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MSPnet Blog: “Progressive education’s rocky road”

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posted October 2, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

If someone had asked me in 1986, when I first came to TERC, what my “educational philosophy” was, I would have had no real answer. I would, however, have dredged up notions that felt in the right direction — student interest, authentic subject matter, learning as an apprenticeship, and education as an interdisciplinary, intergenerational community process.

In the years since then, during my educational apprenticeship with wonderful colleagues and mentors, I have come to see that the principles that feel best to me basically fit in the category of “progressive education.”  Though I regret that admitting to a humane and constructive philosophy now feels akin to waving a battle-flag, at least it connects me with allies from the past 150 years or so, and thus opens the door to some interesting lessons from history.

The foregoing is occasioned by a valuable series of 3 posts by Larry Cuban on “The arc of progressivism in schools.”  I encourage you to read it.

In Part 1, Cuban sets the stage thus:

historically, progressive efforts to improve public schools have  ebbed and flowed time and again. Between 1900-1940, progressive ideas and practices flowed across the educational landscape as they did during the 1960s and 1990s, and even now.  Yet progressives’ determined efforts to move classroom practice from traditional, teacher-centered forms of teaching and learning to student-centered approaches ebbed making few inroads into most classrooms (see here and here). To better understand this ebb and flow of efforts to alter the organization, curriculum, and instruction of public schools toward progressive ends, I am writing this three-part series.

He starts by laying out the enduring core ideas of “progressive education, as expressed by the Progressive Education Association in 1919, and reiterated in other words and other eras ever since, down to the recently formed  Progressive Education Network:

Seven Principles of Progressive Education (1919)

  1. Freedom for children to develop naturally
  2. Interest as the motive of all work
  3. Teacher as guide, not taskmaster
  4. Change school recordkeeping to promote the scientific study of student development
  5. More attention to all that affects student physical development
  6. School and home cooperation to meet the child’s natural interests and activities
  7. Progressive school as thought leader in educational movements

Sounds good to me.  On the other hand, to a lot of people over the decades, some such list as this raises all kinds of alarm bells, and has served as an effective “demon” upon which to blame all the ills of public schooling, real or imagined, since at least the 1960s (See a relatively low-key sample, from the Hoover Institute, here). To be fair, anyone reading this list sympathetically in our own times will have in the back of their mind the cautions, correctives, and alarms that John Dewey first sounded in Experience and Education (It’s short.  If you haven’t read it, you can get the text in various formats here.)

Cuban summarizes the push and pull around educational philosophy thus

the arc progressive reforms have followed has been an uneven curve. Past and current reformers had to contend with the existing system of schooling. They had to grapple with the “grammar of schooling” that was in place since the mid-19th century.

Compare this with Ellen Lagemann’s famous line:“One cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward L. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost.”  Cuban tells a story of successive waves of rising progressive influence, followed by reactions from the critics, who nevertheness coopt some of the terms, techniques or ideas of the progressives in the course of re-establishing a more system-centered, tradition-centered system (the Hoover Institute article is a fair example, as it quotes a “traditionalist” thus: “In his zeal for the tried and true, the traditionalist should not overlook the many sensible aids to teaching and some of the sound guiding principles undoubtedly contained in progressive education.”)

Part 2 of Cuban’s series continues to examine the fate of progressive reform movements (successive waves of them).  He paints trends with a broad brush (these are blog posts, after all, not journal articles), but provides enough links to supporting material that anyone interested in digging into the history can make a fair start.

A pattern that he sees over and over is that as progressivism comes into favor, there is a surge of innovation in curriculum, in classroom management (e.g. small group work), in architecture (“open classrooms,” schools without walls, etc.) and in teaching practice.

After the hullabaloo of the these reforms quieted and researchers looked at the results of progressive reforms, they found that curricula had changed becoming far more connected to the lives of children and youth…see here and here….But when it came to changes in classroom practice, that is, actual shifting instruction and learning from teacher- to student-centered, only marginal modifications had occurred (see here and here).

Cuban, with his colleagues David Tyack and William Tobin, explain this as a result of the highly resistant “grammar of schooling,” whose  cornerstone is the age-defined grade and classroom. They argue that this, with its attendant structures for scheduling, for assigning credits based on time elapsed in a course, and many other features, have become,in the American mind,  unshakable assumptions about what school is supposed to be like. Therefore, rather than adopt a radical alternative (no matter proofs of concept), if schools are seen as not working, the right thing to do is make targeted adjustments, or apply more regulation on teachers or curriculum — hence the title of Tyack and Cuban’s famous book Tinkering towards Utopia (1995).  Cuban in his blog post puts it this way:

If the “real school” is not working well, even failing as determined by test scores, then improve it, not dump it. In short, the age-graded school and the “grammar of schooling” that is embodies is sustained by most Americans’ social beliefs in its efficacy. This durable model of schooling is now embedded in the culture of the nation.

In Part 3 of this series, Cuban refers to a study by Gerard Guthrie of the fate of progressive innovations in developing countries around the world.  Guthrie’s book’s subtitle is From progressive cage to formalistic frame. The book raises the question of the “progressive education fallacy”, which assumes

that inquiry-based classroom practices are necessary to promote academic learning among non-western school children. He also lays out the strengths of traditional and didactic teaching. He concludes that the primary reason for continuity in traditional ways of teaching and learning in these nations spanning continents is the abiding cultural context of these nations favorable to teacher-centered instruction.

Guthrie (as Cuban reports it) details cultural contexts in many countries which make “student centered” methods, as we think of them here in the Developed World, difficult or impossible to enact.  Cuban sees similarity to the US history at least at the very high level of comparison, that “cultural factors” outweigh attempts to graft on progressive ideas by fiat or the sheer force of reformers’ enthusiasm. Guthrie recommends a “tinkering” approach to make incremental changes where there is general receptivity to some new solution to a persistent problem of practice.

Cuban feels that Guthrie overlooks the importance of two other factors for which Cuban finds historical evidence:

The first omission is flawed implementation of these top-down reforms. Researchers have pointed out (see here and here) the complexity of putting policies aimed at classroom instruction into practice. Moreover, that complexity often leads to some policies being inadequately and partially implemented…The second omission is instances of teachers creating mixes of old and new ideas and practices. Hybrids of traditional and “progressive” practices have happened among U.S. teachers over the past century (e.g., spread of small group activities in teacher-centered classrooms)

As always, Larry Cuban’s reflections are provocative and historically informed — and his blog features a series of very interesting pieces both before and after the “Arc of progressive education” triad.  Yet I can’t help feeling dissatisfied with the analysis.  That is, while the “grammar of schooling” is certainly one “force”  at work, my own hunch is that it is embedded in even wider or deeper-seated assumptions about the purpose of education, its service to the economic sector, beliefs about social mobility and class boundaries, and what Ehrenreich diagnosed as the “fear of falling.”  Education, and even more narrowly STEM education, is a tiny tip of a very big iceberg.