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What's a Progressive School? How is it Different From a Traditional School?

Students in progressive schools learn through experiences and projects, often out in the community.



Progressive schools encourage students to "be active, not passive."

Progressive schools distinguish themselves by engaging students directly in the world and challenging them to practice skills and solve problems in real community settings.

“How can children become responsible unless you give them responsibility?” asks George Zeleznik, EdD, head of The Crefeld School in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia. “Progressive education isn’t preparation for democracy; it is democracy.”

That’s part of what progressive educators mean by child-centered education. Instead of instruction organized around subjects, progressive schools are structured around student experiences with complex, multidisciplinary themes. Students learn specific skills as they ask questions to understand evolving communities, waterways, culture and religion, leadership, relativity, commerce and more.

“We look at the why of learning and teach how to do it,” he says.

Through observation, questions, experimentation and pattern detection, students might “discover” the Pythagorean Theorem, for example, says Kate Kerrane, educational director and teacher at NCCL School in Newark, DE.

Students out in the world

Progressive educators agree that students are “active, not passive” as they build their knowledge. They feel safe because they know that the genuine learning process, of making mistakes and learning from them, will not jeopardize their assessments or success.

“They learn to understand systems, to make informed decisions as voters, in business, as families,” says Tom McManus, head of mission for the soon-to-open Revolution School in Philadelphia. “Civics is too often compartmentalized, statistics too. But they run all the way through our curriculum.”

Revolution School has been developing Memoranda of Understanding with dozens of community partners to allow mentorships and experiences for its students at museums, watersheds, planning offices and other organizations across the city. Progressive school trips are frequent and typically aligned with long, deep units of study.

At NCCL, a three-month unit about food might start with students being asked to list all the things they wonder about food. Their inquiries prompt deep, interdisciplinary study of farming, geography, climate, chemistry, biology, cooking, markets, culture, socio-economics and even psychology. The school maintains strong partnerships with professionals at the University of Delaware and others in the neighborhood, so that field trips and onsite experiences are constants. Math, science, literature and history aren’t abstractions, but fit and apply naturally.

Proficiency in these skills is demonstrated throughout each student’s research, note-taking, reflections, initiatives, implementation and oral and written communication. Instead of a letter or number grade based on tests and papers, teachers at NCCL write comprehensive narratives on the student’s progress, strengths and areas for improvement. At some progressive schools, student work evolves from assessments of “not yet” to “pass” or “ready” as determined by objective criteria and multiple evaluators.

Exhibitions a 'way of life'

Student “exhibitions” are a way of life throughout progressive education. “Students aren’t just watching; they’re contributing,” says McManus.

Exhibitions aren’t for teachers or grades. Instead, students are propelled intrinsically when they pursue their own questions and anticipate meaningful impact of their work.

For example:

• After studies in the history of cartooning, one NCCL 7th ​grader created a graphic novel portraying her thesis. Her exhibition also included her notes, PowerPoint presentation and lengthy Q&A.

• NCCL 7th and 8th grade students identify a serious need or problem in the community and create their own “non-profit” organization for a year-end “Big Give” project. Students learn early on that what they think a community needs may not be the same thing as what that actual community thinks it needs. Students contact stakeholders in the community, develop mission statements, prepare spreadsheets and budgets and create fundraisers or solutions. One student developed a “music garden” and collected and arranged repairs of used musical instruments to donate to Christina School District for students unable to buy or rent instruments.

• A severely diabetic student at Crefeld loved longboarding, a form of skateboarding. As part of his leadership project, he obtained municipal permits to organize a longboarding event to raise money for diabetes research and to go door-to-door to raise awareness and funds. He documented the project, showed his school what he learned and raised thousands of dollars for diabetes research.

• In their one-week mini-courses in spring and during regular Friday afternoon electives, Crefeld students immerse themselves in experiences from camping in Appalachia to sewing. Some students have even laid foundations for college majors and careers.

“There’s no single pathway” to learning, says McManus, who adds that the world doesn’t give gold stars for knowing certain facts.

Small, diverse schools that are all inclusive

Diversity is important in progressive schools. Beyond race and socio-economic background, many progressive schools are disability and gender inclusive as well. Many progressive schools are small by design, which encourages meaningful relationships among all students and between faculty and students. Students help develop ground rules and see themselves as partners with educators. Student voices are encouraged, so students don’t hesitate to bring creative ideas or problematic questions to teachers or administrators.

In a number of progressive schools, classes comprise two grade levels and students have the same teacher for two years. Their size facilitates small-group work and frequent one-on-one discussions between student and teacher for individual feedback and mentoring.

Discipline, when needed, is about “restoring community” at Crefeld. If a student displays inappropriate behavior, the behavior is analyzed and addressed to help the student more effectively participate in the community. NCCL uses “eye-to-eye” conversations to help resolve issues between students. Teachers help facilitate reflective listening and other positive conflict-resolution strategies until students manage this themselves.

Progressive schools recognize that they’re small and resource-intensive. They can’t typically offer wide assortments of foreign languages or competitive sports teams. Their teachers undertake extra demands, as well. With so much in the hands of students instead of a pre-determined curriculum and tests, progressive faculty must stay nimble, learn new material and find fresh resources with every learner.

Traditional vs. progressive schools: A question of degree

Some project-based learning and multidisciplinary classes do happen at traditional schools. So do hands-on projects and trips. The difference is that in progressive schools, these approaches aren’t just offerings, but are integrated full-time throughout the progressive school structure.

“There’s beautiful work being done in public schools, homeschools and elsewhere,” acknowledges McManus, who, like all those interviewed, doesn’t disparage other schools.

As for success in higher education and careers, progressive schools tout their empowered alumni and competent, resilient, excited learners who display leadership, develop listening and advocacy skills and are able to independently and collaboratively engage the world’s myriad of challenges.

Ann Rappoport is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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