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Progressive Education – an exploration of the language we use

An overview

I was first introduced to Progressive Education, which includes John Bowlby’s attachment theory during my time as a student volunteer/teacher’s assistant at the Early Childhood Centre at Sarah Lawrence College. Progressive Education is defined as:

‘A response to traditional teaching methods, it is defined as an educational movement which gives more value to experience than formal learning. It is based more on experiential learning that concentrates on the development of a child’s talents.’

Dewey’s role

John Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer. He is one of the most prominent 20th century scholars. This movement began in the 1880s and lasted for over 60 years, establishing public schools in American and making them the new norm. Dewey believed that education is “the process of living” and thus had a child-focused lens. This form of education is focused on the child’s powers and interests, as to spark their own intellectual curiosity in an age-appropriate manner. 

How the ECC integrates this philosophy

The Early Childhood Centre (ECC) at Sarah Lawrence College is a unique laboratory school setting. It has a high ratio of adults-children (for instance, if we had 10 kids there would be 5 adults in the room – our lead teacher, a graduate assistant and then 2-3 other student-volunteers). This unique ratio allows children to have more hands on assistance within the classroom (it’s not overwhelming at a young age as we observe and only do when they really need our help) and it allows Psychology undergraduate and graduate students to gain more insight. There are also rich opportunities on campus for learning and for play.

Praise culture and the use of language 

One of the key elements of our work as classroom volunteers was the use of language. The ECC doesn’t believe in excessive praise as it detracts from the intrinsic value of play. For example, if you tell a 3 year-old that they’re impressed by them going down a slide and say “Great job!” they won’t necessarily be motivated to repeat this action for themselves if they get used to the praise that accompanies the action. Instead, the ECC focuses on detailing and describing actions. For example “I see you went down the slide – how did that feel?” The belief is that describing actions will help children build their communication skills and improve their vocabulary. 

My conclusion

Progressive education focuses on real-life experiences and supplements classroom learning with external exploration (e.g. field trips). Given the increasingly global world we live in, there is a necessity for this kind of education. I am in deep admiration of the ECC and their educational philosophy. I do, however, see a need for progressive education’s reach to widen. It would be brilliant for an ECC philosophy to make its way to some of the city’s public schools, with the same level of care and deliberation.

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