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.
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.