What Our Children Need Most Right Now: A Progressive Education Perspective

By Christina Martin, J.D., Director of Curriculum and Instruction

The Children’s School, Oak Park, Illinois (excerpted from Curriculum Night Speech)

There is no denying that times are tough. We are living through a global pandemic with physical and mental health as well as economic, political, and social implications. And we are living in a time of civil unrest as we examine and confront centuries of American racial injustice —again -- because we’ve failed time and time again to adequately examine and confront these issues before now.

As adults, we may feel that we’re living through unprecedented times. For our children, though, it’s a little different. They don’t have the life experience to know how exceptional these circumstances are. Instead they’re trying to do what children everywhere are trying to do: grow up, learn, understand the world around them, and figure out their place in it.

Children’s Needs in Challenging Times

As educators and parents, we need to stop and think –what do children need from us, and from their education, right now? What do they need to make sense of the world and all that is going on?

I firmly believe that what children need most right now is love, stability, and reassurance. They need social opportunities, time with friends, time to be silly and imaginative and creative, time to play. They need to feel loved and cared for and seen and heard. They need to find joy and beauty and fun in their lives.

If we provide nothing else for our children this year, that will already be a lot.

Now is not the time—if it ever was the time—to focus on standardized test scores, metrics and grades, reading levels and timed math tests. Instead now is the time to make sure that children’s curiosity and wonder are nurtured. That their voices are empowered, that they feel confident in themselves and their own importance and dignity. That they learn about how to live and work in community with others—that their own voice is important, but so are the voices of others. And that they form strong relationships with caring adults, with parents/guardians and teachers and siblings and friends and family members—because it is relationships with other people that carry us through challenging times.

Academic Learning Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

This is not to say that academic skills are not important. Academic skills are of course very important. Reading and writing and mathematics and all the discipline-specific content of science, social studies, arts, and other branches of knowledge are hugely important. However, acquisition of skills and rote memorization of facts are not an end in themselves. They’re a vehicle for other, more foundational and ultimately more important types of learning to take place.

At The Children’s School we embrace a progressive approach to teaching and learning, which is an inquiry-based, constructivist approach. We allow room for student voice and student choice and we take time for social emotional learning and democratic processes to unfold. All of that is good, in fact it’s wonderful—but on its own it is not enough.

Progressive philosophy teaches us that children learn in a social context and that their intellectual and social-emotional learning are inseparable. No matter how hard we might try to shield and protect them, our children are learning in a social context that includes global health disparities and racial injustice among other problems.

And so to return to our original question: What do children need right now? What do they need to grow up and figure out their place in a COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter world?

They need academic and intellectual structures that help them analyze power, access, and equity across race, gender, culture, religion, and other differences. They need practice and guidance analyzing structures of power—structures that provide context for everything else that happens in the world. They need intellectual experimentation and risk-taking. They need critical thinking and the confidence to act on those critical thoughts.


The Call to Parents and Teachers

Instead of shielding children from uncomfortable topics, adults need to find ways to engage children’s hearts and minds around the most pressing topics of our time—health and illness, racial justice and equity, the use and misuse of power and authority. This does not mean sharing every bit of the nightly news with children, but it does mean listening to their questions and concerns, bringing up issues at their developmental level, and helping them make sense of what is going on in the wider world.

Even when we think we are effectively hiding our worries from them, adults are not as good at shielding children as we might think. Children are very perceptive and they almost always understand and know when their grown-ups are feeling stressed, unhappy, or worried. And, children are living in the same culture and environment as we are, and they absorb the same cultural and societal messages that adults do. To give just one example, the idea of teaching children to be “color blind” is not a productive strategy. Research clearly indicates that even young children are not “color-blind,” and so acting as if they should or could be is a form of minimization that perpetuates racial stereotypes and inequities.

That is why it is essential that teachers and parents confront big topics and provide historical and other context to children at their developmentally appropriate levels. This is important for all children—Black, Brown, White, Indigenous, and others.

We feel fortunate at The Children’s School to be part of a community that understands the need for these conversations and reinforces them at home and at school. Our teachers are experienced at weaving social justice topics throughout all areas of our curriculum, including language arts, math, science, social studies, art, and project work. In this way we honor children’s experiences and curiosities while also helping them to take a critical look at the world around them. For students, having their curiosity, agency, and sense of responsibility nurtured are essential drivers of lifelong learning and active citizenship in their communities and in the world.


* To hear Christina Martin's complete 2020 TCS Curriculum Night Address, watch this video

Christina Martin is a founding teacher and administrator of The Children's School in Oak Park, Illinois, which offers progressive education for grades K-8.The Children’s School fosters a love of learning and critical thinking skills through an emergent curriculum based on children’s unfolding curiosity. Faculty guide students to think critically, to ask questions, and to actively participate in their own learning. Small classes emphasize project-based learning in a relaxed environment. Through democratic process and a social justice focus, children learn in a way that honors their voices and helps them make sense of the world around them.

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“Education is not preparation for life;
education is life itself.” 

John Dewey

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