Some Thoughts on Progressive Education By Alan Berger

Alan Berger speaking with Pedro Noguera

This message was composed by Alan Berger, director/founder of Brooklyn Free School. I thought I would share it as it expresses the kind of clear thinking about education that I myself strive to relate here on this blog.

Thoughts on BFS:

I have been thinking a lot lately about where BFS is right now, where we’ve been, and where it could go. After writing the Director’s letter for the journal, looking back on our original mission statement (now posted on the parent bulletin board as well as other places around the school), and reading Alfie Kohn’s new book- Feel-Bad Education, and Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling, it’s clear BFS incorporates elements of both progressive education and democratic education. It is in effect, a democratic progressive school. A school that works with the whole child to construct meaning and challenge conventions, where the joyful pursuit of questions, deeper understandings and making connections is valued, and where the kids, as part of a diverse community, have a major say in directing their curriculum and the workings of their school.

I was struck with how closely aligned the 12 basic educational precepts Kohn states in the introduction to his new book—are to many of BFS’s founding principles and the work that we have been doing with children for the last eight years. I also found lots of common ground in Chapter 1’s definition and description of the essential elements of progressive education. I have made several copies of these first two sections of the book and they will be available to any community member and will be posted among the other essays and readings on the fourth floor hallway wall. I highly recommend BFS community members read the whole book as well–copies will be available in our library.

Reading this has crystallized for me why we are doing what we are doing, how we are making tremendous strides towards attaining the progressive mission, and also the work we have still to do and strive for. Kohn’s major elements of progressive schools mirrors so much of what is valued at BFS:

· Attending to the whole child (not just to academic learning)

· Community (learning and working with others)

· Collaboration (problem solving and emphasis on underlying motives, values, and reasons)

· Social Justice (caring for others outside of the school and commitment to diversity and improving the lives of others)

· Intrinsic Motivation (what’s the effect of the school’s approach on students’ interest in learning—their desire to continue reading, thinking, and questioning)

· Deep Understanding (learning tends to be organized around problems, questions, and projects)

· Active Learning (students play an active role in helping to design the curriculum)

· Taking Kids Seriously (taking cues from the children and being responsive to their individual needs and differences).

As Kohn points out in his book, being able to accomplish all these things is quite difficult and rare in US schools today—but so much of the research shows that progressive education is more effective than traditional education not only in terms of traditional assessments but also in terms of criteria like these: long term retention of what’s been taught, the capacity to understand ideas and apply them to new kinds of problems, and a desire to continue learning.

So, I think it’s quite useful to understand BFS as a progressive, democratic school, both as a way to think about what we stand for and to have a common language–these precepts and elements are as good as any, to communicate to others in terms that most people should be able to support.


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