Progressive Education

Last night, The Gotham Gal and I went to a speech made by Phil Kassen, Director of our kids’ school, Little Red and Elizabeth Irwin. Because that’s a mouthful, we call the school LREI, but may people still know it as Little Red.

Little Red is a historical place as it was a public school started in 1921 as an experiment to see if the emerging ideas around “progressive education” would work in a public school. It was run by an amazing woman named Elizabeth Irwin, who in addition to being an educator, was also a psychologist and a journalist.

The Little Red experiment exceeded it’s expectations and in 1932, Little Red became a private school and has remained that until today.

Now that we are through that mini-history lesson, let me get back to Phil’s speech. It was your standard “state of the school” speech that many executive directors give around the start of the school year, but it ended with some inspiring comments and lively discussion that prompted this post.

Phil talked about the fact that many of his peers are exhausted by their jobs and stuck in a rut. They want to do better, but are hamstrung by the constraints of their jobs. He talked about the trend toward highly structured education, as embodied by the No Child Left Behind Act, that causes educators to do things very programmatically.

Then he talked about taking the subway home last night and meeting a young adult who was studying to be a teacher. This young man had an energy that was incredible and he was going to go do great things with children with enormous creativity. Phil was energized by meeting that man and it inspired him as he talked about Progressive Education.

Progressive Education is the opposite of standardized, structured education. It starts with the premise that every kid is unique and that what works for one kid will not work for another. Elizabeth Irwin said it best with the following:

“Sometimes we forget,” she wrote, “that the child is not comparable to any factory product whatsoever.”

The bottom line is that you can’t mass produce an educated child.

I am the product of a public education. I moved a lot as a kid because I was an Army Brat. I’d say my education experiences were middle of the road at best. For the most part, they were fairly traditional structured education.

But then I went to MIT. That place changed everything for me. MIT doesn’t call its curriculum “progressive”, but I didn’t learn science at MIT. I learned how to learn science. I didn’t learn Math at MIT, I learned how to learn math.

My favorite educational experience at MIT (i am not going to talk about the other experiences in this post) was my sophomore year in a class on sytems engineering. It’s in this huge lecture hall. In walks this african american professor with a certain dramatic flair to his entrance. He looks up at all of us and just stares at us for what seemed like five minutes but was surely less, and then finally uttered the word “Socrates”. He then proceeded to lecture us for an hour and a half on the evolution of critical thinking and the search for truth from the days of Socrates to modern times.

It had nothing to do with system engineering. But it was mesmerizing. I never missed that class from that day on. And I didn’t really learn system engineering that semester either. But I learned something more fundamental which was how to learn system engineering. It taught itself to me after that class.

That’s progressive education. I see it in my kids every day. They are constantly curious, always seeking more knowledge. They love to learn and are not burned out by the rote learning that goes on in so many places today.

This is not an advertisement for LREI, but if you live in NYC and understand what I am talking about and want that kind of education for your kids, send me an email and I’ll hook you up with the admissions office. The fact of the matter is that more and more schools that are unecumbured with the regulatory burdens of pre-programmed education are experimenting with progressive education. They may not call it that, but that’s what it is. So if you are able to send your kids to really great schools, then there’s a high chance they are getting a good dose of progressive education there too.