#4: What is progressive education?

Education jargon can be very confusing. There’s differentiation, authentic assessment, and any number of teacher terms. You’ve probably heard about progressive education before, but what does it really mean? Below, Andrew explains several core principles of progressive education and details why those values are central to The Workshop.

Parents often feel frustrated in conventional schools. Too often, education prioritizes narrow academic instruction and uniform content standards. But our children don’t learn (or grow) in standardized sequence!

Even traditional benchmarks explain that more than 70% of students score below proficiency in reading and mathematics. And a recent survey explains that more than 60% of students entering 9th grade hold highly negative feelings towards school. They describe school instruction as “monotonous”, “boring”, and “repetitive”.

When I speak with parents, they’re disappointed in traditional schools because they believe that school (and their child) can be so much more!

We agree.

Progressive education is an alternative approach to learning that emphasizes whole child education and development. This means that progressive schools support and advance the academic and social competencies of each student. Think about it: when you speak with your children, you ask about more than just classroom grades. You wonder how they’re feeling inside. You make sure they’re kind and respectful to others. You challenge them to learn amazing things. And you hope they find room to understand and express their true selves.

Because real education helps us develop principles of true character, including commitment, honesty, and resilience. And because a truly successful child is the consequence of more than successful academic classroom instruction.

Of course, it’s also important to know that progressive education believes deeply in academic excellence. In fact, our expectations are so high because we expect students to reach their full potential. And deeper learning isn’t easy! Like any hard work, real learning should challenge us to more and better than we’ve eve been before.

It’s the hardest work you’ll ever enjoy!

Yes, there will always be some difference in how progressive educators approach learning and instruction. However, there are several core principles that help ground our approach.

  • Learning and instruction is rooted in authentic practice. This means that students learn skills and strategies that real people do in the real world.
  • Education should promote active, engaged learning. Because engagement leads to commitment and focus that promotes learning transfer.
  • Teachers curate pathways that help structure and support advanced learning. Responsive instruction is matched to students’ abilities, interests, and needs.
  • Students research, design, and engineer real things! Project-based learning helps students learn and apply target ideas and skills in context. This helps students acquire and retain learning in different contexts.

I like to say: you are where you learn.

Because the choices that educators and parents make really matter. And the research is in: effective progressive education dramatically improves student learning and promotes “habits of mind” that improve student character, confidence, and collaboration. (Palmer, 1987) (Capon and Kuhn, 2004) (Hmelo Silver, et al., 2007) (Zabit, 2010) (Connect, 1995) (Ray, 2006) (Harste, 2001)

#3: The factory model of education.

Over the last 125 years, we have witnessed incredible social change. From the second industrial revolution and through both World Wars, including the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights era, and even a third (!) industrial revolution. Unfortunately, traditional school classrooms largely mirror instruction from early American public schools. That’s a problem.

In 1907, Henry Ford announced a dramatic plan to build a motorized car “for the great multitude.” The Ford assembly line used a series of driven conveyor belts to move connected parts through sequential stations. Standardized production meant that each laborer focused on one repeatable assignment. “The man who puts in a bolt,” Ford explained, “does not put on the nut. The man who puts on the nut does not tighten it.”

The second industrial revolution transformed American industry . . . and American public schools, too. The new American school professionalized academic instruction and standardized student learning. Secondary schools increasingly emphasized modern professional traits, including “punctuality, concentration, and obedience.” An educator at the time explained: “The back door of the school leads to the front door of the factory.”

Traditional classroom instruction remains rooted in the factory model of education. The floor supervisor stands at the head of the classroom. Line employees sit in straight rows to the back of the room. Workers learn fixed tasks at specific stations and complete repeatable worksheets for homework. In the end, quality control administers standardized assessments to measure competency.

We have witnessed amazing social change, but think about it: common school education has stayed roughly the same for almost 125 years. Today, children have more access to more content and information that at any period in human history, but students are still expected to learn the way we did when riding horses or trains was the most common way to travel.

The factory model of education is obsolete. Rote instruction simply demands that students memorize past knowledge and patterns. And it isn’t even entirely effective. During the last 30 years, we have spent more than $175 billion on education. However, student achievement in reading and mathematics remains largely flat. Peter Sims (2011) explains, “Students are taught the knowledge is static and complete and they become experts at consuming knowledge rather than producing knowledge.”

Too often, schools do not prepare our students to develop interesting, individual, or independent ideas. They do not challenge our children to create or imagine new ideas, new knowledge, or new patterns. Too often, traditional schools limit expression and discourage individuality. Sir Ken Robinson explains that schools “dislocate” students from their primary “natural resource”: creativity, imagination, and innovation. (Ooof.)

But what if school were different?