Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools

Excerpted from “Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools” by Tom Little and Katherine Ellison. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright © 2015 by Tom Little and Katherine Ellison. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.


The story of Progressive Education is one of chaos and invention, messiness and failure, inspired rebels who threw away rule-books, excesses bordering on irresponsibility, public acclaim, and public condemnation. Our willingness to question convention is one of our greatest gifts to our students. Yet when some of us have taken that quality to extremes, it has cost us dearly in time wasted on detours and squandered goodwill.

Caroline Pratt was one of the movement’s boldest and most inspiring rebels, rarely making a false move herself. Just seventeen years old when she first started teaching, in a one-room schoolhouse in her hometown of Fayetteville, New York, Pratt was impressed by the eagerness she noticed in young children at play, and equally dismayed by how that enthusiasm seemed to dwindle after they spent just a few years in a conventional classroom. She dreamed of a new kind of school that would encourage rather than squelch creativity. “I began to see education not as an end in itself, but as the first step in progress which should continue during a lifetime,” she wrote.

After attending Teachers College in New York, Pratt in 1914 established her new school in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood that was just then beginning to attract a stream of writers and artists who welcomed her innovations. She dispensed with set curriculum, formal instruction, and grades for her youngest students. Filling her classrooms with blocks, crayons, paper, and clay, she encouraged children to discover and pursue their interests through play. Later on, she would guide them in reading, writing, and arithmetic, while also taking them on frequent field trips around town to expose them to the world of work.

The City and Country School became one of the most daring educational laboratories of the era, with students and teachers alike constantly testing hypotheses, cheerfully failing, and then trying again. “All my life I have fought against formula,” Pratt later wrote. “Once you set down a formula, you are imprisoned by it.” As other progressive educators followed similar paths, they developed philosophies and tactics still considered cutting edge today, from appreciation of the role of unstructured play in a child’s neurological development to the mastery system of learning, in which students are allowed many attempts, instead of just one, to get something right.

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I thought of Pratt and her aversion to blueprints on a recent morning as I was wandering through a toy store, looking for a gift for a young friend. I had planned to buy a set of Legos, but to my frustration couldn’t find a box that didn’t feature a finely detailed photograph of the final product: a fully constructed pirate’s ship, a rocket, or a gas station, all with little Lego figures in their suggested places. It reminded me of how many children today are growing up in a world in which we adults pretend to know all the answers, laying out detailed instructions for them to proceed. While this can make our job as teachers more predictable and easy, it risks robbing students of the self-confidence that comes only after they summon the courage to try and fail and then try again.

This, after all, is an ideal preparation for scientists. As David Brazer, an associate professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, reminded me, science is rooted in experimentation. Yet despite the strong U.S. push to get more students engaged in science, there’s a deep contradiction in the trend of conventional schools to avoid experimentation in favor of emphasizing the “right” answers on rigid exams of a narrow set of data. “Unless and until communities, schools, districts, and states allow for well-conceived experimentation (and the concomitant risks of failure), we are unlikely to make substantial progress improving overall student performance and narrowing achievement gaps,” Brazer said.

The most skillful teachers know how to tolerate the ambiguity of experimentation. They also know when to step back and pretend they’re invisible. That’s why, whenever I observe in a classroom, I like to measure the ratio of “teacher talk” to “student talk.” When the ratio tips toward the students, it often means kids are testing their critical thinking skills. A noisier classroom is much harder to manage, but often more productive.

I worry that today all too many conventional classrooms are returning to the teaching style that Pratt and her contemporaries found so deadening: with students sitting quietly at desks, fearful of making any sort of mistake, as they listen to teachers assuming the role of the “sage on the stage.” In contrast, as Pratt wrote, in her school, “nothing was fixed, nothing stayed put, not even the furniture; above all, not the children!” She welcomed the messiness and failure that gave students and teachers alike the opportunity to learn from mistakes.

Now, like all of us, Pratt was a product of her times. As the Progressive Era bloomed into the Jazz Age, something similar to her brand of liberated self-expression and tolerance for trial and error was infusing the world outside her classroom—in art, music, and architecture. Artists including Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Frank Lloyd Wright, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill, and Ernest Hemingway were all boldly challenging convention, in a time that produced more than its share both of enduring masterpieces and quickly forgotten flops. And so it was, too, in many progressive classrooms, as Lawrence Cremin has noted. “License began to pass for liberty, planlessness for spontaneity, recalcitrance for individuality, obfuscation for art, and chaos for education—all justified in the rhetoric of expressionism,” he wrote, adding, “and thus was born at least one of the several caricatures of Progressive Education in which humorists reveled—quite understandably—for at least a generation.”

For decades to come, these wags would press the point that as classrooms grew more lax, society would pay the price. One classic cartoon shows a long-haired young doctor telling a dismayed-looking older patient, sitting in his underwear: “Well, you see, I went to one of those progressive medical schools with no formal classes or credits and students plan their own course of study so I never learned anything about the lungs, breathing, and all that.”

That particular cartoon was drawn in the 1980s, by which time those Americans who feared that progressive reforms would lead to anarchy had a vivid posterboy.

Its name was Summerhill.

FREE-RANGE CHILDHOOD

While it’s more than likely that neither John Dewey, Colonel Francis Parker, Caroline Pratt, nor most other American progressive pioneers would ever have approved of Summerhill— the utopian private British boarding school that in 1960 inspired an international best-selling book, subtitled A New View of Childhood—it remains one of the most famous “progressive” schools. It is also a major example, to my mind, of taking good ideas too far. Since its founding in 1921, Summerhill has done more than any other school to perpetuate the harmful, largely erroneous caricature that Progressive Education equals pure permissiveness. One writer described it as “free-range childhood.”

The school, now located in eastern Suffolk, is most famous for three things: its uncompromising democracy (children have equal votes with adults in determining school rules); students’ freedom to decide if they want to attend class or not; and the many outrageous declarations of its firebrand founder, the former Scottish journalist A. S. Neill, who died in 1973.

To critics who charged him with denying children basic education, Neill responded: “To hell with arithmetic.” To those who accused him of refusing to “mold” children’s characters, he retorted: “No one is wise enough or good enough to mold the character of any child. What is wrong with our sick, neurotic world is that we have been molded, and an adult generation that has seen two great wars and seems about to launch a third should not be trusted to mold the character of a rat.”

“Free schools” modeled after Summerhill mushroomed in the United Kingdom and United States during the anti-authoritarian 1970s, but then steadily lost popularity. In 1999, British officials tried to shut Summerhill down, charging it with abrogating its responsibility to educate its students. The school fought back in court and won. In recent years it has attracted about half of its pupils from overseas, many of them from East Asia, sent by parents who feel that their own local schools are too oppressive. (There’s even a Summerhill International School in Tokyo.) Loosely modeled after Summerhill, meanwhile, is a global network of a couple dozen so-called Sudbury schools, including several in the United States. Originating from the first Sudbury Valley School, founded in 1968 in Framingham, Massachusetts, they’re distinguished by their lack of curriculum; students study only what they wish to learn. Children of all ages mix together; parents have limited involvement; and students and staff run their schools as democracies where everyone has an equal vote.

I never came across any record of Dewey commenting on specific schools, much less Summerhill. Still, it’s easy to guess what he might have said. By the late 1920s, without naming names, he was worrying publicly about the movement’s most dogmatic members, complaining that “They conceive of no alternative to adult dictation save child dictation.” Later, in his classic Experience and Education, Dewey fretted that some progressive educators were wrongly trying to eliminate organized subject matter altogether, focusing on the present and future, as he described it, to the exclusion of the past.

I doubt that Dewey ever came close to considering that children should be able to choose whether or not they show up for class, and, for the record, neither have I. Both before and after Dewey, mainstream progressive educators—if that’s not too much of an oxymoron—have always sought to balance efforts to tend to a student’s cognitive and emotional needs. And from where I sit, giving a young person absolute freedom to say yes or no to school addresses neither of these needs. While I do believe that young children and teens need more control over their lives and their learning than they have in conventional schools, they just as certainly need some structure and guidance from adults.

ADJUSTMENT PROBLEMS

Dewey’s worry in 1938 about progressive schools going to unreasonable extremes unfortunately proved prescient. Within a decade, the reformers, by many accounts, sapped their remaining popularity with their overly enthusiastic embrace of the “life-adjustment” movement: the idea that schools should start providing students with a lot more social guidance.

The notion formally arose in a 1945 report by the Department of Education, whose authors said that 60 percent of high school students required more attention from schools to their “physical, mental, and emotional health,” their “present problems of youth,” and their “preparation for future living.” This wasn’t at all a bad idea: high school students—especially those not bound for college—truly needed practical advice in navigating such challenges as getting a job and maintaining a relationship.

Yet for many conservative critics in an increasingly conformist postwar culture, the new “life-adjustment” curriculum threatened the last bastion of a classic liberal education. They reasonably feared that as schools spent more time teaching physical fitness, nutrition, and dating skills, there would be less time for geometry, physics, Latin, and American history.

The prominent education expert Diane Ravitch, in her history of American education, The Troubled Crusade, describes how the life-adjustment fad reached such a pitch that at one junior high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, all traditional subject matter— English, science, math, and history—was merged into a single core class, called “Social Relations,” with students spending the rest of the day in shop, in the laboratory, or on the playground. Students in a high school in Oakland, California, meanwhile, took courses for credit in “Leisure Activities” or “Personal Management.” Growing public skepticism about these trends contributed to an eventual popular retreat from progressive schools.

Even so, despite its controversial history, the life-adjustment movement has maintained a surprisingly strong influence in modern public schools, which continue to teach kids about proper diets and sex education, while also providing counseling on finding internships and jobs. I think that’s as it should be: as de facto community leaders, schools can and must use their unique resources to help guide children in decisions that will strongly affect their lives, especially when so many parents lack the time and capacity to do so. While working on this book, I was pleased to hear of a recent addition to this trend: a new, school-based program sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help prevent dating violence among teens. Acting on evidence that as many as one in four adolescents experiences some sort of dating violence, which inevitably becomes more dangerous over time, the CDC developed a five-year pilot educational program focusing on eleven- to fourteen-year-olds in high-risk parts of Baltimore, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, and our own hometown of Oakland. I’d argue that such programs are a credit to the life-adjustment movement, maligned as it was.

At the same time this episode taught progressive educators what should be an unforgettable lesson about the value of moderation. It wasn’t the only time we’ve had to head back to the chalkboard, and of course it won’t be the last.

THREE PROGRESSIVE PITFALLS

As a student, teacher, and head of school, I’ve always valued mistakes as a pathway to learning. Mistakes have continually improved my life and my teaching, and I have no doubt that mistakes have helped strengthen education reform.

That said, I believe there are three main mistakes we progressive educators have made that are worth summarizing here, since they’ve contributed so much to the stigma we need to confront and change. All boil down to excesses: in the degree of freedom that some of our schools have given children; in the degree of autonomy that some of us have granted teachers; and in the degree to which some of us have lowered our expectations for children’s academic performance in favor of attending to what we interpret as their emotional needs.

It’s all a matter of balance.

Each excess has arisen from a move in the right direction. Each mistake is the flipside of a major contribution.

Allowing children too much freedom, for instance, is a mistake shared by many well-meaning families and well-meaning schools. Many of us have been reacting against our past experience with over-autocratic parents and educational systems. Still, the most effective schools and families know to provide a mix of love and structure, with the understanding that children need an environment in which they can feel physically and emotionally secure—and consequently free to grow and to learn. At the same time, as progressive educators have recognized for more than a century, without the freedom to make mistakes, children grow up stunted.

At the Putney School, Emily Jones, the principal, described a philosophy that struck me as a good goal for all of us. “We allow things to be messy,” she said, adding: “We don’t have the expectation that every day will be a ‘good day.’ The kids learn to pick up the pieces and move on; things don’t always work out the way we like. We have a well-developed, highly functional safety net, but it is about a foot under their feet. It’s not wrapped around them like a cocoon. The place is designed so that adults don’t tell the students what to do. Every student has a different schedule; there are no bells. Kids need to find out how to fit it all in. They discover how to run their own lives—in an enormously safe and supportive environment.”

Let’s now consider the second common excess: that of granting teachers too much autonomy, without a corresponding demand for accountability and teamwork.

Throughout our history, progressive educators have favored an exceptional degree of decision-making power for teachers, believing it contributes to more creativity in the classrooms. Progressive schools are usually run more democratically than most, meaning teachers feel more free to challenge heads of schools when disagreements arise. Because of the exceptional trust that progressive schools place in teachers, we’ve drawn many more independent-minded folk, including more men. Yet the corresponding risk is that while many teachers (and their students) flourish in a system based on shared decision making, it’s not right for every personality. Progressive teachers must also be unusually flexible, in order to collaborate effectively; otherwise, persistent conflicts among teachers erode the strong communities that help students thrive. Progressive school administrators therefore need first to be particularly vigilant about the kinds of teachers we hire, seeking equal parts passion and discipline; and after that, we must work to support strong relationships, steering teachers through inevitable conflicts.

This brings us to our movement’s third classic excess: of sometimes failing to hold ourselves and our students to high standards, and especially of overemphasizing students’ perceived emotional needs at the expense of cognitive and academic development. This is the origin of the stigma that progressive schools are too lax, and “loosey-goosey.” If we truly do want to learn from our mistakes, as we’re coaching our students to do, we need to be the first in assessing, criticizing, and remedying our own performance.

From my many conversations with principals and teachers, I know this is a major concern, and that many educators are working hard both to make sure we are sufficiently “rigorous” and that we improve in our ability to communicate with parents who are worried that we aren’t. “We need to reveal the purposefulness that exists in our classrooms, and how we draw students into deeper learning,” said MicheÌ€le Solá, director of the Manhattan Country School. “We are not sloppy; there is order and routine, and a clear methodology.” Solá and others reminded me that our obligation to teach content should never come at the expense of helping students build their critical thinking skills. Once again, as always, it’s a balancing act.

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