By Keturah Wahrmann-Harry

Upon entering the early education program at Bank Street Graduate School of Education in 2015, I believed there existed a (cultural) tension between progressive pedagogy and its reflection of what seemed to me as middle-upper class white American values versus the more traditional educational styles and methods of teacher-directed instruction and practices.  In my current school setting, the teachers  that I work with teach as they were taught growing up in the Caribbean and West Indies, where the educational system was structured similarly to the British system whereby rote teaching methods and traditional pedagogy prevailed.

This clash of cultures has been part of my personal academic experiences over the years, attending private educational institutions in Brooklyn and then New England; my home culture clashed with my school culture.  At school, I felt empowered and respected as a person of the community.  I was challenged to think critically and independently and share my opinions as part of my learning process.  We went out on field trips and engaged in investigations whereby I was allowed and encouraged to have my own personal interpretations.  I strongly believe these experiences contributed to my decision to attend a liberal arts college where students were encouraged to explore and make connections across all the disciplines.   At home, the expectations for learning and the social interactions were different and based in a culture where people had very strict roles and rules of conduct.  

Most recently, I have experienced this tension play out in my professional career in my current work settings.  The program with which I work serves families in a West Indian community that want their children to learn the skills that they will need to be successful in school.  As a program that is federally funded, curriculum and teaching strategies are mandated and are viewed by my community’s parents and educators as not reflecting the needs and teaching strategies their children will ultimately need in order to excel.  

I repeatedly get the question from parents and families about the validity of play and whether “our” children are getting an appropriate preparation for kindergarten and their academic careers in the future.  Most of the students I currently work with will end up in local public schools, many of which do not have the best teachers and cannot  offer a diversity in school or extracurricular activities.  Many of the families that attend my program live in a low-income neighborhood where their options and choices for schools and types of education are limited.

For months, my primary concern revolved around how to reconcile the expectations of my families and educators with that of what we now consider best practice.   As I explored these questions, I came across an article by Lisa Delpit called, The Silenced Dialogue:  Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children (1995) where she speaks to the feelings of estrangement of black educators from the progressive pedagogy and practices.    In it, she discusses how systems of power relate to the tensions between the liberal educational movement and non-white, non-middle class educators and communities.   Delpit maintains this as the underpinnings of an unrepresentative progressive education movement and how it fails children of color (particularly Black Americans, Hispanics and low income families) in its goals for educating children.  

Several of her points resonated with me on both a personal and academic level, particularly in regards to her feelings of estrangement from the progressive liberal educational movement.  Her primary reason for expanding upon the topic was due to her feelings as a progressive educator of color that the liberal, progressive educational movement does not necessarily have room within its framework to accommodate alternative views which can also support liberal and progressive ideas and strategies.  She accuses the movement of creating a didactic relationship between ‘progressive’ educational strategies (that promote individual independence and autonomy) and those which support a more direct skills-based instruction style, instead of the possibility of both existing in harmony as different educational strategies striving to achieve the same ultimate goal.   

For those whose families and communities are not reflected within the culture of power, Delpit argues it is necessary to learn its codes and norms so as to gain access to and successfully participate within it.   She makes the case that not all children come to school with the same knowledge, experiences, and understandings, and it is a school’s job to teach all students how to function and thrive within the dominant culture by providing skills, interaction styles, discourse patterns, and spoken and written language (often different from their own) that will allow them to be successful within larger society (dictated by those with power).  

My point here is that American ‘mainstream’ almost always is representative of white middle and upper class ideals and perspectives; and the American education system is no different. Again we find ourselves experiencing a similar tension between liberal educational movements and that of non-white, non-middle class teachers and communities.    Delpit describes how modern progressive educational pedagogy does not accommodate multiple perspectives and needs of the American population as it stands today.  Expanding progressive education requires an inclusion of several perspectives and the freedom to be able to differentiate instructional approaches to truly reflect the diverse needs of children and their families.  

Understanding that children from Black, Hispanic and low income families tend to enter school less equipped with the skills, experiences and knowledge of the dominant white middle and upper class culture, it is fitting to acknowledge the responsibility of schools and educators to teach children these skills, especially at an early age, in order for them to be better prepared to learn and thrive with their peers from other social and cultural groups.

This resonates with Delpit’s idea that school is a place to help level the educational playing field (or acculturate children and families to American life and culture) for those students who are lacking the skills and knowledge base of mainstream American culture and communication through skills-based instruction and strategies.  

With that being understood, I initially interpreted Delpit’s message as a divisive one where there was no room for a diversity in cultural styles or expectations within progressive education.  However, this changed dramatically after reading–and rereading–John Dewey’s Experience and Education (1938).  In it, one of the first things that Dewey challenges is the didactic relationship between traditional and progressive education and asserts that one should not trump the other and/or be forgotten.  We can take the good from traditional educational practices and still apply them so long as they are done in a meaningful and intentional way that would be conducive to a democratic approach to education.  He advocated for empowering children as learners by honoring their learning styles and previous experiences.  

He explains that the teacher must get to know his or her students and the situations and experiences they have encountered when he says, “He must, in addition, have that sympathetic understanding of individuals as individuals which gives him an idea of what is actually going on in the minds of those who are learning.  It is among other things, the need for these abilities on the part of the parent and teacher which makes a system of education based upon living experience a more difficult affair to conduct successfully than it is to follow the patterns of traditional education.”  In essence, Dewey is arguing for educators to meet the students where they are, wherever that may be.

More importantly, it is educators’ responsibility to use the world around them, wherever that may be, as grounds for learning and educative experiences.  “A primary responsibility of educators is that they not only be aware of the general principle of the shaping of actual experience by environing conditions, but they they also recognize in the concrete what surroundings are conducive to having experiences that lead to growth.  Above all, they should know how to utilize the surroundings, physical and social, that exist so as to extract from them all that they have to contribute to building up experiences that are worthwhile.”.

With these explanations, Dewey is speaking to the fact that educators can create educative experiences from any social (or cultural) context and environment.  The outdoor classroom in the slums can providing rich learning experiences that can also be had in the wealthiest neighborhoods.  No matter one’s culture or social standing, the world–wherever that may be– can still be a powerful tool for and of learning with children.  I do not mean to say that all communities offer the best and richest educative experiences; I make the argument that regardless of culture or community, learning can be possible in respectful and meaningful ways.  Dewey asserts that, “a system of education based upon the necessary connection of education with experience must, on the contrary, take these things into account,” which makes me feel hopeful that the progressive practices he describes transcends culture, language, and race (or any -ism we may/can encounter).  

He continues to say that traditional education did not have this problem; there was no demand that the teacher should become intimately acquainted with the conditions of the local community, and its physical, historical, economic, occupational, and other attributes in order to utilize them as educational resources.  

Within the context of my current educational community, this provides me with so much hope for progressive education as being a tool that can truly accommodate various communities and groups of learners in diverse settings.  Before reading and understanding Dewey, I regarded progressive ideals as those that could only help those already at an advantage.  However, what I am realizing now is that Dewey advocated for educators to understand the children they work with in terms of culture, community and previous experiences and knowledge, and honor these by using them as grounds for creating educative experiences that will ground their learning in accessible and respectful ways.  

Dewey continues to say that, “the environment, in other words, is whatever conditions interact with personal needs, desires, purposes, and capacities to create the experience which is had.” He goes on to say that “there is incumbent upon the educator the duty of instituting a much more intelligent, and consequently more difficult, kind of planning.  He must survey the capacities and needs of the particular set of individuals with whom he is dealing and must at the same time arrange the conditions which provide the subject-matter or content for experiences that satisfy these needs and develop these capacities.  The planning must be flexible enough to permit free play for individuality of experience and yet firm enough to give directions towards continuous development of power.”

I interpret Dewey’s words to mean that the educator, upon knowing his or her students and community, has the choice and ability to understand the kind of experiences necessary to meet students where they are and build upon these capacities.  Dewey does not argue that one style of teaching is better or worse than the other; instead he insists that teachers have the flexibility to determine which and what kind of experiences can lead to growth and understanding.   

The argument being that children need to be taught in school what they may not receive at home is a complicated one, especially when we consider the diversity of American people, experience and history.  However, I now realize that believing in a progressive pedagogy does not mean that as an educator of color, I have to choose between child-centered and teacher-directed experiences.  Where Delpit initially argued that there may not be room in progressive education for a diversity in teaching skills, I disagree and believe that the original intent and nature of progressive education does in fact accommodate children from all backgrounds and skills in an authentic way.  Dewey states that teachers should be using a child’s community as tools for growth and learning, meaning that every community is in fact grounds for/of rich learning.  And I also agree with Delpit when she says that a teacher must recognize children’s capacities and their needs, and choose different methods of teaching based on the needs of the students s/he is working with (which still can be done within a progressive framework).  Progressive education does not mean that there will never be room for direct-instruction and/or rote learning. Jonathan Silin writes in his essay, Real Children and Imagined Homelands: Preparing to teach in Today’s World, that “the successful curriculum builds on rather than competes with the children’s lives.” Some children at times may need direct-instruction of skills because they do not get it at home, whereas some children are more comfortable in and successful with the open-endedness of progressive education.  The ideals of progressive education do not clash with culture or a variety of expectations for growth and learning, but in fact support all learners and their experiences and capabilities.  

I no longer feel like I have to chose between culture and progressive pedagogy, and now can comfortably explain to teachers and parents the merits of such kind of structure and how it will in fact help their children as they grow older and encounter various situations and learning environments. It is the adaptability of this progressive style that allows for a combination of learning and teaching styles that all work together to honor students as active participants in their own learning.  It honors the various backgrounds we come from and the collective communities we share.  As a result of reading Dewey, I can proudly assert myself as an educator of color who deeply believes in progressive education as it was originally intended and designed.  

 

References

Delpit, L.D. (1995).  Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom.  New York: New Press.

Dewey, J. (1938).  Experience and education.  New York: Macmillan.  

Nager, N., & Shapiro, E. K. (2000). Revisiting a progressive pedagogy: The developmental-interaction approach. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Keturah Wahrmann-Harry is the Education Coordinator at Get Set Kindergarten and Elementary Schools. After earning a B.A. in English at Trinity College, Keturah did her graduate studies in Early Childhood General & Special Education at Bank Street College of Education.