Making Progress on Progressive Education: First Empower Teachers

At the heart of progressive pedagogy are questions about student motivation: How can teachers best motivate students? How can schools best motivate teachers? The ultimate goal of progressive pedagogy is to maximize the intrinsic motivation of students to engage with ideas that matter to them and their communities. Research tells us that for this to happen, schools must first maximize the intrinsic motivation of their teachers.

Progressive teachers center their teaching around their commitment to the growth of students as individuals and as part of a larger community. However, many teachers struggle to do this in environments that stifle their own motivation and capacity for self-determination through coercive employment practices like merit pay, evaluations based on test scores, micromanagement, and overt and subtle hostility to unionization.

Ample research illustrates that these practices, ostensibly designed to motivate teachers through competition and incentives, actually corrode intrinsic motivation. In the 1970s, psychologists developed a theory of human motivation known as self-determination theory. The theory, backed by considerable evidence, indicates that in order to develop a student’s interest in learning, a valuing of education, and a confidence in their own abilities and attributes, students must experience autonomy, relatedness, and competence (Deci and Ryan, 2000).

Put briefly, autonomy is the feeling that we are in control of our own behavior, competence is the ability to master the tasks that matter most to us, and relatedness is the sense of belonging and connectedness that we feel with others (Deci and Ryan, 2008).

Teachers who are respected, trusted, and experience autonomy in a deeply connected community are better able to respect, trust, and foster autonomy in their students.

Research indicates that it is unlikely that a school will foster self-determination in its students without first developing it in their faculty. For example, researchers in Quebec discovered that the less capacity teachers felt for self-determination, the more likely they were to exert coercive control over their students (Pelletier, et al., 2002). On the other hand, when teachers work in an environment that contributes to higher levels of teacher autonomy, relatedness, and competence, they are more likely to foster classroom environments that promote self-determination for their students (Leroy et al., 2007). Encouraging teachers to be self-determined enables students to develop and experience autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

What does this look like in practice? Creating spaces in which trained and experienced teachers have the autonomy to use their professional judgment. Teachers and students can build connections by cooking and eating together. Teachers who collaborate with one another to develop knowledge and techniques become more competent educators.

Studies show that students are aware of their teachers’ efforts to support their autonomy and intrinsic motivation for learning. Researchers have found a positive correlation between teachers’ perception of their autonomy in their work and both students’ perceptions of their teacher’s attitude and their own intrinsic motivation and autonomy in the classroom (Roth et al., 2007).

For the past forty years, most American schools have chosen to pursue a narrow path of standardized testing and top-down accountability measures, thereby inhibiting teachers’ self-determination and diminishing their ability to support the development of autonomy, relatedness, and competence in their students.

There is a clear link between intrinsic motivation and learning environments that support autonomy, relatedness, and competence (Bosso, 2014). Truly progressive leaders chart a bold course, respecting and supporting the autonomy of teachers, and creating the space for them to facilitate classrooms where students make meaningful decisions about their learning as part of a deeply connected and capable community.

References

Bosso, D. R. (2015). “This is what I am”: Teacher motivation, morale, and professional identity in the context of educational reformDissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences. ProQuest Information & Learning. Retrieved from http://proxy.mtholyoke.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=psyh&AN=2015-99190-119&site=eds-live&scope=site

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). “Self-Determination Theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health”. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49, 182–185.

Leroy, N., Bressoux, P., Sarrazin, P., & Trouilloud, D. (2007). “Impact of teachers’ implicit theories and perceived pressures on the establishment of an autonomy supportive climate”. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 22(4), 529–545.

Pelletier, L. G., Séguin-Lévesque, C., & Legault, L. (2002). “Pressure from above and pressure from below as determinants of teachers’ motivation and teaching behaviors”. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(1), 186–196.

Roth, G., Assor, A., Kanat-Maymon, Y., & Kaplan, H. (2007). “Autonomous motivation for teaching: How self-determined teaching may lead to self-determined learning”. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(4), 761–774.

Ryan, R. and Deci, E. (2000). “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions”. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), pp.54–67.

On failure

There are lots of platitudes and Pinspirational quotes about failure. We’ve all seen them; we’re probably guilty of using them or even have a few posters in our classrooms about them.

But this past week, as I sat in front of my gradebook and frowned at a 6% (6% of what?), I realized that although my grading practices have evolved, my definition of failure has not.

So I ask you: what does it mean to fail?

When I think of failure in my life, I reflect on all the ideas or thoughts or plans that I had that haven’t panned out: I haven’t published a book. I haven’t left the country. I am not working on my Ph.D. or opening my own yoga studio.

But does that mean I’m a failure?

I’d like to think not. I don’t feel like a failure. I know I don’t always get it right, but I definitely have a collection of wins under my belt: a stable and challenging job, a beautiful and close-knit family, a curiosity and ambition that drives me to grow year after year.

I have crippling anxiety, yet I get up and go to work every day, where I stand in front of adults and teenagers alike even though I detest being the center of attention. That’s a big win.

I wonder if another adult looked at my life, how I would be graded?

And if I received an “F,” what would that mean?

Coming back to my gradebook, I asked myself what that failing grade meant. This student is capable and intelligent. I have no doubt he would perform well on any assessment of standards I placed before him.

The problem is, he simply refuses to do them.

You know this child. He’s in your room too. Sometimes he comes to class prepared and engaged. More often than not, he slinks into class quietly with earbuds tucked under his hood, hoping to fly beneath the radar. Occasionally, his temper flares when he’s asked to complete a task.

I’ve done a deep dive getting to the root of the problem. I’ve spoken with his mother, spent time going over his troubling history with the school psychologist, teamed up with our interventionist to support him with extra time, additional copies of assignments, and alternatives. Most importantly, I’ve spoken with him. I’ve asked his opinion, listened compassionately to his input, and have worked hard to establish his trust in me.

So is it failure when a student can perform but chooses not to?

There are so many things about our old-school educational system that are flawed, but none break my heart as much as this: if this child does not pass my class, if he fails, he doesn’t graduate.

What an incredible burden to put on his shoulders.

What an incredible burden to put on mine.

But more importantly, how infuriating is it that we are setting our children up to fail in this way?

I see this child winning in so many ways. He wins every day that he shows up as he lives at least 30 minutes away from the school. He wins every time he focuses long enough to read on his own, even just a few pages. He wins every time he moves a toe just one inch closer to graduation, an accomplishment that very few in his family have achieved. He wins every time he controls his temper and lets someone else’s snark slide off his back. He wins every time he asks a thought-provoking question in class.

There are other teachers who would say he should suffer the consequences of his choices, that if he couldn’t do what little work was asked of him while he was here, then he doesn’t deserve a diploma.

There are other teachers who tell me not to stress because we gave him so many chances and opportunities, but he chose not to take them.

But I refuse to give up. Because this kid is not failing.

We have failed him.

We have shuffled him along a conveyor belt of schooling not tailored to his interests or skills whatsoever. We have pigeonholed him into a reputation he didn’t deserve because of his family legacy, so what choice did he have but to mold himself into what we expected? We have punished him over and over again for not complying instead of actually teaching him what’s expected of him during the school day. We have taught him that he cannot trust us because at the end of the day, he will only get a detention or fail our classes anyway.

He and I are both trapped in a system that sets us up against each other. I can sit next to him and offer guidance and reassurances as much as I want, but when I am forced to align with grading policies and practices that go against my philosophy and my words to him — in other words, when I say one thing and do another — then both of us fail.

In my heart, I feel like I’m the one with a 6%. I represent a tiny number of adults who have seen this child for who he really is and have patiently persisted.

I have failed this child with thinking I was providing him with voice and choice, when really, I was only giving him choices to perform in ways that Isaw fit for him. In all of those conversations with both him and the other well-meaning adults in his life, I never once asked him what ideas he might have to show me his mastery of the skills he had been taught. Because my very traditional preparation for teaching taught me that I am the master who must be in charge of creating choices and options for the students rather than asking them to be part of the process, I had still only been asking for his compliance under the guise of choice.

To be frank, I want to slap a big red “F” on this system. As angry as I am about this one little letter, I am even angrier that so many teachers still do what works best for them and not what’s best for their students. I still don’t have a clear definition of this word failure, but I do have clear images of ways we can fail our students. And if we’re failing our students, then how do we pull ourselves back up to passing?

There are so many practices that need to be reimagined here, but a good place to start is to fold students into their own learning and assessment. Rather than making decisions for them and doling out grades to them, let’s be clear and concise about the skills we are looking for students to master and then ask, “How can you show me you have mastered this?” Bring students into this conversation before it’s too late.

I use evidence to inform my teaching.

It takes at least 22 years to meet standards, and try as they might — students fail to retain the majority of what they learn (1, 2). There’s certainly a dismal picture: 51% of students in 4th grade are unhappy at school, 74% are unhappy by 8th grade (3); 41% feel unsafe at school, 34% feel unsafe in their classrooms (4); 7.4% of 9–12th graders attempted suicide in the last year (5).

Yet, as these problems grow ever more problematic, the system continues to promote standardized testing (6). Testing hampers motivation, discourages critical thinking, discourages student choice, and reduces teacher autonomy (7). Yes, students do learn when taking tests, but only recall-based facts which is not a requirement for critical thinking (8). In fact, testing does little more than highlight the inequities in our existing culture, rather than measuring any meaningful difference in intelligence (9). The practice may even make the inequities worse (10).

When teachers are burdened with a standardized testing culture — one that does anything to increase scores: cutting the arts, doubling down on preparation, enacting strict discipline policies — little is done to focus on the aforementioned problems above. The pressure associated with this culture completely diminishes any academic gain that could be achieved (11). Although we want learners to make meaningful connections and experience learning — testing just gets in the way (12). It even gets in the way of teacher and parental relationships with children (13, 14).

But it’s not only standardized testing. We continue to prop up systems that don’t work because that’s just the way it’s always been. It’s what our favorite teacher did. It’s what everyone else does.

We want students to be prepared, so we assign homework. But homework does little to motivate or enable further learning — it may even reduce it (15, 16). The marginal at best results are only found in high school, with none elsewhere (17). However, what homework does cause is increased stress at home and increased familial tension (18). And no, we’re not falling behind other countries. The countries that assign the least homework perform better on any international achievement test (19). The only benefit? Students perform better on state-driven standardized tests (20).

We want students to know how they’re doing, to ensure they understand the material, so we give them a grade. Yet those who receive a grade are much less motivated to continue learning than those who are simply given feedback (21, 22, 23). Students who focused on their grades learn less and are more stressed (24). And when their groups are graded, students are less likely to contribute (25). Without a grade, students still are motivated to take tests, as long as they see the applicability (26). Those who see relevance in their learning desire to find out more (27).

When a student performs poorly, they don’t desire to achieve — they are pushed out of school (28). When a midterm grade card is released, those with low grades do even worse — they’re demotivated and disengaged (29). Even those doing well tend to avoid any educational risks — chances of innovation — due to fears of a low grade (30). Further, students fearing a stereotype threat (e.g. women in STEM fields) perform worse with competitive grading practices (31).

The more students have a seat at the table — power in their learning, their choices— the more driven they are to remain in school (32). They are willing to set their own standards for understanding and remain intrinsically motivated while setting their objectives (33, 34, 35). When not highly controlled, children have an innate desire to learn and express themselves (36, 37). Of course, those that see meaningful actions in their classroom are engaged (38). To find meaning, schools need time to let students ask inquisitive questions (39, 40). Otherwise, our classes are subjugated to a singular identity to aim towards — one that takes away or dismisses students’ innate knowledge and abilities (41, 42, 43). Often, we conflate students working on what we want with grit, but grit is obtained by students working on what they want (44).

Further, the more active and experiential the classroom, the more students are motivated (45). Project-based learning (PBL) or experiential education has various linkages to increased traditional academic performance, as well as cognitive development and social/emotional wellbeing (46, 47, 48). When engaging in experiential learning, we work together and solve problems, leading to substantial gains across the board (49). And when we care about each other and build a lasting community, our students are better off (50, 51).

In addition to caring for each other, students who practice self-care and self-regulation feel more attuned to their learning (52). If we wish school to be a haven from whatever personal problems a student has — to enable them to succeed despite their difficulties in a learning community — then we must give them the tools necessary (53, 54). This isn’t to make traditional learning more manageable, but to enable students to deal with stressful times in their lives (55).

Those who self-regulate have greater life outcomes (56). With less structure and direct instruction, students naturally become better at self-regulation (57). And there is still room for an educator — with various techniques and tools to connect with students during this process (58, 59). Of course, more time provided to students means more play and socialization: both vital components of brain development (60). Recess and free time is not disposable or less important than class time, it is quintessential to learning (61).

Throughout, our goal should be to instill a sense of purpose in our children’s lives. Students are more satisfied, content, and less depressed when they embark on purpose-finding (62). They have greater agency and push harder toward their goals (63). They overcome obstacles and are more likely to choose pro-social behaviors (64, 65). And as they work toward greater meaning, they understand their place in the world and reap rewards academically, socially, emotionally, and sustainably through life (66, 67, 68).

There’s hundreds, perhaps thousands, of articles promoting progressive education. Research among child development psychologists overwhelming favors student choice and voice and experiential learning. The research supporting test preparation and traditional academia is centered on making said system stronger (recall, increased test scores) — continuing to bolster a dehumanizing model. Those of us adopting progressive models — rooted in philosophies of 100+ years ago — are not reinventing the wheel (69, 70, 71, 72, 73). Our imaginations aren’t running rampant, our ideas aren’t radical — they’re grounded in research. If we want to transform our schools, let’s use the facts.


References

  1. Awash in a Sea of Standards. Marzano, Robert & Kendall, John. McREL. 1998.

  2. Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing our kids for the innovation era. Wagner, T., & Dintersmith, T. 2015. Page 41 (Lawrenceville School).

  3. Are American Kids Happy at School? New data tells a surprising story. Strauss, Valerie. Washington Post. 2018.

  4. Spotlight on School Safety. YouthTruth. n.d.

  5. Suicide Statistics. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. 2017.

  6. “From 2005 to 2015, depression rose significantly among Americans age 12 and older with the most rapid increases seen in young people.” Depression is On the Rise in the U.S., Especially Among Young TeensColumbia University. 2017.

  7. The Effect of High-Stakes Testing on Student Motivation and Learning. Amrein, Audrey. Berliner, David. Educational Leadership. 2003.

  8. Comparison of Standardized Test Scores from Traditional Classrooms and Those Using Problem-Based Learning. Needham, Martha. 2010.

  9. The Testing Culture and the Persistence of High Stakes Testing Reforms. Moses, Michele. Nanna, Michael. Education and Culture. 2007.

  10. The Development and Impact of High Stakes Testing. Natriello, Gary. Pallas, Aaron. 1999.

  11. High-Stakes Testing and Student Achievement: Problems for the No Child Left Behind Act. Nichols, Sharon. Glass, Gene. Berliner, David. The Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice. 2005.

  12. The Impact of a Junior High School Community Intervention Project: Moving Beyond the Testing Juggernaut and Into a Community of Creative Learners. Nelson, Larry, McMahan, Sarah, & Torres, Tacia. School Community Journal. 2012.

  13. The Impact of High-stakes Testing on the Learning Environment. Ritt, Maddolyn. School of Social Work. 2016.

  14. This data is taken from the Australian NAPLAN test, but shares striking similarities with any testing in the United States or Canada. The Experience of Education: The impacts of high stakes testing on school students and their families. Wyn, Johanna. Turnbull, Malcolm. Grimshaw, Lyndall. Whitlam Institute. 2014.

  15. Testing a Model of School Learning: Direct and Indirect Effects on Academic Achievement. Cool, Valerie. Keith, Timothy. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 1991.

  16. Testing a Model of School Learning. Contemporary Educational Policy. Cool, Valerie & Keith, Timothy. 1991.

  17. Does Homework Really Improve Achievement? Arkansas Tech University. Costley, Kevin. 2013.

  18. End Homework NowEducational Leadership. Kralovec, K. & Buell, J. 2001.

  19. National Differences, Global Similarities: World Culture and the Future of Schooling.** Baker, David & LeTendre, Gerald. 2005.

  20. When is Homework Worth the Time?: Evaluating the Association Between Homework and Achievement in High School Science and Math. Maltese, Adam. Tai, Robert. The High School Journal. 2012.

  21. Task-Involving and Ego-Involving Properties of Evaluation: Effects of Different Feedback Conditions on Motivational Perceptions, Interest, and Performance. Butler, Ruth. Journal of Educational Psychology. 1987.

  22. Enhancing and Undermining Intrinsic Motivation: The Effects of Task-Involving and Ego-Involving Evaluation of Interest and Performance. Butler, Ruth. Journal of Educational Psychology. 1988.

  23. Response to Assessment Feedback: The Effects of Grades, Praise, and Source of Information. Lipnevich, Anastasiya. Smith, Jeffrey. ETS. 2008.

  24. The Relations of Learning and Grade Orientations to Academic Performance. Beck, H. P., Rorrer-Woody, S., & Pierce, L. G. Teaching of Psychology. 1991.

  25. Grading Hampers Cooperative Information Sharing in Group Problem Solving. Hayek, Anne-Sophie et. al. Solvay Brussels School Economics & Management. 2015.

  26. A Second Look at Grading and Classroom Performance: Report of a Research Study. Moeller, Aleidine J., Reschke, Claus Modern Language Journal. 1993.

  27. Quality of Learning With an Active Versus Passive Motivational Set. Benware, Carl, Deci, Edward American Educational Research Journal. 1984.

  28. Failing Grades for Retention. Natriello, Gary. School Superintendents Association. 1998.

  29. Do Grades Shape Students’ School Engagement? The Psychological Consequences of Report Card Grades at the Beginning of Secondary School. Poorthuis, Astrid et. al. Journal of Educational Psychology. 2015.

  30. Why Grades Engender Performance-Avoidance Goals: The Mediating Role of Autonomous Motivation. Pulfrey, Caroline. Buchs, Celine. American Psychological Association. 2011.

  31. Assessing does not mean threatening: The purpose of assessment as a key determinant of girls’ and boys’ performance in a science class. Souchal, Carine et. al. British Journal of Educational Psychology. 2014.

  32. Self-Determination and Persistence in a Real-Life Setting: Toward a Motivational Model of of High School Dropout. Vallerand, Robert. Fortier, Michelle. Guay, Frederic. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1997.

  33. Student Self-Assessment: The Key to Stronger Student Motivation and Higher Achievement. McMillan, James & Hearn, Jessica. educational HORIZONS. 2008.

  34. Student and peer assessment in action. Logan, Elaine. University of Cumbria. 2009.

  35. Assessment Matters: Self-Assessment and Peer Assessment. Ako, Wahanga. The University of Waikato. 2012.

  36. Autonomy in Children’s Learning: An Experimental and Individual Difference Investigation. Grolnick, Wendy, Ryan, Richard. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1987.

  37. Motivation and Education: The Self-Determination Perspective. Deci, Edward et al. Educational Psychologist. 1991.

  38. Classrooms: Goals, Structures, and Student Motivation. Ames, Carole. Journal of Educational Psychology. 1992.

  39. Children’s Need to Know: Curiosity in Schools. Engel, Susan. Harvard Educational Review. 2011.

  40. The Blue Blood is Bad Right? Simon, Katherine. Research and Theory on Human Development. 2012.

  41. Education, Politics, and Social Transformation. Apple, Michael. University of Wisconsin. 2006.

  42. The “Banking” Concept of Education. Freire, Paulo. 1968.

  43. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. hooks, bell. 1994.

  44. Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals. Duckworth, Angela et al. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2007.

  45. Motivating Project-Based Learning: Sustaining the Doing, Supporting the Learning. Blumenfeld et al. 1991.

  46. A Review of Research on Project-Based Learning. Thomas, John. 2000.

  47. Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century: Skills for the Future. Bell, Stephanie. Taylor & Francis Group. 2010.

  48. Experience and Education. Dewey, John. 1938.

  49. Making Cooperative Learning Work. Johnson, David. Johnson, Roger. Theory into Practice. 1999.

  50. Community in the Classroom: An Approach to Curriculum and Instruction as a Means for the Development of Student Cognitive, Social and Emotional Engagement in a High School Classroom. Jones, Tammy. University of Hawai’i. 2012.

  51. Deep, Deep, Deep Inside We’re All Friends. McGraw, Sheila. Rhode Island College. 2012.

  52. Mindfulness for Students Classified with Emotional/Behavior Disorder. Malow, Micheline & Vance, Austin. Manhattanville College. 2016.

  53. Mindfulness Practices and Children’s Emotional and Mental Well-Being. Peacock, Jennifer. Brock University. 2015.

  54. De-stressing Stress: The Power of Mindsets and the Art of Stressing Mindfully. Crum, Alia & Lyddy, Chris. The Handbook of Mindfulness. 2013.

  55. The Effects of Mindfulness on Students’ Attention. Bringus, Rose. St. Catherine University. 2016.

  56. A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Moffitt et al. PNAS. 2011.

  57. Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Barker et al. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014.

  58. Classroom Applications of Research on Self-Regulated Learning. Paris, Scott & Paris, Alison. Educational Psychologist. 2001.

  59. The Role of Goal Orientation in Self-Regulated Learning. Pintrich, Paul. Academic Press. 2000.

  60. The Value of Play I: The definition of play gives insights. Gray, Peter. Freedom to Learn. 2008.

  61. The Role of Recess in Primary School. Pellegrini, Anthony. 2005.

  62. Character strengths predict subjective well-being during adolescence. Gillham, Jane, et. al. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 2011.

  63. Understanding the pathways to purpose: Examining personality and well-being correlates across adulthood. Hill, Patrick, Sumner, Rachel & Burrow, Anthony. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 2014.

  64. Adolescents’ purpose in life and engagement in risky behaviors: Differences by gender and ethnicity. Sayles, Martha. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences. 1995.

  65. Buffering the Negative Impact of Poverty on Youth: The Power of Purpose in Life. Machell, Kyla, Disabato, David, & Kashdan, Todd. Soc Indic Res.2016.

  66. The Development of Purpose During Adolescence. Damon, William, Menon, Jenni, & Cotton Bronk, Kendall. Applied Developmental Science.2003.

  67. Persevering with Positivity and Purpose: An Examination of Purpose Commitment and Positive Affect as Predictors of Grit. Cotton Bronk, Kendall, Hill, Patrick, & Burrow, Anthony. Journal of Happiness Studies. 2014.

  68. The role of purpose in life in healthy identity formation: A grounded model. Cotton Bronk, Kendall. New Directions for Student Leadership. 2012.

  69. The Psychology of a Child. Piaget, Jean & Inhelder, Barbel. 1969.

  70. The School and Society: Being Three Lectures. Dewey, John. 1899.

  71. The Discovery of a Child. Montessori, Maria. 1909.

  72. Johann Bernhard Basedow and the Philanthropinum. Raumer, Carl Georg. 1858.

  73. Elements of morality for the use of children. Salzmann, Christian Gotthilf. 1799.

Improvisation and the Transformative Potential of Play

Schools are often exceptionally competitive places. There are so many mechanisms to compare and sort students that it can be difficult to encourage a spirit of togetherness and cooperation. Improvisational theater and its underlying progressive principles have the potential to transform school culture and reorient students and educators towards a more human and democratic approach to education.

Although it exists outside of the contemporary education sector, improvisation has deep roots in some of the foundational theories of twentieth-century progressive education. Viola Spolin, the founder of American improvisation, considered her teaching methods non-authoritarian, non-verbal, and non-psychological. Spolin was a student of the education theorist Neva Boyd, a contemporary of Jane Addams and John Dewey at the Hull House in Chicago. Boyd believed that the democratic potential of education could be achieved in part through non-competitive play.

Boyd and Spolin believed in the power of games to teach language skills, as well as encourage strong, prosocial behaviors among students because everyone must agree on the rules and follow them for a game to be any fun. Play can be transformative, both for the individual student and the group. Improvisation, a form of play, builds confidence and community.

In improvisation, there are three basic rules: first, support your scene partners; second, completely commit to what you are doing; and third, say “yes, and…” make a contribution to the scene. Classrooms should be spaces for spirited discourse and freedom of thought and expression. A shared understanding of core community values makes it possible to foster this
critical engagement. Support, commitment, and a willingness to say “yes, and…” are the building blocks of a safe, supportive, and critically engaged community.

When I talk about the value of games in the classroom, many people assume I mean competitions. That is, games with clear winners and losers. For high achieving students with a healthy sense-of-self, it may be possible to separate the outcome of a competition with their sense of self-worth, but for students who struggle academically and socially, losing a game is just another confirmation that they will never measure up to their “smarter” and more “talented” classmates.

Therefore, the games that work best are those that everybody plays and no one loses. These are games based on improvisation with clear and flexible rules that enable students to engage one another without fear of judgment by their teacher or peers. These games encourage students to take risks, look silly, and support one another. In doing so, they create the conditions
necessary for deliberate democratic decision-making. By agreeing to abide by a shared set of rules, students develop the capacity to cooperate and engage one another constructively. A return to the progressive pedagogical values embedded in improvisation and the use of improvisation games in the classroom can help build confidence and community among students and enable education to fulfill its role in fostering a healthy democracy

Tracing Letters

At our son’s preschool, the kids have been learning how to write by tracing dotted lines in the shapes of letters. They do this every day, four days a week, and then they are sent home with a similar worksheet for homework over the weekend. To put it mildly, he doesn’t enjoy doing this. To put it mildly, I don’t enjoy trying to make him do it.

I was explaining this scenario to his preschool teacher and she told me, “He’s just being lazy. You have to sit him down and make him to do it.” I immediately went to that dark future place where my child is diagnosed with ADHD at 4, medicated and turned into a zombie, sorted into remedial classes where the student teacher ratio is 50:1, eventually dropping out, self-medicating, and in prison by 18. When I ask him what went wrong, he’ll say, “you made me trace letters.” (SIDE NOTE: For the student perspective on the worksheet approach to education, I suggest checking out the Jeff Bliss video.)

I’m thinking a lot about this right now as I am at the end of the college application reading season. In many ways, the college application highlights much of what is wrong with our current approach to education. When I see anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder, self-harm, or other disclosures that have become so common in this population, I think about my son and how the “sit him down and make him do it” approach impacts the development of an individual over the course of their young lifetime.

If a child goes off the rails a bit in our system early on, the approach is usually to try and re-engineer the student through pharmacological intervention and/or behavioral remediation without questioning the contributions the system may have made. I am not suggesting that our schooling approach is the cause of all mental health issues; clearly there are other factors. But what I am saying is that the system, at the very least, exacerbates mental health issues and could very well be the source of some of them.

In higher education, there are many discussions around this issue, mostly about how to best support students with mental health challenges on campus. Unfortunately, colleges are mostly on the intervention side of the equation (students come with these challenges), focused on campus services that treat symptoms, but don’t/can’t address the underlying causes. One study found that 45% of college students reported feeling hopeless with another 30% experiencing such extreme depression that it was difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Consider this:

“While depression and anxiety consistently rank as the most common mental disorders treated at college counseling centers, an often overlooked but equally serious problem is the rising number of students struggling with eating disorders, substance abuse and self-injury. The NSCCD study found that 24.3 percent of college counseling center directors have noticed more clients with eating disorders, 39.4 percent have noted an increased number of clients suffering from self-injury issues and 45.7 percent have reported an increased number of clients struggling with alcohol abuse.”

There is quite a bit of evidence that our schooling approach is failing on multiple levels, but the most alarming indicator to me is the mental health crisis. If your inner life is a mess, there isn’t a major, career, car, house, spouse, child, dog, vacation that is going to resolve that. That’s why I think the work that’s being done at REEINVISIONED is so important. They are starting with the “output” side by asking what is the good life and what is the role of school in achieving this?

I would propose that as we move forward in re-envisioning what education could be, we include mental health/well being as part of our teaching and assessment model. If students are spending 6–8 hours a day in a school environment for most of their young lives, it would make sense for us to have some checkpoints along the way. If the assessment shows cause for concern in an individual, it would allow us to intervene and work to identify a cause. We do that academically so why not socio-emotionally? If we made positive emotional wellbeing a priority on the output side, we could be intentional in our construction of learning environments that worked towards that outcome.

There is at least one school that does a version of this. One Stone in Boise, ID, has built a socio-emotional component into their assessment model. It is a tuition free private high school (10–12) whose Board of Directors is 2/3 students. Their growth transcript uses something called the BLOB (Bold Learning OBjectives) and is divided into four quadrants under which nine areas are to be developed and measured. These quadrants are Mindset, Knowledge, Creativity, and Skills. Under Mindset, the following nine areas are empathy, grit, humility, desire to grow, vulnerability, gratitude, mindfulness, reflection, and fail forward. One Stone not only measures and tracks growth, but provides meaningful feedback and direction about how students can work towards achieving that growth.

I could envision a curriculum that begins much sooner than 10th grade, laying a foundation for individuals to effectively navigate and make sense of their inner world. Susan David’s Ted Talk, The gift and power of emotional courage, highlights a number of findings she and her research team have unearthed in their studies, but in terms of this conversation I felt particularly drawn to this one:

“When people are allowed to feel their emotional truth; engagement, creativity, and innovation flourish in an organization.”

This is also something I believe Paulo Freire points to in his philosophy:

I am dealing with people and not with things. And, because I am dealing with people, I cannot refuse my wholehearted and loving attention, even in personal matters, where I see that a student is in need of such attention.

I could imagine a world where we help students hone their “epistemological curiosity” (Freire) and point it inwards; empowering them to understand emotional experiences that feel overwhelming, creating a space between stimulus and response, a space that Viktor Frankl described as containing our freedom and power. Susan David speaks of “premature cognitive commitment” which is its conceptual sibling. This includes being able to “name your story” when unhealthy habitual narratives arise, but also honoring your emotional experience by not trying to disassociate from unpleasant feelings. None of this can happen in the banking model of education. None of this can happen if your response to a 3 year old who doesn’t want to trace letters is, “he’s just being lazy.”

As I think about my son and his education, I would love for him to excel in his socio-emotional intelligence, effectively navigating the complexities of his inner world and how he relates externally. I believe having this level of self-awareness also cultivates empathy as one finds the commonalities between themselves and others. It seems to me that a progressive classroom is the most conducive to this idea, where the inherent value of each individual is not a privilege but a right, teachers are empowered to respond to each student where they are at not where we think they should be; a place where an individual’s success isn’t measured against their willingness to trace letters.

The Real World

What is the “real world”?

And how do you know when you’re there?

I remember in fourth and fifth grade, my teachers would tell us we couldn’t get away with our childish shenanigans in the “real world,” which I later interpreted as “middle school.”

And how my middle school teachers would tell us all the kindnesses they bestowed upon us would not happen in the “real world,” or “high school.”

By high school, though, I had internalized this “real world” dialogue and found myself constantly looking to the next milestone in my life. Part of this had to do with the childhood I had, but most of it was that I had been taught the life I was living wasn’t, well, real.

Now, in my thirties, this feeling has persisted. I graduated from high school and went off to college, but that didn’t quite feel “real” to me. So I kept thinking that I wasn’t there yet, that maybe my life would begin once I graduated college and got my first “real” job. Then I did that, but I still didn’t feel there yet. So I thought, maybe the real world began when I got married and settled down. But even after marrying and finding full-time employment, and despite doing all these adult things like paying my bills and working on my Masters, I was still being told this “real world” narrative. It wasn’t until I had children of my own and martyred myself at the altar of motherhood that it felt like I was welcomed into this “real world” at last, that I had joined this elite circle of real adults once I was chronically sleep deprived, broke, and stressed beyond belief. My older colleagues would smile knowingly at me in the hallway as I shuffled into school in the morning, coffee in hand.

Then I found myself lending my voice to the narrative. Whiny students? Can’t whine in the real world.

Late work? Can’t be late in the real world.

Missing work? Gotta be more responsible in the real world. No one is going to track you down when you miss a meeting.

Can’t sit through boring things once in a while? Tough, the real world is boring.

At the same time, despite what I thought were my best efforts, I was no closer to being the inspiring educator I thought I could be. Sure, things were going fine, but not great. Year after year, I couldn’t puzzle out why my students still continued to dislike reading and writing, or why they just seemed so apathetic toward school. I began each year with a speech about how I didn’t believe in the teachers vs. students tale being spun on our building, how I was an adult that would genuinely care for them if they only just asked.

The problem was, my actions didn’t match my words. I let policies in my building lull me into complacency, marking down late work so my grading practices were consistent with others, moving from unit to unit without offering retakes of assessments lest the students cheat, getting snippy with kids for not knowing where I kept the absent folder in my room (“It’s been in the same place all year!”)

Last summer, I left my classroom at the end of the school year feeling like I didn’t really care whether or not I returned in August.

Fortunately, I spent the month of July working with my local National Writing Project’s site, the Greater Madison Writing Project. I joined my department for an incredibly educational week learning about the College, Career, and Community Writers Program. I attended the GMWP Summer Institute and worked my way through my own teacher’s workshop, in which I spent countless hours researching how to truly engage my students in their own literacy.

I started this year with a new vision and plan in place: in order to engage my students, I would try contract grading as a way to remove adverse consequences. In other words, as long as my students engaged in the work of their writing in the manner and spirit in which I had asked, their grade would not be in jeopardy. I came to this idea after reading work by Phillip Schlechtyand Maja Wilson, and I wrote my contract based on work by Peter Elbow and Asao Inoue.

There were two immediate responses to this new approach: quiet confusion from my students, who truly did not understand what I was doing or how it would benefit them, and push back from parents, who were quick to tell me that I was not preparing their students for the “real world.”

But when I started to reflect on their vision of the real world, this harsh and unforgiving place where everything was difficult and demanding, I realized that things just didn’t add up.

Are there consequences in life beyond high school? Of course! I am not denying that. But I want teachers to acknowledge two things: one, that adverse consequences are not as immediate and severe as our predecessors made them out to be, and two, instead of doling out punishments to students for the sake of preparing them for this real world, perhaps we should be teaching them the skills to avoid these mis-steps they might take.

It seems simple to me, really. If we want to prepare students for life beyond high school, let’s help create a generation of kids who will grow up with solid problem-solving skills and an affinity for helping others.

Once I shifted my paradigm — that my students aren’t apathetic and unmotivated and instead haven’t been treated like real human beings who need to be taught skills beyond academics — everything, and I mean everything, changed for me. I began treating every question like an authentic inquiry and not a nuisance. If a student didn’t know where my absent folder was, I smiled with warmth and personally took them to the right place in the room, explaining patiently that any missed work would be placed in the corresponding folder with their name on it, even if we were six months into the school year already. I began asking for their input when I made decisions about where our instruction was headed next, and I listened carefully. If a student lashed out and swore about the work we were doing, I waited for the right time and approached that student with patience and kindness, and nearly every single time their aggression had nothing to do with our assignment, but more to do with life outside the classroom. Instead of an immediate detention for inappropriate behavior, I addressed some steps the student could take the next time they found themselves escalating in the classroom to avoid a public meltdown or conflict with others.

Because here it is: their lives now ARE real. We have to stop marginalizing our students’ lives by telling them they aren’t in the real world yet, because they are. Struggles and challenges don’t stop coming our way just because we are technically adults, and I know I appreciate it when I’m treated with kindness and empathy rather than condescension and irritation. So why do we deny this to our students? Don’t they, as children, need kindness and empathy more than we do?

Let’s stop this “real world” narrative. Instead, let’s be transparent about the decisions we make that we believe will prepare them for the next phase of life. And if when we find we have a practice or policy in place that doesn’t mirror what we know happens in similar situations outside of school, then let’s reflect on the purpose of that practice and adjust as needed.

You Can…Until You Can’t

I remember the little train that could.

I remember a poster from my fifth grade teacher’s room.

I remember my junior high wrestling coach quoting Henry Ford.

My young life was full of talk about “can.” Seems we pay a lot of homage to such sentiments in society, in school. We CAN do whatever we set our minds to.Well, until we can’t.

Learning requires an “I can attitude.” We want our kids to believe in themselves, so their attitudes take them to higher altitudes. And so on. We certainly seem to offer a lot of talk in ed about the power of can. But I wonder if our walk matches our talk.

Can they turn that in late? Can they retake the test? Can they use resources? Can they demonstrate differently? In many classrooms, yes. But in the “other many,” kids confront cannots. And that, then, certainly puts a damper on their “I can attitude.” Even if they think they can, they can’t because they come up against a policy that will not let them, and their cans become can’ts. And I believe this impedes learning.

In the 180 classroom, I want kids to retake assessments. I call them “performances.” And I call the approach, “Performance Learning.” Here are the basics.

  • I structure the learning in my room around our grade-level priority standards.

  • I design practice and experiences around those standards.

  • I provide performance opportunities (assessments) that naturally follow the experiences and practice.

  • I evaluate kids’ performances, giving them feedback, using three simple marks: 3=Met Standard, 2=Near Miss, 1=Far Miss.

  • For 2’s and 1’s I provide descriptive, actionable feedback that indicates not only why they did not meet standard but also what they have to do next time to meet it. The next time is key.

Learning, I believe, is not a line that’s drawn and followed by content considerations. It is this thinking, I believe, that creates can’ts. We have to get to get to the next unit, chapter, etc. That assignment, test was from the beginning of the semester. This suggests only moving forward, often before kids are ready, and it also suggests that going back is impossible.

So, I offer learning as a circle, a recursive cycle that creates a feedback loop, creating as many “cans” as necessary, as determined by the learner. And I believe each successive time, from that feedback put into action, kids learn. My goal is not to do and move on. My goal is to get all kids to a 3 on every performance. I provide possibility. Does it take more time? Of course. Does it result in covering less content? Certainly. Does it result in learning? How could it not? And that is why I do it. I believe it creates a place for learning. It creates a realm of possibility.

Is it perfect? No way. Can kids survive can’ts? I suppose. They do every day. But I wonder if they CAN do more than survive. Either way, seems whether kids think they can or cannot does depend on the possibles we present.

At a Crossroads of Anti-Authoritarianism: Dismissing Far-Right School Advocates

Education is political. As Henry Giroux states in On Critical Pedagogy,

“…classroom learning embodies selective values, is entangled with relations of power, entails judgments about what knowledge counts, legitimates specific social relations, defines agency in particular ways, and always presupposes a particular notion of the future.”

Often, the Human Restoration Project find itself discussing and applauding unschooling and homeschooling — both worthwhile pursuits for families. Having a choice of attending public school or not is a fundamental choice within a democratic system. Progressive education typically wants a plethora of schools and non-traditional experiences for children to choose from. However, I want to outline the differences of thought between some libertarian homeschoolers versus ours.


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To display our differences, I’ve included the Political Compass Test’s outline, which is recognized as solid footing in underlying political beliefs (although the test questions are disputed for accuracy.) I’ve highlighted (poorly) — in my view — how school belief systems align. Obviously, this is highly debatable, but these quadrants demonstrate some key differences between progressive education, unschooling, and traditional education, as well as showcase potential commonalities.

Both progressive education and unschooling are rooted in anti-authoritarianism. We both see national and state heavy-handed standardization as detrimental to student and teacher success, rooted in implications of societal control by elites. We both question the “knowledge-based” principles of defining what is important to learn versus what isn’t. And we both believe in choice/consent for learners in their education.

A fundamental difference is the left/right paradigm. Now, this is a broad brush — certainly there are left-leaning unschoolers. Essentially, this implies why progressive educators almost universally support work by say, John Holt, but not Bryan Caplan. And many will choose to homeschool while simultaneously supporting and integrating progressive education, and vice versa.

This article is not meant to assume that all homeschoolers or all unschoolersbelieve these extreme viewpoints. I believe the majority don’t and would actively call out these beliefs. And some believe these concepts for entirely different reasons. Nor is the intent to paint unschoolers or homeschoolers as “the enemy” of public schools. Further, to state that unschoolers align themselves with these views as a whole would be the same as lumping all progressive educators with those who promote SEL for test anxiety or portfolio-based learning for standardized test scores. The intention is to specifically target a small wing of this fraction.

However, there is a place for progressive education to distinguish itself from the extreme-wing within unschooling/homeschooling circles that find themselves associated with:

  • Incorporating Explicit Christianity Instruction in Schools

  • Hesitant or Seeing Social Justice Issues as Brainwashing/Propaganda/Post-Modernism

  • Ending Public Education

  • Promoting Individualism

Religious Integration

Progressive education believes in tolerance of all religions, including those who don’t believe. Many against the public school system take issue with the perceived “attack on Christianity.” Notably, they mention a lack of explicit Christian mentoring. Michael J. Metarko, an ex-public principal and current homeschooler, writes in IndoctriNation how public education is a Trojan horse:

“…what I found was indoctrination in an anti-Christian worldview called humanism…”

Later adding that a statist education system is leading to former Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network director Kevin Jennings (President Obama’s Safe School director) “possessing great power and authority over schools” — adding disparaging remarks on the “homosexual movement.” To substansiate this view, Metarko adds that schools:

  • Teach evolution

  • Teach “revisionist history”

  • Promote socialism

  • Focus on self-esteem and what “feels right”

  • Promote feminization of boys and masculinization of girls

  • Acceptance over tolerance

  • “Misguided environmentalism” (Earth over God)

  • Rebellion against the family

This tirade concludes with an attack on schools “removing God from the Pledge” and removing nativity scenes. Outside of the completely inaccurate portrayal of the Pledge (“Under God” was never intended to be included), this entire account assaults a communal vision of schooling. I don’t mean to imply that all homeschoolers, or even a majority of homeschoolers, agree with these views — but it’s worth noting that progressive education is opposed to them.

Being able to have an accepting learning community — where children value, care, and support one another is an underlying goal of the education system. This includes respecting people for who they are — being open to listening — and not fetishizing or demeaning lifestyle choices. Christians aren’t targeted in progressive schools, they’re simply accepted along with all other belief systems and lifestyles. If students cannot accept those of different beliefs, it’s up to educators to encourage acceptanceLikely, this is counter to the power structure much of “the right” implores. We want students to have authority figures who not only demonstrate accepting behaviors, but mentor and guide students down that path. It is absurd to me that we would promote behaviors that target gay, trans, or androgynous students, let alone restructure schools to make those oppressed even more so.

Sometimes these beliefs are deemed “humanist” — as they don’t allow explicit religious instruction in schools. (Although that term by militant activists seems to imply hate-mongering toward Christians, which is the fragility of power being lost by this author.) In addition, all these views tend to avoid discussing all the other belief systems students have.

Social Justice Implementation

On School Sucks (which I was just on and hope to discuss more about!), Brett Veinotte speaks with Jay Dyer about “social engineering” in schools, using the Tavistock Institute as a means to rationalize their argument. If you’re not aware, a conspiracy theory exists that Tavistock was developed to brainwash people toward statism. While I agree that schools prop up a neoliberal agenda toward accepting war and patriotism, the counter-rationale by this crowd is further including that “social justice warriors” are brainwashing children by teaching acceptance.

Sometimes used as demeaning toward these instructors, opposers call identity politics instruction in schools as “post-modern.” Progressive education explicitly notes the need for teaching acceptance, as well as the realities of our race, gender, and socioeconomic histories — which will include blatant understanding of our country’s fractured history. As bell hooks states,

“When everyone in the classroom, teacher and students, recognizes that they are responsible for creating a learning community together, learning is at its most meaningful and useful.”

In order to create a purposeful learning community, social justice will be taught in schools. Allowing for racist, gendered, or homophobic responses is unabashedly counter to principles of mutual care at the core of a human-centered education. So although progressive education is incredibly anti-authoritarian toward the state deciding what is and isn’t knowledge, and does not value a teacher enacting authoritarian control of the classroom, prog. ed. still puts a learning community at the center. That practice isn’t possible without an explicit understanding of social justice.

Furthermore, to ignore these issues is society is to simply promote the current structures that exist. I believe, as many progressive educators do, that schooling is a place to counteract hate and promote the social good. This may have authoritarian tendencies (who chooses what “the social good” is?), but societal cohesion is necessary for tearing down discriminatory practices that exist in our daily lives. Critical pedagogy opens opportunities for students to recognize these practices and act on them, without being similarly marginalized by their instructor.

Ending Public Education

Obviously, I am not for an end to public education — I am a public school teacher. One can critique and want transformation without advocating the dismantling of an entire system.

Some homeschoolers see no value in the public school system. They see it as a place for indoctrination. In some cases, that is true. Many succeed in spite oftheir education. However, to destroy the school system would further inequities in society — especially when pockets of educators are doing so much to help their students.

The school system is stuck in a loop surrounding neoliberal practice — ranking and filing kids, placing a teacher at the center, supporting “core knowledge”, judging on subjective grades, and inequitably funded. Most traditional teachers don’t see themselves doing any of these things. They don’t see themselves as colonizers — they believe they’re doing what’s right for kids. Dismantling this notion and transforming the pedagogy within schools is the cornerstone of progressive education.

This discussion between Sean Illing and Bryan Caplan on Vox, author of The Case Against Education summarizes this debate well:

“Illing: Here’s where I think we disagree: You think we have too much education, and I think we’re doing education wrong. In other words, you want less education, and I want better education.

Caplan: My response is that doing less education is easy, and improving the education system is hard…We’ve got very clear evidence that we’re wasting a lot, but we don’t have a clear idea as to what would be better. All we know is that the system we have now is grossly dysfunctional, so I don’t think we should keep pouring money into it.…

Illing: You think of education as a rote technical enterprise, so it’s all about skills and productivity and the labor market. I think a good education is about cultivating wise citizens, people who appreciate democracy, who are discerning and not easily hoodwinked. That we’ve failed to do this doesn’t mean education is a waste of time; it means we’re doing it wrong…

…I also worry that a massive public disinvestment in education would widen many of the inequalities that already exist in this country. In your ideal world, people with money would continue to receive a good education and the people who don’t would be left further and further behind.

Caplan: …Today, because education levels have risen so much and because of the power of the kind of signaling I mentioned earlier, not finishing high school virtually destroys any chance you have of getting an interview for a decent job. Employers can easily dismiss high school dropouts precisely because education levels have increased dramatically.

This is why cutting education across the board is the only way to level the playing field, because it changes what the degrees mean and the way employers think about who’s worthy of being interviewed or hired. In a world where no nurses have bachelor’s degrees, hospitals can’t say, “We only interview nurses with bachelor’s degrees…

…I’m willing to stick my neck out and say that we should have separation of school and state, just like separation of religion and state, and that government should just get out of the business and leave it to customers and charity to handle it. To be clear, this conclusion isn’t implied by the data I cite; this is my personal political philosophy.”

Much of Caplan’s calls for removing public education as he does not believe it is doing a good enough job — particularly for the labor market. We both believe that we can do better — and just as Illing states, education is about a lot more than jobs. Without public education, society would only become more inequitable. Those who can afford expensive charter schools will be placed further ahead, and those without the means or wherewithal to navigate the system will be pushed further behind. Education is meant to be a leveler in society — a way for everyone to have the same equitable opportunities as everyone else. This is not the case now, and it likely won’t be for quite some time, but our goal as educators is to make this a reality.

Promoting Individuality

As in the previous notions, this brand of homeschooling tends to place the individual at the center of everything. This is counter to progressive education, which places the community at the center of everything. As already mentioned, this means accepting others and being assumed to help each other. Perhaps this is “socialist” — but cohesive societies require caring communities.

Perhaps part of this dismissive structure is rooted in white fragility. It isn’t every case, but almost every single writer on entirely dismantling public education, promoting religion, focusing on individualism, or against social justice education is a white male. Outliers do exist, but there is a prudent point to analyze surrounding why those privileged in the United States would make claims on how they’re being “held back” by accepting and supporting those in an inferior power structure. Dismantling public education would further push an inequitable society that already festers systemic racism.

Developing Commonalities

Therefore, despite the anti-authoritarian commonalities that exist between progressive education and this belief system, it is hard for the two to coincide. While both recognize that traditional schooling is doing a disservice to the majority of students, and both want to see drastic changes to benefit the individual, we completely disagree on the means to get there.

The silver lining is there are many unschooling advocates who support public schools and progressive education. Despite neoliberal organizations profiting off their brand of “progressive schools” — there are plenty of advocates working throughout the country to build human-centered schools who don’t perpetuate a system that causes children harm.

We can build a better system together — one that has school choice, public schools, and homeschooling — where no matter who you are or where you live, you have access to a quality education system that won’t make your child hate learning. This school system will help students navigate their purpose in life, while simultaneously exposing them to diverse viewpoints and peoples to live positive lives.

The College Process & Progressive Ed: What’s Wrong

What does the college process mean? When I use that term, I am referring to an all encompassing idea that includes the primary, secondary and tertiary processes. Everything from application to enrollment deposit, and the ancillary processes like private college counselors, audition or portfolio coaches, test-prep, college bootcamps, essay workshops, case study programs, campus visits, pre-college summer programs, etc.; all of which are meant to increase the likelihood that a student will be admitted to the school of their choice. So, what does this have to do with progressive education? As it stands today, very little.

Before I go too far down that rabbit hole, I would like to mention briefly that I am an admissions officer for one of the few progressive institutions of higher education in the United States: Bennington College. I knew very little of the progressive world previous to my employment with Bennington, but as I became more familiar with the philosophical underpinnings of progressive education, all sorts of things started clicking for me in my work as an admissions professional and also in terms of making sense of my underwhelming public education experience (let the healing begin). This is also what lead me to the Human Restoration Project.

I am of the opinion that, in regards to the college process, there are three criteria that lead to success:

  1. The student has a sense of who they are and are unlikely to be influenced by outside agents. They see their community as a network of mentors or consultants to use, not authorities to delegate choice to.

  2. The student has a sense of purpose or at least an understanding of interests that have been differentiated from the dominant paradigm. Or if they have adopted those interests, can articulate why they are important to them as an individual.

  3. Have a good sense of the kind of environment that will help facilitate the meaningful pursuit of that purpose or those interests.

In a system where students are constantly compared and competing against each other, where compliance is the standard by which all are measured and external validation how one derives a sense of self-worth; few are prepared to make an educated choice about which path is the best for them. In our system, success is defined within the narrow constraints of a letter grade and a test score. So students look at the college process through that lens: what are the rules of the game and how can they be mastered so that my desired outcome is likely to be achieved and my worthiness verified?

At this point, the system becomes very self-referential. What is the desired outcome (i.e. which schools should I want to go to)? Well, what does US News and World Report tell me? What does the Princeton Review tell me? What does my private college consultant tell me? What does Bob the lawyer next door tell me? What are my parents telling me? Very rarely do students ask what they want for themselves, or if they do, it’s still within the framework of the externally validating paradigm. The logic goes something like this, “I want to be successful. Everyone who goes to Stanford is successful. Therefore, I should go to Stanford.” And then the inevitable, “If I don’t go to Stanford, I won’t be successful.”

These students have spent their entire lives in a system that reinforces this foundational proposition: something outside of myself has the answer; a system that constantly paints the world in binaries and hasn’t made room for ambiguity, critical thinking, self-awareness, risk taking, creativity, or collaboration. Is it any wonder that students flail and experience so much stress around this process? Is it any wonder they pursue name brand schools with such fervor? Is it any wonder that only 57% graduate from college within six years after starting?

What does progressive education have to do with the college process? Potentially quite a bit. If we take some of the basic concepts that a progressive education has to offer, we can see how that path would have a much greater likelihood in leading to the three foundational criteria that I laid out at the beginning of this post.

  1. Self-direction — ownership and agency of a process, allowing deep investigation into multiple areas of interest, using inquiry as a launchpad and connecting purpose to their learning.

  2. Project Based Learning — a process oriented approach where theoretical exercises are given real world applications. Failure is assured, resilience required, critique critical, navigating ambiguity essential, creative problem solving inevitable, and outcomes unpredictable. Students gain quite a bit of confidence in their ability to navigate dynamic situations.

  3. Public Exhibition — students have the opportunity to receive a response to their work from a broader audience. They publicly share their successes and failures, answer questions, defend their thesis when necessary while using these interactions to deepen their own understanding of who they are, what they are interested in, and where they are headed.

  4. Narrative Evaluations — students receive and incorporate meaningful feedback, eliminating external ego-feeding/defeating peer comparisons which activates their intrinsic motivation and provides a space where they are much more likely to make an honest assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.

  5. Dismantled Power Structures — a natural byproduct of the progressive approach, the student becomes their own personal authority (in the truest sense, not the faux confidence or obstinate sense) where they use all of the resources at their disposal in the service of facilitating their own learning. In this mode, teachers become mentors or guides, not compliance police officers, and have a much larger store of energy reserves to be applied toward helping students to become the best possible version of themselves in the world.

At a time when there is a lot to be discouraged about, I believe the progressive education movement has something positive to offer the world, especially as it pertains to the college process. An empowered individual making informed choices based on their deepest held values is much more likely to feel fulfilled, and much more likely to make a positive contribution to their community. I believe that our definition and measurements of educational success needs a radical tear down and rebuild, and that progressive education is the best place to begin that process.

Making Them All Look the Same

Schools framed as “elite”— those that often reflect the most traditional notions of education — tend to require uniforms. “Dress for success” is the mantra. And increasingly, schools are requiring “business casual.” There’s many reasons for this, from attempting to show economic equity (less chance for branding) to stopping gang violence. However, is forcing students to all look the same just a reflection of the standardized model of education? It’s not enough that students are required to attend whitewashed, water-downed classes that the masses can distribute, but now they must have the same on their bodies.

There’s a lot of research on this topic. Thankfully, the Journalist’s Resourcehas cataloged much of it:

  • Chris Baumann in 2016 found that students who are “highly disciplined” — defined as those who are complaint toward the instructor (quiet, attentive) — do better in school. These students were more likely to wear uniforms.

  • Elisabetta Gentile and Scott Imberman in 2012 found that more students attend school when uniforms were assigned.

  • Jafeth Sanchez, Andrew Yoxsimer, and George Hill in 2012 surveyed students and found they were mostly unhappy with a recent uniform policy, even though fewer disciplinary issues occurred after the policy was adopted (Notably, these discipline issues were not related to dress code.)

  • Ryan Yeung in 2009 found that uniform policy had no real impact on standardized tests or value-added achievement exams.

  • David Brunsma and Kerry Rockquemore in 1998 realized that despite claims that uniforms increase academic achievement or decrease discipline problems, they actually have the opposite effect.

  • Ann Bodine in 2003 found that a certain study arguing against school uniforms presented false data that academic achievement lowered as a result of uniform implementation.

  • Kathleen Wade and Mary Stafford in 2003 studied that teachers believed gang affiliation and activity decreased with uniform policy, but students did not. Students found less self-perception scores when required to wear a uniform.

  • Pamela Norum, Robert Weagley, and Marjorie Norton in 1998 found that uniform purchases have a negative effect on low-income households, as people do not purchase uniforms or business attire instead of casual clothes, but in addition to.

Synthesizing all this data, it’s hard for me to find a substantial causation between school uniforms and student success — at least one where benefits outweigh the detrimental effects.

Candidly, uniform policy is used as a way to “pull the wool over the eyes” of educators and establish more systems of control. Like any policy where students are told what to do, they’re more likely to obey when under surveillance but are less likely to change their behaviors — such as when a strict teacher belittles everyone to never speaking and their class is suddenly “out of control” when they’re gone for a day.

To take each of these points, it’s easy to decipher why school uniforms are perceived as they are:

Uniforms increase attendance and test scores. Yes, more students attend school where uniforms are required but the results are hazy. In the Gentile & Imberman study, they found a modest increase of attendance and test scores particularly among female students in middle and high school. For male students, especially in elementary school, there was a short-term drop in attendance and test scores. Importantly, the authors note that girls are more likely to be transferred out of the public schools studied. The area analyzed is populated with uniform-required, “high-ranking” schools that many privileged students attend. Therefore, the 4–5% higher attendance rates could be partially or wholly contributed to the highest academically achieving female students leaving for a different environment, especially considering that all noteworthy achievement gains, outside of 2-year improvement in male math scores, were attributed to female students.

If another study existed, it would be interesting to note if female students are transferring to other schools because of the uniform policy or because perceived better academic opportunities await at uniform adopted charter schools. This would correlate with ample research showing that female students perform better in all facets of academics during traditional school years. Plus, Yeung (2009) indicates that the academic benefits are misrelated.

Furthermore, the same study finds a correlation between increased disciplinary referrals as a result of uniform policy, and an increased number of minor discipline issues with male students.

At the same time, students with more discipline obviously do better in traditional academic environments, as shown in Baumann (2016.) They are more likely to wear uniforms — but again, the schools with uniform policies were more likely to be perceived high-ranking charter schools. It only makes sense that that those excelling in traditional academics, when placed together in a uniform-adopted location, had increased scores.

Uniforms cause less discipline problems. This point perplexed me. In Sanchez, Yoxsimer, & Hill (2012), there was a notable decrease in violent behavior — with 50% or more reductions in gang related activity and fights. Notably, the reason this school adopted a uniform policy was due to overwhelming gang activity. However, Brunsma & Rockquemore (1998)stated the opposite: uniforms cause more non-uniform related discipline problems. Perhaps, this was due to the first study consisting of one school with 700 surveyed vs. the later focusing on schools in multiple regions. And/or, as Brusma & Rockquemore find, the correlation of positive behavior and students was due to pro-school attitudes and peer attitudes, not uniform policy. It could be hypothesized that in the singular school of Sanchez, Yoxsimer, & Hill — students perceived a better school culture and acted accordingly.

In general, these studies reflect that a uniform dress code causes increaseddiscipline problems due to more (predominately male and minority) students being written up, but depending on the location, gang-affiliated clothing is likely unreasonable for schools. Essentially, we should aim toward common sense regulations that most students, in my opinion, would support (we couldask) while not homogenizing all culture at schools — especially when uniform efforts like these tend to target and hurt low socioeconomic areas, as Norum, Weagley, and Norton (1998) found.

Uniforms take away a student’s culture, rights, and self-value. As Wade & Stafford (2003) and Sanchez, Yoxsimer, & Hill (2012) recognized, students were overwhelmingly against uniform policies. Like most progressive practice, it makes sense to listen to students. In my view, the increased disciplinary or cultural problems are a result of perceived changes of students acting naturally within the traditional education system. When students are forced into more rigid behaviors — including all dressing the same — teachers are less likely to recognize “nonconforming” actions.

Furthermore, there are a range of cultural and identity issues that arise from uniforms that target gender nonconforming and/or minority students, as well as reinforce traditional gender norms.

Therefore, the uniform debate is misguided. Although policymakers would see test scores, violent behavior, or attendance rates as being more important than students’ feelings, the current research does not correlate that data by explicitly wearing uniforms. We want students to be treated like human beings — not making them robots. Robots look basically the same, people don’t. They have a right to expression and finding out who they are — something which clothing-choice reinforces.

I’m sure many educators would note that their uniform-wearing students are more engaged in the classroom. But I question the term, “engagement.” Are they more curious? More involved? Being more reflective on what they’re learning? Or are they simply less distracted in the non-natural standardized learning environment they find themselves in? On “dress down days”, are students wild and uncontrollable? Are they suddenly lashing out and violent? Do they suddenly start failing tests?

(As a side note, my own school requires “business casual dress” as it is believed it promotes academic achievement, and more-so “to prepare students for local jobs.” I am heavily bothered by the claim that once my students leave our school they’ll be incapable of putting on a pair of khakis because they didn’t in school — I’m going to assume they’re capable. I’d rather encourage students to dress up for certain events, such as attending a conference they’d like to go to. Professional courtesy is entirely different than compliant cohesion. The “self-discipline” acknowledged by dressing yourself in a certain fashion each day speaks incredibly lowly of what we believe students are capable of. “You understand how to put a belt on.” Really? That’s what we think they can’t do? It’s rebellion, apathy and/or affordability that causes dress code violations — not incapability of knowing how to get dressed.

Furthermore, we have “dress down days” and one can only dress down if they fit that theme. It seems a ludicrous notion that having students wear pajamas around the school is less distracting and/or socially acceptable than a student opting to wear a T-shirt.)

Are uniforms a faux sense of control? Schools (and many “progressive” institutions) describe their policy:

  • “…the uniform is a source of pride and a builder of community.”

  • “Our uniform sets the standard the school expects and is appropriate for a place of work”

  • “…uniform policy is designed to create a professional appearance among our students that supports the focused academic environment maintained…”

  • “The purpose of the dress code policy is to enhance the learning environment.”

  • “The school uniform is intended to develop a sense of pride and self-discipline.”

And most highlight how their student government voted for uniforms. I’m completely for democratic claims for students to determine their appearance, but student governments are often 1) not representative of the student body and are some of the most complaint, hand-picked children, and 2) is it really fair to the majority of students that this body has this power when they must attend school daily? As in, when one has little choice of where to go to school — and the primary purpose of school is meant to be academic achievement — is it ethical for a small group of students to instigate what everyone must do? It appears to go against the Constitutional claims of the United States. In addition, I’d be curious what happens when a student rallies others together to remove the dress code — I’d be highly surprised if this was taken seriously or listened to by administration.

The disconnect is obvious between research, practice, and implementation. I believe there’s no reason for school uniforms in any scenario — unless every student desires it. Obviously, common sense codes make sense — eliminate gang-related clothing…wear clothes to school…basic things. But enacting controls that allow for little to no selection is another instance of schools using their overwhelming power to dictate the lives of children.