Progressive Education: What Lens Do You Look Through?

January 30, 2012 at 10:31 am 2 comments

Posted by Jennifer Groves ’99

I think of myself as a progressive educator. And in the event that labels sometimes bother me and seem inaccurate or overdone, I’ve never thought twice about calling myself progressive. The word sounds appealing—forward thinking, action oriented, maybe even “cutting edge.” Who wouldn’t want to be “progressive?” If you look it up on the web, you’ll find descriptors like: student centered, collaborative, hands-on, life-long learning, integrated curriculum, critical thinking, and whole child. The list is familiar– no surprises here. I’m a fan of all of these concepts and think they thrive with varying degrees in our classrooms. But as we incorporate these ideals in our daily teaching life do we keep the child in the forefront? Do we remind ourselves to look at things from a human angle as opposed to being overrun by the “stuff” that controls so much of our teaching life?

I think many educators have grown to look at teaching and learning through the lens of data, assessments, reading levels, GPA’s, late homework, state test results, “the stuff.” I wonder as an educator how I can NOT be controlled by lessons and tests, periods and capitals and 6 traits, but by children and thoughts and imagination and ideas and excitement. What I’m really interested in is the “human” connection. How we can enter our classrooms and view our day’s task as our ability to reach the person, the personality, the strength, the weakness. How we can look at education from a human and personal perspective as opposed to a structural or statistical one. The other day I worked with a 2nd grader on telling time. He made sense of the structure of the clock and knew how to read it. He knew it was 11:10 vs. 5 til 2. I wondered what this told me about his spatial abilities that I could then use to help him learn in other areas. This was a strength—how could I build on it?

One aspect of being progressive is being in touch with the human side, not wound up or controlled by the “stuff,” but focused on the kids, their interests, their development, their level of engagement with what we were doing at the moment. Do we often enough take or have time to learn what makes them tick and see how we could shape the curriculum to appeal to their strengths? Do we take the time to see how we can bring the curriculum alive for them rather than just churning out last year’s worksheets and project choices? Do we wonder what <em>they</em> can bring to the table? Do we often enough put ourselves in their shoes and ask if this is a worthwhile assignment? It’s a shift of perspective, like focusing more on learning rather than the teaching. And it’s a necessary shift if we are to maintain our integrity of teaching people, as they say, rather than standards.

A few years ago I was at a conference where every keynoter, except for one, spoke about results, data, SMART goals, policy. They all did power points and had valuable knowledge to give. But there was something dry and removed about their information and presentations. The speaker who saved the day, in my eyes, had no power point, no visuals. He told stories of learning—of his youth and education. He talked about the power of positive adult role models and how several of his teachers and coaches had taken the time to know and appreciate him as a person. They had been instrumental in helping him see his own strengths and tap into those. He talked about people rather than results. His talk was inspiring and engaging and his message gripped the audience. All the other “stuff” is important, but if we approach each day in the classroom solely through that lens, we can lose a grip on the human side of learning.

After teaching for 10 years, I left the classroom to pursue working with kids outside of school. In the classroom, I found it harder and harder to be the type of educator that I think it’s important to be. The “stuff” was taking over. Too many meetings, standards documents, SMART goals, data meetings, assessments, curriculum maps, etc. It became increasingly difficult for me to provide the types of experiences for my kids to flourish as individuals and harder to create the conditions for the teachable moment to exist or kids to really have the space to tap their potential. Too many outside forces were pressuring me and taking me away from what I saw as my primary purpose: how do I most effectively reach my students tomorrow?

I am not someone who shies away from committees or outside work. I was a grade level leader, developed progress monitoring systems, and led professional development opportunities for my colleagues. I understand the importance of a balanced, well-thought-out curriculum to focus our studies. But how do we differentiate what is really important, what should take priority, and what is secondary to the day-to-day. How can teachers balance the “stuff” with meaningful learning for our kids? How can we continue to put the human at the forefront of all we do in the classroom?

Entry filed under: Child Centered, constructivism, curriculum, integrated curricula, philosophy, Progressive Education.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Elizabeth Volkmann  |  January 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Thank you for your words of wisdom an sharing your experience. I could have written your post! The difference is that I have been only peripherally in the classroom (more so in the last 2-3 years) but have been actively involved in observing, watching and listening all that has transpired in education over the past 17 years ( when I began my stint as a stay-at-hom mom). I went back to school for my MEd (Lesley U) and balked when it came time to jump into the classroom and have just completed my application for a doctoral program. My dilemma: if I cannot be in a classroom (public school) and teach the way I see is best for children (human beings) – what do I do? Just do what little I can to meet the human development need and not let the “stuff” completely take over; or find a way in which I can be with, talk with and create with others who are also on the same page as I am (“progressive” educator) but which almost negates the work of the one-on-one, direct classroom experience?

    I have found solace in the work of Reggio-Emilia, as well as the work being done at Project Zero (Steve Seidel and Ben Mardell, in particular) as human development is at the heart of the foundations of both and both are committed to grounding the work and philosophy in the classroom with the children. These are BIG ideas – and really bolster the “progressive” side that you speak of- as for how to build them up enough to push the “stuff” down to size, I am not sure. I know that it is empowering to know that these very smart, influential and inspiring people speak “my” language – and sometimes that is enough to poke me towards the classroom rather than away from it… My story is to be continued. Thank you for sharing yours!

  • 2. Jennifer Groves  |  March 4, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    Hi Elizabeth,

    Thank you so much for your response to my post. I really appreciate your thoughts and ideas about how you can continue to contribute to progressive and meaningful experiences. Yes, it takes mindfulness to keep that balance and maintain our purpose. It sounds like you’ve connected to some people who are on the same page as you are. Had I been surrounded by more like minds, I might still be in the classroom too. I miss it, and there is nothing like being a full-time classroom teacher.
    I am thankful that I am still able to work with kids, more on my own terms, and continue to support who they are.

    Good luck to you and thanks for reading!


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