“What about people who don’t believe you?”
I’ve rarely discussed progressive education without this question. Yet the assumption always is that students, parents, and educators reject these ideas. I don’t think this is the case. Instead, it is a lack of understanding.
At first glance, progressive-style classrooms appear like teachers don’t care. Instead of a “well-behaved”, quiet room, students are conversing, moving around, (sometimes) quite messy, and likely taking many breaks. Without the backing of pedagogy, this would be a classic example of “bad teaching.”
This reminds me of a conversation I had with Dr. Susan Engel, a child development psychologist. While teaching an ed. class, she had her student teachers observe “engagement” across multiple rooms in a school. To her amusement — and possibly horror — the student teachers noted engagement as “sitting up straight”, “paying attention”, or “raising their hand to speak.” Conversely, disengagement was “moving around”, “talking to friends”, or “using a cell phone.” Engel reminded her students: you’re not measuring engagement, you’re measuring compliance. What about a student bunkering down on one of their passions? What about students learning for the sake of learning? What about passionate group debates?
But to all stakeholders, this requires knowledge of what we’re trying to do.
A student may believe that the teacher doesn’t care: “The teacher isn’t forcing me to behave, so they must not care about my education.” To a teacher’s horror — this will cause their disengaged students to withdraw further. Then, they’ll double down on the old ways. After all, it “worked.” There’s no risk, it looks like “good teaching.”
We must take a step further. A child needs assurance that the teacher is there for them. They need deprogrammed from the compliance-based system. This takes a lot of one-on-one discussion — but an educator must relay to students why they’re teaching this way. Constantly. “I’m not forcing you to do anything because I don’t believe in it. I want you to desire coming to school, to discover your interests, to showcase the world around you, and we’ll explore them together.”
In the same vein, parents want what’s best for their children. If on a teacher’s syllabus they read, “There are no grades.”, alarm bells may sound. “They’re not going to get my kid into college!” Again, the assumption is that the teacher isn’t doing their job properly. (A “bad teacher” at first glance may have similar ideas of a lack of authoritarianism. The difference, of course, is a progressive educator works with their students and is pushing them to succeed—they’re available, not just sitting there.)
It isn’t the parents’ fault to think this way. Most teachers don’t discover this line of thought until reflecting on their practice, so it would be ridiculous to assume that everyone else should automatically see what we mean. Instead, educators must offer assurance. Alfie Kohn opens his conferences by asking parents, “What do you hope life is like for your child in 20 years?” Responses range from “happy” to “married” to “content.” This is in stark contrast, Kohn explains, to how we focus on success in school: GPA, class rank, number of extracurriculars, AP coursework.
Therefore, teachers should open communication with families. Personally, I send home a lengthy letter explaining all the practices of my classroom, actively encourage contact, and invite families to attend. I reach out and invite questions. In addition, our “parent-teacher conferences” aren’t the traditional “Your child is doing something wrong, and that’s a reflection of you.” narrative. Instead, they’re early-on conferences that essentially explain exactly what Kohn is — “I’m doing this because I care. Let me know how else I can help.”
Finally, there are other educators. Rarely have I encountered a student or parent who isn’t convinced to this shift, however, there are certainly teachers rooted in traditional or “knowledge-backed” practice. For those who have doubled down this way, there’s not much advice I can give — it’s very difficult to change someone’s entire view. But anecdotally, the majority of educators have no idea what progressive education even is. They were never exposed to any books on the matter. They need space, time, and encouragement by administrators and peers to develop their pedagogy. In the same way as parents and students, they need assurance that this way isn’t “bad teaching.”
It’s more difficult for us — because we were brought up in environments that have framed a classroom in a very particular way. To reach beyond that doesn’t always feel right. I’ve questioned, plenty of times, whether what I’m doing is right — especially when a handful of students do close to nothing I ask of them. That being said, a quick reflection will note that similar situations happen in all classrooms — students just “appear” to be compliant. (And at the end of the day, if even one or two more students become motivated learners in my room, it’s a giant, impactful victory.)
Assurance is our first step to bringing others into the fold. Progressive education can’t and shouldn’t happen in a bubble. Luckily, we tend to develop quick alliances after we explain. (If you’d like a starting point, grab one of our free “Why Sheets” for parents/students on our website.)