Choosing Progressive Education for Modern Learning

While it’s hard to count the number of profound thoughts and insights that frequent Timeless Learning, the absolutely powerful new book from Ira Socol, Pam Moran, and Chad Ratliff that’s coming out next week, this one particular passage had my inner and outer edu-activist pumping his fist:

Adults may argue about this – they do argue about it – but despite the historical victories of industrial education, the fundamental utility of school has now firmly shifted to the progressive educational ideal, what John Dewey wanted” (97).

Finally, some well-respected voices who categorically state that for this modern era, for the sake of  today’s kids living in today’s world, we must choose Dewey over Thorndike, not the other way around.

To be sure, I know many progressive educators in classrooms and schools right now. Heck, there are actually a smattering of fully functioning and fully committed progressive schools where absolutely amazing things are happening with kids and teachers who are all passionate learners. That said, too many in and out of education have long been hesitant to embrace that “progressive” moniker, partially because of the baggage it carries (it’s “soft,” you know) and partially because not enough people really understand what the word means in the context of learning.

Ira and Pam and Chad, all from the Albemarle (Va) School District, don’t just know what it means. With Pam’s guidance as superintendent, over the last 13 years (she retired this spring) Albemarle has moved from a fairly traditional public school district to one that is a living, breathing exemplar of a) what schools can become if we truly put kids at the center of our work, and b) what professional practice looks like when it’s deeply rooted in a commitment to beliefs and values and, importantly, a clear understanding of the opportunities and challenges of the modern world. In other words, “progressive.”

For that reason alone, this book is important. The story that the authors tell is not one about buzzwords, cool new technologies, some new acronym-forced strategy, or vague word salads about whatever new innovations or new pedagogies or new skillsets are the flavor of the month. Instead, as the title suggests, it’s a story about the timeless knowledge that we all share about how kids learn, how adults learn, and how we learn together in schools. I hesitate to say that you won’t read anything especially surprising in this book; you’ll likely be nodding your head on every page. But if you read it to the end, you may be surprised at how high your bar gets set when thinking about where to take your own work in schools and classrooms, even for those of you for whom “change” has been a focus already.

The inspiration here is this: It can be done. The message is this: It must be done. We have to stop hewing to the systems and structures that have for so long defined “school” and start seriously articulating and living a different vision. And it’s the living part that makes this book so special. As the authors say, it’s not a “how to;” every school is different. It is, instead, a model for what can happen when you commit fully over time to build from a deep understanding of how powerful learning happens for kids.

So let me share a couple of let’s-not-mince-any-words snips that speak to the progressive ideal, to the urgency for change, and to the realities of the system today.

“In our observations, we’ve discovered that educators with a bias toward the child—those who embrace children’s engagement, happiness, agency, and strengths—share a core belief that the essential role of school communities is to empower children through a multitude of learning pathways. Such progressive educators support children to develop life competencies through a wide bandwidth of democratic and experiential learning opportunities in both formal and informal settings—projects, maker learning, collaborative exploration of interests, technologies of all kinds used to produce learning, and exhibition of learning to authentic audiences. These educators speak with conviction about the value of knowing children as individuals rather than focusing on the data inherent in traditions of scientific management. They do not represent the norms of educational systems developed over decades through “cells and bells” structures, direct instruction, and bell curve expectations. In short, they work hard to free the child from the shackles of the compliance-based system they’re trapped in” (40).

And another:

“There are societal changes that now enable educators to leverage making as a tool – or as a philosophy inside compulsory education that we can leverage as a pathway toward a progressive education model. When people say, “Well, we all shouldn’t be makers,” we ask, “How do you define making?” Should everybody need to know how to use a 3D printer? We don’t think so. Should everybody need to know how to come up with their own ideas, and then know how to learn what they need to know about those ideas, and how then to make those ideas real, and introduce them into society in some authentic way, whatever is meaningful to the individual? Then yes, yes. Every learner should learn to do that – and they shouldn’t only have their one cool government teacher to do that. We have 13 years of iterative experiences through which we are working to do that. We are pushing back at nurturing the compliance that America’s present-day schools are built upon” (139).

And, finally, just one more to get you thinking:

“Incremental shifts in practice are not the focus of our work. We are committed to significant transformation of the teaching and learning culture in our schools. We know from our work that for individual teachers and whole faculties to change pedagogies, they themselves must commit to learning how to learn in today’s world. This means reflection, inquiry, and study in collaboration with colleagues and mentors. Provocation of thought and processing drives professional growth beyond superficial change of little magnitude to deep change that results in substantively different learning experiences for young people. We have seen this occur when professional learning opportunities shift from the normative top-down, program-driven professional development to experiential learning that gets educators out of the box we call school. When our educators come to embrace and own their own learning in a context of seeing themselves as designers, creators, and makers, it changes the game in how they approach working with learners” (159).

Change in schools is not about teaching. It’s not even about education. It’s about learning. And, ironically, that’s what makes it so challenging. The unpleasant truth is that schools were not built for learning. To change them to actually be about learning is hard, difficult work. It’s work that honestly, most people don’t want to tackle at scale. It’s easier to drive numbers. It’s easier to offer more AP tests or carve out a “Genius Hour.” It’s easier to try to keep parents and policy makers and union reps happy by just tweaking the recipe a bit than it is to peel back all the layers and start asking the deeply important questions about what’s actually best for all kids, every day, today.

But just remember: “The fundamental utility of school has now firmly shifted to the progressive ideal.” You may not believe that…yet. You may not think that shift is about your school. But it is. Your kids are writing a new story of learning outside of school that at some point will require your full embrace inside of school. That is the story of  Timeless Learning, and you ignore it at your own peril.

And to your kids’ detriment.

Five More to Read This Week

How to Be a Learning Instigator – Teacher Michelle King on the importance of fun and relevance in learning.

Yes, Definitions of “Success” and “Failure” in Schooling Have Changed Over Time (Part 2) – Larry Cuban with more on Thorndike, Progressivism, and word salad reforms.

How Technology Shapes the Way We Read – Because it’s “never been a more confounding, daunting time to be a reader.”

What Mark Twain Didn’t Really Tell Us About Technology Disruption, Jobs And Education – The trouble with statistics an change.

What’s School Without Grade Levels? – A North Dakota school says enough with age groupings.

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Will Richardson

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, and owner of two amazing children.
Will Richardson

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, and owner of two amazing children.

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