Reflections on Progressive Education

Edward Kuh, Head of School
As Head of Fayerweather, I am often asked to describe our school and its mission. I typically say we are a small, progressive school committed to diversity and social justice. While most understand the latter, many are unsure what I mean by “progressive”. It is easy to describe what progressive education is not – desks in rows, worksheets, text book-based learning and standardized testing. However, I have found it more difficult to describe what progressive education IS.
When discussing progressive education, it is important to know a little history. The progressive education movement began in the United States at the turn of the last century. During this period the field of educational psychology was beginning to grow with the writings of such intellects as John Dewey, Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget. Their combined research redefined what we knew about how children develop, grow and learn. It was a radical departure from the past — forward thinking, progressive. While some schools flourished using these new ideas, other forces such as industrialization and later, the Cold War, caused most schools in the U.S. to ignore their findings. However, with the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and 70s, progressive education resurfaced, and schools, such as Fayerweather, were born.
How do the ideas of Dewey, Montessori and Piaget translate into practice in our classrooms at Fayerweather? Dewey’s radical idea was that children’s minds are not empty vessels to be filled. Quite simply put, children learn by doing. Today, we accept this as common knowledge, especially for young children. Yet, I have found as children reach the third and fourth grades, when their reading and writing skills solidify and they are able to think more abstractly, parents committed to progressive education can become anxious that their children are not where they should be academically. I often hear concerns expressed in comments like, “Using manipulatives was fine in second grade, but shouldn’t they just memorize their math facts?” We believe a concept may be presented in a more sophisticated manner, however, the methodology should remain the same. For example, in the seventh grade, students learn about the relationship between surface area, volume and length, by constructing different scale models of dogs out of Cuisenaire rods (a math material found in the kindergarten class, as well). Students use these experiences to then research and calculate the volume of a real animal, that they have chosen. While it might be faster to simply teach the formula, using a process that helps children construct their own knowledge ensures that true learning takes place.
Montessori, like Dewey, stated that children have natural abilities and interests, and the role of the teacher was one of observer. She believed that children have an inherent drive to explore and learn. In essence, the teacher’s job is to be a guide rather than a provider of facts. This tenant of progressive education is one of the most visible at Fayerweather, and can be seen in the integrated, thematic curriculum throughout the school. For example, during writer’s workshop in the first and second grade classrooms, children select their topics and use a mix of inventive and standard spelling. During the fifth and sixth grade biographies study, students delve deeply into learning about a person of their choice and spend hours thinking about how to present this information in costume and in character.
Piaget extended the theories of both Dewey and Montessori by creating tasks for his young children to do and then documented the results. We learned from Piaget that humans, from infancy through adolescence, develop at their own rate. Therefore, teaching more or faster, to someone who is not developmentally ready, will be fruitless. Fayerweather’s use of multi-age classrooms is a direct result of this knowledge, for we believe age is only an approximate indicator of readiness.
Both Dewey and Montessori also believed children were spiritual beings, and that what we teach and why we teach it is just as important as how that material is taught. Dewey wrote about the social contract schools have to educate students to be not only smart children, but good citizens. Montessori developed an entire curriculum entitled, “peace education.” Therefore, it should be no surprise that I began this article defining Fayerweather as, “a small, progressive school committed to diversity and social justice.” This description is also the cornerstone of progressive education.  At Fayerweather, we see these beliefs in action in the form of community service projects, such as the third and fourth grader’s efforts to raise money and awareness for hurricane victims. The commitment to make the world more compassionate and equitable is also embedded throughout the curriculum.
A few years back, I had the good fortune to share a cup of coffee with Henry Olds, one of the founders of Fayerweather Street School. During our conversation he said, “In a truly progressive classroom, students should leave with more questions than they started with! The more you know, the more you realize, what you still don’t know.”


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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.