Last Thursday night, I visited the Shiley Theater, where progressive education advocate Alfie Kohn gave a dynamic presentation about American schooling.
Time magazine has called Kohn "perhaps the country's most outspoken critic of education's fixation on grades [and] test scores."
Thanks to The Children's School of La Jolla, Kohn was in town to discuss progressive education, the kind that puts children in the pole position in every sense of their beings. "The more traditional and test-oriented the approach to schooling," Kohn told me in a recent phone interview, "the more we do things to—underline to—kids, instead of working with them. In a progressive classroom, kids have a lot to say about what they're learning and how and why."
As described by Kohn during his lecture and also in his most recent book, Feel-Bad Education, progressive education has eight characteristics, including a focus on the whole child, community and collaborative learning, contextual and purpose-driven curriculum, intrinsic motivation and active participation.
Though the topic could trend toward boring, Kohn was vibrating with excitement. He physically embodied the kind of education for which he advocates in a manner as uninhibited and organic as Michelle Rhee (who represents the other side of the reform debate) was contained and rehearsed during her appearance at the same venue last December. Their disparate body languages alone say volumes about their preferred teaching methods.
Kohn bounded back and forth across the stage, at times sitting on the edge of it in casual conversation with the 650 attendees. He engaged the audience, too, meandering up and down the aisles of the auditorium, taking random questions and posing many of his own. Kohn was the teacher we all want our kids to have, inspiring and validating those of us parents, teachers and administrators who dare to agitate.
Kohn lambasted—while citing research—traditional education methods like worksheets and bubble questions, as well as the intellectual, social and psychologically stunting impact of tests, quizzes and grades. "There is a statistically significant negative correlation between deep thinking and high test scores," he said. And, more than once, he spoke of the dispiriting effect of a child's "second shift," aka homework, nearly spitting when he offered that there is no empirical data to support homework as advantageous for elementary or middle-school students.
Unfortunately, misconceptions about progressive education limit it as a widely talked-about alternative. Admittedly, whenever I hear the term, my first thought is always of a scene from Auntie Mame, in which author Patrick Dennis describes a highly-unorthodox lesson taught at his progressive, all-nude school. The unit, called "fish babies," requires the girls to pretend to "deposit their eggs in the sand," and then the boys do what "gentleman fish do."
"What could be more wholesome or natural?" replies Mame to her nephew's vivid retelling.
Wild caricatures are not honest depictions of progressive education, much the same way that today's public education has nothing to do with wholesome or natural. But cartoonish notions are hardly dispelled by reformers who favor more testing, more accountability and more "rrrrrrrigor!" as Kohn growled. Indeed, they disparage progressive education precisely to dismiss it without any discussion of its value.
Need proof? Just look at the media coverage Kohn received both leading up to and then following last week's appearance, and compare it with that which rained down upon last month's Michelle Rhee Show.
The sold-out Kohn audience was packed with teachers and parents. But where was U-T San Diego? And KPBS? (I'm not including voiceofsandiego.org here since it let go of the reporter who would have been there, in favor of one who either doesn't know who Kohn is or doesn't care, further underscoring my point.)
And, too, where were our local "reform" champions who never fail to get their quotes in the news?
Where, I can't help but wonder, was Bonnie Dumanis, the mayoral candidate hot for a public-school power grab?
One can only surmise that a meaningful education isn't of value to these people or of interest to most journalists. Meanwhile, the idea of my child experiencing what progressive education has to offer transports me, as another attendee put in an email the following morning, to "an educational dreamland."
She wrote what I'd been thinking during the lecture: "I could envision my kids (any kid) thriving in a progressive school: loving the rich environment that would cater to their natural curiosity, that would incorporate their whole being / all their senses, respect their intellectual development, their inquisitiveness, offer a safe communal setting, develop in them a love for discovery, a respect / concern for their peers."
I want that, and I propose that anyone following Kohn would also want that.
"It's important not only to challenge the standardized-testing mania that has our public schools in its grip," Kohn said, "but to revisit our assumptions as parents and teachers about what kind of learning is best for kids."
Rather than continuing to support organizations and politicians that want generations of kids clapping along to spelling words and shifting beans around on a grid to learn addition, I propose we do what Kohn suggests and reassess what it is education should be. Anyone else?