Educational theories; Past and Present

Teachers who develop active learners and who understand which approaches work for each child can create a room full of students who are engaged in the learning process, even if that process looks a bit different for every individual.

Over time, our understanding of the learning process has evolved, but many people can find it hard to break with the past. Using mathematics as an example, parents over the past half century have been lamenting changes in math curriculum aimed at helping students understand the meaning of their work and develop a deeper number sense. In curriculum evenings around the world, parents express struggles in helping their children with math concepts, claiming “This isn’t how I learned it.” This satirical song from the 1960s is a good reminder that the best practices in education are continuously changing: New Math. Rather than get frustrated, if we look at the hands-on learning practices now that promote deep learning and problem-solving, we can see how our developing understanding helps to serve all children where earlier practices often encouraged one type of student.

In the world of education, three schools of thought set the basis for the many current theories and practices that we use today: Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Constructivism. While each has relevance for explaining learning in certain situations, none captures the complexity of how students learn.

Behaviorism is best known because of B.F. Skinner, who researched stimulus and response in animals and people for many years. Behaviorism supports rote learning and drill practice as well as positive reinforcement for a job well done. While some aspects of Behaviorism may work in some cases, it does little to prepare students for new tasks and higher-level problem solving.

Cognitivism goes a bit deeper, looking at the way the brain processes information, but still focuses on memorization as a foundation of learning. Cognitive theorists believed there were two types of processing in the brain – visual and auditory. While these are two ways to process information, we now know that there are others paths to learning that build on this earlier understanding.

Lastly, Constructivism is an approach that promotes active learning and using prior knowledge to construct new knowledge. It is useful when the desired outcome is original work, as in a research project, but negates the importance of building a foundation of knowledge and skills for quick, predictable answers.

Looking at all three of these traditional approaches to learning, we can see how some of the leading educational theorists today have combined principles or expanded on the limited scope of each to create more comprehensive models of learning. Howard Gardner’s model of Multiple Intelligences, a widely accepted tool for identifying student strengths, challenges the two-pathway learning presented by the Cognitivists. Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, a model that brought us the concept of scaffolding student learning to get them to the next level, deepens our understanding of how Constructivism works by introducing a social aspect of learning from others. While there is a place for practicing facts and memorizing spelling patterns, classroom learning encompasses so much more than that. Teachers who develop active learners and who understand which approaches work for each child can create a room full of students who are engaged in the learning process, even if that process looks a bit different for every individual. Education is not one-size-fits-all.

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Taking Risks

Taking Risks

In a progressive school, students learn to take risks and to be creative.

“You never know what you can do until you try it.”

This famous quote has been inspiring people to take risks for generations, and yet in many schools, children are taught through rote memorization and a practice-makes-perfect philosophy.

When we teach our children that they can take risks in an academic setting, we build their confidence and promote problem-solving skills that lead to innovation and deeper learning. As parents, it might be uncomfortable to see children learn in an environment where the outcome is unknown, but when students are active learners who take risks, anything is possible.

In a progressive school, students learn to take risks and to be creative.

Instead of teaching children how to take tests and produce facts, instruction focuses on helping children construct knowledge and understand concepts which can then be applied to new questions or problems. To better understand progressive classrooms, think about Legos or artwork.

A child who knows how to build with Legos comes across a large bin of mixed Legos and no instruction manual. The child uses building skills to create something new rather than follow step-by-step directions with a predetermined outcome.

Given crayons and white paper, a child can take a risk and create a drawing that is one-of-a-kind rather than working within the lines of a coloring book. This is the kind of skill-based risk-taking that teachers in progressive classrooms are encouraging every day, across disciplines.

When children take an active role in their learning, they are more fully engaged and experience deeper learning.

Children pose the questions and find the solutions, with scaffolding from the teacher and classmates. They are not afraid to make mistakes. Through frequent assessments and conversations, teachers give students feedback and opportunities to understand their mistakes and learn from them. Students are aware of their own growth, and because they drive their own learning process, they develop confidence in their abilities.

Parents can support their children’s learning by engaging in conversations at home.

Talk to them about what they are doing at school, and listen to the way they describe their work. Ask them open-ended questions and start family projects that are hands-on and have no fixed outcome.

Show them examples of when you take risks in your own work or when you make mistakes and learn from them. We are all engaged in an ongoing learning process, and when children see this, they approach life and school as opportunities to grow rather than being fearful of mistakes.

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Field Trips

Field Trips

In progressive schools, learning is an organic, evolving process that encourages exploration and discovery.

Have you ever wondered why we take students on field trips? One of the things that sets progressive schools apart from more traditional schools is an emphasis on learning through a variety of entry points, and field trips are one of the most effective ways to reach every student. When they are planned well, field trips can shape a study and are often one of the experiences that each child remembers from year to year. They are also a way to bring in different voices and give teachers and parents a chance to demonstrate a passion for learning.

Field trips can play a variety of roles in a curriculum. Many teachers start a study with a field trip to engage students and bring excitement to the subject. A field trip early in a study can spark ideas and questions and often guides the students’ learning. As the study unfolds, a teacher may plan a second visit to the same place but with very different intentions. Students can go deeper into their learning and reflect on how much they have grown in their understanding when they revisit the same place. When planning a trip, teachers collaborate with educators at museums and cultural institutions to customize their visit for the students and then plan post-trip activities for when they return to the classroom, making the incorporation of field trips an integral part of the curriculum. In all of this, students usually have a lot of fun, too!

One of the most amazing things to watch as a teacher is how field trips bring out the many types of learners in a classroom. Museums and other sites outside the classroom provide sensory experiences, bringing the material students read about in books to life. Some children learn best through social interactions, and the group dynamic on field trips becomes an entry point for them. Others learn best through hands-on experiences and reflect this learning in artwork or other projects. For many children, getting out of the classroom and into a place where they can practice their observation and questioning skills ignites their imagination, and they develop an interest and delve deeper into the subject matter than they would otherwise.

On field trips, students also have the opportunity to see teaches as students. Teachers may lead some trips, but at times they work with other educators and take on the role of a student in the group. This is a great way to show children that adults are lifelong learners, too. Even on trips that are teacher-led, often the children’s questions will inspire a teacher to explore a subject in a different way and then bring that learning back to the classroom with new activities. Field trips are a valuable way for students to collaborate with their teachers by engaging in discussions, generating follow-up ideas to sharing responsibilities.

In progressive schools, learning is an organic, evolving process that encourages exploration and discovery. By stepping out into an ever-changing world, teachers can observe their students as they are exposed to new ideas and then shape the curriculum and classroom learning to be engaging and rich. Often a measure of the success of a field trip is visible back in the classroom through the journal entries, project ideas and artwork that children produce in response. Next time your child goes on a field trip, be sure to talk about it after school that day and let them be the teachers!

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Achievement: How to Parent and Teach without the Pressure

When we value children for their interests, we shift the focus from the future to the present.

Each child in a family, in a classroom, in the world is one-of-a-kind. Each child has an inner self full of dreams and interests, and an outer self that they present in the classroom and the world. The amount to which we value that inner self in the context of family and school can directly shape a child’s sense of purpose, self-esteem and ultimately, success in this highly competitive world.

For parents, this can mean that we learn to separate our expectations and an emphasis on outward achievement and look at who our child truly is and what interests drive them. By discovering and valuing your child’s passions, entry points to learning become clear, and the learning process both in school and at home is more authentic. One strategy is to pay close attention to what your child chooses to do during play, and what questions your child asks you during play and as you move through the day. If your child loves to be creative and work with materials, art can become more than a young child’s hobby. Many children express their understanding of complex concepts through art, and classrooms that allow for artistic expression have students who are highly engaged in the learning process. If your child loves history, use this interest as an entry point for developing reading and writing skills. Parents who value their child’s interests will see the continued curiosity and growth that creates lifelong learners.

When we value children for their interests, we shift the focus from the future to the present. We alleviate the pressure of the final product – achievement – to emphasize the learning process. This shift is important for two reasons: Children can develop the lifelong tools for academic success and have a positive social-emotional experience. Children who are engaged in the process without focusing on the final product are flexible learners who learn to take risks and grow from mistakes. They are better collaborators and can think outside of the box to create something that has not been done before, bringing a level of originality to their work. Emotionally, children who are encouraged to actively engage in tasks from a young age without the goal of skill performance, perfection or praise feels more secure in their abilities and are more able to learn. They feel a lower level of anxiety and a higher level of confidence, which allows them to access their skills more easily, acquire new skills and drives them to further learning.

In other words, removing the focus on achievement puts our children in a much better position to succeed. It also gives them space to be children and to learn through play, a process of self-discovery and fulfillment that supports a healthy emotional life. When we learn to stop looking years down the road and start to focus on each day, we can see the active learning and engage with our children in ways that support them as individuals. Children often inspire our own growth, and when we explore alongside them, we model lifelong learning and deepen our interpersonal relationships. Valuing engagement over achievement is a win-win for everyone.

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Why Progressive Education?

According to Dewey progressive education focuses on the child’s powers and interests.

Many people have heard the term progressive education but are not sure how to define it. Progressive education is a time-tested philosophy, not something new and trendy. Progressive education is documented in university studies with proven results that benefit our children in the 21st century as much as they benefited the early adopters more than a century ago. The traditional approach to education is to compartmentalize subjects, each taught in isolation.

To give a bit of background on the reasoning behind progressive education, we can look back to one of its most vocal founders, John Dewey. Dewey writes, “The method is focused on the child’s powers and interests. If the child is thrown into a passive role as a student, absorbing information, the result is a waste of the child’s education” (Dewey, 1897). It is this shift from passive to active that creates deep learning in progressive settings. Teachers of progressive education find that some parents question the academic rigor and standards, mostly because the hands-on learning that takes place in a progressive model does look more fun and exciting than rote memorization. When children are engaged in the process of learning, it is exciting and fun, but that does not mean that it is any less rigorous. In fact, the opposite is often the case. Children who are motivated by what they are learning and who take part in making decisions find joy in taking on more challenges and push themselves in ways that are not possible in traditional classrooms. They also remember what they have learned and are more likely to be able to extend this understanding.

As adults, we should think of our own learning to put ourselves in our children’s shoes. Imagine being taught to drive a car from a text book, worksheets or even a video, or learning about the ocean without touching sand or shells. Now picture learning to drive, as most of us did, by being behind the wheel of the car with a teacher to guide you, or studying the ocean by collecting samples from a beach. While progressive education uses classroom activities, books and other methods to enhance learning, the experiential learning is what drives the study and generates questions to investigate. Teachers are very involved at every step, and are critical in shaping these investigations, but as in the driving example, the teacher guides the student. The student is the one who must master the material and demonstrate the skills necessary to be independent.

This leads to another question that often comes up; How do teachers assess children’s learning in a progressive model?  Teachers rely less on traditional modes of assessments, such as tests, but more on individual assessments. Depending on the study and the student’s choice of presentation, this can vary in form. Some projects involve collaboration, and children build a model together. Others may result in individual projects or creative pieces. Children are asked to reflect on their learning and answer questions about the process, and teachers interview the students to measure their understanding. The difference between this and a standard test is that in the progressive model, there is an emphasis on problem solving, critical thinking, trial and error and collaboration. The learning process is valued as much as the final product, although children do delight in their creations as a culmination of their learning. How the problem was solved is as import as the answer. Did the child understand the process, can the child apply the process to other problems? Was a curious approach to the problem respected and given time to be explored? These are a few of the ways progressive education respects and encourages a child’s viewpoint and learning.

Progressive education is about challenging children to become creative problem solvers and independent thinkers who are motivated, resourceful, and collaborative communicators who are able to take risks. It is an approach to learning that places value on the process of learning within a strong academic environment. It is an understanding that children will need to enjoy the process of learning, to reach deep understanding in their studies. Children who learn through exploration, collaboration and investigation develop real-life skills that will pave the path to a successful future.

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When back-to-school overlaps with back-to-work

Stay calm, focus on what is important each day, and you will make it through September and hopefully have some quality family time in the process!

September is bittersweet for all parents, and for working mothers, it can be particularly stressful. On one hand, longer school hours mean more time to get things done at work. On the other hand, fall is often a time when workloads increase after the quieter summer months, and the September school calendars are busy with back-to-school events, parent coffees and organizing play dates with your children’s new friends. It is overwhelming for everyone, but for a mom tasked with prioritizing her own career responsibilities and her children’s needs, it requires some careful planning.

Plan Ahead
Approach the back-to-school season one week at a time, and have a weekly calendar that everyone in the family can see. This will help ease anxiety and allow you to get into a rhythm. It also helps give family members a sense of what is coming up in that week. Within your weekly plan, develop some systems that help you to prepare. Grocery shopping once a week and cutting up fruit and vegetables in advance can help tremendously with the morning and evening rush of packing lunches and making dinner. Creating responsibility checklists with your children will also lighten the nagging and help them to become more independent, freeing up more time for you to work and to parent!

Use Technology
One of the most common frustrations of working parents is that they feel out of touch with their child’s school because they cannot attend certain meetings or volunteer as much as parents who have more flexibility. Technology is helping to close this gap, with advances like live-streamed PTO meetings and SignUp Genius providing instant access to things that used to require you to be physically at school. Tune in when work allows and read all the e-mails from your child’s teacher and the school. These things will keep you in the loop, and when October rolls around and things calm down a bit, you will find it second-nature to stay on top of communication.

Compartmentalize
One of the biggest challenges for working parents who can be plugged in all the time is remembering to turn work off during family time. In the early weeks of school, it is particularly important that we unplug and be fully present with our children at the dinner table and bedtime. E-mails and phone calls can become constant distractions if we let them. Creating rules and following those rules is the best way to separate work from home and manage your priorities.

Give Yourself a Break
Even with the best attempts at planning ahead to effectively balance home, school and work, the beginning of the school year is full of surprises that can throw parents off track. Travel schedules for working parents, along with quickly increasing school and after-school schedules for children, can mean that things slip through the cracks or get done at the last minute sometimes. Take a deep breath and give yourself a break when something goes wrong; every new day brings opportunities to improve, and our children learn a lot from how we handle mistakes and setbacks.

Whether you work part-time, full-time, from home or outside the home, having young children and managing a career requires a careful balance. September often feels out of balance and is a time of transition for everyone. Stay calm, focus on what is important each day, and you will make it through September and hopefully have some quality family time in the process!

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