The Positive Impact of Progressive Education 

By Larry Sandomir, 7th grade English teacher

When families enroll their children in a progressive school, they can expect to see a positive and long-lasting impact. Children in progressive schools develop skills of thoughtful investigation and internal discipline. Most of all, children in progressive schools are attended to consistently as learners based on their academic and social needs, and happiness. 

Student shares work with teacher

Kids in well-run progressive schools are the ones who truly get the nature of self-discipline, applied in a way that retains flexibility in their lives and does not turn them into automatons. They are the ones who work through problems because failure, when it happens during the course of discovery, is understood to be a crucial part of the learning process. They are not afraid of struggling or being challenged, because everything isn’t on a stopwatch. They understand meaningfully how to make adjustments in a project or activity, because such thinking is applauded. They are used to different teaching styles and can adapt quickly because they are constantly exposed to a variety of personalities and ways of imparting knowledge. They can express their intelligences in a plethora of ways because they are exposed to a multitude of activity/assignment/project types. They are more willing to move in creative directions, because they are encouraged to do so; therefore, an observer is likely to see projects in each core subject take advantage of photography, art, music, technology, video, and even old-school manual skills. 

Successful progressive school programs design their curricula to take advantage of both vertical and horizontal learning, so kids not only learn scaffolded skills, but concurrently delve deeper into whatever they are doing at a given moment.

In middle schools, where the marriage of emotional and academic intelligences becomes a great deal firmer and students go through an inordinate number of emotional, mental, and physical changes, the application of a project-oriented, mastery focused curriculum in a progressive environment gives everybody an enhanced opportunity to grow in all ways needed. If we constantly dictate to students, they will learn to be passive and thus less able to make decisions. If we never allow them to face the consequences of their actions in a natural way, they will not feel the need to consider things more thoroughly before they do them. If we do not elicit their ideas and actually use them, they will not develop their imaginations and capacity to solve problems.

Yes, there must be a framework and guidance along the way, and sometimes that is increased or decreased depending on the child or group. That, however, is part of the beauty of a progressive philosophy applied to all things educational. Adjustments can be made in innumerable ways at any time, because flexibility is built in, desired, and encouraged. Students grow when they see that the roads to the completion of activities, straight ahead or detoured, are enhanced by creative detours, struggle, debate, spontaneous inspiration, challenges in personality and organization, and just the process of human beings interacting, which creates dynamic movement and frozen moments that no standardized test or rigidly uniform curriculum could ever possibly capture.

The application of a project-oriented, mastery focused curriculum in a progressive environment gives everybody an enhanced opportunity to grow in all ways needed.

This is not to say that traditional approaches to research, projects, and activities have no benefit. On the contrary, they do. First, not every individual learns best in a progressive environment at every moment. Progressive schools can and do made meaningful adjustments to provide more structure when needed, so if students need more structure in a subject they can get it. However, if students don't require as much support in another subject, it does not have to be given. The issue is never with order as a positive element in learning, but rather with those who impose, repress, and maintain total control to make it appear as if students are disciplined and working hard, when, in fact, they are frightened and want, at any juncture, to avoid the punishment that stands ready to be imposed. Well-run progressive schools are the only kind, though, that can build bridges across all kinds of learning styles, so that the highest number of children and adolescents can find their ways most successfully.

There are those who also reject progressive schools for not supplying students with a rigorous (perhaps the most terrible and overused word in schools) educational experience. They allow touchy/feely stereotypes to linger when, in fact, the challenge in progressive schools is unquestionably more powerful, more constant, and more demanding of commitment and extended time. Many times, when a school speaks of rigor, this is what they are referring to in the guise of education (from the American Heritage College Dictionary):

rig-or, n. 1) strictness or severity, as in temperament, action, or judgment; 2) a harsh or trying circumstance; hardship; 3) a harsh or cruel act; 4) medicine – shivering or trembling, as caused by a chill; 5) Physiology – a state of rigidity in living tissues or organs that prevents response to stimuli.
No meaning above reflects the challenging, industrious, uplifting nature of education. However, “severity,” “harsh,” “trying,” “hardship,” “cruel,” “trembling,” and “rigidity” figure prominently. None of these words would ever be attached to any truly successful educational program. One veteran educator I know notes this about “rigor”: “That’s why it is so often attached to ‘mortis.’”
Students draw with crayons

The challenge in progressive schools is for students to develop independent study, work, and social skills that allow them to function as contributing members to their community and larger society. They are not always told every step to take, but have to sometimes figure it out on their own. They are guided in their learning, not dictated to or lectured at every turn. They develop self-discipline by applying it, making mistakes, and learning – from the inside – what real-life consequences are and how to handle them, rather than cowering with the fear of detention, suspension, or social isolation hanging over their heads. They develop points of view, based on research and debate, questions and conversation, group study and independent work; they are not required to parrot back positions and perspectives gleaned as acceptable by a particular institution. They are not involved in insipid and constant test prep and therefore have time to immerse themselves in both horizontal and vertical learning. They can take the time to delve into an issue and flesh out all the elements relevant to their study and gain more depth of knowledge than places that dictate time to the millisecond. The nature of individual and academic growth is not regimented; it is something that occurs over time, sometimes smooth, sometimes not. It requires patience, failure, determination to overcome obstacles, the ability to deal with stress in a positive way, decision-making, problem-solving, handling disparate personalities with group work, struggling at times, and finding necessary and appropriate guidance along the way. None of this is silent, lined-up, or based on bells telling individuals when to stop being creative, halt debate, or shove their questions aside. This is the way life works and if a school decides that students should not have these opportunities because it might cause everything to be less than orderly, then that’s a huge mistake. Life is not orderly and it does not exist within external rules, time limits, and the threat of punishments.

A child or teen’s mentality is quite comparable to the kind of atmosphere created in progressive schools. The constant mutability of a young personality, the overriding curiosity, the mood flip/flops, and the functional needs that must be met regarding emotional intelligence over these years are served positively in an environment that is open, flexible, and intent on a student’s voice becoming heard. 

The establishment of individual voice, in fact, is crucial to the development of students. When they leave school, it matters deeply that they know more of who they are and how to say what they need to say. They need to believe that their ideas matter and that people listen. They must know they are heard and respected. This doesn’t mean they have to get everything they want, as some would have us believe. It simply means that they are a functional part of the dialogue, are sought after for their ideas, listened to, often agreed with, and a meaningful part of the evolution of the whatever institution they inhabit. This is not just about readiness for what comes next. What the establishment of voice does is give individuals the opportunity to be more of who they are. What good schools do for students in this regard is help them grow, to develop their emotional intelligence more fully and expansively. They develop and more firmly establish their self-esteem, that part of who they are that is intrinsic, necessary, and unconditionally theirs.

Well-run progressive schools are the only kind that can build bridges across all kinds of learning styles, so that the highest number of children and adolescents can find their ways most successfully.

There is more. In a progressive schedule, students have time to work, time to relax, time to talk with teachers and friends, and a sense that it’s okay to reflect. When something happens that may call for large groups to get together, that can happen, because the schedules are not sacred and thus problems do not have to be solved in the two minutes between classes. Workloads can be adjusted depending on the situation a student might find himself in; for example, if a major life event is coming up or if there is an illness in a family, and if something happens that involves the whole grade, the schedule can be altered to allow for as much time as necessary.

The underlying point is that a school which philosophically and practically embraces a progressive approach is offering young people the opportunity to better appreciate the years they spend there. Such a school is tacitly telling these young people that these years matter like all other years do, that this is part of their lives, and, as such, ought to be lived fully, thoughtfully, and humanely, with all the challenges described therein.

In an effectively run progressive school, where the mission, philosophy, and applied attitude tells kids they are trusted and cared about, where issues of discipline are routinely discussed, responded to, and worked out together, much more often than not, more responsive young people who better understand how to settle down to study, when to relax and why that’s a good thing, show respect for others of all ages, and handle the nature of growing up and all its concomitant pressures is the result. It’s not that it works all the time, because nothing does, but there is a manner of success born of treating people as thinking, caring human beings able to grow in positive, disciplined ways, that begets people who are thinking, caring human beings who actually do grow in positive, disciplined ways.