Fern Hill School - Photograph by Peter McCusker
The Keys to Progressive Education
At the heart of the concept of progressive education is the fact that all human learning is progressive. New knowledge is built on the base of what we already know. A baby listens, babbles, tries out mama, gets the idea of words as signifiers, and eventually aces crossword puzzles. This is how we learn everything that enables us to flourish as adults, not just talking and walking, but table manners, the art of argument, personal responsibility, consequences, our culture's totems and taboos. I love books, I'm good at pen and paper tests, but I didn't learn to cook or play the piano or cast a sensible vote or be a good mother from a textbook, and while you certainly can assess my achievements in all these areas, you can't do it by a multiple-choice test.
The second key to progressive education is active learning. You'll learn little and retain less of what comes at you from the front of a classroom. The activity of learning has many forms: observation, experiment, imagining, practicing, discussing, making an argument, analysis, performing, interpreting, and exploring. The active learner begins with a question, not an answer. And each question leads to others.
In order to pose questions, to risk experiment and exposure, the learner must feel safe. The third key to progressive education is to create an environment of respect and openness. As soon as we believe there is a right answer, that the key to success is emulation, we stop exploring and questioning. We start memorizing and parroting.
We are motivated to question and explore because we need to understand the reality in which we swim. The fourth key to progressive education is relevance, learning about the real world (including the real world of the imagination). Opportunities for learning extend far beyond the classroom. We need to bring current events into our schools, and go out into the living world to explore.
We are all learners. Teachers know more than their students (we hope), but they are learning too, and they are learning from and with their students. The fifth key to progressive education is that it is a communal endeavor. It is cooperative and collegial, not hierarchical.
Learning is also a commitment of time, energy and will. Learning is work. It takes practice and study. Picasso may have been a genius, but he was also a student of art. Passivity saps our energy, wastes our time, undermines our wills. The sixth key to progressive education is valuing the process that leads to mastery.
Learning can transform us, allow us to express ourselves, enable us to transform our world. Acquiring knowledge, possessing it, using it yield the deepest pleasure. This is the wellspring of creativity. So the seventh key of progressive education is that learning is delightful, and that what we learn has intrinsic value.
You should be able to hear me coming down the hall, my keys jangling. What do they unlock? An education that fosters freedom of expression, creativity, collaboration and a commitment to social justice. Don't you wish you'd gone to such a school?