High commendations from 21k12 to Peter Gow and his blog, The New Progressivism.     Gow, who has contributed brilliantly to the ISED list serve for years, and much to the illumination of this blogger, is now broadening his mission to use a blog platform to advance a “new progressive” educational agenda, an agenda that 21k12 is hard pressed to find any difference of significance from the agenda of this blog.

Any difference that may exist between us lies largely in the semantics.   For what Gow calls the “New” Progressivism, I prefer using the 21st century educational concept, believing it less ideologically loaded than the “progressive” term.   Schooling today cannot separate itself from the agenda of reformers who want to ensure education is preparing a highly skilled 21st century workforce, and I want to embrace and collaborate with that movement– co-opt it if you will– by using language that we can all rally around– and I think the 21st c. term does that.

For these reformers with whom I want to connect,  the corporations that fund the Partnership for 21st century skills or the entrepreneurial and corporate business and finance people who populate independent school boards, I fear that the word Progressive carries with it too much baggage of liberalism and liberating educational movements.  To quote Gow himself: ” some have been cautious in embracing the New Progressivism (and many still shy away from the “P” word and its residue of ’60s-era associations).”

Gow’s blog builds on his New Progressivism essay, first published in Ed. Week, and which I find very inspiring.   In the piece, Gow writes about attending the NAIS Annual Conference in NYC (Feb. 2008), and experiencing it as a truly progressive event (as did I– it was a huge influence on the development of my thinking):

Probably few in attendance would have characterized the meeting as such, but the discourse, from main themes to individual workshops, was radically different from most mainstream American conversations about education. It promoted educational ideals that combined conventional practice with innovation from the leading edge of educational theory.

With educators filling Radio City Musical Hall to hear messages of radical change from Sir Ken Robinson and Daniel Pink, and the conference program knee-deep in sessions focused on sustainability, service, global education, diversity, and emerging technologies, it was clear that the ideals of the New Progressivism have taken root.

Gow provides a list of the “essential characteristics” of New Progressivism: these are my quick reactions to this very fine list.

1.  Assessment against high standards.   Absolutely, and I would add to Gow’s discussion that we are determined to teach for the highest levels of student accomplishment, and we are committed to measuring student achievement, both qualitatively and quantitatively.  For the former, let’s post and publish in many forums, including on-line, our students’ work to display the high quality of their thinking and writing; for the latter, let’s test what they have learned and what they can transfer, but test for the right kinds of thinking skills– like we can find in next-generation testing such as the CWRA, the iSkills, and the IB.   For the design of the purposeful  and intentional classrooms which exemplify New Progressivism, he cites three of this blog’s tribunes: Gardener, Sternberg, and Wiggins; I would add to those names the work coming from of Robert Marzano,  Tony Wagner, and Research for Better Teaching.

2. Professional Development.  Gow is right on that at the schools we both seek, professional development is central and essential.  I would add to his comments here that we use the contemporary tools for building cultures of reflection and collaboration, tools such as Professional learning communities and Critical Friends networks.

3.  Real-World Connections.   I see this as a big point of connection between NP and 21k12: real-world linkages ought to be at the heart of 21st century K-12 education.   The brain research on learning, for one, strongly supports that students learn and retain what is real and relevant to their lives.    And Wiggins is right: what are our students really learning of importance if it doesn’t transfer to applications in the real world?   As it happens, just this week the Partnership for 21st century skills (P-21) has published a white paper on the importance to their definition of 21st. century learning of real-world connections. “Successful learning environments break through the barriers that separate schools from the real world, educators from each other and policymakers from the communities they serve.”

4.  Multiculturalism as a process, not a program.  Yes, and I would add that Cross cultural empathy and understanding is an essential element of new century learning, and that among the many understandings of multi-cultural in the new era must be multi-national, and global.  It is more important than ever to be able to understand others, because success in the new flat world will demand it.

5. Character and Creativity. Not sure why Gow puts these two together; I would have separated them out.    I agree, and believe in the critical importance of teaching for innovation and creativity in the 21st century; more than ever, success for our graduates will rely on their ability to think differently, to invent, to challenge conventional wisdom.  Corporate America is now recognizing this too, another way in which a 21st century educational agenda can cross what were formerly political and ideological divides.   It used to seem that the corporate agenda for education was “basic skills” in some isolation, and hence at odds with any progressive agenda for teaching creativity, but now there exists new common ground for the importance of educating for innovation (which, we all know, still requires “basic skills” but isn’t limited to it).

6. Civic Engagement.  Yes, certainly, but I am not clear why to separate this concept from real-world connections. As above, kids will learn much more when they are learning about topics, concepts, and skills which they think matter, and which they think will empower them to contribute and make a difference; hence,  teaching civic engagement is not a political agenda but an educational one.

7. Technology Tools.   Our students should have the best tools available to them in their learning, the best tools possible for researching, communicating, collaborating, and publishing;  digital tools today are incredibly powerful and wonderful tools for these purposes.   Of course, we must ensure they are used properly and constructively, but let’s use them widely and powerfully.  Urban School, in San Francisco, is among many proudly progressive schools that uses technology with great success, and I love the work Howard Levin is doing there.  I also think that progressivism has long promoted the empowerment and autonomy of students in their learning, and good digital tools such as laptops and smartphones do exactly this: they render students more independent and more powerful in the work of their own learning.

What would I add to Peter’s list? The following is only intended to build upon and connect to this vision of New Progressivism.

1.  I think 21st century education should consistently organize itself around problem solving— real world, complex problems.   This concept is certainly tightly related to both civic engagement and real-world connections, but I think it deserves a greater emphasis.   Progressive education often celebrates project-based learning, and I do as well, but I like the broadening of the PBL concept to include problem-based learning: Start with a challenging problem to be solved, an “essential question” to be answered, and then build a project, or prepare a careful paper, to address it.

2.  Just as much as we engage technology tools, and connect to the real world, 21st century K-12 education, and any New Progressivism, must also be rooted in nature and concerned with the planet. This is about education which gets its hands dirty in the earth, which is about exploring and enjoying and learning from natural environments, and which is consistently concerned and engaged with addressing problems of our planet.

3. The last I would add to Peter’s fine list as essential to what I believe both 21st century education and a New Progressivism ought to entail is publishing.  This approach has deep Progressive roots; Foxfire being among the best examples, and now we can embrace web 2.0 tools and applications to K-12 education.   This approach meets kids in a place really meaningful to them, publishing to the web, and uses the web to find and create real audiences for their product, providing them more meaning and motivation to the effort of preparing thoughtful, interesting, relevant school-work.  It is an amazing age we live in, where we all have the opportunities and tools to publish on-line for free.  To quote from a great progressive educator, Ron Berger: “Every final draft my students complete is done for an outside audience…My role as a teacher is not as the sole judge of their work but rather that of a sports coach or a play director: I am helping them to get their work ready for the public eye.  There is a reason to do the work well, and it’s not just because the teacher wants it that way.”

(one last suggestion: let’s get a logo going for the New Progressivism.   The image I put in at top of this post is something I just pulled off the first page of a google image search for progressive education).

Again, in summation here, I want to reiterate my great enthusiasm for Peter’s blog and the concept of a New Progressivism movement, and wish to do everything I can to support it in alliance with my effort to promote innovation and best practices in 21st century education.