This is the first article in a four-part series on Progressive education at St. Francis School.
By Zak Cohen, Middle School Director

John Dewey is widely considered to be the father of Progressive education – the educational philosophy that we, at St. Francis School, all subscribe to and benefit from. But, what is Progressive education? Well, interestingly, even John Dewey didn’t have a perfectly succinct definition of it. He understood that each school community iterates and implements the Progressive model in its own way. It is only by virtue of these contextual interpretations that schools could transform the larger ideals of the movement into a successful practice. Progressive education was never meant to be defined – not in some uniformed sense of the word anyway – but rather is meant to be understood as a framework that inspires and challenges us to question the familiar structures of a traditional, standardized model of school by placing the changing needs of learners at the center of our decision-making. And these needs seem to be changing at an ever-accelerating pace.  

For the first time in history, the information level outside of school is higher than the information level inside of school. With a tiny device in our pockets, we are all empowered to decide where, when, and how to meet our unique learning needs and passions. Moreover, projections around life expectancy tell us that sooner rather than later, humans will regularly live to 115 years old. Consider that if even an additional 20 of those 35 years are spent in the workforce, students who are in the 5th grade in 2022 will still be part of the workforce come the 22nd century. We might not know the precise suite of skills that students will need to navigate the massive complexities of the emerging future, but we know that we won’t produce lifelong learners in classes that are mostly teacher-directed; we know that we won’t produce risk-takers in classrooms that punish mistakes; we know that we won’t produce critical thinkers with curricula that tell only a single story. 

If I’ve learned anything in my education career, it’s that you don’t want to underestimate the power of students to affect change, operate with agency, and help shape their own learning experience. For students to be stewards of their own learning, it is incumbent on the adults in the school to create a climate wherein customizable, student-driven learning is not just an ethos we laminate, but one that we live. In the Middle School, we seek to accomplish this by affording students a Wise Freedom that suffuses the work of the division. Whether it’s students leading a coding project; spearheading service learning; bringing St. Francis School onto TikTok; choosing their National History Day project, passion project, and Capstone topics; or the dozens of other decisions they lead on each day, we know that the core of Progressive education is about handing over the reins of the learning process to those who it’s meant to benefit most – the students. 

Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive explanation of what Progressive education is – how could it be? Stay tuned for the next few newsletters when our other Division/Campus Heads will dive more deeply into how we at SFS live out this method of schooling that provides the foundation of a more just, caring, and impactful society.