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The Advantages of Progressive Education

There are a number of reasons why students and parents choose progressive schools over traditional schools. In order to better understand the advantages that progressive schools offer, let’s first take a look at the traditional model.

Most of us were educated within the traditional school system. Our teachers expected us to look to them as experts, keepers of knowledge. They provided us with information, usually with the aid of a textbook, and we were required to understand or otherwise absorb that information (through rote memorization, for example). Our teachers made us take tests and quizzes periodically to see how well we were absorbing the information. The grades they gave us were intended to reflect how well we learned (or remembered) the material.

Within this system, students are seen as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. They are expected to conform to the teacher’s expectations of what “learning” looks like. Picture uniform rows of students facing the teacher in assigned seats at individual desks, taking detailed notes that they will be expected to study and memorize later on.

As we examine this teaching method, questions may arise: How well are these students retaining what they are learning? How much of what they learn applies to their lives? Is this the best way to help students reach their fullest potential? And what does it truly mean to be educated?

Progressive education, on the other hand (which has been around in one form or another for several hundred years) is a much more open-ended process that can result in a more genuine form of learning—and greater retention of that which is learned.

Personalized learning is a fundamental principle and main advantage of progressive education. Progressive educators recognize that there is no one size fits all model when it comes to learning. This recognition serves as the jumping-off point for a range of improvements on the traditional model. Progressive educators believe that learning should be tailored to the needs and interests of each student.

This is one of the reasons why small class sizes are generally emphasized. In a room of 30+ kids, it’s nearly impossible to work with each student individually, much less get to know them as individual learners and be responsive to each one’s individual needs.

Progressive educators also generally believe that learning should be interest-based—connected to things that really interest their students. They recognize that actual interest in learning about a topic is a more powerful motivating factor than grades and tests.

Within this more personalized framework, students are empowered to take charge of their learning to a much greater extent. Teachers serve as guides rather than experts, and lectures are replaced with a more active and collaborative learning culture. Students may work one-on-one with their teachers to set their own learning goals. (Unlike the traditional classroom, students can have a voice in terms of deciding what topics they study.)

What’s more, students can move through the material at their own pace, based on how well they have mastered it. They may choose from a variety of ways to demonstrate that mastery as well. However, it’s highly unlikely that they will take a test that focuses on how well they remember information. Students are much more likely to be learning by doing, for example working on projects —and tackling complex issues, rather than simply memorizing facts.

As you can see, personalized learning is more dynamic than the traditional method—more interactive, more participatory, and more collaborative than listening to a lecture while hastily scribbling notes. Additionally, more dynamic classroom designs encourage greater student participation. Picture a learning space where everyone is seated around a table facing each other, as opposed to rows of students sitting isolated at individual desks, facing an authority figure. By eliminating the back row, teachers can better ensure that all students are engaged in learning. It also sends a strong message that all members of the class are valued equally.

One type of classroom activity that utilizes this learning space effectively is the Socratic seminar. Usually taught in History and English/Language Arts classes, Socratic seminars place the emphasis on students’ thoughts and ideas regarding historical events and works of literature. During these structured discussions, the teacher steps back and the students lead the way. They listen and respond to each others’ ideas, and construct meaning on their own. The activity emphasizes intellectual inquiry and critical thinking skills.

Through these types of classroom activities, students learn how to collaborate with one another and become intrinsically motivated learners in the process. Compared to “traditional” school tasks - for example, all students being blanket-assigned a set of discussion questions or math problems to complete individually—this level of student involvement can reap much greater rewards.

There is much more to be said about progressive education—this is just a brief (well…somewhat brief) overview. In the coming blog posts, we’ll be diving into more detail, stay tuned….



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