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.