The Thoughtful Student
“For most people, the fundamental reason to choose, or offer, a progressive education is a function of their basic values: ‘a rock-bottom commitment to democracy,’ as Joseph Featherstone put it; a belief that meeting children’s needs should take precedence over preparing future employees; and a desire to nourish curiosity, creativity, compassion, skepticism, and other virtues.”
-Alfie Kohn, “Progressive Education”
When Denise asked me if I could contribute an article on progressive education, I was excited and nervous. I was nervous because for many years, a progressive approach to education has been a central part of my life, but because it is so important to me, I had trouble deciding where I should begin. Should I start with my own experiences: many years of various forms of traditional education, which I owe many things to, but which failed to fulfill some very basic needs of mine? Or overcoming reservations and enrolling at a progressive school, which turned out to be one of the most important decisions of my life?
Luckily, I found the above Alfie Kohn quote, which reminded me why I teach in a progressive school and why I believe every child should have to opportunity to have a progressive education. While my beliefs are certainly influenced by rational arguments and scientific research, it is ultimately for moral, not rational, reasons that I believe in progressive education. I believe in treating children the way I would like to have been treated, or educating children in a way that honors their whole humanity, not because it will make them a more successful adult (though there exists plenty of evidence that it will), but simply because I believe it is the right thing to do!
In our culture, education is relegated to institutions with the responsibility of transmitting information from one generation to the next. This is certainly a worthwhile cause, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn incredible facts and skills in science, mathematics, history, and literature throughout my school experiences. I believe that these have contributed to the richness of my existence. Yet I believe there is much more to being human than acquiring factual knowledge and practical skills. Particularly in childhood, all the big questions are asked: What do I believe about myself? What does it mean to be a friend? What does it mean to be loved? Of course, the answers to the questions cannot be taught in a lesson. Rather, each child must have freedom and community in which they may critically explore these questions. Schools, depending on their program and philosophy, can either help or hinder this process.
In 2004, I began high school at a school that followed a progressive education model. I had faced a number of life challenges in the previous year, and I knew I needed something different. I didn’t know exactly what, but I was willing to give this school a try. Immediately after beginning, I began to reconsider things that I had long taken for granted about education, even about life. To begin, learning could not only be fun, but it could (and should, if I hope to value and retain it) be tied to my interests. I built a desk, took apart electronics, and sang in the choir. Academically, I tried to stay on par with what I would be learning in any other school, because I knew it was important to do so if I planned to go to college. The important thing, though, is that I did this out of my own initiative! And before you say that this is just fine for kids who are highly motivated, I don’t consider myself to be an extremely ambitious person academically. I do believe, however, that anyone who sets long term goals and has the necessary guidance and support is capable of accomplishing them. It’s incredibly valuable to learn this about yourself at a young age.
In addition to my academic growth, I began, after fourteen painful years, to become comfortable with the person that I am. This was in no small part due to the real community that existed here, where children learned to listen because they were listened to, learned to care for others because they were cared for. I never felt any fear of being teased, and as a result, I began to express myself in ways I hadn’t before. It became known, for example, that yes, I do have in interest in and collect, of all things, fire alarms. Because many adults did not have the experience of being part of a community as a child, I think the importance, educationally but also socially, emotionally, even spiritually of this element of progressive education is vastly under-appreciated.
My transition from high school to college, from what I can gather, was rather typical. There were many things I knew and a few that I didn’t, and I worked to catch up on those things that I didn’t. The things I knew, however, turned out to serve me in important ways, and it was apparent that many of my peers lacked what I considered to be common sense knowledge and skills. For example, I did not hesitate to seek out and ask questions of my professors. I knew they were there to help me, and they always were happy to do so however they could. I knew that attendance and paying attention were not enforced, but I did not see this as an invitation to skip class. Learning at the university was a privilege, not a chore. The biggest downfall of my progressive high school education was not a lack of preparation. If I was missing any facts or skills, I knew how to remedy that. Rather, it was my high standards. I had been raised in a place where inquiry and personal growth were virtues in and of themselves, and I was now in an institution where I was expected to work for external grades and honors. But I suppose that’s the price of idealism. I’d certainly rather have a child become disillusioned upon graduating, and experiencing the larger world, than not knowing that a better world is possible.
I’ve only just met Harrison last year, but he has presented himself as a very thoughtful intelligent and gracious person. I especially wanted his perspective because a lot of families are worried that a child in a progressive education model school would not be able to transition to a traditional university with ease. Harrison has shown us that this is not the case. It does not mean that every child will have the same experience, but it does illustrate that there is more than one way to learn and that is of value to our society to have these opportunities available. Thank you Harrison – your views are priceless.