I believe that the single best word to describe education is empowerment. Unfortunately, the structured, curricula-based, teacher-directed traditional education system, which is solely focused on discipline and academic achievement and neglects the personal, social and emotional growth of students, is prevalent in Nepal. People are literate but are they empowered? Education is much more than just literacy or a great test result. For me, education is the ability to make choices – based on reason and logic. I believe that schooling is deeply influential in establishing a sense of identity and creating empowered citizens who can critically assess personal choices as well as collaborate with others to achieve a common goal for the society. How can we achieve this utopian vision of education? Maybe the answer lies with progressive education. Progressive education is a pedagogical movement that aims to develop critical, socially engaged individuals who understand and participate effectively in their community. This approach has slowly made its way to Nepal, and now many schools claim to follow this approach in their teaching-learning activities. So, what is progressive education? Is it really just being free about discipline and unstructured in curriculum? What lies at the heart of this approach that ensures children will grow up to be lifelong learners and passionate advocates for social change?
One of the texts that has influenced my ideas about “progressive education” is John Dewey’s “Experience and Education”. Dewey and his argument about the “quality of experience” continue to fascinate me till date. Dewey gives importance to the long-term as well as short-term quality of an educational experience. He argues that if teachers plan and organize subject content in such a way that each student’s prior experiences and ideas are tapped into and guided towards new knowledge, it can result in a yearning for deeper learning in all students. It is the educational experiences that make a student want to ‘continue’ learning and the ‘interaction’ with the teacher and peers that make learning deep and meaningful. Teachers have to create simple yet relevant learning experiences for children, rather than control learning through activities that encourage rote learning, but limit the child’s powers of intelligent judgment. It is also detrimental to engage children in meaningless projects that are so different to their present situations of life that the child cannot connect or relate the experience, for instance, teaching children about world history before they have a sense of their own identity and history. Time and effort consuming project works that ask students to only reproduce what they google on the Internet and leave little room for critical thinking and discussion, are poor excuses for learning experiences. At the most, such works enhance only the ability of students to ‘copy and paste’ ideas. There is no true inquiry, neither any form of interaction, nor any knowledge creation. So, how can this be learning? I compare education with economics – learning should be efficient in terms of time and effort but the result should be deep understanding with the ability to link with prior knowledge and future learning. We can design thousands of project activities but if they are not relevant, if children are not given opportunities to interact, question and reflect, then such experiences make no meaning.
Dewey also highlights how the value of experiences is subjective to the effect that the experience has on the individual’s present and future. It means what may be a rewarding experience for one person, could be a negative experience for another. Negative experiences may lead to a ‘callousness’ to new ideas, and result in an aversion to learning because of the way in which learning was experienced by them. Children have different past experiences, prior ideas about a concept and ways of learning, so why do schools behave as though a one-size-fits-all education will work for everyone? If educators could assess differences in prior knowledge and learning styles more intelligently, and redesign educational models to account for these differences, they would radically improve students’ prospects for success in and out of school. As a teacher-leader who conducts professional development sessions, I realize that even with adults, we learn better when we see connections to our daily life and find relevance in what we have to learn. A Professional Development Session for Grade 2 teachers and Grade 10 teachers at the same time does not make much sense if the topic is not relevant or interesting to both. Learning activities have to be interest based to be powerful, and this can be achieved only when we focus on the topics that ‘matter’ to the learner, and design our practices accordingly, be it for a child or an adult.
I believe that everyone is a learner, from the first day of our lives to the day we die. A school should create a space where everyone including adults feels encouraged and supported to take risks, ask questions, make mistakes, and reflect on what they’ve learned. My most treasured learning in my academic journey so far has been this understanding of ‘progressive’, and how it is the small everyday experiences and interactions with the world that make up the whole myth of ‘progressive education’. Schools that create rich experiences and opportunities for inquiry, creativity and collaboration are truly ‘progressive’ and will develop not only educated but also empowered individuals.