As we search, dig, and devise ways to make K-12 education more relevant to the demands of the 21st Century, do we overlook what has been working for the last 100 years? Are the answers right in front of us? Many of us argue that this is, indeed, the case, but few have made the case as clear, compelling, and accessible as the late icon of American progressive education, Tom Riddle, in the book that he completed just before his passing last year. I have just finished reading Loving Learning and recommend it as a must read. Why?
Before his untimely death, and actually overlapping with my own #EdJourney, Tom visited more than 40 self-proclaimed progressive public, private and charter schools around the country. Loving Learning is a summary of what these schools have in common, and the book is a marvelous resource for three main reasons:
First, Tom clearly and succinctly outlines how the century-old ideals of Progressive Era educators like John Dewey, Francis Parker, Maria Montessori, and others are almost exactly what we now refer to as “21st Century”, “deeper”, “transformed”, or “post-industrial age” learning. We do not have to create a new model; for the most part we just have to re-learn what we forgot, dismissed, or denied when “progressive” became a bad word in the post-World War II era.
Second, Tom provides concrete examples of progressive education in the classroom, around campus, and in the community, examples that any teacher can implement in her work tomorrow or next week. While shifting the focus of an entire school or community may be beyond the scope of an individual, the book is littered with simple ways to bring to life Tom’s three main principles of progressive learning: considering children’s emotional needs just as seriously as their academic progress, building a strong, supportive learning community, and encouraging students to develop a sense of social justice.
Third, Tom makes it clear that the model we seek is often right around the corner at one of the many schools that practice progressive principles every day. Some are old schools founded in the late 19th or early 20th centuries; others are much newer public or private schools. While Tom cites a few, there are many others out there that he did not get to visit, and even more schools where this re-awakening of foundational progressive principles, perhaps under the new names of PBL, flipped classrooms, expeditionary learning, or “21C” manifests in individual classrooms or entire campuses.
This book is rich mining indeed. Go out and see what “it” looks like in practice. Send a team of teachers on a field trip to a self-styled progressive school, and observe how learning takes place, how the students interact with the teachers, and who “owns” various elements of learning. Think about the words in your own school’s mission or vision statement, and observe if and how schools that deeply observe progressive principles do a better job of actually living those goals. Steal some great ideas!
It is such shame that Tom, who I never had the honor to meet, an educator with the passion, context, history, and clarity of his life’s work, passed away just as this re-awakening is taking place. But he has left us with an important resource as a legacy.