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Is a Progressive Education a Good Fit For Your Child? by Beth Norman

Whether just beginning to contemplate the right path for your child’s educational journey, or perhaps you’re thinking your child could benefit from an alternative approach to what they are currently getting, a progressive education is an option to consider.

Progressive educational philosophy stems largely from the work of educational reformist John Dewey, who believed that education should be based on the principle of learning through doing and creating real-life or “authentic” learning experiences that enable students to engage in work that is meaningful to them and has value beyond school. Today, progressive educators typically emphasize depth over breadth, the application of knowledge over memorization, active participation over passive reception of learning, and thematic connections over single-subject learning. While a progressive education does not have a fixed definition, and each school’s specific approach may vary, some of the core tenets are generally as follows:

A focus on the whole child Out of a desire to nurture the mind, body and feelings, progressive educators often look beyond the academics and the ‘student’ and view children through a different lens—as human beings—each with their own unique abilities, needs, gifts, dreams, and perspectives. Attention to children’s intellectual capabilities and interests, as well as their social and emotional development allows teachers to work with each child to meet their highest potential.

Children are naturally curious and eager to learn, and when the pressure of grades is eliminated, the process is more joyful and meaningful. Time is another essential ingredient. Encouraging the questions, even when they may temporarily take the agenda slightly off track, is essential. Just as important, is not to quickly divulge all the answers, but to let the children ponder, experiment, explore and come to them on their own through their own discoveries. Equally critical, is time for reflection, which allows children to process new information and make important connections. In this environment, a love of learning is sustainable.

Active, hands-on and multidisciplinary learning Because children develop a greater sense of ownership when they are more intrinsically involved, they play an important part in developing the curriculum. Benchmarks are used for each grade as an overall roadmap, but for the day-to-day, when an emergent curriculum is employed based on the children’s own interests, they come to the work with greater ease and genuine enthusiasm. They are self-directed because learning feels good, encouraging them to dig deeper. Also, when children are actively engaged, they are more fully present and deeper learning can occur. Writing and directing a play about Ancient Greece, creating the scenery and playing musical instruments will have far greater impact than merely reading the historical accounts in a text book.

Learning how to learn Recognizing and honoring children as dynamic and thinking individuals rather than vessels that need to be filled with a collection of isolated facts and skills is essential. Questioning and problem solving, along with abstract and critical thinking are vital to a child’s development and well-being. Armed with this capacity, a child will be able to confidently tackle just about any challenge. The willingness to rise to the task without fear of failure and think a problem through thoroughly and creatively, is invaluable and will reap many benefits and rewards.

Fostering a sense of community and collaboration In a group setting, children tend to quickly identify the strengths of each classmate and enlist their talents in collaborative efforts. A sense of caring, respect and empathy occurs organically. If a classmate strays outside what is deemed fair or honest by the cohort, justice is quickly sought. Collaboration also helps reinforce learning. For example, when children can explain ideas in their own words they not only help classmates understand new concepts but also process those ideas in their own mind in a new way. Children also are less inhibited in a non-competitive environment and together joyfully navigate their discovery of the world around them.

Social and community engagement Progressive educators strive to make the world a better place by nurturing children to be active and thoughtful participants in a democratic society. Opportunities are offered not only to learn about, but also to put into action, a commitment to diversity, equity, justice, the improvement of the lives of others, and environmental stewardship. Community outreach and charitable giving help students develop a sense of empathy for their fellow man and punctuate the fact that you can make a difference in the world by taking action.

While the reasons to choose a progressive education may be based largely on a function of one’s core values, there may be comfort in knowing that there is also an abundance of solid data that supports the fact that it is also more productive. Long-term retention is greater. The capacity to understand ideas and apply them to new problems is formed, and the desire to continue learning is engendered. While progressive schools may not be easy to find, aspects of progressive education can be found more readily. At the end of the day, your influences as a parent can also help shape a progressive-minded experience for your child beyond any classroom.

Beth Norman is a mother of two, both of whom attend the Blue Rock School, a progressive school in West Nyack. For more information about Blue Rock School, visit BlueRockSchool.org.

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