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Our Free Union Way

Lessons for Life: How Progressive Education Can Benefit Us All

At around 10:15 on my very first Monday here at Free Union, a posse of eight first-graders appeared excitedly if perhaps slightly insistently at my office door. “Hi, Eric.” they said, “Read this.” They presented me with a piece of cardstock that had been folded in half, and decorated on the front with eight illustrations of foods they each enjoyed. When I opened the card, I found the following inside:

“Dear Eric,

We want you to come over and have lunch with us. Don’t forget to bring your lunch. Wednesday is a good day. We eat at noon. Please! Love, F____, P_____, A_____, Z______, A____, A______, and M______”

This delightful, and direct, little invitation embodied so much of what I have come to love and appreciate in such a short time about Free Union Country School and, I think, about the essence of progressive education. Ours is a kind of learning that emerges from interest and excitement and a clear sense of purpose. Rather than being force fed and regurgitated, learning is instead planted, cultivated, fruit-bearing, savored. Creating this lunch invitation, each first grader had varied opportunities to develop new skills and learn new lessons in ways that felt interesting and valuable to them. Drafting their food illustrations offered a chance to express their interests as an extension of their identities, to practice fine motor skills, and to experiment with color and implements of artistry. Crafting the content of the invitation incorporated practice with emerging writing skills--both the mechanics of creating alphabetical letters, and opportunities to transcribe spoken language into handwritten representation. And they topped off the experience with a meaningful, purposeful, coachable, and respectful interpersonal interaction with an adult.

I encounter learning experiences like this seemingly around every corner at Free Union. In second grade, Beth has tapped into the apparently innate fascination with bubbles to craft an open-ended, inquiry-based scientific exploration into the best techniques for creating the best bubbles. No instructions or prescriptions were given to restrict their exploration; only strategically delivered suggestions and questions to help the scientists-in-training structure their investigations. What do you want to learn about the bubbles? What are some things you might try to discover that? How will you measure or define the outcome? The investigation carried on for several days! Just like real science. Elsewhere, the fifth graders have begun assuming the coveted and long-anticipated responsibility of coordinating Pizza Day operations, a quasi-entrepreneurial venture incorporating the logistics of taking orders, collecting payments, and making accurate deliveries; the mathematics of calculating the number of pizzas, revenues, and expenses; and the interpersonal skills to understand that the customer is always right. I could share similar observations from any other classroom at Free Union, which I encounter daily.

To many of us, the times feel pretty tumultuous. Cultivating a future more hopeful, more peaceful, more equitable, more humane than our present, will happen neither by magic nor accident. Nor will it happen by pushing children harder, or filling their lives with more: more activities, more studies, more possessions. If you don’t believe me, consult the research. And that’s good news, because really, isn’t the hamster wheel already turning too fast? The breath of fresh air that progressive education offers us is simply a more thoughtful, deliberate, reflective, and interconnected approach to a life well-lived in concert with young people. Consider this wisdom from the Progressive Education Network, who posit that “the purpose of school expands beyond prevailing education policy and practice. Progressive educators support their students’ deep intellectual development and healthy identity formation—as developing individuals, as active learners within a school community, and as engaged citizens in the broader world. As such, progressive education must…..

  • amplify students’ voice, agency, conscience, and intellect to create a more equitable, just, and sustainable world.
  • encourage the active participation of students in their learning, in their communities, and in the world.
  • respond to the developmental needs of students as individuals, and focus on their social, emotional, intellectual, cognitive, cultural, and physical development.
  • honor and nurture students’ natural curiosity and innate desire to learn, fostering internal motivation and the discovery of passion and purpose.
  • emerge from the interests, experiences, goals, and needs of diverse constituents, fostering empathy, communication and collaboration across difference.
  • foster respectfully collaborative and critical relationships between students, educators, parents/guardians, and the community.”

As our school year progresses, we will share through this forum some of the ways that we put these ideals into practice at Free Union Country School, and will include ideas, suggestions, and opportunities for you to do likewise in your own everyday pursuits. Whenever we can and do, we are preparing young people to be the kinds of citizens we will want, and perhaps need, in the decades to come. But more immediately, and basically, the progressive approach makes for authentically interesting, thought-provoking, and edifying time spent in the presence of young people.