How Does Progressive Education Look Different? “The Kids Are Nicer…”

“How is this different from your old school?”

“It’s better.”

“But how is it better? Tell me one big thing.”

My son and I are walking home after his first day of fourth grade at a new school. We had moved into our new neighborhood the day before, sold our old apartment one month before. Our move was motivated chiefly by one thing: finding a better school.

For years, I have conducted research and professional development with public schools. But on that walk home, I realize that this year places me in the midst of my own study with a sample size of one. What was the real difference between a public school with a professed “progressive” approach and one without? And would it make any difference?

“The kids are nicer,” my son tells me, pausing to think before adding, “And the teachers are nicer in return.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know sometimes your papers crinkle when you’re moving around? When we moved over to circle, our papers crinkled. And that was it. It was fine. At my old school, the teachers would have gotten upset.”

Later I ask him, “Thinking back to kindergarten” which was at the same school, “were the kids not nice back then?”

He thinks. “No.”

“I wonder what changed from kindergarten.”

“I guess they learned not to be nice.”

“From what?”

“I don’t know.”

The decision to pull our son out of one school and into another was not an easy one. He was lucky enough to have been born a kid who gets along fine with others. He was content with his old school. His grades were good. He had friends. Teachers told us pleasant things about him.

But as people who have worked in and with public schools for years, my wife and I were bothered by the education we saw him getting and the community it provided. Elementary school is where learning comes as much through the values and aspirations modeled in school as anything else. I don’t believe that one school had enrolled a batch of “nicer” kids than the other. Rather, at our son’s old school teachers who loved kids felt overwhelmed and unsupported.

Homework came home every day since kindergarten, assignment after assignment as if being busy were a stand-in of learning. Homework for kids under eight is parent work (“Daddy, what does this say I’m supposed to do?”) and, research tells us, increases the achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots because parents with the time and inclination help their kids do it and others do not.

“What else was different?” I ask.

“We started the day,” he tells me eagerly, “with a game. First you had a color dot on your head and you had to find a group with the same color dot. But you couldn’t talk. Then you had a number and you had either odd or even and you had to find other odds and evens. One kid and I — he’s the friend I made today — we helped point people to the right groups.”

“When did you do games like that at your old school?”

He thinks awhile. “Maybe once or twice a year, that’s it.”

“A game sounds like a nice way to get to know everyone on the first day of school.”

“Yeah. At my old school, we would have had a celebration and then sit down and start working.”

“Sit down” and “working” always seemed to go together at his old school. Learning meant working, and working meant sitting down at worksheets. In math, every day meant another worksheet. Adding? Worksheet on number lassoes. Subtracting? A worksheet described taking apples out of a bag. Multiplying? A worksheet asked you to create rows and columns of little pictures.

The worksheets were all produced by EngageNY, a company I have come across often in my own work. It is clearly an organization staffed by thoughtful educators seeking to instill higher reasoning skills in students. This design is supported by research showing how important it is for us to develop metacognitive skills — the ability to think about our own thinking. But it is difficult to instill metacognition with a photocopier. It was like they provided a map to concepts, then expected that reading the map again and again and again and again was the same as actually going on the trip. This is what I see in high schools I work with, too. Although we know (and research confirms) that we retain best the learning that comes from doing things, from experiencing things, teachers too often fall back on simply assigning things.

The day when I began seriously considering whether we should move our son out of his old school was in second grade when he told me how much he hated science. Before he enrolled in school, he had loved science. From ages three to five, he attended a hands-on science program near our apartment where he came back with stories of experiments, then he watched documentaries on YouTube that led him to regale us with facts about wild animals, and he went to a nature camp where he peeked into animal dens. In kindergarten, his teacher gave him the science award. But two years later, he hated science. “All the teacher does is talk and talk all the time, and we’re supposed to remember stuff,” he told me.

Why are the kids and teachers nicer at his new school? It is only day one, so there is much for me to learn and I hope to write more as I do. But for now, here’s my theory: Being nice comes in large part from feeling a shared responsibility for greatness. Whether as a parent or as a student or as a boss, it can be easy to fall into the trap of instead feeling that you are responsible for the greatness and they are responsible for measuring up; you are conveying and commanding and creating the community and they are receiving and responding and sitting in circle without their papers crinkling. It feels easier at times. It looks more orderly at times. And it may even yield better test scores. But it does not teach our children the skills we need for a democracy, it does not teach the values we need for a society that achieves greatness together.