The Progressive School

In today’s digitally infused society, most parents of high school aged students would agree that this generation faces increasingly complex challenges that can greatly impact their adulthood. Educators also face the increasingly difficult task of preparing students for jobs that likely do not exist as of today. With these thoughts in mind, how do parents find the “perfect fit” for the unique learning needs of their child? Many parents may not realize there are varied educational options for today’s high school students, beyond the typical traditional educational approach of the past.

Most high schools today operate from a long-standing traditional format that was successful for students of years past. In these types of instructional settings, students are placed in overcrowded classrooms where they move through a rapidly paced curriculum and only experience surface level understanding of concepts. Teachers are forced to deliver subject matter that is based solely on content standards with little to no regard for students’ interests, motivations, academic abilities, or unique current day needs.

But what if we could rethink the educational process and design a program that is tailored to the 21st century needs of adolescents? What if we could create a learning environment that engages students in meaningful learning experiences where we ignite a spark for learning, foster individual creativity, and instill a deep, intrinsic desire to be change makers, innovators, and confident visionaries? Progressive schools may be the answer to these tough questions facing parents, as they pave the way for this type of educational reform and transforming how students are now learning.

In our area, Voyagers’ Community School in Eatontown, the first in New Jersey to offer Socratic Seminar and experiential, project-driven learning at the high school level, provides a solid intellectual foundation for adolescents. This approach allows high school students not only to ask what to do but moreover to think on their own and ask why. Progressive schools are dedicated to the idea that children have to take an active role in their intellectual and social learning. They also believe, from day-to-day children should be given intellectual freedom, agency, and a say in their education. This is founded in the belief that teenagers are capable and trustworthy. Progressive high schools typically do teach traditional academics but in non-traditional ways.

Common among almost all progressive high schools is an interwoven approach to studying classic subjects including literature, history, science, math, world languages, an unusual variety of electives, guided independent studies and opportunities for student leadership. Progressive education at any age promotes personal initiative and adaptability, engaging all parts of a student’s development, not just the academic aspects. Progressive education culture embodies respect for the individual and the rewards of participation in a community. This approach set the stage for collaboration, inspiration, and forward-thinking intelligence.

Schools with a progressive education philosophy allow for the social construction of ideas and values the individual. The establishment of schools steeped in this progressive education theory date back to the mid 1800’s when John Dewey, a professor of philosophy and the head of the Chicago University’s Teacher College, expressed his belief that children should be encouraged to develop “free personalities” and that they should be taught how to think and to make judgments rather than to simply have their heads filled with knowledge. He also believed that schools were places where children should learn to work cooperatively.

By creating opportunities for intellectual development, Voyagers’ Community School high school and others like it enable students to become discerning. These adolescents learn to discover and examine an extensive body of information, evaluate evidence, consider all perspectives, and only then form their own conclusions. Higher-order thinking is crucial for college and life success, where knowledge, skills, and perspectives must continuously adapt to our rapidly changing world. Progressive schools, teach that questions matter as much as answers and thinking, solving, and doing are pillars of a meaningful education.

Common among almost all progressive high schools is an interwoven approach to studying classic subjects including literature, history, science, math, world languages, an unusual variety of electives, guided independent studies and opportunities for student leadership. Progressive education at any age promotes personal initiative and adaptability, engaging all parts of a student’s development, not just the academic aspects. Progressive education culture embodies respect for the individual and the rewards of participation in a community. This approach set the stage for collaboration, inspiration, and forward-thinking intelligence.

Students come to realize discovery and adventure, in the form of experimenting and creating in a STEM/STEAM Lab, Artist’s’ Studio, Writer’s Center, or Field Laboratory, complement robust academic and social pursuits. The caveat is proven success; adolescents attending progressive schools go on to reputable colleges and universities, into 21st-century professions like eGaming and social media marketing, and join traditional trades. More significantly, they lead lives with confidence, curiosity, and a sense of social justice and citizenship. These young adults possess worldly panache.

Karen Giuffre’, M.Ed is the Founding Director of Voyagers’ Community School, soon celebrating its 15th year. She is staunchly dedicated to constructing joyful learning spaces with children from 12 months through 12th Grade. She finds kindred spirits among other innovative educators who are dedicated and work every day to ignite students’ curiosity. In the coming months, she will introduce Journal readers to Innovation In Education.

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