Progressive education is grounded in the belief that students learn when they are engaged in authentic
problem solving experiences. In his essay, The School and Society, John Dewey wrote: “Next to no consideration has been paid to the fundamental necessity- leading the child to realize a problem as his own, so that he is self-induced to attend in order to find out its answer.” The experience a child has of ownership over the process of inquiry can take many forms in the Lower School. Most recently, I witnessed it begin with a box of pancakes.
Last week, a group of first graders, in the midst of their study of food, engaged in a sorting activity during which they categorized food based on common characteristics. During the course of the conversation, the children sorted pasta, rice, bread, muffins and pancakes into a group. A majority of the group decided that these foods belonged together because they were all made of grains. “No, not the pancakes. They are made from a box!” exclaimed a child. As a progressive educator, this teacher quickly recognized the opportunity in this moment, and chose to open up the conversation rather than to close it with an answer.
A few children responded to this child’s assertion regarding the origin of pancakes. One child shared that the pancakes were made out of the flour that came from the box. The students then wondered what ingredients made flour. Perhaps corn? Maybe wheat? “We don’t have proof that it’s wheat,” asserted one child. There was only one way to find out. They purchased corn and buckwheat, and borrowed a grinder. As the children ground the corn and buckwheat, they noticed the texture, color and size of the grains changing. They were amazed to see it slowly transform into the recognizable powder they used during cooking and baking.
A couple of things struck me as I saw the students engaged in this inquiry of flour. The first was the space given for the pursuit of a real problem. These first grade teachers understood the fundamental necessity of which Dewey spoke, the necessity to work with a child’s natural inquisitiveness and desire to experiment in the world. This experience is replicated for LREI students across their 14 years. Whether they are pondering the origins of flour, examining the most efficient way to package a box of cans to deliver to the food pantry, or discussing the impact of the 2014 Supreme Court decision regarding the Voting Rights Act, children see themselves, and are seen by their teachers as protagonists in the process of their learning.
The second thing that struck me as I watched this first grade investigation was the students’ pursuit of information. They did not want simply to be told an answer, they wanted proof that that answer was correct, and they were willing to work hard to gather that evidence. At a time when adults are debating the notion of “alternative facts,” the importance of developing and deepening the practice of inquiry feels urgent. Our progressive mission is committed to developing educated consumers of information, willing to hold themselves and others accountable by expecting evidence, and eager to delve deep into the process of inquiry.
Dewey, J. (1915) The School and Society. University of Chicago Press