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Progressive School: Fact or Fiction?

I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard a professor from a prestigious university said that there is no such thing as a progressive school in the Philippines and if there is, then they’re just making things up. WOW! That blew my mind.  I wanted to automatically face that professor and tell him a piece of my mind until I realized.. hey, we ARE making things up! We’re making up a curriculum from the interests of our students, we’re making up activities that are integrated through the subjects and we are making up projects that stem from the imagination of our students!

A lot of misconceptions are being bandied about our beloved progressive schools that I think it’s about time to clear some things up.

1. “Progressive schools encourage noisy, rowdy and disrespectful students. The students are so free that there isn’t any order anymore.”

FICTION. Progressive schools encourage children to be outspoken and allow their ideas to be heard. Someone who is used to the convent-like silence of traditional and montessori schools may read this to be misbehavior or rowdiness. But stop for a second and LISTEN to the noise. You’ll be surprised on what you can harvest from all that conversation. Ideally, the teachers are part of the “noise” too. Their role is to manage the ideas and words of their students and keep boundaries on how students should be speaking to one another and to other adults.

Freedom may sometimes be read as lack of order. There is order but not the order that we have been used to growing up in a traditional school. I know the term “organized chaos” has grossly been abused but that’s the best description of the feistyness that we see in students of progressive schools. They’re free to speak their minds however they are not free to be disrespectful in their words. They’re free to be angry at someone yet they’re not free to hit in anger.

2. Where are the worksheets and textbooks? Progressive Schools have no curriculum.

FICTION. There IS a curriculum. There IS a guide called a scope and sequence that teachers follow to check the skill level of each class. It’s the flexibility of implementing the curriculum that creates an illusion that it doesn’t exist. Why can the teacher change activities during class? Why are there no preschool textbooks? This is not a loss of structure. This is the adaptation of the structure to the ones who are in the center of it — the students.

Activities do not necessarily equate to a worksheet. As much as additional learning does not equate to homework. Nor does a textbook equate to the best source for a particular topic. Alfie Kohn, narrated it well in his article, Progressive Education: Why it’s hard to beat but also hard to find (2008)

And then (as my audiences invariably point out) there are parents who have never been invited to reconsider their assumptions about education. As a result, they may be impressed by the wrong things, reassured by signs of traditionalism — letter grades, spelling quizzes, heavy textbooks, a teacher in firm control of the classroom — and unnerved by their absence. Even if their children are obviously unhappy, parents may accept that as a fact of life. Instead of wanting the next generation to get better than we got, it’s as though their position was:  “Listen, if it was bad enough for me, it’s bad enough for my kids.” Perhaps they subscribe to what might be called the Listerine theory of education, based on a famous ad campaign that sought to sell this particular brand of mouthwash on the theory that if it tasted vile, it obviously worked well. The converse proposition, of course, is that anything appealing is likely to be ineffective. If a child is lucky enough to be in a classroom featuring, say, student-designed project-based investigations, the parent may wonder, “But is she really learning anything? Where are the worksheets?” And so the teachers feel pressure to make the instruction worse.

I rest my case.

3. Progressive schools do not let students memorize facts. The students don’t learn anything.

FACT and FICTION. Why both? Well, progressive schools do not aim for students to recite facts from rote memorization. Progressive schools aim for students to understand the facts and therefore having them remember them longer.

Every time I asses a preschooler and I ask him to tell me the days of the week, almost always that child will sing them to me. This is because during Morning Message in circle time, their teacher sings the Days of the Week song, writes down the day whether it was Monday, Tuesday, etc and highlights each letter in the word. The child then remembers all the days with an idea on how to spell each of them. This activity is appropriate for young students because they’re fond of singing, they love circle time and they can relate with the letters on the board specially because their teacher points out “M is for Monday. Hey, it ‘s also the first letter of your name, Matthew!”

Now compare this to a child whose teacher just makes him memorize Monday to Sunday like a drill sergeant everyday. He may be able to remember this during a test but I’m sure he will completely forget this after. There is no connection to his real and everyday life.

4. The students are having too much fun. They’re just playing and not learning anything.

Who ever said that learning should not be fun? Or that there can never be anything learned by playing? I wonder how that person is as an adult… In the days of the dinosaurs (ok, I exaggerate..), children were pictured chained to their desks, seriously writing on a piece of paper when in school or when in the process of learning something. This image, in reality, hasn’t left the memory of today’s parents. There is a stigma when a child utters the sentence, “Oh, we just play in school.” It’s like laughter does not equate to active learning.

The Disney movie “Monster’s Inc.” depicted a monster world whose primary source of energy was children’s screams of fear. Their energy supply was so low because children were not easily scared anymore. They then realized that children’s laughter offered 10 times more energy after a child accidentally laughed in their power plant. I wonder when this accident can happen in our world?!

Fun is socially not equated with learning because the concept of school was not equated with a place to have fun. And we wonder why as adults we also view ourselves in the workplace with a ball and chain.

There are numerous other fictional or might I say, urban legends about progressive schools. But the number one enemy of the philosophy being implemented in them are traditional expectations. Even after numerous parent seminars or orientations about what a progressive school represents, it is still a struggle for progressive schools to break the barrier that our traditional upbringing has seared in our ideas about education. Sadly, some progressive schools have been swayed to just adapt to this traditional pressure rather than uphold the progressive philosophy.Let’s hope they also read this post.

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