A Leap of Faith – A Series on Progressive Education

Jumping Across the Abyss to Progressive Education

“We destroy the … love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty and contemptible rewards–gold stars, or papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall, or A’s on report cards, or honor rolls, or dean’s lists, or Phi Beta Kappa keys — in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else.”

–          Alfie Kohh,  Author, Speaker & Educator

It starts around late November, that niggling feeling that I might have made the wrong decision.  I listen to the chatter around the Thanksgiving table.  My stomach lurches.

  • My child has made the honor roll again – so I bought her a new iPad
  • My child is in the gifted program
  • My child has 3 hours of tutoring every day after school, then martial arts on Wednesdays, piano on Tuesdays.  I think he wants to try soccer, but we don’t have time for that right now, he needs to get into a good college (said child is in 5th grade).
  • My child had a perfect report card

They turn to me and start in on the drill:

  • What grade is your child in?
  • What school does he go to?
  • Is he gifted?
  • How much homework does he have?
  • How did he do on the standardized tests?
  • Is he in honor roll?
  • What does he want to be?

Um…I try to explain that his school doesn’t have a ‘grade you’re in’, no homework, no testing, no grades, and no textbooks.  Then I get that ‘look’ from the other parents. The one that I interpret to mean “don’t you care about your child’s future?”

I stumble a little – trying to explain that my son goes to a school that follows a progressive education model. Where collaboration and community are key – without competition; all ages are mixed in homeroom and then they breakout into primary, mid-level, junior high and high school levels. I explain that children make their own choices about which classes they will attend and when. They can play outside as much as they need and they do group and individual projects. They are self-motivated people.

Most parents can’t get past the ‘no grades’ part.  Their first comment is typically “my child needs a structured environment or they would never go to class”.  I don’t argue – I don’t defend – I’m not trying to ‘get them to my side.’ I might say that most kids will tend to not go to class at first but then after a while they realize it’s much more interesting to spend 6 hours doing something rather than nothing. I might say that when kids are curious to learn, they will and that not all learning happens in a class.  But sometimes I don’t sound at all confident; especially up against several parents; parents eager to let me know how much their child has achieved and demand to know what is my child achieving.

They often make me doubt myself and the choices our family has made.  Doing something entirely different than the norm has that effect on a person; but then I see my son – watch him maneuver throughout the world – confident in his abilities and the belly-knot loosens.

When I get home, I try to stop the panic – keep the hysteria at bay. What are we doing at this school? THERE ARE NO GRADES FOR GOD’S SAKE! NO FREAKIN’ GRADES.  Then I read a little Alfie Kohn or watch Sir Ken Robinson – Changing Education Paradigms.

Then I feel much better.  I feel confident in the choices our family has made and I know, for us, it is the right choice.

For now.

Because like many parents, we spend a lot of time trying to evaluate our son’s education – but so far we haven’t changed schools and he’s in mid-level (or 5th grade if there has to be an equivalent)  so this is his 5th year at this school.  I know other kids his same age that are going to their 3rd, 4th or 5th school.  All of them ‘better’ than the ones before – better test scores, that is.  It makes me wonder why that is the only thing that we deem important in education.  When did the excitement for learning get displaced by a percentile?  When did kindergarten go from playing pretend and vanilla wafers to 1st grade curriculum, homework and a 15 minute lunch recess?

Most everyone wants to do right by their children; giving them a good education and the ability to succeed in life – and I do too, but I’ve started asking different questions.

  • What is a good education?
  • What is the end result of school?
  • Is it more important that my child get straight A’s and a place on the honor roll than learn how to think and question?
  • Can the two be intertwined or does achieving one, in this day and age, exclude the other?

I honestly don’t know.  But I know what works for my son. And I’ve seen it work for other children as well. I’ve watched children that I’ve known for 5 years unfolding into incredible young adults, seen senior projects that have blown me away and I’ve witnessed amazing kids graduate from his school. I’ve also seen kids, happy in school, taken out because parents are scared of what they don’t have experience with; unsure of allowing their children to make decisions about their education, unwilling to let the process work itself out.  I’ve seen turn-over that makes me sweat and worry for a bit…all those fears of my own playing themselves out. And again, I have to look at my own child and see his thriving development.

So I decided I wanted to use my space to present a series of posts about progressive education from a variety of viewpoints.

First off I want to state clearly that I am not bashing public education in any way, shape, or form. I am the product of public education and I LOVED school. LOVED IT.  I have many friends and family members that are teachers in public, charter, and private schools. Nothing I’m presenting is meant to undermine or devalue educators, no matter what system they work within.  I am also not advocating that a progressive education model is the only worthy model out there nor that it is perfect.   Well, I feel it’s perfect for us – but that’s quite different.  Nothing is perfect for everyone.

So the way this is going to work is that every day I will post a different perspective on Progressive Education. What is unique about each post is that these writers are not bloggers – I asked them to take part in this series because I know that they each have a unique perspective and experiences in progressive education.  All respectful comments are welcome – and I will probably be replying to most but some of the authors might be hanging around to comment.

Progressive Education is a leap of faith. You cannot use the same criteria of comparison from traditional education models to progressive. It is apples to cheese-steak. It doesn’t work.  You just have to keep watching, listening and believing in the choices your child makes.  Are they happy? Are they curious? Are they engaged?  Are they good citizens? For us, the answers are “yes” – so I know we’re moving in the right direction.

One of the contributing authors wrote the following about the stages of a Progressive Education Parent – it’s excellent. I have gone through each and every stage. When I start to get a little wacky, reading this grounds me; it’s ok to have doubts and questions – but the answers lie within your child. Trust your gut and trust them.  It’s a leap of faith.

The Stages of a Progressive Education Parent

–          Janet Rae

Stage 1: The Honeymoon

This is the greatest school. My child comes home happy every day. Everyone is so nice and the teachers are so laid back. There’s no yelling or negativity at the school. This is awesome!!!!

Stage 2: The Honeymoon wanes

OK this is great my child is happy but when does she start working instead of playing all day long. The teachers are still really great and everyone seems to get along so well.

Stage 3: The Honeymoon is over

Is there any learning happening here? Every time I walk in, it looks like everyone is just hanging out. Am I the only one who notices this? How can these other parents allow their children to be here for all these years? Are they crazy?

Stage 4: Guilt and remorse

I have ruined my child’s life. She was on the road to being a genius, the head of her class, and now she will never live up to her potential. Now she’ll be so far behind the other kids her age. It looks like I’m going to have to teach her and work her very hard at home because obviously the teachers are not going to do that.

Stage 5: Shopping around

Oh no!! I have to get out and find a new school. I swore I would never send my child to public school………the rules…..the suppression……….the stress……..the squelching of her creativity and spirit. There must be something else out there. A REAL school that nurtures and teaches so she can get good grades, pass tests, be like all the other children. 

Stage 6: A REAL school

Ok, I found one that I think will work. I checked it out. It’s not as homey, but did you see how all the kids were sitting in their chairs and learning. It made me breathe easier just to see something familiar. Next year with all this stimulation, I bet she can catch up and be like all the other kids. Maybe she will even get ahead!!!

Stage 7: Aha…a breakthrough….courage

“Just like all the other kids”. What was I thinking? I want my child to be her own person, self-confident, grow at her own pace and know she makes a difference no matter what. I don’t want her making grades to please others, look good or to increase her self-esteem. No one told me it would take courage to send my child to a Progressive Education school. Oh my gosh did you hear what my child did today? She sat down and wrote a paper all by herself…….just because she wanted to.  First internal motivation/ self-confidence develop then academics….how come no one told me??  Oh yeah, it’s much more powerful to discover it yourself. I didn’t know that being a parent at a school like this is like being a student all over again.

Yup – I’ve found that leaping across the abyss to a progressive education model is much like being a student all over again.

Luckily, I love learning.

I encourage you all to spend 12 minutes watching the video above – it’s entertaining and eye opening.

A Leap of Faith – A Teacher’s Perspective

A Leap of Faith – A Student’s Perspective

A Leap of Faith – A Parent’s Prespective

A Leap of Faith – The Wrap Up

About Rutabaga the Mercenary Researcher

I'm a research librarian for Public Television, story teller, bike commuter, baker, music fiend, lover of reading & books, mother, wife, friend - and many more descriptive adjectives and nouns.
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89 Responses to A Leap of Faith – A Series on Progressive Education

  1. stephrogers says:

    I was around to read this last time! I’m back just in time for Thanksgiving when all you Murricans are uber busy and way to swamped under social commitments for WP *sigh*. I’ve missed you all though

  2. Reblogged this on The Mercenary Researcher and commented:

    Greeting People,
    It’s November – you know that time of year.. no, not holidays – but that time of year when the first big break from school starts happening – and parents begin assessing their child’s education and/or start pressuring others about their child’s education. It’s enough to give you an ulcer.

    So last year I began a series on Progressive Education and invited different kinds of authors to present their experiences on progressive education. I’m going to reblog them.

    And here’s the update, we are still at the same school. My ‘5th’ grader/Mid Level son is now in his first year of Jr High. I was a bit worried – there was community service volunteering to be done, more classes, more work, more participation, some essays and a final project. Would he be able to do all that? Would he actually choose to go to classes?

    Frankly, I was blown away. He’s got his project underway, has completed half his community service volunteering and has ‘exceeded’ expectations of all his teachers. I keep wondering if it’s just temporary or I’m dreaming… but so far so good. This kid is growing up…and he’s engaged in his education – that’s all I can ask for.

    So without further ado… please enjoy
    A Leap of Faith – A Series on Progressive Education ~

  3. The closer my pawns get to school, the more I think about this. I don’t know if this is the right type of education for my pawns, but I feel more and more that traditional public school is not, and they haven’t even hit kindergarten yet. I’m bookmarking for later, because I want to read the rest of this series.

    • I think, even if this is not the model that you want for your kids, it’s a good jump off point to realizing that different options are out there – I like the last post that gives a guide for what to look for in a classroom/school by Alfie Kohen and I think those aspects can be present in many fine schools/classrooms.

      I hope you enjoy the series – I enjoyed writing and finding writers for it.

  4. Mrs. P says:

    Wonderful series. I especially enjoyed the video and comments. Very thought provoking.

  5. Jennie Saia says:

    That video is absolutely brilliant. I think it’s a perfect example of what he’s trying to express… its creativity and appeal keep you engaged, and the 12 minutes fly by! I have always hoped to enter my someday kids into a Montessori type school, but we have limited options where I live and my husband is very skeptical. I haven’t read the rest of your marvelous series yet, but is there any chance you have general resources to share on how to find such a school, or how to enlighten someone as to its advantages? It’d be cool if these school do tours so you can get a behind-the-scenes look before committing… ah, so much to think about now! Thank you. 🙂

    • I love that video, too. Typically, the scenario involves a skeptical parent…which is always harder – but still can be worked through if there’s patience with the ;process b/c it doesn’t ‘show up’ (the outcome and change) overnight, but one day “BOOM!” you notice that your kid is much more self reliant and/or willing to try new things etc.

      Schools should definitely tour – my son’s school does a three day trial to see if the school was a good fit. I loved it right away but went thru the process of worrying if he was doing ANYTHING – and for a while it was not as much as others kids but he’s come around and we have let the process work and he’s very proud to be part of his community.

      Let me look around for some general resources – but reading Alfie Kohn is a great way to start. And more of Sir Ken Robinson. Even if there’s not a progressive school in your area, charter and montisorri schools tend to have aspects of the progressive model.

      I hope rest of the series helps to enlighten about the advantages 🙂

      • I would just caution Jennie Saia when looking at charter models (“charter schools tend to have aspects of the progressive model”) to be very careful. There is a reason that Kino has decided to remain an “independent school” and not a “charter school.” Many charters do the EXACT OPPOSITE of what progressive education is all about….

        • Sara, good point – it very much depends on the charter school – my husband worked for one that made his stomach clench when he heard how the teachers talked to the kids and how the kids talked to the teachers – I was thinking of montessori charter school.

  6. Pingback: Less Progressive, More Competitive | The Mercenary Researcher

  7. Pingback: A Leap of Faith – The Week Wrap Up! | The Mercenary Researcher

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  10. Rohan 7 Things says:

    Really appreciate you sharing this series of posts. I am a product of both structured “regular” school and home schooling/un schooling. I know my parents went through all the same things you describe here. It’s incredibly difficult to go your own way, to do right by your child at the expense of the safety of the social inclusion that comes with doing the same thing as the majority.

    The most notable difference I’ve noticed between myself (and others I know who done home/progressive type schooling) and those who have gone through the conventional school system is our concept of personal limitation. People who’ve gone through the regular school system tend to believe that they can only do what they’ve learned in a structured, academic setting, and that they need structured academia to learn something new.

    So someone who’s gone through school > high school > college wants to learn video editing (for example), and so they sign up for a 3 month course. Give me two weeks and the internet and I’ll have it down at least to the level that the course teaches. Searching, studying and talking to experts, that’s how I’ve ever learned anything. Obviously I’m generalising here, many conventional school folk are highly driven and personally motivated to learn outside of a structured system, it’s just something I’ve noticed.

    Of course sometimes an academic setting is required, like if you want a degree or some specific qualification. However I so often hear “Oh I can’t do that/I never learned how to do that/I’d need to go back to school to learn that”.

    It’s like we get conditioned to think that somehow learning can only occur in a school building, sitting at a desk with a black/white board in front of us. The fact is that learning never stops, and people are capable of so much more than they let themselves believe they are!

    Whew, anyway thanks for sharing. It’s not easy to go your own way with child rearing, takes plenty of balls 🙂


    • Rohan – thank you for sharing your schooling experiences. If you’d like to write a bit of a post for me next week – email me!

      It’s funny you mention the learning -thru a black board scenario, because that’s me. It doesn’t have to be in a classroom per se, but I learn best when there’s someone I can ask questions to (I always like to think of myself as more of a ‘Socratic learner’ – I’d just walk around with a philosopher all day discussing stuff). It’s something about myself that I’ve always been a bit annoyed with – that I do feel that kind of limitation – that I do better with a set of specific expectations and a deadline. But I do know some of it is because I crave that social aspect to learning. I’d have LOVED my son’s school – but I wonder if I’d have struggled to be so self-reliant on direction. Who knows – but I do know that for him, he needs this place and would have a very awful time in a traditional setting.

      I always feel that learning never stops – and most experiences have something that we can take away. I always loathed those people that needed to know ‘if it was on the test’ or ‘why do we have to learn this if I’m interested in that?” – well, just to be exposed to a concept is amazing and I could care less if it was ‘on the test’ – it’s something to hear and discuss…

      Thanks for your comments and let me know if you want to post for me about your different educational experiences.

  11. The Hook says:

    There is a special place in heaven waiting for you, my old friend.
    Just don’t die anytime soon, all right?

  12. Pingback: A Leap of Faith – A Teacher’s Perspective | The Mercenary Researcher

  13. stephrogers says:

    I have has the honour of discussing such things with you before. My kids are at the local Catholic school. I had to move them there after my daughter was relentlessly bullied at the public school. I am happy with the school in general, although a lot of the moral teachings do not fit with the lifestyle we live and my children have had to be mature enough to pick and choose what lessons to take away with them. For a little while they were convinced I was going straight to hell (well, maybe not ‘straight’ to hell). We don’t have any schools like that near us. If we did my kids would be there. I have considered home schooling but the kids’ Dad has to OK that and he refuses, which is tough. I don’t put much stock in grades. I more look at the comments teachers are making about their attitude and behaviour. I actually kept my child home the day the standardised tests were held because I didn’t want her exposed to the pressure of having to compete with every child in the country at the age of 9. My 2 oldest kids love creative and performing arts. They both do ballet and love it. I have recently been discussing with them the possibility of moving into the big city in two years time so they can go to the best creative and performing arts high school. They are keen. I need to try and make it happen. Academia is not for everyone, and I really loathe the whole competition in education. The competition that is mainly between parents. I won’t buy into it. Whenever they start with the “my child got this and did that” I usually say something along the lines of “my child is happy”, and that’s the end of the discussion.

    • Steph – that’s awesome. Dorian’s school has had a few dancers and singers in his time – one student went to NYC for a few months during the school year for her dance – so it was great that she had that flexibility adn the support of the school.

      I’m always curious about education trends in other countries.

      As soon as I read “Catholic School” I wondered about how that worked with the recent changes in your lifestyle. My family is hardcore Catholic (I’m not) but my Uncle is gay and for some it was a problem but not for all. But like you said, they are mature enough to start to understand how to pick and choose.

      I LOVE that you kept your child home during standardized testing day!

      I’m going to try that “my child is happy” line and see if I can stop the conversation right in its tracks! My brother is worried that my kid will not get enough ‘at bats’ for testing…and I said “WHAT?” – he said “practice” at testing… oi…as if that’s real world…

  14. I read this on the bus on my way to work this morning and it made my day. I’m coming back to comment now, just to say that I think there are SO many things schools could be doing a better job of, and I really like the progressive approach. I taught for 16 years in an independent high school that operated on a “university” philosophy. We still had traditional courses, but we operated on the assumption that students came to us because they genuinely wanted to learn, and we treated them accordingly. Students still come from all over the city (and some from elsewhere in the world) and pay private school fees to attend because it’s an approach that works better for them. I like to say it’s a high school for kids who are ready to be done with high school. Sadly, my eldest daughter didn’t complete high school. It wouldn’t be fair to say the school was entirely at fault, but in retrospect they could have done a much better job at supporting her through the other issues she was dealing with. My younger daughter loves school now, but had one very painful year in middle school where I seemed to live in the principal’s office. A big part of the problem was that the teacher’s approach was not at all a good fit with my daughter’s learning style, but the school operated on the assumption that if there was a problem with my daughter’s behaviour in class, my daughter was the only one at fault.

    I’m looking forward to reading your other posts on this subject!

    • Muddy River Muse – thank you for sharing your experiences. Your school sounds much like one we have in Tucson, called “University High” – we also have several alternative high schools geared towards kids that don’t fit well within the public school model – what i find necessary is having a variety of styles to choose from – keeping classes small and having an open minded forum for learning. It’s hard when you’re education focused and have a child that struggles. I would have never thought that my kid would struggle in a traditional model but there you have it! But we’re in a good place and my stomach no longer clenches when I have to pick him up (much like yours probably did for that middle school year ….and middle school was probably the WORST time I ever had a school).

      I look forward to reading your insight throughout the week if you are inclined to give it!

  15. Twindaddy says:

    I didn’t know schools like this existed. While agree that school shouldn’t be turned into a competition, how do you know where your students strengths and weaknesses lie if you’re not keeping track of those kind of things? Do progressive schools prepare the students for life after school? Do the students only learn what they wish to learn?

    • Yay- someone asked a question about the school! Well, it’s not ‘unschooling’ if that’s what you are wondering.

      When the kids reach Jr High and High School, they have to earn credits and do community service – and are responsible for getting their projects done (seniors have a huge year long project to do instead of ‘finals’). Each child is assessed by their teachers and we have conferences throughout the year. If a child is struggling with math, for example, they might have a one-on-one class with the math teacher.
      Yes, these kids are prepared for life after school – they need to see what criteria is expected at a univeristy they are interested in (if that’s what they want to do) and then take the classes that are needed. So we have science with labs, writing, etc…classes are offerened and kids sign up but the classroom is not a classroom, they might sit at a round table or on couches depending on where the class is being offered…there’s welding and landscaping if they want…animal center etc.

      The idea is that they learn about things they are interested in and it’s incorporated across the different subjects (but often subjects are interwoven) – so it might be that the ‘theme’ is biology – so they have it in literature, math, science etc. It’s more the philosophy that the mind is a fire to be kindled not a vassal to be filled. My son loves cars, so he’s learned about ratios by designing a race track, or he might do stories about cars in English etc.

      • Seniors sometimes ask for a class on ‘test taking’ and they might set up a mock classroom and practice taking their SATs…most of the kids are pretty motivated to do waht they need to do to get to their next level after high school…and some arent’ – just like in a traditional school.

      • Twindaddy says:

        Oh, okay. So make learning fun and interesting instead of a teacher reciting a mundane lecture every day?

        • Pretty much 🙂 Also kids get to decide if they go to class or not – they may decide to sit in on another class or read, or hang out with friends. Those are the things that, as a parent, are harder for me…I have to accept that Dorian might (and does) choose to be social at times instead of attend class. But overall, he goes to more classes now that not – and he’s learning how to complete projects and be responsible for his work.

        • Twindaddy says:

          So what happens if he (or any student) decides to never attended class?

        • Teachers and the student will talk – then also with the parents – if they are in high school; they risk not graduating.

          Some kids start at his school having been crushed by the system and they may choose to not attend a class for a long time. If that student is decompressing and needing the time, the teachers will give it to him/her – especially if the student seems to be coming out of their shell or spending time reading – it just depends on what that child’s back story is. But most kids don’t want to spend 6 hours doing nothing when there are always incredibly stimulating things going on around them – even if it’s a board game or working on a jigsaw puzzle, doing something in shop or spending time with the animals. It’s not uncommon for new students, getting their first taste of freedom and being allowed to make decisions, to skip class. But once that’s out of their system, they do what they need to. It’s like how most of us dealt with our first year of college – we suddenly realized that it was up to us if we wanted to go to class b/c there was no ‘roll call’ – and a lot of us ditched classes for a bit. Also, teachers will sometimes round up the younger kids (the primary kids (aged 5-8) are typically always in class b/c that’s how they roll…it’s the mid level kids and some of the Jr High that tend to be more geared towards the social.

          One of the great things about D’s school is that the art center is always open and there’ always a teacher there. A lot of kids spend their time in art – it’s very therapeutic for them. Also, music is available – including private one on one instrument lessons. And they do a lot of field trips – that’s a key component to this school – day and overnight trips. Kids learn a lot from those alone!

        • Twindaddy says:

          Wow. Sounds really great for the kids, honestly.

        • And not to say it’s utopia and that there are not other issues that come up…but for the most part, it’s like any thing else, things go awry and then you work to fix them. I feel much safer with him at a small school than lost in a huge school. He feels invested in his school family and looks forward to going to school.

          My biggest issues are him not attending class – he’s academically doing fine – but he’s not inclined towards doing too much work if he can help it and he’s a talking machine..it’s taken a while for me to just let him develop at his own pace – and I’m seeing it now happening. And it doesn’t matter how smart you are, if you can’t cope/work with other people, then all those brains do no good. His challenges are social in nature – and here is where he can develop those skills in an accepting environment.

  16. Kylie says:

    I’m excited to read this series!
    My daughter switched to Montessori a month into first grade (she’s now in second), and though I still can’t really explain how it works, she is learning, and it is such a better fit for her. I absolutely love it.

    • It’s all about the fit, right? Does this fit/work for the child? Yes? Whoo hoo…no? What could be different?

      We looked at Montessori, but knew it was not a method that would work for kid – which was a bummer. But such is life – it was not about bending him to fit my ideals but finding what fit for him.

      I had a friend that was adamant that when he had a child it would be a Waldorf education all the way – I said that was great that he wanted to do something alternative for his child, but really, it’s up to the child if that would be a good fit. I quickly learned, as a parent, that I was not going to be able to make my kid do what I wanted him to do – but rather had to see what worked for him (all about the ‘fit’!).

      Thanks for coming – I hope to hear more about your daughter’s education as well.

      • Kylie says:

        We like that it involves choices within a structure. In the morning, they pick what “works” they’re going to do, but need to do a certain number of reading and math works/week. They do some small group work as well as work on their own. They do a lot of art. They learn about certain concepts across curriculum–reading, math, science, art. We also like that she can spend extra time on things or can move rapidly through things, depending on how she’s doing. We like that it’s a peaceful environment that helps them learn respect and kindness toward themselves and each other, and that they help the kids grow socially as well as academically. She gets to do yoga when she’s done with her works! The classes mix ages (she’s in 1-3rd grade) and so that creates a lot of opportunity for leadership, mentoring, and learning from others. I’m particularly grateful for the fact that even though there are fundraisers, the school isn’t as commercialized with corporate sponsors as most public schools. It’s a public charter school, so it’s free. We are very lucky.

        • That sounds like a great place for your daughter! It’s heartening to hear of schools that children are thriving in – some of the positives because we hear so much a bout the negatives. It gives me a stomach-ache when I hear how miserable teachers are at their jobs and how miserable parents are with a school and how utterly defeated some kids feel at the thought of school and unending amounts of homework.

          It was the peaceful part of Motessori that would have been an issue for my son at kindergarten. He needed to be some place that would allow him to burn up his excessive energy without being disruptive to everyone (not to say that he was not at times) – and not to be constantly in trouble and made to feel like a ‘bad’ person for something that was beyond his ability to control. He would ask me, in kinder, why he was such ‘bad’ person and always in trouble – and it made my heart just bleed for him; he loved being at school but couldn’t conform to all the norms – etc..etc etc.. ‘circle time’ was torture for him.

        • Kylie says:

          My daughter struggles with some of those issues. At circle time, she sits in a chair instead of on the floor because she has trouble keeping her hands to herself. Luckily, her teachers have been very receptive to working with our family and our psychologist on an incentive-based feedback system to help her. The part about the “gold stars” in your opening quote struck a nerve, actually, because “tokens” are a key part of our system. It’s pretty basic behavioral psychology–she gets tokens for every “good” behavior (like doing what I ask her to do without talking back. Questioning to understand is fine, just resisting and arguing and putting up a fight of “why, why, why, I don’t have to” and then doing something destructive is not). We also do immediate time-outs for negative behaviors, like being rude, ignoring me, hitting me or somebody, etc. It has helped A LOT. It’s not that she’s responding just to the motivation to “cash in her chips” for prizes, but that the feedback system actually helps her learn what is polite and what is not, what is a nice way to speak to somebody and what is awful, etc. At school, they do a modified version of it.

        • I think a lot of the ‘tokens’ in Alfie Kohn’s philosophy is the idea that we always have to be ‘better than someone’ and that it’s not always about being the best and getting the “A” – but merely doing it because it’s what you want to do.

          My son’s school doesn’t tolerate wild rude behaviors and there are consequences for actions –

          In kinder we used red/yellow/green paperclips on his shoes to help him know when what he was doing was not acceptable; and consequences about ending the day with a red paperclip…for him, it backfired and he obsessed about having a red paperclip, but that obsession made his behaviors spiral to red every time.

          I think what I take away from Kohn is that a progressive approach is about what works for the child instead of fitting that child into a mold that may or may not work and having kids in constant competition instead of working together to learn from each other.

  17. This is an excellent perspective on alternate education. Unfortunately, the current trends in public education (now the Common Core) emphasize standardized tests without thinking twice about the validity of these tests. Then, poor teachers are subject to a new curriculum that has to reflect the test– which doesn’t necessarily teach students anything but how to do well on a test that isn’t even necessarily a valid measurement of anything in the first place. Then, when students eventually get to college, they need to be taught how to be critical thinkers and abandon a lot of what they’ve learned anyway.
    I think it’s unfortunate that alternative schools mean a leap of faith– I’m hoping to conduct research that can help show the effectiveness of alternative schools (when I’m in academia and not the classroom). I think that grades and tests are easy to support because they show a clear quantifiable result, which progressive schools don’t often do. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t more qualitative ways to document the success of progressive schools.

    • Vanessa – I love your point of view – and I cannot wait for your research to start impacting education!

      But you are so right – so many people never learn to critically think (they can fill in the bubbles however) – and that’s the key to education. It’s not about memorizing a bunch of information, it’s about how to find, processes and discuss information that is the key.

  18. Karen says:

    This is such a great post and I love that video. As I approach my son going to kindergarten, I realize that we have so few choices in our education system and nothing other than comparing test scores to determine how a school is doing. It’s frustrating. I know a couple who sent their daughter to one of the “best” private schools and she really struggled. They finally took a leap of faith and sent her to a public school and she blossomed.

    One thing that influenced me as a kid was having adults around me who spoke to me about current events and let me hang out during adult conversations. They didn’t assume that I couldn’t understand and if I piped in with my opinion or a question, they invited it. I honestly think that had a bigger influence on me than anything I learned in school.

    • Thank you! I always welcome your opinions and insight – I would agree that it’s all about the environment that works with a particular child. Having someone talk to you and give your opinion makes a big difference in many people’s lives! Good luck with your search – you’ll find the perfect school for your sweet child.

  19. JackieP says:

    I would have killed to be in a school like your kids. It sounds awesome and something that would have worked for me much better. I hated school! Just hated it. I excelled without trying. It was so boring to me! I taught myself a lot of things at home because I wasn’t learning them in my public school. I’m not sure it was the school’s fault at I attented the biggest junior high and high school in the city. There was thousands of kids and it was rough! I learned more teaching myself and just doing a lot of reading then I did in school.

    • Ha! You learned despite the system, eh? Actually, the fact that you are motivated to learn from more than a classroom is a testament of what people have inside of them – and that the world around us is a place to learn what is of interest.

      I wanted to go to my son’s school too – even though I had a great experience, but my school was very progressive and allowed me to explore things that were not the norm. Just exposing people to variety often times sets their minds afire.

      Thanks for your story, JackieP!

  20. Great, Denise! One thing I think we need to be VERY wary of, without “bashing,” is the role of corporate values and money in the current trends in charter schools, and lack of quality control. I think we have become a nation of “school shoppers,” so the feeling that folks in the neighborhood are all a part of the neighborhood school and we sink or swim together is a lamentable change in things. That said, it’s one thing to believe in public education as it was originally conceptualized (free, quality education for ALL) and another to see what it has become and watch your own kid turning into a depressed robot as a result (my story!) Thanks for bringing all these issues up – especially the fear that does come and go – I look forward to reading more!

    • Sara – thank you for reading and sharing your insight! You are so right about about the ‘school shoppers’ and the roots of public education (which I love).

      You are also right about being wary of money, corporate values and, I would add, politics ‘running the show’ – leaving very little for the teachers to have a say in. I feel most public school teachers feel these frustrations and it makes my stomach hurt when I hear some of their horror stories. Teachers (of 3rd graders) having almost 40 students in a class room and a part time aid, if any… children out of control and chaotic, weapons, threats, violence and each teacher having to focus on ‘what’s on the test’ – we have a problem in our education system that is not related to testing but to society – that’s where the change needs to happen – making more rules and constraints rarely fixes our social ills. Sara, if you would like to share your story on my space, let me know – I’d love to have you!

      • There is already SO MUCH research on this topic! I’m not sure we need to study it more, just support it more!

      • Yes, happy to share whatever is useful. Let me know… we have done “alternative” schools from Pre-School through 2nd grade, then public school (that was VERY unconventional) from 3rd through 5th, followed by public school with an “alternative” program that definitely was not for 6th and 7th, and now Kino from 8th grade to present….seen a bit of all of it I think.

  21. Brilliant video indeed! It makes you realize how we sometimes get ahead of ourselves and forget what really is important when it comes to education. I can definitely relate to the ”My child has straight A’s, my child does that and that…”.
    There was this story about a young girl that was unable to focus at school and was jumping around all day long. The parents were going insane and decided to get her a psychiatrist. At first they thought she had ADHD, but when the parent and the psychiatrist went to another room to discuss the following actions something unexpected happened. The girl started dancing to the music that was currently on the radio, and so they tried to get her into dance lessons. Subsequently she became one of the world’s biggest choreographers and she is currently in charge of most of the shows on Broadway and so much more. And this is a true story.
    This solely demonstrates that there are several types of intelligence, and it’s sheer mindlessness to consider a child stupid because of his grades. We are all designed to have a certain intelligence, and education should be about developing individuals and helping them to reach their own potential.

    • Thank you for your great comment! I’ve read that story too – and I can totally relate to how the parents felt, that they couldn’t put a finger on what was going on with their child, wanting answers, hoping for ‘fix’ – but sometimes the ‘fix’ is something completely different. I absolutely agree education is about developing individuals – reaching potential and not thinking all potential is the same.

  22. Wow, what an eye opening video, Denise. Thanks for sharing it. It was well worth the time. Children are creative little beings and we squash it all in our culture, in school and elsewhere. It makes sad and has me thinking. It definitely seems to be all about conformity and meeting curriculum goals, standards, etc. And, interesting how the video sheds lights on our current economic state and how the typical way of achieving success no longer applies. I can’t imagine where things will stand ten plus years from now when my kids graduate from high school. I look forward to this week of posts!

  23. Carrie Rubin says:

    I think I’ve mentioned to you that my kids attended a Montessori school until 8th grade (actually, my youngest is still there). It may not be as progressive as the school your son goes to, but it’s along that vein. I have absolutely loved it for them. There are some public Montessori schools around the country, but not nearly enough. As the kids advance in levels, they do start “testing” and giving “grades” here or there to prepare them for regular high school (or junior high if they stop after 6th grade), but it’s not the emphasis. My oldest had no trouble adjusting to high school, and he’s done extremely well. I suspect my youngest will, too. Most of the Montessori-educated kids do. I only wish all children could learn like this. They become independent and self-motivated students. Like you, I had my reservations early on, but no more. It’s been a wonderful educational experience for them.

    Great topic. So glad to see you address it.

    • I love all these really LONG comments – filled with wise insight. I think Montessori is a great method of teaching (it was not a good for our son but more because of his learning style then theirs – and I’m all about bending to fit a learning style). But just the idea that things done this way BEFORE means that things have to continue the same is inane. We all need to learn as we learn not others think we should learn. The more options kids have the better it is for all those around them. Public education is a great idea and it has produced great people; but to fix the ills that it has now is not to use No Child Left Behind or Common Core practices – those are not beneficial and 3rd graders should never be crying about homework and parents should not be having to hover around their kids signing notebooks on an hourly basis… (if you know what i mean!)

      • Carrie Rubin says:

        It’s funny, because my sister is a public-school teacher, and my mother used to be, and THEY were the ones to tell me about Montessori years ago. I admire our public school teachers, and I feel bad they have to be constrained by the “standard” methods. I agree that just because something was always done a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s the best way. We used to “bleed” people in medicine. Look how well that turned out…

        I’m currently reading a book called “Nurture Shock.” It throws a bunch of parenting/child-rearing myths into question, including standard education. Very interesting, and the research is intriguing.

  24. Oh wow I’m so excited to read this! And look forward very much to the other posts about it. I work at a university on a project that aims to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds raise their educational asipirations and attainment. Aside from that, I’m doing a Masters in Education at the moment, and we’re currently looking at such things as – what is learning? And what assumptions are made within the education and assessment sytems about how children learn? So this is so interesting and relevant for me, plus it’s doubly interesting because I’m in the UK so we obviously have a different education system to you! Yay!

    • Vanessa-Jane – thanks for coming by and I look forward to hearing your POV. Would you like to write a post for me about UK education and any of the trends going on there? If so – let me know and we can talk on email! I would LOVE to hear more about your research and share it here.

      We have “Head Start” here as a way for disadvantaged children to get a leg up on their education; but I think the things we assume are helpful are not always that way in the long run. I firmly believe that young people should find joy in learning; that the more onerous it is, the less they will open up to new experiences because there is always the fear that if they want more, it means more mind-numbing work – so balance is important. We can learn in ways that are enjoyable and that promotes life long learning, not this idea that now I’m learning Math, and now English and now Science – etc.

    • Carrie Rubin says:

      I’d love to know what your Master’s thesis will be when you get there, Vanessa. As I wrote in my comment to Ruta, my kids are Montessori educated. Is that a common school in England? I know Maria Montessori was Italian, but I don’t know how wide spread her teaching philosophy is in Europe.

  25. dentaleggs says:

    First off — Rutabaga, thank you so much for bringing forth this theme on your site which I’ll be stuck like glue to on your site all week.

    My mind is racing now with so much to type but I’ll keep my comments brief.

    The video was incredibly thought-provoking. Since Syd has started her public school education, and the introduction of MORE standardized testing when she gets to the 3rd grade, we’ve decided to opt her out of all standardized testing with the possible exception of an end-of-the-schoolyear test that we may have Syd take; we haven’t decided definitively yet.

    I typed that above paragraph with huges fears; do we tell other parents? Do we make it their business? How much pressure will we receive from Syd’s teachers/principal to take these tests for fear of her principal guilt-tripping us by saying, “Every child’s standardized test score counts. If we don’t have all kids taking these tests we may lose funding.”

    As a first grader, Syd has math homework about two to three days per week. Homework as a first grader doesn’t surprise me; this is all about No Child Left Behind and subsequent school funding. My husband and I try to make learning for our daughter as natural and as inspiring as we can. However, the American homework epidemic will get far worse as she gets older. We know this as American parents.

    As far as progressive education is concerned, there aren’t many alternatives that my husband and I have seen where we live and, unfortunately, moving to Finland isn’t an option. *winking*

    • First off – thank you for reading and being brave and posting comments. I think your concerns and fears are all very relevant and speak to the real problems that we are facing in this environment of excessive testing in education. Now the fears of 3rd graders being held back if they don’t perform to standard that they may not be ready to for – but it shouldn’t mean being left behind.

      To tell or not to tell – that’s always hard. I struggle with that kind of decision as well. On one hand, I want to be open and honest; on another hand, I don’t want others to treat my child differently because of decisions we’ve made and then on the other hand (I’m up to 3 now), if I want to make a difference, I might want to crusade for other parents to take a stand against testing. Sometimes I hang back and just listen to what other parents are saying. I think being aware of what’s going on and being flexible with you may or may not reveal is smart.

      The homework issue is getting a lot of talk – and there’s research that suggests that homework is not the beneficial catchall of learning that we have been led to believe. Giving a small child hours of homework, in my opinion, only makes them dislike school all the more. When we come home from work, how would we like 3 more hours of work?

      Good luck – sounds like you both have done a lot of thinking and already have a plan of action in place.

  26. Ann Davis says:

    Carol, your story reminds me of a conversation I had with my daughter when she was about 11. We were choosing the colors to paint her bedroom and she was explaining to me about complementary colors, hues, and tints. I said, “How’d you learn all this? You’ve never taken an art class.” She said, “That doesn’t stop Judy from teaching me things.”

  27. CJ Fleming says:

    Looking forward to this series. As a progressive school parent of two sons, I’m always questioning why parents with their kids in traditional schools don’t ask questions like, “Why are my kids given tests and grades?” And “Why are kids placed in classrooms by age?” I guess because this traditional school model of education has been so prevalent in our society people just don’t generally question it. So how do I know they’re learning? My younger son was in a landscaping and gardening class last year which in fact wasn’t even in a classroom. He would go out with a group of students and do things outside. One day him and I were walking our dog and he starts telling me the names of the different cacti in our neighborhood. He had learned all of the names of cacti plus how to pick the fruits without getting pricked. And the way he learned this from first hand experience with the succulent life and I doubt he will ever forget this knowledge.

    • Excellent point of view, CJ Fleming! I agree with you 100% – we think that when kids are sitting in rows and memorizing facts, that this is learning – or the only form of learning. But I would argue it’s just rote memorization and if it’s forgotten after a test, was it at all ‘learned’?

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