Saturday, 28 July 2012

Progressivism in Education

After having served for about two decades in schools based on traditional concepts, it came as a process of unlearning for me when I recently joined a prestigious school that labels itself as a progressive school. What added to my confusion was that everything that I had learned as a teacher and an administrator was that there is much more to the imparting of education than what is being done in the traditional schools. What I feel best explained about what happens in progressive schools might best be explained in the story about Albert Einstein who was once confronted by his history teacher for not having memorised the facts and figures of the battle of Waterloo, and how many soldiers had been killed. Einstein explained to his teacher that he did not believe that learning of facts and figures was education, because in any case these could be found in textbooks. What he wanted to learn was why the soldiers were trying to kill each other. Learning of ideas was what education meant according to him! This is perhaps what distinguishes the progressive schools from the traditional schools. The learning of ideas understanding of concepts, distinct from memorising of facts and figures is what puts progressive schools in a place of their own. The idea is that teachers try not to impose their ideas and themselves on the learners, rather they try to create an environment where the learners get to discover important ideas and concepts themselves! This would mean that the learners would not be dependant on spoon-feeding, rote memorisation or mugging. Progressive Education attempts to create an environment for students whereby they set out on a journey of discovery. What is learned through self-discovery remains forever in the minds of students rather than what is learnt through rote-memorisation! The C.B.S.E’s introduction of C.C.E. is no doubt an attempt to break away from  the rather straight jacketed approach of imparting education, although the challenge is to implement C.C.E. effectively in classes where there are more than thirty students! Collating data relating to C.C.E. however becomes mere paper work where more time is spent in writing down marks and grades than in teaching the students!
Progressive schools on the whole try to address the issue of the problem where, in John Dewey’s words, “The centre of gravity is outside the child”. This is a core issue which progressivism in education tries to address-make the educational process as learner- centric as possible! Education per se in not about the teacher imposing his or her knowledge on to the learner like Einstein’s History teacher was trying to do, rather it is about allowing the learner to learn at his own pace, and learn things through discovery. This, however does not mean that the teacher just stands an aloof spectator, mutely watching while the students learn to walk out of the maze using the trial and error method. It is not about the laissez-faire approach, rather it is about giving the student the optimum lee-way to explore the world himself through own eyes, and not the borrowed eyes of his or her teacher! The progressive  system of education thus appreciates the unique individuality of each student, the fact that each student has a unique perception of the world, and that each student has a different level of understanding. In view of such diversity and uniqueness, it is clear that their cannot be any single teaching method or yardstick to measure the quantum of learning taking place in each student. So then, progressivism in education is all about experimenting with different styles of teaching, it is about exploring new methods, it is about constantly adjusting and re-adjusting it is about bringing in a “wow effect” in the process of learning.
Unfortunately there are very few progressive schools in this country which are progressive in the true sense. This, perhaps is because of two factors: first and foremost is its acceptance by the society. Are parents willing to collaborate in the process of education? Are parents willing to spend an extra hour with their children, participating with them in their journey of discovery, doing projects with them, taking them out on nature walks, visiting ancient monuments to help them understand more about history? The answer, is no. Operation Head-Start was launched in the United States of America in the seventies, and one of its main assumptions was that there would be an active collaboration between the parents and the educational institutions in matters pertaining to the successful education of their wards. The project was aimed at the students especially hailing from the weaker sections of the society. Head-Start might not have been a roaring success, but then an analysis of the programme does  point towards an improved Emotional Quotient of students whose parents had actively participated in the programme.The programme also attempted to boost the cognitive and non-cognitive skills of the students, and find ways to motivate them. Head-start was however for economically disadvantaged students and assumed that ninety percent of the students in schools under this programme would be from this section of the society.  A few common conclusions that progressive schools share with the Head-Start programme are, an understanding of the need to motivate students, working on their cognitive and non-cognitive skills, and an active collaboration between parents students, and teachers. Another reason why there are such few progressive schools in India is because of the extra-time that students and teachers might have to spend in school. The eight to two timing might be scaled up to add one our to the schedule. Moreover, stay-backs for both teachers and students might not add to their popularity in India. Teachers in progressive schools should also learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, to avoid to make a direct approach to the answer and to allow students to play an active role in the quest for answers. It is for these reasons expressed above that we don’t have so many progressive schools in India. It is very difficult for teachers coming from traditional school backgrounds to accept a process of, “unlearning” and to launch themselves on an entirely different, experiential approach towards the imparting of education.

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