Thursday, November 24, 2011

Formal & Traditional vs Progressive Education

I teach in a psychiatric assessment unit in a hospital for children under the age of 18 who present with a wide range of complex psychiatric symptoms.

Some of these children are in mainstream schooling. Some are in special education.

Some are in mainstream looking to move to a special education placement. Some are in special education looking for a mainstream placement. Many just want to get out of the hospital so they can get back to their regularly scheduled lives.

Preconceived notions about what school should look like heavily influences what some believe children should be doing during school. These notions tend to frame school around a pedagogy of poverty where the children are marinated in non-reflective acquiescence. When school is seen as something done to children while they play a passive role, compliance and obedience become the gold-standard. If a child can sit quietly through a morning's worth of lecture followed up with an afternoon of filling in worksheets, then they are considered ready for school.

As a progressive educator, my challenge is to engage those who have never been invited to reconsider their assumptions about education. The truth is that many people are reassured by signs of formal-traditional school and are disturbed by their absence.

By the time students get to me in the hospital, they tend to have received more than their fair share of formal-traditional education. Despite their prevailing problems in and out of school, I find it sadly ironic that conventional wisdom tells us to simply double the dose of the formal and the traditional. But if this worked, many of these children wouldn't need to come to the hospital.

This is precisely why spending all of our time trying to get kids better acquainted with a kind of formal-traditional education that they already know all too well is at best unhelpful and at worst harmful.

Mara Sapon-Shevin writes in her book Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms:
More restrictive placements do not prepare people for less restrictive placements. Students are unlikely to be able to work themselves down the continuum. Being in a segregated classroom almost always makes the transition to general classes less likely and more problematic. Though certain isolated skills can certainly be taught "away" from the setting in which they will ultimately be displayed, the nature of that isolation often makes it difficult to transfer those skills or to even envision what "typical" behavior looks like. We become so focused on teaching Kevin to sit at his seat and attend to the task in front of him in a segregated setting that we lose sight of what typical fifth graders are required to do in the regular classroom. Learning to swim in the bathtub doesn't ensure that you will be able to swim in the ocean. Particularly because many students with disabilities have trouble transferring skills, it is far more effective and efficient to teach the necessary skills in settings that are authentic and normative.
The elements of "mainstream" education should not be built on the ability to sit passively during a lecture in order to regurgitate prefabricated facts on a worksheet. In fact, elements of real learning are built on characteristics that make formal-traditional education almost unbearable.

Debra Stipek, dean of School Education at Stanford University puts it this way:
Drill-and-skill is not how middle class children got their edge, so why use a strategy to help poor kids catch up that didn't help middle class kids in the first place?
It's important to note that a pedagogy of poverty is not just for the economically disadvantaged; children who present a wide range of mental health problems and children in special education often get more than their fair share of sit and get, spew and forget.

The most important attitude that can be formed is that of a desire to go on learning. The best way to nurture and support those who are hardest to educate is to see their learning difficulties less as problems with the child and more as problems for the curriculum to solve.

I'll close by making my point this way: Look at that chart again. Which kind of education do you want for your son or daughter and which one is good enough for other people's kids?


  1. Since having my daughter, education has become so more personal to me; we are doing this to people's children. I love your chart as well.

  2. Great points and spot on chart, Joe. I agree with Pernille, too. My outlook on teaching changed when I had children. I think it's always important to look at your students as if they were your own kids.

  3. Joe,
    New understanding of brain development and neuroplasticity call for education that promotes thinking and attachment - Dan Siegel - thinking plus healthy attachments leads to brain growth