The lonely progressive

I’m off for vacation starting today, but wanted to be sure to check in before disappearing completely. I’ve been poking around the interwebs this morning, trying to find someone else blogging from a progressive perspective. My first hit was that greatest of all online resources, Wikipedia:

Educational progressivism is the belief that education must be based on the principle that humans are social animals who learn best in real-life activities with other people. Progressivists claimed to rely on the best available scientific theories of learning. Most progressive educators believe that children learn as if they were scientists, following a process similar to John Dewey’s model of learning:

1. Become aware of the problem.
2. Define the problem.
3. Propose hypotheses to solve it.
4. Evaluate the consequences of the hypotheses from one’s past experience.
5. Test the likeliest solution.

Given this view of human nature, a progressivist teacher desires to provide not just reading and drill, but also real-world experiences and activities that center on the real life of the students. A typical progressivist slogan is “Learn by Doing!”

Definitions are useful and all that, but I’m not certain that a definition was really what I was seeking. What I was looking for were my pedagogical peeps- other progressives in the educational world. I know they’re out there- I’ve seen evidence of them and I know a few personally. Antioch, of course, is filled to the gills with them. The other networks in which I move (The Coalition of Essential Schools, the National School Reform Faculty, and the good folks over at Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound all walk the progressivist talk. So why don’t more of us use the word? Why don’t we identify ourselves as such and act as a group?

Part of me thinks it’s because we’re individualists. We like to speak for ourselves only (in fact, I hear this a lot as a norm that people want groups to follow), we like to make space for everyone’s truth and experience to come through in his or her own voice. This is admirable and it speaks to our deep desire for authenticity, but it also handicaps us. A colleague recently told me, when speaking of one specific group within the progressivist camp, that our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness. We don’t profess to have all the answers- in fact, I think we’d argue that we don’t even know all the questions yet- and so what we have to offer is shared inquiry and resources and a willingness to walk together as we make the road a la Paulo Freire and Myles Horton.

Apparently, though, the prevailing political winds have been too chilly for us lately. We’ve all gone to ground, trying to keep our own philosophical flames alight in the blizzard of NCLB. Now the national standards movement is moving forward and their is a widely held belief that consensus has been reached on what those standards should be- as well as what assessment means and what is best for kids. I disagree- I don’t think consensus has been reached. I think there are a whole pot of us who disagree, in fact, but maybe we’ve been convinced that we’re the only ones that think this way? I’m not sure what the specific reasons are for our silence, but I am challenging us to do better, to get organized and to make our voices heard. I’m going to commit to contacting folks at my state DOE to make sure they know what I think. What are you going to do?

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2 responses to “The lonely progressive

  1. Hmm,
    I think that one of the reasons that many of us resist the term “progressive” is that it is old and tired. My god, the Progressive Education Association (PEA) started in 1916! Despite the venerable legacy, I don’t think the label “progressive” is relevant any more. I attended a 1992 conference in St. Paul, MN that tried to revitalize the old PEA and that attempt died a natural death.
    I’m much more interested in talking about what is actually happening in classrooms and schools. I think the Coalition of Essential Schools and the Critical Skills Program do a good job of that and hope that they can get more national attention.
    The standards and accountability movements may have frightened many of us but I think they provided a much needed tonic to the freewheeling rhetoric of the humanist 60’s. As educators we needed to be grounded and we needed to recognize the social disparities in this country as more than interesting social challenges.
    Rather than digging up old zombies like “progressivism” let’s move on and talk about how we can take a bit from all the traditional and contemporary educational philosophies to forge something unique, a new kind of pragmatism.

  2. Hi Tom-
    I’m not wedded to the term- but I am committed to the idea that we need be be called something. Otherwise we seem like some fringe element representing only a few- though I think there are a lot of us out there. So if not the term progressivist, then what? I’m open to suggestions!

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