Following Tom Little on His Progressive Schools Tour

Hopefully those of you who followed my EdJourney around the country this fall are also following Tom Little, Head of Park Day School in Oakland, CA on his tour of the country as he visits progressive schools.  I found his blog via a tweet from Jonathan Martin, and just had a chance to catch up with this reports. They are insightful and full of detail about what makes progressive schools unique, and how they are meeting the needs of education in a rapidly changing world.

Reading several of Tom’s posts this morning, and reflecting through the lens of my own school visits from the fall, I have one major takeaway.  I visited schools with a range of self-defined missions, from progressive to highly traditional.  Yet even in those largely traditional settings, educators are harkening back to the lessons of the Progressive Era, finding their way back to Dewey and Montessori and the rest, as the tenets progressivism align so closely to what we now call 21st century skills.

The highly progressive schools I visited, like Meridian Academy, Sabot at Stony Point, and Poughkeepsie Day School, shared a common structure: generally small and all private.  Many, though not all, of the schools Tom is visiting, fit this profile as well.  I asked the leaders of these schools a question: “what do you have here that is translatable to a larger setting?” The answers were not all the same, but each of the leaders of those schools had an answer for me.  For some it had to do with student participation in shaping the learning experience.  For others it was the allocation of time in the daily schedule, the use of the community as a learning resource, or authentic assessment based on portfolios of work and public presentations.  Highly progressive schools like the ones Tom is visiting have important messages for all schools.  The message is not “be like us.”  Many schools can’t shift to that profile, at least not over night.  But all schools can grab lessons from the progressives.  These schools paint a picture of what is possible, what a Dewey-like education looks like in the modern era.

Here is my advice for principals and heads of schools around the country: send a few of your teachers out to visit the schools Tom is visiting.  Don’t ask them to come back with a plan to revolutionize your own school; ask them to come back with a handful of examples of great learning that are occurring at these progressive schools that can, in fact, be transported with relative ease into your own school setting.  Ask them to delve into the mindset of the teachers at these progressive schools and to ask how that mindset differs from their own, or that of their colleagues.  Use these visits to start to paint a picture of what is possible.

At my NAIS session last week, I concluded with comments stimulated by my friends Bo Adams and Jamie Baker who argue that educators have a professional and moral obligation to provide the very best learning experience possible for our children, to overcome the obstacles to creating that learning experience.  If we visit these progressive schools and understand that truly authentic learning is taking place, that these teachers and students are not just “mailing it in” because that is how we have done it in the past, then our obligation is to rise to their bar.  Every school can’t or won’t shift to become a truly progressive school, but we sure need to steal some of what they are doing, because it is the right thing to do for all of our students.

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