Many independent schools call themselves ‘progressive,’ often reflecting the political, social and cultural ideologies of the school community rather than a core pedagogical methodology of teaching and learning. Progressive education was originally a response to social and economic factors of the mid-19th century. The influx of immigration provided a source of low-cost labor and resulted in the growth of a factory system that led to the exploitation of workers and a widening gap between rich and poor. In 1890, the wealthiest 10% of our population controlled 90% of the nation’s wealth.
From 1900-1920, the Progressive Movement gained power. The Progressive Movement’s practical reformers believed in the value of democratic societies and made impressive achievements championing women’s suffrage, founding the NAACP, and instituting anti-trust legislation, child labor laws and educational reform. They believed the unequal distribution of wealth in which immigrant workers lived in squalor in tenements while robber barons amassed great fortunes was undemocratic and sought to reform the system. Progressive education supports this reform in its belief that education must be accessible and must prepare citizens to think critically so that they can realize the Enlightenment ideal: “government of the people, by the people.” Notable early progressive educators include John Dewey, Francis Parker and Anita McCormick Blaine.
Therefore, while progressive education grew in response to social and cultural inequalities, it is a false assumption to equate progressive education with lax behavioral and academic standards or solely with political, social or cultural beliefs. Influenced by Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, progressives asserted that the principles of science and the scientific method could be applied outside the realms of chemistry and biology. Progressive education is an approach to teaching that focuses on the science of learning. Students learn by doing. They solve problems rather than following directions, with teachers functioning as guides to facilitate learning. In this context, the science of education is essential to promoting academic excellence and optimal intellectual, social, and emotional development of each student. (For more details about the progressive approach to education, see chart below).
So, what does progressive education look like at New Roads? We believe that we must use the art and science of progressive education to prepare our students to act ethically and responsibly in a democratic and global society. Our Statement of Philosophy asserts, “We believe that education must not be a race for the accumulation of facts, but a joint venture among students, parents, and teachers to develop habits of mind, habits of character, an ever expanding awareness of the human situation, and the tools needed for social, political and moral participation as well as personal fulfillment.”
New Roads School draws on the best aspects of private and public schools, and employs them to most effectively meet the needs of each student socially, emotionally, and intellectually. New Roads equalizes access to individualized learning to a kaleidoscope of socio-economically, culturally and ethnically diverse students from over 80 zip codes throughout Los Angeles County. Our students learn by doing, and our educational practices are informed by the research, particularly on the neuroscience of the brain and its implications for teaching and learning. At a robotics tournament, students collaborate to find solutions to make their robot outperform competitors, building the foundation for combining creativity and technology to solve problems. Science classes focus on experiments and labs instead of lectures. Humanities classes are discussion-based, exploring texts in a contemporary context and discovering linkages to other academic and artistic disciplines. Our students learn that telling stories orally and verbally are essential to human understanding and careers. Our middle and high school Workshop programs prepare students for citizenship in the global community by asking them to identify, research and collaboratively take action to address societal challenges as individuals and groups. By the time students are seniors, they are able to teach themselves. This approach makes students active participants in their learning, with faculty guiding the process. Trial-and-error, mistakes, reflection, and growth are essential aspects of the learning process for college and beyond. In addition, we encourage students to be deeply connected to their learning process so that their intrinsic motivation helps them develop the grit, resourcefulness, and creativity to solve seemingly impossible real-world problems. The complex challenges must be solved through collaboration and through drawing upon multiple disciplines.
We provide “inspired education for an evolving world.” After all, if the world is ever changing, schools must also change, and the content and skills must change. Schools must work to integrate practices that have been proven effective by neuroscientific research, and to adapt to meet the individualized needs of students so that they can adapt to the ever-changing contexts, challenges, and opportunities they will face. Progressive education provides an innovative and flexible framework and habits of mind for doing this.
New Roads is clearly rooted in the tradition of progressivism: democratizing educational access, preparing students for democratic citizenship, and employing educational methods, based on the science and art of education. Academic excellence in this framework must attend to the social-emotional and intellectual needs of each student, and motivation to learn must be intrinsic as it promotes the highest level of scholarship and enduring understanding that can be applied creatively in novel contexts. Progressivism at New Roads means that students are equipped with the social awareness, moral compass, and intellectual resourcefulness to lead meaningful lives to invent the future, and to fulfill their responsibilities as democratic citizens in a global community.