Progressive Learning at PKS

Fourth graders in class.

Fourth graders in class.

To kick off the 2016-2017 school year, we are presenting a series of posts about the PKS approach to learning. The first installment features a conversation with Simona Chongo, Preschool Director, and Renee Miller, Director Teaching and Learning.

Q: Can you each give me your own short and simple definition of progressive education?
Simona: For the preschool, the words that come to mind are child-centered, looking at the whole child, approaching learning in the context of relationships, understanding the children’s deep interests and seeing children as active participants in learning that is meaningful to them.

Renee: For me progressive education keeps kids and their hearts, minds and spirits at the center of everything we do. The kids are our driving motivator for the choices we make pedagogically and institutionally. We help kids learn to be active participants in a community and a democratic society. We want them to learn to engage with the world at large and like Simona said, we’re asking kids to be observant and active participants in their education, which means choice is important, as is learning how about how they and others learn so they can have a voice in their own education. Social justice is also one of the values that came out of the progressive education movement. In fact, the Progressive Education Network recently updated its guiding principles to include social justice.
Q: How is Reggio-Emilio related to progressive education?
Simona: Reggio is one educational approach that is part of the progressive education category. Reggio is rooted in a movement that was aimed to protect children’s rights and therefore social justice is very important and extremely relevant to the Reggio approach. In fact, the teachers in Reggio-Emilia, Italy see themselves as passionate advocates for children’s rights, for viewing children as whole human beings and for access to early education. Meeting the actual teachers in Reggio, Italy is very special because they are such powerful and passionate advocates!
Renee: Progressive education is an umbrella term, a value statement and a set of principles. There are many ways to deliver on those principles, including Reggio, Montessori, or Waldorf.
Simona: All these approaches provide the practical implementation of progressive principles. They were all started by individuals who embraced progressive principles and figured out how to implement those principles within their own contexts. Context is really important! Reggio educators don’t want people to view Reggio as a manual or a prescription that can be simply borrowed and replicated. Even the name of the Reggio approach is specific to the name of their town. Any school that adopts the Reggio values and guiding principles is “Reggio-inspired” and must adapt the approach to its own context. At PKS the preschool teachers and I pay attention to our own context, our own community, the issues that we notice among our families and our Mandarin-immersion concept, which transforms everything.
Q: Tell us about your own paths to finding and believing in progressive education.
Simona: My mom was an elementary teacher. In Romania, children have the same teacher from Grade 1-4, which allows the teacher to get to know the whole child, see the big picture and see how every child is progressing over the years. That was the lens that I’ve always had towards education: know the whole child, know what drives each child, what sparks them so you can build on their strengths and help them transfer those strengths into other areas. 
I was also fascinated about how to teach math, and solving Martin Gardner’s math games was one of things that my dad and I enjoyed best. When I was in middle school and high school, my mom would bring me challenging math problems and ask me how I would teach them to a first grader or a third grader using modeling, or without using algebra or advanced math. Looking back I realize that was great practice in reflecting on learning through a child’s lens and how to you teach in a way that is age and developmentally appropriate for children. Realizing the joy that brought me was also one of the main reasons I chose teaching.
Later, as part of becoming a language teacher myself, I studied child development, psychology and different pedagogical approaches. What prompted my interest in early childhood education was having my own children, raising them bilingual and being in San Francisco. These formed a perfect confluence of looking at best practices and approaches for both early childhood education and language education from a progressive, whole-child lens and that’s how I came to Presidio Knolls!
Renee: I didn’t always use the word “progressive” but I certainly went into education to do what’s best for kids. I started in a public school that was doing whole language, multi-age grouping and interesting things for a public school at that time. When I moved to Park Day [one of the most respected schools in the progressive movement], I took on the label of a “progressive” teacher but my habits and values as a teacher were always progressive. I deeply believe that apathy, fear of math, racism and other ills are all learned behaviors. Children don’t come into the world inherently fearing things or other people or feeling paralyzed or uninterested in helping. I’m passionate about progressive education because I want to attend to a kid’s heart, mind and spirit, and provide learning opportunities so kids don’t close their minds or hearts. I want to help them approach their friends, their community and the ills of society with a sense of agency and a willingness to engage.
Q: How does progressive education change in a language immersion setting?
Renee: Without a doubt a school can be a progressive school and a language immersion school. There’s nothing about language immersion that limits our ability to implement progressive or vice versa. One specific example: repetition and daily practice of characters is an important part of learning Chinese. A progressive approach would be to consider: what is the appropriate amount of time for a 3rd grader to engage in this practice, and how do we make it as engaging and enjoyable as possible? There is no one strategy that is cancelled out by progressive – it’s about weighing kids’ developmental needs to create a well-rounded approach. As [well-known progressive educator] Alfie Kohn often says: “Everything in context and for a purpose.” 
Simona: Language immersion and progressive education are not mutually exclusive, but doing both does require constant refinement and reflection. To start with, progressive education is more difficult to implement well than traditional education, and progressive education within a language immersion environment definitely adds complexity. However, I see these two elements as building on each other. On the one hand, we teach Mandarin through progressive strategies – taking into account the children’s interests and engagement, introducing meaningful language through social connections and collaborative work, using differentiated and individualized strategies, allowing for active choice and flexibility, and all of these promote a positive disposition towards the language. On the other hand, children experience progressive education – open-ended, inquiry-based projects, authentic problem solving and participation in the life of the community – in Mandarin, and in turn they can apply the same inquiry-approach to learning the language.
Another interesting dynamic comes from the fact that a huge part of the progressive and Reggio teacher’s role is to be a listener and an observer of the children, while a language immersion teacher has to immerse children and expose them to the target language. The tension and balance between these two roles – on one hand a listener to children and on the other, a producer of language immersion experiences – makes our work so meaty and so important. I remember one of our workshops, during which we translated open-ended questions into Mandarin, turned into a long and heated debate about the nuances and connotations that terms like “inquiry” or “critical thinking” have in Mandarin. Having continuity among our faculty and doing our own research in terms of best practices and strategies are keys to a high quality education.
Q: Progressive education at the preschool level seems absolutely natural. Do you believe the progressive approach works at all age levels?

Renee: Yes of course! I want everyone’s hearts, minds and spirits attended to. That’s how we all work and learn most fully. Progressive education requires a constant dialogue about best practices for kids. As long as we are keeping kids at the center, progressive education is going to work at every age level. I’m even trying to create a progressive learning environment for our adult teachers! 
Q: What are you most looking forward to accomplishing this year?

Simona: The preschool faculty and I have two main investigations this year: One is about building illuminating relationships within Reggio context – the children’s relationships with the environment, with each other and with the Mandarin language. The other big thread is looking at observation and documentation to make the experience and learning inside the classroom more visible to parents. 

Renee: I’m excited to dig in deeply with math and problem-solving to bring rich, interesting mathematics to the elementary program! It has been so fun to share my passion for progressive education with the teachers and they are all so fired up and engaged around the topic! We’re looking at each of our decisions and choices through the lens of what’s best for kids. 

Read more about the PKS progressive approach.