How to Change Education From the Ground Up

Once again, Sir Ken Robinson has given an excellent speech about the nature of education and the changes that are needed to educate effectively for the 21st century. This is probably the best talk I have heard yet, and I really encourage you to give it a listen.


Exploding the Myths of Progressive Education

John Dewey

Image by cliff1066™ via Flickr

While going through my Facebook wall this morning, I came across this article from Capitalism Magazine about violence in our school systems.  It is an old article, from 1999, but since I have the background of someone who has studied both the traditional view of education and the progressive view, I feel that it is important to shed some light on the beliefs that progressives hold. Especially since I know, having studied traditional educational views, that their views toward progressive education haven’t changed much in the last ten years.

I particularly like this quote from the article:

“In attempting to explain why this is happening, sociologists and educators have advanced several possible causes. Some think that the shootings are a consequence of America’s “gun-crazed” culture. Others blame Hollywood, video games and the Internet for their gratuitous glorification of violence. And yet, we seem to be missing the obvious. The shootings have one thing in common: they all took place at school. The boys didn’t kill on the weekend, they didn’t kill after school, and they didn’t shoot up the local Dairy Queen.

So what’s happening? Why are America’s adolescent boys so angry, and why are they expressing their anger through mindless acts of violence?

That they all killed at school is a fact worth pondering. The explanation for all these shootings might very well be found in the destruction of the minds and souls of America’s young people by an education establishment bent on using our children as guinea pigs for their bizarre experiments in schooling. The fact of the matter is that most of our public schools today are intellectual and moral wastelands.”

I wholeheartedly agree with the above passage from the article. Most of our public schools today are intellectual and moral wastelands, but I don’t agree with Mr. Thompson (the author of the article) about the reasons why this is. I do agree with him about one thing, though: The crisis of our schools is definitely a philosophical issue. And here we come to redefining and uncovering the myths that not only surround progressive education, but traditional education as well:

Myth #1: “Progressivism holds that children do not learn by thinking but rather by feeling and doing.”

Progressivism does hold that children learn by doing, but there is a lot of thinking that goes on as well. This goes back to the philosophy argument that Thompson alludes to but never expands upon. I will attempt to expand upon it here.

Traditional education stems from the belief that children are “tabula rasa” at birth, and it is the job of the educator to provide that child with knowledge. If you think back to your time in school, you will recall that most of your time was spent at your desk listening to the teacher talk or filling out worksheets pertaining to the subject matter. There were some projects thrown in, but the projects had very specific directions, as the teacher had specific content that he/she wanted you to know. The system of grading in traditional education stems from behavioral psychology. It is a form of operant conditioning in which good behavior (or correctly done school work) is assigned good grades, and bad behavior (poorly done school work) is assigned bad grades. The good and bad grades are supposed to motivate students to try harder and do better. In reality, however, they only motivate students to memorize the information given long enough to pass the next test. Students are not actively engaged in the material because they are sitting listening to lectures.

Progressive educational philosophy, on the other hand, holds that children should be actively engaged in their work. Usually the child or the teacher poses a question relevant to a topic that the child needs know, and the child goes through experimentation and research to find out the answer. The experimentation is facilitated by the teacher, but not totally directed by the teacher, as an important part of experimentation is making mistakes. The teacher can use questions to the child to help direct them on their path, but in Progressive education it is important that the child come to the conclusion on his own. The reason for this is because intrinsic motivation and self-worth is built up by doing for yourself; if a child has all of their knowledge handed to them by someone else, then they have accomplished nothing on their own. The answers to the posed questions only become real and relevant to a child when they are actively engaged in finding the answers. (Myth #2) Progressive education does not state that there are no wrong answers, as many traditionalists claim, but it does state that each child may have a different way of getting to the right answer, and there is nothing wrong with that. After all, as an adult, you know that you and a colleague have different ways of doing things and finding things out. The same is true of children. And the more practice they have at experimenting and finding answers to their questions, the better they become at it. And at each stage of the experimentation process, the teacher poses questions that the child has to think about as they experiment and research. The questions are geared toward helping the child on their way to the answers, but not giving them the answers.

Rather than being graded on a scale as in traditional education, progressive education usually uses documentation to trace the journey of the child while gaining knowledge. In some cases the teacher stays with the student throughout their journey through their school and documents their journey throughout the years. This allows the teacher to become very familiar with the student and their learning style, so that they are better able to guide them through their learning path. This also allows the child’s parents a much more personal view of their child’s learning process, rather than just seeing a bunch of letters or symbols on a grade sheet, which tells them nothing at all about how their child thinks or what they are learning.

Myth #3: Getting rid of the traditional grading system will decrease competition and put all children on the same level – a form of Socialization.

I have already stated that, rather than motivating students to be better learners, grades motivate students to be better at memorization. The quality of work actually goes down, as does the level of comprehension and retention.

I would argue that there are places for competition, but school is not one of them. School is a place for learning, and competition could actually hurt the learning process. Everything that I have learned in the last six months about education, I have learned from the work of other people. If I had viewed learning as a competition, it would have been harder for me to learn anything because I wouldn’t have been as willing to look at the views and knowledge from other people. Children that are in the same class together can have differing levels of knowledge simply because of what they have been taught at home or what they have learned through reading or other methods. Rather than viewing each other as competitors, children can become collaborators, working together to build their knowledge. This will help them out later in life, as employers tend to look for people with people skills.

Working in this way does not mean that children lose their individuality and become “socialized”. Children can work on projects alone and confer with another student about a problem that they are having. This communication is another part of research and building knowledge. Adults know that in order to build your own knowledge you need to refer to the knowledge that has been built by other people. The same is true of children. Instead of relying on one source for knowledge (the teacher), which won’t work because one source can’t possibly have the amount of knowledge needed to thoroughly educate yourself on any given topic, children can ask other children or use other sources to gain knowledge. Other children may even be able to give ideas about how to find information as well.

Myth #4: “Teachers should always praise children for their unique and inventive answers regardless of whether they are right or wrong. Knowledge (e.g., the rules of grammar and mathematics, and the facts of science and history) is explicitly not the goal of Progressive education.”

The idea of praising a child on method is entirely different from praising a child on their answers. In most areas of knowledge, there is a right or wrong answer (such as in grammar, mathematics, science, and history), and it makes no sense in traditional or Progressive education to praise a child for answers that are wrong. In a progressive setting, if a child gets a problem wrong they are posed a question by the teacher (who is helping to guide them to the right answer) that challenges their current thinking and will help them discover a new solution. In the cases of middle and higher education, this may lead the child through history as they do research to find out how the answer to their problem came about. The questions posed by the teacher cause what is known as “cognitive dissonance,” an uncomfortable feeling caused by the brain trying to reconcile two pieces of conflicting information. The uncomfortable feeling persists until the conflicting information is resolved through research or other means.

I want to use myself as an example here. As early as six months ago I was a huge believer in traditional education methods, but I encountered something that made me question this belief. This “something” is similar to the questions offered by the teacher to the student in order to make them think about their answers. In order to put the questions that I now had to rest, I went through a lot of vigorous research until I came up with answers. The research took me through the history of the role of behavioral and cognitive psychology in education and how they have changed our past views about how children learn.

On another note, I had gone through classes about this exact same thing when I took college psychology and education classes. I sat through countless lectures and read passages out of textbooks, but none of the information that I learned stuck with me. In fact it made no sense to me whatsoever, and caused me to be very apprehensive about returning to school or entering into a career in education. But when I researched it and learned about it on my own, not only did it make sense to me, but it was very instrumental in changing my beliefs and my approach to teaching the children in my care. And I may not have what some people consider the “right” answer, but I have what is “right” to me until I encounter another question that will cause me to do more research until I reach a new conclusion. This learning process is continuous in many different areas of our lives (in fact you may recognize it in some areas of your own life), and illustrates how learning happens in progressive education. And it also addresses this quote from the article:

When I talk to high school students they tell me, virtually to a person, the same thing: that high school is boring and unchallenging. It’s not that they don’t want to learn or that they find subjects such as algebra or history intrinsically boring; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. When I press a little deeper, I learn that for most students the problem is that they have teachers who aren’t particularly good at what they do: the teachers don’t seem to know their subjects very well and they don’t have a passion for teaching.

Teachers don’t have a passion for teaching because students don’t have a passion for learning; students won’t have a passion for learning until they are actively involved in what they are learning and actively involved in finding the answers to their own questions. I found that lectures and textbooks did not make the information understandable, and caused me to not want to attend classes. The children in our public schools have no choice about whether or not to attend classes; they are forced to go through the boring process of listening to lectures and reading textbooks, totally disconnected from what they are “learning”.

For a closer look at the goals of Progressive education, see here.

Myth #5: “Progressive education replaces [learning a body of pre-established information] with a child-centered approach that emphasizes a child’s self-expression and spontaneous impulses.”

I will agree with two parts of this quote from Mr. Thompson’s article: Progressive education is a child-centered approach, and it does emphasize a child’s self-expression. I’m not sure what Mr. Thompson means by “spontaneous impulses”. The children in my care don’t tend to have too many of those (I will explain this in a moment). I would like to re-phrase Mr. Thompson’s sentence to make it a little more true to Progressive education: “Progressive education uses a child-centered approach to teach children a body of pre-established information, while emphasizing a child’s self-expression.”

Examples of this happen in my class all of the time, but I will use a specific project that my class is working on to illustrate the point.

The children in my class love to build things. I’m sure that all children do, but most recently my children have been interested in building houses. I found this out not only through observation, but through conversations that the children and I have had during our circle time. Every conversation that we have had has moved inevitably back to building houses. So one day I got down on the floor with the children and we built a house together. We discussed what shape the house should be, what kind of rooms the house should have (since they are three-year-olds, they seem to be focused mostly on bedrooms), and they provided occupants for the house (our toy dinosaurs). We counted the blocks that we used and made chimneys (they weren’t sure of the word for “chimney”, referring to it as a “thing for smoke”).

As you can see, through this one activity the children were learning math skills and new vocabulary words, as well as being able to express themselves by using dinosaurs in the house rather than people. But this project is far from over. It will be revisited again and again, to build vocabulary as we add more rooms besides bedrooms, to build knowledge of the world as we expand from one house to a neighborhood, to continue to build math skills as we experiment with houses of different shapes and sizes. There is a wealth of knowledge that can be gained from just building a house from blocks – an activity that the children in my class are already interested in.

To go back to the quote about spontaneous impulses, I would like to point out that this activity did not just come about spontaneously. Most three-year-olds are interested in building all kinds of things with blocks, from houses to towers. I have simply taken something that they were already interested in and turned it into a rich learning experience for them. One of the keys to being an effective educator under the progressive philosophy is to be an avid observer of the children you are teaching, finding their interests, and using these interests to teach the children things that they need to know. In using this method, the children become engaged in their own learning because their interests are involved.

Myth #6: Students primarily follow feelings and emotions, rather than reason and logic.

Dissuaded from making moral distinctions, fed a daily diet of an “I’m okay, you’re okay” philosophy, denied logic, knowledge and truth, and driven by unknown fears and anxieties, today’s young people are left with nothing but their untutored “feelings” and “emotions” as their guides through the trials and tribulations of adolescence.

This myth is the one that kept me away from progressive education for so long (as well as the research of it). As someone who follows Objectivist philosophy, I firmly believe that one should look primarily to reason and logic for answers about life, rather than feelings and emotions. But as I researched progressive education, I found that this is one of the worst misleading myths about it. Once again I will dive into a personal story to prove why:

My initial baby steps into progressive education happened as I was looking for a new classroom management system. I had a few children in my class that were a little harder to work with than the others, and punishments and rewards weren’t working at all. I stumbled across a system that uses education as the tool – educating the teacher how to deal with students in a respectful manner, and educating the students in how to handle their own emotions and how to deal with their fellow students in a respectful manner. This is part of the “whole-child” philosophy that is referred to by many progressive educators; one of the “parts” is their socio-emotional well-being. A lot of traditionalists (myself included at one time) look at the word “socio-emotional” and conclude that progressives are trying to “socialize” the children – they are trying to turn them into Socialists and make them so “group-oriented” that they will lose their individuality. This is not the case. They are merely trying to teach the children how to effectively handle their emotions (such as how to handle anger effectively instead of lashing out, bullying, fighting, etc.) and how to respect the emotions of the people around them. One of the first things taught in the classroom management system that I am working with is effective anger management, not just for the children, but for the teacher as well. This is the first step to self-control within the children and within the classroom, and it is a far cry from Mr. Thompson’s claim that progressives make children deal with life with “untutored” feelings and emotions.

This brings us back to the main point of the article: Why is there so much violence in public schools?

Mr. Thompson infers in his article that our public schools adhere to Progressive educational policies, when in fact they do not. The few progressive ideas that have been implemented in public schools do nothing to address the fact that students are unmotivated. They do nothing to address the problems of the lack of respect between students and between student and teacher. They do nothing to address the fact that students are forced to sit at a desk for hours every day and listen to a teacher talk while they sit and listen. They do nothing to address the competition that is present in schools, namely the competition to be popular and fashionable, which leads to many children being ridiculed and demoralized because they do not follow the trends of the day.

I’m not saying that Progressive education will get rid of all of these problems, but these are the main problems that lead to violence in public schools. Progressive education practices address many of these problems, and lead to the school becoming a place where children can not only gain knowledge of the world around them, but about their place in it as well. Aren’t these the big issues that lead to major disconnections in children during their teen years? With traditional education, we have not allowed children to pursue topics that interest them and engaged them in those topics in a way that is educational; rather, we have forced them to learn in the way that we have dictated. In any other area of our lives, such coercion would be decried as immoral and unjust. In the lives of our children, it is allowed to go on and on, leading our children to behave in ways that people who don’t receive the respect that they deserve usually behave. And yet we wonder why there is so much violence in our public schools.

A Look at a Book: Working in the Reggio Way: A Beginner’s Guide for American Teachers

Usually I do book reviews, or book reports – depending on how in-depth I want to go when talking about a particular book. In this case, I can’t do that because I haven’t read the book yet.

I recently bought the book “Working in the Reggio Way: A Beginner’s Guide for American Teachers”. I opened it last night, thinking that I could finish the book in one sitting since it isn’t very thick, but to my surprise and excitement, this book requires a lot of personal reflection into your views of children and education.

I hope to be able to share some of my reflection here on this blog, and I hope that there are some out there that will join me in reflecting on just what our role is as teachers and what being teachers means to us. At first glance it seems that it will be quite a journey.

The Pitfalls of Punishments and Rewards

I have become very interested in the topic of punishments and rewards since implementing a classroom management program that does not use either one. Today I discovered the writings of Alfie Kohn, an ex-teacher and proponent of Progressive education. He has written about the hazards of teaching using punishments and rewards.

Here is an interview he did with Ron Brandt in 1995 about punishments and rewards.

Change Needs to Happen

Following my most recent post, I have spent much of the day researching the ideas and thoughts of Sir Ken Robinson, the voice behind the RSA video I posted before. Here is the entire lecture, if you are interested in hearing it:



I have to say that Sir Ken Robinson makes a lot of good points, points that everyone should be taking in to consideration. Why are we forcing kids to sit through book learning and lectures when they could be experiencing something like this:


Imagine what a child proficient in divergent thinking would do with this! According to Sir Ken Robinson, most children are proficient in divergent thinking, so I could only imagine, if children were taught to understand this and other areas of their lives in this way, what the implications would be. How many children would go on to become inventors or creators simply because they have a better understanding of engineering or physics or anything else simply because they didn’t have to sit there bored to tears listening to a teacher lecture about something that was so far beyond their grasp?

This reminded me of a lesson that I taught the children in my own class. We were learning about butterflies, and I had strategically planned to do the lesson at a time when there were caterpillars everywhere outside. I could have just told them that caterpillars make a cocoon and turn into a butterfly and let it stay at that. They could have caught some caterpillars and showed them to their parents and it would have been a swell time. But we caught several caterpillars as a class and kept them in containers. We fed them leaves and watched them eat the leaves. We watched them make cocoons. And we even watched one of our caterpillars emerge from its cocoon as a big butterfly.

I still remember that day very clearly, and how excited the children were that the caterpillar had actually turned into a butterfly just like their teacher said it would. One girl’s mom told me that she didn’t stop talking about it for a couple of months. Now, granted, they aren’t going to learn any huge engineering lessons or anything like that from this lesson. But it made the experience of learning about butterflies meaningful and fun and memorable. If I had just sat there and lectured about butterflies they wouldn’t have remembered a word of it, and we probably wouldn’t have had a good day either, because three year olds don’t really have the patience to sit through that.

Another point that Sir Ken Robinson makes that I feel is important is that we are educating the passion out of children. Some children have things that they are passionate about: music, dance, art, etc. Instead of doing everything that we can to foster these passions and talents and letting the children practice and develop those passions, we are teaching them that it isn’t right to have these passions and that they should be like everyone else. It is a travesty and a huge disrespect to these children. My daughter loves to dance and make music and sing, and I am trying to do everything that I can to put her into an elementary school that will foster these passions and talents rather than stifling them because I believe that she will do much better in life if she has a chance to develop those passions that she has. I still believe that  reading, writing, science, history, and math are very important as they help us to be successful in this life, but they are not the most important aspects of life.

A New Way to Look at Education (for me, anyway) – Changing the Paradigm

I have, in the past, thought of education in terms of what it has been since the inception of public education: reading, writing, arithmetic, and history. I still feel that these things are vitally important for people to grasp if they are to live good, quality lives. But what if our modern era calls for a change in teaching techniques? I believe that a change is necessary in any case. Our current public education system is definitely lacking.

Here is a short video that explains what I am trying to say:


Conversations about Education

My oldest daughter spent the night at a friend’s house last night. Great for me, although I didn’t know how great at the time. When I went to pick her up this evening, I spent two and a half hours talking to the friend’s mom about education issues.

I guess part of my problem is that I am so used to the people around me being apathetic and so used to the status quo, that I never really expected to find someone as sensitive to education issues as I am, much less someone that is the mother of one of my daughter’s friends. It was an amazing conversation, and with someone that isn’t an educator! We talked about the increasing entitlement mentality of our kids (she recommended a book that I hadn’t heard of on the subject) and the waste and fraud in our school systems. And of course, since our daughters go to the same school, we talked about issues that run rampant in their school. The talk was so uplifting for me that it has given me hope that there are parents out there that aren’t totally apathetic. And I know that there aren’t. But as someone who has spent most of her adult life as a single working parent, I haven’t had the time to be active enough in my daughter’s school to get to know other parents all that well. This episode has shown me that I may well want to start, though, and not just for the reason of meeting other like-minded parents. As a taxpayer and parent, it is my job to find out how my money is being spent, and for someone as interested and concerned about our public school system as I am, I am being horribly negligent in keeping up with what is going on in my own daughter’s school. As far as her classes go, I have a pretty good idea and she and I talk about it a lot, but as far as the whole school – I didn’t walk away from that conversation feeling like the most responsible parent in that department.

Another area that this conversation has me thinking really hard about is homeschooling. Not that anything the parent told me surprised me. I wasn’t surprised by any of it. But, being someone who has thought seriously about homeschooling in the past and still constantly thinks about it, this conversation has re-affirmed my conviction that public schools are not the places that are the best for our children, and the government is not the most trustworthy educator. They certainly aren’t the most trustworthy when it comes to handling Other People’s Money, which is why there is so much fraud and abuse in the public school system in the first place. If they run out of money they can complain and get more. Private schools are businesses, running on a profit-motive; if they don’t have the money to do what needs to be done, they shut down. They have to be responsible.

So why would I homeschool rather than putting my daughter in private school? As an educator and someone who is very interested in how kids learn, I would gain first-hand knowledge about how kids learn. I have already done extensive studying into the topic. Plus, what mother wouldn’t want to stay home and take care of their kids? Since the advent of the welfare state made it almost impossible for mothers to stay home with their kids and daycare is becoming an ever-growing industry, parents aren’t raising their kids any more. Educators are doing it more and more. It really is a shame, and sometimes the parents of the kids I teach point out that I spend more time with their kids than they do. They expect to get their money’s worth because of it, and I try very hard to deliver, but I hate the fact that it is me, rather than them, who is raising their children. To be the one raising my kids and teaching them the things they need to know to be independent, thinking adults would be one of the greatest gifts that I could give them. And perhaps, through the experience, I can extend that gift to other parents by educating their kids to be independent, thinking adults.