This week’s column is written by Pamela Strell. Pamela is a long time Elysian parent and currently a member of the Elysian Board of Trustees.
If you as a parent had the freedom to select the type of school you would want your child to attend, instead of going where the lottery got you, would you select a school with a progressive style of education like Elysian Charter School? Do you know what progressive education is and why this model differs from others?
Having been a parent at Elysian Charter School since 2005, I thought I actually knew. In my mind, Elysian focused on a whole learning approach where all of the subjects being taught overlapped. I used to try to explain to my “progressive skeptical” family members with an example-if the class were studying architecture, all lessons related to architecture. Many times that was, in fact, true. In second grade, my oldest son would walk weekly with his teacher Catlin along with his eager classmates to meet with the construction manager at the W Hotel and learn of the weekly progress in construction. They followed it from the ground to completion. The architecture theme brought them to The Empire State Building and had them sketching the skyline. Lego building in class would also be tied in, as would math and science. (I wasn’t always sure that was true but it sounded good and it quieted my family down)!
Not until August 26th, 2015 did I actually have a clue what “progressive” actually means!
An alliance was formed among the charter schools of Hoboken and Jersey City and their first event took place last month at St. Peter’s University. Alfie Kohn, one of the most outspoken and passionate educators of the progressive movement was the speaker. Many teachers from our school, as well as others in the alliance, attended. Harry invited 2 board members to attend and Ashley Depascale-Lore and I were fortunate enough to have had the opportunity.
Please allow me a shot at compiling a list with some of what we learned. It was inspiring and confirming and made me so grateful to have my children enrolled at Elysian Charter School.
Progressive education nourishes in kids a desire to learn.
Progressive education is generally against the use of grades to measure performance because there are more meaningful ways to communicate (as you have experienced when you have read the narratives written by your children’s’ teachers at Elysian—Kindergarten parents, stay tuned-you will see)!
Progressive education’s main focus is on deep understanding—in a context and for a purpose. Children learn things by doing interesting things, not by learning skills and then doing activities.
Progressive education believes there is a difference between right answers and helping kids to learn ways of finding answers.
The Progressive model believes that humans are not computers to be programmed. We start life developing theories about how the world works. Constructing meaning around concepts is learning. Creating meaning is a core concept of the progressive model.
Progressive education believes that community building, collaboration and multi-age interaction is vital. Teachers in progressive schools cultivate an environment where they feel like every kid is their kid.
A truly progressive curriculum is organized around problems, projects and questions. A well known educator, James Beane devised- “what questions do I have about the world? What questions do I have about myself?” When all the kids offer their answer, a theme emerges. This becomes the curriculum. It is interdisciplinary.
Progressive education believes that silent and orderly environments and mindless obedience do not make independent decision makers. The opportunity to make decisions is vital to children. A top-down approach where the teacher is “running the show” is not progressive.
Progressive education believes in self-evaluation over grading individual assignments.
Progressive education believes text books should only be used for reference and not to determine curriculum. Mr. Kohn joked “Pearson Publishing never met your kids!”
Alfie Kohn asserts that no research has ever found a benefit of homework before high school and feels it is the “greatest extinguisher of children’s curiosity.” He believes homework causes frustration, exhaustion, nagging and a lack of time for other things and that family activity time should be determined by families. He asks why children should have a 2nd shift of school each day.
He claims that standardized testing is a political decision that needs to be challenged. Alfie Kohn encouraged us to forget data because measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning. He quoted a well-known national educator and author on literacy education named Smokey Daniels who claims that spelling is not important, but editing is. He claims that explicit instruction in grammar is useless and we need to put skills in their proper place.
I have just given you a ton of information. You may feel inspired to challenge much of it. Mr. Kohn’s presentation represented, in my opinion, the most extreme side of progressive education. I believe that Elysian embraces a good deal of it but with more balance. I also believe that Harry encourages our teachers to teach in their own styles within the progressive philosophy. I would argue that a child with a purely progressive education as Mr. Kohn describes, might be lacking in skills s/he might need in high school or university such as the ability to do homework, manage time and take the entrance exams that society requires. I don’t know. It is really an opportunity for conversation.
Journalists claim that the training and skills needed for the future careers of the world are still unknown because technology is developing so rapidly.
Our children may not know what to study in college to be prepared for these future careers. BUT, if they learn to be critical thinkers and have a love of learning, they will succeed. This is the emphasis of the progressive model that Elysian Charter School places in very high priority and children thrive in this environment.