Can Peninsula School Remain “Progressive?”

NewsNotes May 2017

In my last article on Why America Needs Progressive Schools, I wrote about the need to teach children how to think critically in order to make decisions and participate in a democratic society. No matter your political allegiance, the national election raised some important questions around the importance of critical thinking in using information to make decisions in our country. It also brought to bear essential issues around change dynamics.

Over the past ten years, there has been a revolution happening in education. Ignited and enabled by technology, new schools have been founded on a model whereby students learn almost entirely on a computer with cursory interactions with peers and teachers. These schools employ software that individualizes lessons to the students’ specific learning profile and pace. Seeing this as a trend that won’t fade, and as attractive to many parents, numerous established schools have transformed themselves to this “1:1” (computer to student) model as well. Still other schools have adopted models where children participate in virtual classes, where peers and teachers are scattered around the globe. 

Education has been ripe for a revolution, which has raised important questions: Are these models the new progressive schools?  What are essential elements for educating children in today’s world? Will schools like Peninsula survive or become anachronisms?

In 1925 Peninsula School itself was revolutionary. Remember that schools at that time were based on a factory model, focused on efficiency and student conformity to prepare them for work as an adult. Peninsula had a vision of education that was, in today’s lexicon, disruptive. Peninsula’s founders viewed childhood experiences as precious and held that children could learn to think critically to tackle complex ideas and contribute to important decisions. They believed that children played a critical role in participating in their own learning and that schools had a responsibility to teach kids what living in a democratic society required. Most importantly, Peninsula’s founders believed that there are essential life lessons to learn by interacting with others in a diverse community.

As we move forward with a vision of Peninsula’s future, we need to ask ourselves: How can we be sensitive to the core values that define Peninsula and resonate with each of us today, yet remain mindful of contemporary issues to ensure we are meeting the needs of children and their futures?

With this essential question in mind, I’ve developed three principles to guide us as we consider the future of progressive education:

  • Learning is inherently a social activity.
  • Schools fulfill a social need.
  • Schools must be institutions of continual renewal.

1. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky suggested that most learning takes place through interactions students have with their peers, teachers, and others. While some forms of learning can certainly take place while working with others in a virtual environment (i.e. video or some other type of technology), face-to-face discussion, collaboration, and feedback require following social rules and developing social skills - learning that is irreplaceable and self generating. It is only through this proximity to others who may interpret the world through different cultural and experiential lenses or those who may have different abilities and disabilities that children are forced out of their comfort zones and learn about diversity. Besides, learning with others is more fun! 

2. As I wrote in my last article, schools have a responsibility to teach students about participating in a democratic society. However, how do we as a society expect to teach children to be democratically responsible and socially active adults if we don’t allow students time and opportunities to practice? Students need to learn about democracy in a school setting where decisions are not virtual but have real impacts and consequences. School environments are uniquely equipped to teach values, empathy and the importance of leading and joining with others to make change.

3. As a progressive school, we need to be perpetually learning and renewing our vision of education and what is best for children today and for their futures. Learning is not static, it is dynamic and must be perpetual. If we want children to learn throughout their lifetime, to be cognitively flexible and to think critically about change, we as parents and teachers must model the same for them.

My hope is that we can use these concepts to guide progressive education and Peninsula School as we prepare young people to assume the mantle of leading and working with others to inhabit this blue marble of a world. While what we know about the future is that change is certain and will continue to be rapid, we want to prepare children for the future with skills and values that serve them today and for decades to come. As Lincoln wrote, “As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew.”