Living The Principles Of Progressive Education Every Day

Just a few weeks ago, fellow educator and Sheridan Trustee, Rodney Glasgow, led the Board of Trustees through an engaging discussion about progressive education and its principles. I came away from the meeting wishing everyone in our community had been able to listen in. To help each of us work from a common understanding of progressive education and social justice education and how they undergird our mission, I am sharing a summary of Rodney’s history of progressive education and how I see it manifest at Sheridan

Common school movement was a precursor
Progressive education developed as a response to and reaction against the traditional European curriculum that strongly supported social class stratification. In the 19th century, the “common school” movement, a precursor to progressive schools, emerged, introducing the idea that all children should have a basic level of education. Common school proponents set out to create a universal public education system that could be measured against standards. The primary purpose of the common school was to educate all children and advance the moral, social and economic interests of the United States.

Birth of progressive education
At the beginning of the 20th century, new educational philosophers began to argue the goal of education should be more than achievement of baseline level of information and competencies by the voting public. Instead, as educational reformer and philosopher John Dewey, wrote, education should be seen not as much a “preparation for life, but life itself.” In Democracy In Education, published in 1916, Dewey made the case that education should be active and interactive and that the method of education must fit the learner. He saw education a less of “an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructing process.” Other philosophers and educators built on the work of Dewey to create what we now know as the progressive schools movement.

Living the principles today
So what does it mean to be progressive school today? If you ask different people, you may get different answers, but there are some generally agreed upon tenets of a progressive education that are central to the work we do at Sheridan.

Seeing ourselves as facilitators — guides who foster creative thinking, collaboration, intrinsic motivation, and active learning — is one example, and this can take many forms at Sheridan. I was in the second grade classroom recently where the students are learning about the ancient Mayans. They had studied Mayan homes and then were asked to work together to build their own Mayan homes given a set of materials. The teachers didn’t model exactly how to build the homes. Instead, they talked about how to compromise and collaborate, how to try new ideas, and what to do if an idea doesn’t work. I’m excited to see what the kids come up with! It’s very possible that some of their ideas will fail, but the goal is the process rather than the product. The children will walk away with an understanding of how to test their creative ideas, how to compromise, and how to persevere in the face of frustration and failure.

Teaching directly to the students in the room
As progressive educators, we also know that each class of students is different and believe it is our responsibility to teach directly to the students in the room. This means being responsive, seeing what excites our classes and helping our students develop their passions.

Last week, I was getting my hair done by some kindergarteners in their “hair salon”. This is a dramatic play station that the teachers supported as the students developed it. The students made a “lookbook” and frequent-user cards. They created an appointment book that they brought around the school to drum up customers. They went online and learned that different people have different types of hair, and they even invited in a real hair stylist who showed them his tools and told them all about his job. This station was dreamed up by the children and their ideas were valued and encouraged by the teachers. It’s likely that there won’t be a hair salon in kindergarten next year because a new group of kids will bring new passions. In this way, the overall goals of the school year are met by listening to our children, fostering their passions, and being flexible with the curriculum.

While I was in kindergarten getting my pig tails put in, a student told me that the class was rewriting the ending to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory because he suggested that the cliffhanger ending wasn’t enough. This is true progressive teaching: teaching writing and storytelling by being responsive to the students and fostering their interests.

Strengthened by social justice education
If we look to the history of the progressive education movement, we see that progressive educators see the school as a place to foster social progress and reform. This has looked different throughout the century, but the main idea of developing a sense of community and responsibility for others and for the society has always been a thread of a progressive education.

At Sheridan, we help our children make their own decisions about their world by presenting different points of view and sharing that there is often more than one way to look at a problem. In seventh grade, the overarching theme of the year is, “How is the experience of being an American different for different Americans?” As they study US history, they draw from many different resources to get primary source accounts of how events in history affected and/or continue to affect different groups.

In eighth grade, students are often asked to debate or write from a point of view that is not necessarily their own. Having to argue a different point of view helps them broaden their outlook on history and current events.

Even the act of developing the covenant in fifth grade is a lesson in social justice. As the students learn about different forms of government and decide how they want to govern themselves in the class, they become open to the positive and negative results of anarchy, democracy, oligarchy and more.

At Sheridan, we believe that instilling a lifelong love of learning and an understanding that each person can make a difference will help our students live fulfilled lives in their future. When I arrived at Sheridan, I was most impressed by the fact that every teacher here is dedicated to the progressive education model and motivated to keep learning and improving his/her practice. Unfortunately, that’s uncommon. So often there is a handful of dedicated teachers and a group who are just putting in their time. Our teachers are true role models for their students and our students inspire us to learn more every day. I am grateful to each and every one.

— Jessica Lee