Graduate Admissions Blog

Progressive Education: Learning to Understand

In education, it’s always a point of both interest and tension: progressive education versus traditional and all the assumptions that come with each. Growing up having been taught via traditional education then attending Bank Street for graduate school, I can admit that I’ve never felt the active process of real learning until now.

In my experience, some people tend to lump progressive education onto an aromatherapy-scented pile of peace, love, loosey-goosey-anything-goes, daydreaming and introspection that leads me to feel both amused, somewhat offended, and then worried. Although I love the scent of minty-herby anything, this impugning is worrisome because those perceptions couldn’t be further from the truth and can lead to ill-informed rejection of progressive methods.

Progressive education is solidly founded upon the science and research of human development: cognitive and bodily functions, human behaviors based upon biological factors, extensive research as to how people learn, and careful attention to social studies. It is always developmentally appropriate, forward-thinking, flexible and collaborative. Teaching and learning leads to more productive individuals who forge more productive communities and have long lasting impacts on the world. Progressive education is in many ways also quite thorough. There is a significant amount of individualization and research at the micro levels (families and classrooms) to provide the best instructional plans for each student in a well-rounded working curriculum. This promotes strengthening of the individual’s natural abilities and resourcefulness.

Unfavorable assumptions about progressive education are also particularly dangerous as it relates to early childhood education. Since choice and expression are  important premises of this type of learning, many people tend to think that a progressive environment means letting young children do whatever and say whatever they want. This tends to be followed by the idea that this inquisitiveness and focus on exploration renders young children disrespectful and hyperactive.

Ineffective progressive educators might allow this premise of choice and expression to veer into territory that may be a bit chaotic behaviorally but effective progressive education is measured. It is not only measured, but balanced—  there are significant boundaries and limits which promote a safe, nurturing, equitable and deeply informed learning environment to develop autonomous, respectful, vibrant children who form an inquisitive, powerful community.

One particular controversy is the use of standardized testing in our traditional educational system and its relevance to progressive education. I just finished the state required standardized exams for teaching certification. I hadn’t studied for the exams and went armed with the knowledge my classroom experiences and Bank Street had afforded me. Turns out, this was more than enough. I found myself thinking about the perception of students being taught under a progressive lens and how they’re deemed unprepared to conquer standardized tests.

I feel many people don’t understand progressive education and that an effective program actually prepares you richly for standardized tests and anything else in life, even in environments that may be at odds with our philosophy. Progressive education emphasizes intellectual rigor and requires students to think critically about problems. You solve these problems by using academic content as precedent and/or evidence along with practical knowledge which generate realistic solutions. For instance, I always think of how I thought I was terrible at math until I came to Bank Street. Amy and Nneka (awesome math professors) showed me practical ways of seeing math that allowed numerical concepts to be accessible to me for the first time ever.  At one point, I was actually discovering equations and finding complex sequences, using my own resourcefulness along with academic content to solve the problems in front of me. For the first time, I felt I was excelling in math.

This focus on experience, critical thinking and reasoning, analysis, and curiosity can be applied to real world applications.

Progressive education seeks to form students who think deeply about situations and make connections with varying aspects of their lives and the world. It also seeks to genuinely teach material for real, long-lasting understanding instead of cramming information into students for the purposes of passing tests—  information which evaporates from our brains into thin air as quickly as it came.

For more information on progressive education, take a look at these sites: