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Educator: Have Students Help Shape Curriculum

Alfie Kohn gave a lecture at Burgundy Farm County Day School on the merits of progressive education. Kohn has published 12 books on education, as well as numerous articles in the Journal of Education.

Alfie Kohn gave a lecture at Burgundy Farm County Day School on the merits of progressive education. Kohn has published 12 books on education, as well as numerous articles in the Journal of Education.

— Progressive educator Alfie Kohn challenged parents and teachers to go beyond comfort zones at the Burgundy Farm Country Day School Eric Sevareid Forum held April 4. “Progressive education is scary because it is unfamiliar,” said Kohn. “Progressive education has a better claim to traditional education in fact, standardized testing does not go back that far.”

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For more information about Alfie Kohn and progressive education visit alfiekohn.org.

Kohn, who is the author of 12 books including “Feel Bad Education,” and “The Homework Myth,” was quick to note that even the most traditional of schools have elements of progressive education.

“Not all schools have ruler wielding nuns, but just because a teacher has an interest in a child’s interest does not make her a progressive educator,” said Kohn. “It’s a lot harder to be a progressive education teacher; any idiot can read a chapter ahead.”

According to Kohn, the curriculum in a progressive setting is grounded in problem solving rather than fact-based learning. A curriculum should be created with the students rather than for them, and learning must be active. In progressive education, says Kohn, students need to construct the world around them; the more power in a teacher the less learning there is in the classroom.

On the other hand, Kohn emphasized what a progressive education school is not. Textbooks, for instance, are a resource rather than the curriculum in and of itself. Progressive schools do not emphasize competitive learning, as this goes against the core value of community within the school. “Everyone loses win kids are set against each other, the mentality is that these other people are in between me and winning,” said Kohn.

Progressive education is often at risk of being caricatured as too laissez-faire, however, and that students can choose not to read a book because they don’t feel like it. According to Kohn, skillful adult educators play a vital role in how children ask questions. Learning takes place when ball that is bounced back and forth.

Perhaps the most contentious of Kohn’s ideas is a near total abolition of homework. Homework, he claims, eats into important family time and has little or no positive outcome.

“Homework does not help, no research shows any benefits, not even academic. Making kids work a second shift when they get home eats into family time,” said Kohn. “It’s the same with standardized testing. No college will look at scores before high school. The current mentality is that when you are older people will give you tests, the harm is later so it might as well be now. Tests test what matters least.”

Many of the parents in attendance were unprepared for such radical ideas, yet the consensus was that they were certainly thought provoking.

“I’m a skeptic, especially his points about no homework and no point to it,” said Amy Dale, who has a son in the sixth grade at Burgundy. “We already have a lot of the progressive ideas at Burgundy.”

“Even compared to our school the ideas are radical,” said D’Layne Adkins, also a parent with children who attend Burgundy. “All parents are intrigued by the idea of no homework.”

Such thought provoking ideas are at the core of the Burgundy Severaid Forum. The form, named after Eric Severaid who attended the first graduating class at Burgundy in 1953, has taken risks with speakers in the past. Previous speakers include Ray Suarez, senior correspondent for The Newshour who addressed race in America, as well as Ashley Merryman, co-author of NurtureSchock.

“We try and attract people that are on the cutting edge and provocative; Alfie does that in spades,” said Jeff Sindler, head of school at Burgundy. “Alfie reminds us that children are people, that we need to involve them and meet them where they are.”