Progressive education: now, more than ever

Students must be taught to think and reason, not just regurgitate facts

PHOTO/PIXABAY: The author advocates an educational system in which students are encouraged to think critically, to become willing and able to procure good information and engage in critical analysis of information.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of what will be an occasional guest opinion column in the Reno News and Review, offering a space for a discussion of education, what it is, what it could be, what it should be.

Education is, and should be, a topic of concern in our community but I notice that what is often missing from the conversation is a clear definition of what kind of education should be provided in our schools along with sound rationale for the goals of educational programs.

Within the community, people debate educational policy, often vociferously, without anchoring arguments in a clear sense of what the purpose of schools should be. I argue that purpose must be based on the requirements for effective citizenship in the democratic community, where individuals are invited (and obligated) to participate in the public decision-making process.

Presently, the goals of school are directed toward graduates’ ability to meet requirements of the workplace. Considerable emphasis is placed on the students being ready to take on the jobs the American economy needs to achieve economic goals. Those goals are determined by employers who are not concerned with independent decision-making abilities such as those needed for effective citizenship. 

Citizens of a republic

In our consumer society, many employers want a populace lacking in such abilities. A citizenry susceptible to advertising that encourages people to buy the products employees make (working for as little pay as possible) benefits those employers.

“The recent political history of the United States reflects the need for a change in emphasis in our schools toward the building of a thoughtful and informed public capable of engaging effectively in democratic process.  Progressive education argues for that emphasis.” — Stephen Lafer, Phd, University of Nevada, Reno, emeritus professor.

Progressive education provides both the structures and the curriculum for helping students grow in their capacity to think critically, to become willing and able to procure good information and engage in critical analysis of information. Only an informed public is capable of making sound decisions that lead to sensible action. 

Critical thinking

The bias of progressive education is not toward any particular social or economic agenda.  It is toward individual choice, but it’s an informed choice developed rigorously through engagement in a thoughtful decision-making process.  This means that the student’s mind, his or her mindfulness, is at the center of the curriculum.

Facts are only important in the context of achieved understanding. It is beyond knowing that a fact exists and extends to understanding what constitutes a fact, how facts are derived, and what that which is determined factual means. With such understanding, a person is empowered by what is learned, able to participate in the world more fully as a being able to make meaning of what is around to make determinations about what to do about what is understood well enough to do something sensible about it.

This occasional column will be dedicated to offering ideas and rationale for changes to the educational system that allow for, and make possible, schools for effective citizenship.  I will invite guests with expertise to contribute to filling out the description of progressive instructional practice and justification, within the context of the American democracy.  I will also offer examples of lessons shaped by a progressive philosophy with the hope that some, if not many, will use such methods in their classrooms, supported by parents and other educational stakeholders who understand why the progressive way is the better way.

Stephen Lafer, PhD, spent 30 years teaching English education and socio-cultural courses at UNR. He  earned his master’s degree in the Teaching of Writing, taught at the high school level, and then earned his doctorate in Education at the University of Oregon. He is a co-founder of the Truckee River Institute for teachers.

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