Progressive Education, 21st Century Skills, and the Guide on the Side

“Progressive education”, “21st century skills”, teacher as “guide on the side”. Some buzzwords around education recently. I’m not much of a fun of any of them.

My motto this year has been “trust your intuition, avoid dogma, be flexible, be kind” — words of wisdom from Henri Picciotto. I recently read this post from Catherine Johnson. She is a parent, an articulate writer, and is alarmed by the progressive changes in her district. Here is one of the links she posted. In case it isn’t clear, she is in favor of a teacher-centered classroom.

Screenshot 2015-10-19 at 10.49.21 AM

A year ago, I would’ve been solidly in the “learner-centered” camp. More and more, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best methods are in the middle, avoiding any dogma of the “right way” or any magic bullet that is supposed to make some huge difference in my students’ learning.

There are many times when I am a “guide on the side”, or students are doing that for each other. There are also many times when I am a “sage on the sage”. Sometimes students face me, sometimes they face each other. I use technology in my class, but often have students put technology away and work through problems with paper and pencil or on whiteboards. My students practice a great deal, but I work hard to make sure it is deliberate practice contextualized in big ideas. I unashamedly tell my students that our goal is to learn math, because math is worth learning. Along the way — through learning math — I hope that students develop problem solving skills and habits of mind that they will transfer beyond the math classroom. But those goals are accomplished through rigorous math instruction, and complex application and synthesis of the math that we are learning.

I think both sides of the progressive-vs-traditional debate fall short when they are too focused on an either-or mentality. Teacher-centered, traditional classrooms do some things very well, especially with capable teachers. However, they often ignore the power of formative assessment, and can stifle creativity and students willingness to believe in themselves as sense-makers. Learner-centered, progressive classrooms also do things well. But they can easily devolve into chaos and let students fly under the radar without actually learning anything, and often ignore the research in cognitive science suggesting that knowledge is a necessary prerequisite to any critical thinking or habits of mind we want to instill in students.

When I first started teaching, my students did very little group work. It was, frankly, a method of control — I had trouble managing the classroom during group work. At the start of this year, influenced by visions of a class that was totally based on group work, I finished a shift hard in that direction. But the students who most needed to be doing math were slipping by without doing any real thinking, and the quality of my formative assessment suffered. Now, I’m finding a balance — making sure there is plenty of cooperative learning, allowing students to support each other and practice putting their ideas into action. But there is also plenty of independent think time and work, to see what students can actually do on their own, and decide how best to move forward based on that knowledge.

The reality is, none of the platitudes we hear about this or that teaching technique are absolutes. They are tools, tools that correspond to different learning situations and fit together in different ways. My perspective is to take Henri’s advice at each opportunity — to avoid dogma or absolutes, and instead adapt my instruction each day to the needs of the lesson, and the needs of my students. And then adapt the next day based on what went well and what didn’t. And get a little better at teaching every day.

5 thoughts on “Progressive Education, 21st Century Skills, and the Guide on the Side

  1. vlorbik

    at “underlying philosophy”, i’d’ve put “pragmatism”.
    cog-sci has plenty of interesting things to say…
    heck, so does “behaviorism” (or rather, “scientific
    psychology” [as opposed to the “therapeutic” types]).
    but nothing much so far, for me, about classroom practices.
    summarizing: what howardat58 said.

  2. Hannah A.

    As a current pre-service teacher, we discuss the notion of Progressive Education a lot in my math education classes. In particular we discussed utilizing problem-based teaching in the classroom which I found to be interesting. I really like how you refer to progressive and traditional education as just tools rather than constricting them to one method or the other. I like to think, similar to you, that I will utilize both in my future classroom. I think the traditional method is really great for some lessons but others you can definitely have a more creative outlet with and make it interactive math for the students. I read a post on Dan Meyer’s blog regarding a very similar discussion. One person was very focused on the traditional method and the other was a strong advocate for progressive math. I was a little disappointed in Dan as he made it seem like one was better than the other at the end of the post. It certainly is a matter of opinion and what works best for your teaching style. However, I certainly think there can be a mix of perspectives. It’s also a matter of what works for that group of students. Some classes may work great in groups and will stay on task, another class may be much more difficult to manage while doing group work like you mentioned. I really like your view in that you just take it a day at a time and adjust lessons as necessary. As of now, my future teaching style will definitely be similar to this. One of my stronger practices in the classroom is utilizing student feedback to mold my lessons so using this approach of combing progressive and traditional I think will work well for me.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Hannah. I wonder what the appropriate grain size is here when making a decision about how to teach on the traditional-progressive continuum. Is it most about the students? The teacher’s teaching style? Is it a specific unit, or lesson, or moments within a lesson? Or the content that students are learning? The age that students are learning it at? I’m not sure of the answer, but I might be willing to argue that the grain size is actually smaller than a lesson — there are moments for each approach within a single lesson.


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