Head of School's Blog

What is Progressive Education at FSS?

Kimberly Ridley
Dear Fayerweather Families,

Last year, when I asked the question, "what does progressive education mean at FSS?" I heard responses like, “please don’t open the, ‘what is progressive education at FSS?’ can of worms. We have had these conversations over and over again.” Yet, I believe that it is important for us to reflect on this question of progressive education, as we confront the changing landscape of education and the evolving needs of our students. How might progressive ideology align with other educational philosophies and perspectives that strengthen how we engage with students?

An important tenet of progressive education is that children have agency in their learning. They direct and have ownership of the learning process. Paying attention to child-directed learning means that we are considering the social, developmental, and cognitive needs of students. Our instruction focuses on meeting children where they are with the intention of guiding them toward learning goals. We pay attention to and observe how children make sense of, or construct knowledge about the world around them, and we leverage our students’ natural curiosity to scaffold new learning challenges and experiences.

This idea of “knowledge construction” is also a basic tenet in multicultural pedagogy. James Banks, is a multicultural educator, researcher and author from University of Washington's College of Education.  He argues that children are constantly constructing knowledge about the world around them using their multiple identities or social groupings as a lens that frames what they see and understand about themselves, others, and the broader world. His theoretical framework is called the “Five Dimensions of Multicultural Education.” The dimensions include content integration, prejudice reduction, equity pedagogy, and knowledge construction, which leads to the fifth dimension, an empowered school community. 

Banks’ version of knowledge construction posits that students pay far more attention to the overall curriculum in our schools, which is more about representation. That is, who is leading, who is teaching, who children are learning beside and with, and how families show up in their school communities?  What and who is represented on our walls, in the hallways and in our classrooms? What do we sing and discuss in All School Meetings? Who is valued as a smart, kind, competent and worthy? This kind of learning is shaped and reinforced through the social groups we belong to, such as age, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, language, socioeconomic, and sexual orientation, just to name a few. 

These groups serve as the filters that children and adults use to frame, make sense of, or construct knowledge about who and what is valued in our society and within our school. This value proposition is deeply connected to the histories and experiences of people in each one of these social groupings. It is a visceral kind of learning that is powerful, and mostly, outside of our awareness. Yet, has powerful implications for how we are able to learn, grow, and stretch beyond our imaginations.

I had the opportunity to read and hear about this kind of learning happening recently in Ami and Tracey’s 1/2 class. Children in the 1/2 class are encouraged to share their identity stories. One such student courageously spoke about her identity, which in turn, inspired another student to share her hidden identity story. Their fellow classmates asked thoughtful questions and clapped in support of the courage demonstrated by their classmates. I believe when children and adults are able to bring their whole selves into school, the potential for transformation is great, and the learning is deep, retained, and will enable us to teach others (from Ted Dintersmith, What Schools Can Be). This is the promise of progressive education...to create the skill sets and mindsets to grapple with an increasingly complex and innovative world, and to make our communities places where many kinds of people can live and thrive.

Kimberly Ridley,
Head of Fayerweather Street School
Fayerweather Street School | 765 Concord Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138 | 617-876-4746
Fayerweather is a private PreK, kindergarten, elementary and middle school. We engage each child’s intellect.