we move to Glen Ridge, I was a year ahead - had a year of Latin under my belt - already reading and writing well, and once again there was that rotten math to shake my confidence. I could spell; my handwriting was legible. I obviously did not have a progressive education, and I didn't have shop or Morris dancing, but I know more history and 'classics - Homer's Odyssey, poetry. Oma didn't take the school seriously; Opa thought it wasn't serious enough; too much vacation time, and not enough world history and geography.

    Mo and the Campbell boys benefitted from their schooling , because both parents were involved in the school and enforced Marietta's reasonable rules, just as your kinds are benefiting from your sensible belief in limiting computer time, outdoors, etc and your seeing that homework gets done on time. I still don't know what progressive education is; I think some children benefit from more rigid rules; some thrive when left to explore and find what interests them and go on from there with more independence. The teacher in the classroom makes a huge difference. I had some very good teachers, and some good tests, and some people who would have been better off doing anything but standing in a classroom all day.

    In your final blog paragraph, children learn by example, and if the teacher is encouraging,, not 'putting down' asks probing questions to urge the student to think on their own, reminding her students to be responsible in handing in work on time, able to express themselves vocally and on paper, be responsible for their possessions, be neat - work with others, be courteous, students are in a good classroom in a good school, whether it's called traditional - whatever that means - or progressive - whatever that means.