Progressive education goes to college

Progressive education goes to college

While looking for models for the little sendup of progressive education that I posted recently, I came across a New York Times op-ed piece entitled “What Babies Know About Physics and Foreign Languages.” As the title and tag line (“Our kids don’t need to be taught in order to learn”) suggest, the piece is a pitch-perfect paean to the progressive ethos, touting the benefits of allowing preschoolers to learn “naturally,” through imitation.

While preschoolers can of course acquire many important skills this way, my immediate response to the article was to wonder how quickly Gopnik’s assertions about the benefits of natural learning for four year-olds would be misappropriated as an endorsement for treating higher levels of education this way.

As it turned out, I got my answer pretty quickly. (more…)

Progressive athletics

Progressive athletics

Just imagine if people talked about sports the same way they talk about education…

In the nineteenth century, when modern sports were invented, athletics served as an extension of the factories in which many of their players worked, reinforcing hierarchies and training athletes to be obedient and “play by the rules.” Today’s sports leagues are heirs to that model. Unsurprisingly, for many athletes, playing a sport has become a source of stress rather than one of joy.

Nothing could be more natural than the desire to run and play, but this inborn tendency is all too frequently destroyed by a system that emphasizes rote drilling of individual skills at the expense of more authentic forms of participation.

A new, more progressive model is clearly required, one that harnesses players’ innate love of games and movement, and that places players rather than sports at the center of the athletic process. (more…)

How progressive education drives the tutoring industry, pt. 2

How progressive education drives the tutoring industry, pt. 2

In my previous post, I outlined some of the ways in which the progressive methodologies that pervade much of the American system inadvertently fuel a reliance on the private tutoring industry.

On its surface, the tutoring model would seem to be the holy grail of progressive education. Teachers are encouraged to “personalize” their approach to fit students’ unique learning styles, “empowering” them to “find their passions” and “take ownership of the learning process.” But this perspective is based on both a simplification and a misunderstanding of how teaching and learning actually work.

Oftentimes, tutoring is assumed to be effective simply because it epitomizes personalized learning. But although personalization is a component of what makes tutoring effective, it is far from the only element – nor, I would argue, is it the most important element. (more…)

How progressive education drives the tutoring industry, pt. 1

How progressive education drives the tutoring industry, pt. 1

To begin this post, two anecdotes.

The first one comes from Shamus Khan’s Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. In the book, Khan recounts the following story about a graduate of the uber-elite St. Paul’s school in New Hampshire:

“I don’t actually know much,” an alumnus told me after he finished his freshman year at Harvard. “I mean, well, I don’t know how to put it. When I’m in classes all these kids next to me know a lot more than I do. Like about what actually happened in the Civil War. Or what France did in World War II. I don’t know any of that stuff. But I know something they don’t. It’s not facts or anything. It’s how to think. That’s what I learned in humanities.” 

“What do you mean, ‘how to think’?” I asked.

“I mean, I learned how to think bigger. Like, everyone else at Harvard knew about the Civil War. I didn’t. But I knew how to make sense of what they knew about the Civil War and apply it. So they knew a lot about particular things. I knew how to think about everything.” (44) (more…)

School is not work, students are not experts (some thoughts on group work)

In continuation of my previous post, some thoughts on one of progressive education’s favorite tools: group work. 

A good deal of fuss is currently being made of the importance of preparing students to work collaboratively in groups, in preparation for the twenty-first century economy. In the context of these discussions, group work, much like “critical thinking,” is typically presented as a formal skill that can be developed in the absence of any specific context.

On the surface, this is one of those claims that seems eminently reasonable. Because many well-paying jobs in the current economy do in fact require some degree of collaboration among workers, it seems logical that children should be trained to work collaboratively. (more…)

Hannah Arendt takes on progressive education

About a week ago, I was wasting time browsing articles on, and I happened to stumble across a link to Hannah Arendt’s 1954 article “The Crisis in Education.” I’ve had a minor a fascination with Arendt since finally getting around to reading Eichmann in Jerusalem a couple of years ago (and discovering that “the banality of evil” doesn’t quite mean what it’s usually understood to mean), and I had no idea that she had ever written about education in the United States. (more…)