Friday, June 28, 2013

Progressive or Traditional? More Thoughts

From a comment by Chris on his blog, A Blog About School:
FedUpMom -- I hear you. It's easy to imagine some aspects of "student-centered" education (for example, some efforts at "project-based learning") being an utter waste of students' time. In my opinion, it's easy to imagine aspects of old-fashioned ("sage on the stage"?) education being a total waste of time, too.

Despite all the talk about research-based practices, we don't really know much at all about the long-term effects of any particular curricular approach -- especially since so much of what gets "learned" for hour upon hour in school does not get meaningfully retained in adulthood.

My own feeling (which I don't claim to be able to prove empirically) is that people are more likely to benefit educationally from an experience if they've freely chosen that particular subject matter, and that that free choice is more important than whether the instruction is "traditional" or "progressive." The kid who really wants to learn about the space program is going to learn about the space program, but forcing people to learn something they're not interested in and don't need in their lives is always going to be a low-percentage enterprise. That's one reason I'd be in favor of a curriculum that gives kids a lot of autonomy over what they learn: I think it's less likely to be a total waste of their time.
This is starting to look like the old progressive vs. traditional debate, which I have very mixed feelings about.  Here's my current thoughts:

There are certain skills that I believe any educated person should have, and that I'm determined my daughters will have.  These would include, at the very least, the ability to read and write fluently, and enough fluency with math that they will be able to handle their household finances intelligently (for instance, they'll need to understand what a mortgage would actually cost them, and possibly how to invest money.)  When it comes to these skills, I'm with the traditionalists; my daughters will obtain these skills whether they're genuinely interested or not.  Of course, anything I can do to spark their interest, or at least obtain their co-operation, I'll try to do.

With Younger Daughter, learning to read has been a struggle.  Left to her own devices, it might never have happened.  Of course, we haven't left her to her own devices; we've worked hard with her, and will continue to do so.  I've started working her through some Singapore Math this summer, too, since her school uses TERC Investigations.  (I'm teaching her how to "carry" when she adds numbers; I see from this review of TERC that it "attempts to avoid the concepts of carrying, borrowing, and common denominators.")

Older Daughter has reached the point where the structure of school, namely, being made to produce something, and then getting graded on the produced thing, results in major depression.  So, in her case, I'm getting more progressive all the time.  It's vital that she should have some control over what and how she learns.  Her mental health is at stake.

The PREP class that I teach has the least progressive set-up you can imagine:  the kids are only there because their parents signed them up, and the parents only signed them up because they're compelled to if they want their kids to get confirmed in the Church.  It's a class full of impressed sailors, basically.  In this situation, I feel the best thing I can do is make the class as interesting and engaging as possible.  If the kids get to the end of the class feeling that religion can actually be interesting, and not just a tedious chore, I've done my job. 

So, there you have it; my current mixed feelings about traditionalist vs. progressive education.  My ideal education would combine concern for actual content (from the traditionalists) with the most interesting, engaging, and humane approach possible (from the progressives).  Above all, I hope my daughters' education leaves them interested and eager to learn about their world, with the basic skills to do so.


  1. If being able to read and write well and do enough math to handle their household finances competently were the only things kids were compelled to do in elementary school, you wouldn't hear too many complaints from me. It seems to me that schools have gone completely over the top with the list of things kids "must" learn, and the exact schedules on which they have to learn them all.

    Still, when you say that your kids "will obtain these skills whether they're genuinely interested or not," I have two reactions. First, when it comes to things that are genuinely useful in life, I think most people do eventually choose to learn what they need to know. (Think of how many millions of people have learned computer skills with no formal instruction whatsoever.) I have enough faith in that principle that I would at least be willing to have a lot of patience before intervening too heavy-handedly.

    On the other hand, as to things that people don't perceive as either interesting or useful, I'm not sure even parents can say confidently that they can make their kids learn something, whether they're interested or not. Applied to an entire school system, I'd have way less confidence in that kind of statement. Schools have taken that approach to lots and lots of things, but have all kids actually learned them? And have they retained them as adults?

    I guess what I'm saying is that accommodating kids' interest as much as possible is likely to be a relatively effective way of getting them to learn the things you want them to learn, regardless of whether you value keeping them interested for its own sake.

    I don't think we'll ever know the effect (in adulthood) of varying degrees of compulsion in education. Sure, adults in America know and can do a lot of things. But how much of that was actually *caused* by their K-12 schooling? And how much more or less would they be able to do if their schools had taken a less coercive approach?

    This seems to me a slightly different conversation than the argument over progressive vs. traditional teaching methods. I think a kid who's interested in a particular topic might well be better off learning from "traditional" instruction than from a "progressive" alternative. To the extent that both progressive and traditional education are attempts to figure out how to get kids to learn stuff they're not actually interested in, they seem more alike than different, and they both seem like an inevitably uphill battle. When kids are genuinely interested in something, how best to teach it seems like a whole different question.

  2. Interest-driven Learning (IDeaL education) is a great way to have children basically teach themselves. I use it and supplement with using the interests in reading, math, science, etc, with my homeschooled children. It's amazing how motivated and focused children can be when they have chosen what they are learning.