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Progressive education vs Self-Directed education

In my last article, I shared my thoughts and experiences in attending the teacher’s strike march in Christchurch on the 29th of May. As I headed back to my car I had an interesting conversation with a secondary school maths teacher. This teacher had an interesting perspective on progressive education based on his current teaching position. He told me about how his school has a more modern style learning environment. And while he said it can work for some highly motivated students, many of the students aren’t self-motivated enough to make use of their freedom.

For himself as a teacher, he had gone into the job thinking that as a well-rounded person he would be able to help students beyond just mathematics and so be part of providing a more holistic education. However, he soon found that he seemingly needed to be an expert on many subjects beyond his field and there didn’t seem to be much use or interest in his expertise in mathematics. This teacher had felt let down and was wanting to return to a more traditional school where he could teach maths in a more structured manner and where he could feel more valued for his expertise.

I find this fascinating and it seems to be another example of the difference between progressive education and what might be termed Self-Directed Education. In progressive education, there is a focus on a collaborative relationship between a learner and a teacher. Here the child has more choice and freedom in what interests them and to some extent how they would like to learn when compared to a more traditional schooling approach. The teacher is seen as a guide to help the students achieve their goals. Also in progressive education, children are still seen as somewhat helpless and needing adult guidance to the “correct” answers. In this sense, children are dependent on adults to make the right choices and provide the right materials. This is very time and labour intensive for the teachers in particular. Teachers are to be responsive to their students and provide high-quality expertise in whatever area the student chooses to explore. This can be very hard to do as in the case of the teacher I met.

In Self-Directed Education, the teacher disappears from the picture. It is up to the child to educate themselves regarding who they are and the world around them by using whatever resources are available to them, which may include knowledgeable people around them. There is no longer pressure on the adults in the child’s life to be the expert but rather to engage with curiosity at a relational level. The focus is on helping the child access knowledge and skills in the community in a way that satisfies their curiosity rather than the adult necessarily being the source of that knowledge and skill. Most importantly the role of adults goes from someone who dictates knowledge, to an experienced person with whom children can have meaningful conversations with.

I realise that there are many fears regarding this way of approaching education. In particular, adults can still feel helpless. The very practical questions of, ‘what can I do?’ come to mind. “What can I do so that my child learns to read?” or “What can I do so that my child learns to do basic maths?” The answer is the same for any human activity that people choose to learn, people need to be motivated by seeing a purpose in learning the skill or knowledge. We need to see that the learning will be worthwhile. A person living in a tribal culture where no-one around him reads will also probably not have much motivation to learn to read, in that they don’t see it being worthwhile in their culture. The key is to show that something is worthwhile by doing it in your own life if you want others to adopt it. Forcing or coercing someone into ‘learning’ something they do not see any point in, is not helpful. If you think reading is important, then make the case by showing it in your life. Show that you enjoy reading, talk about what you read personally, and read aloud to others. How many of us show that we value reading in our lives? We seem to be very good at explaining why reading is good for others, including children, but how do we show this in our own lives? Please note that this is not some sure-fire way of getting someone to learn to read but it is the only way that someone may want to learn to read.

Examples abound that when children in particular, but also adults, are intrinsically motivated, learning often occurs at a rapid pace. Learning to read and even basic mathematics can all be learnt in a matter of months when a person is ready.

So what does this mean for today’s educational environment? While progressive education has certainly taken up some good ideas, it still maintains the overall foundation of schooling. This underlying foundation of schooling still causes frustrations for students and teachers alike, no matter if the overlaid philosophy is progressive or more traditional. This is why I do not see much good coming from “school reform”. As we head into the future it will require people to not change the system that is but rather to be creative and entrepreneurial. To use our increasing knowledge of how human beings learn to be turned into practical ideas that promote the ability of children to pursue a self-directed education.