Truly Courageous Educators (part 1)

Recently, Robert Pondiscio, an online friend of mine, posted a link on Facebook to an article published by Alfie Kohn entitled “Encouraging Courage.” In the article, Mr. Kohn argues that “There is already enough [education research] to help us decide what to do (or stop doing) on many critical issues,” that “there are plenty of examples of outstanding classrooms and schools in which that research is being put into practice” but that “What’s lacking is sufficient courage for those examples to be widely followed.” Mr. Kohn continued on to challenge educators to question traditional practices that interfere with learning, take responsibility for their personal role in the process of education, and share power with students. A lively discussion ensued on the page and, as a progressive educator, I found myself moved to write a more lengthy response. Three of the prime concerns expressed during the discussion were the roles of factual knowledge and homework in the classroom, and what (if anything) progressive educators want students to be able to do upon graduation.

Let’s start with the question about what goals progressive educators have for their students, and work backwards. Research tells us “that various ‘enhanced’ forms of discovery learning work best of all.” (Kohn) So how do I, as a progressive educator, try to put that into practice? Essentially, I determine the fundamental, non-negotiable parameters for a course and then turn the students loose to explore within those parameters, talking and conferring with them all along the way. Both the non-negotiable parameters and the individual student exploration help them learn the kinds of things I want them to learn – in short, to meet my goals.

In my Humanities 7 class, for example, I take it as a given that my students should be developing their non-fiction writing skills. They need to know how to develop a question that genuinely interests them and will enable them to think deeply and produce work that reflects that. They need to know how to locate information, determine its reliability and relevance, record and organize it effectively, and take all necessary steps to meet standards of academic honesty. They need to know how to engage a reader, provide necessary background information, and develop and clearly state a thesis. They need to be able to write clear body paragraphs that are organized around a central idea that is connected to and supports the thesis, and progress smoothly and logically from idea to idea. They need to be able to quickly summarize their main points and extend those into a deeper reflection of why what they have written matters deeply to them and should also matter to us. They need to have a sense of their writing style, how it matches their audience, and what makes it “artistic” as one seventh grader said on Monday. They need to know what tools can help them at all the different stages of this process. And bear in mind that all these are just “non-fiction writing skills,” less than half of the total number of skills which I am asking my students to develop. All those are non-negotiable givens which I’ve chosen carefully based on what research tells me and on my experience in working with past students, talking with teachers they’ve had in subsequent years, talking with their parents, and most importantly talking with them.

So that makes up a long list of what they need to learn. Where’s the space for what they want to learn? You may already have identified it: it’s in the content. Cognitive learning theory tells me that factual knowledge is necessary to construct meaning and that learning happens when new knowledge is assimilated into an existing body of knowledge. Cognitive learning theory is, however, mute on the question of what that knowledge ought to be. This is where my students’ personal interests and passions come into play. Each year, my Humanities 7 students have no trouble whatsoever identifying areas they want to explore. Each year, we develop a common body of knowledge with a given unit while the students explore individually their own personally designed focus questions. Each year, at the end of the unit, we listen to what each member has learned and integrate that knowledge with what each of us already knows. If there are 14 students in the class plus me, we will leave the unit with 15 unique and yet overlapping bodies of knowledge. We will have learned content while developing skills.

All of this is part of the intellectual development I wish for my students. But research also tells me that intellectual development is best supported when we also focus attention on other axes of development: artistic, physical, and social. I want them to have a sense of aesthetics – not just what is beauty, but if and why beauty matters, how decisions are made about what is beautiful, why sometimes beauty might deliberately be eschewed for specific reasons. I want them to be physically strong, to have a sense of what their bodies can accomplish and how to enable that to happen. I want them to be emotionally strong, to have a sense of who they are and how they fit into the world, to have a sense of how to see the world from multiple perspectives, to be able to work effectively with other people. I know that if I neglect any of these axes of development to concentrate on another area, in the end, it will harm my students more than hurt them. And I would do just about anything to avoid hurting my students.

Would Alfie Kohn agree with all this? Honestly, I haven’t yet been able to find a clear manifesto along these lines in his work (please tell me if you find one!), but I can extrapolate from this fragment of his writing: “(…) It’s most important for students to become critical thinkers, enthusiastic learners, ethical decision-makers, or generous and responsible members of a democratic community.” (Kohn) Those basic principles are certainly compatible with the basic principles I’ve enunciated above.

Having talked about what goals a progressive educator might have for students, and how to go about meeting those, the next steps will be to look at some additional research, to see how successful schools are putting these ideals into practice, and to explore the notion of why more schools don’t follow those examples. In the process, we’ll examine the intersections of traditional and progressive methods and think about how each individual school (including mine) might choose to handle them. Keep an eye on this site!


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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education

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