The mainstream schooling system has disengaged so many children around the world, while the progressive school movement strives to fix that.
It’s an undeniable phenomenon: children often don’t like school. It isn’t even uncommon for children to proclaim that they hate it. When asked why they hate it, children frequently cite waking up early, the monotonous routine, boring classes, or the classmates they’re forced to spend time with.
Experts have noticed that something about the modern school system, a system that we all adopt and take for granted, just doesn’t work. “It seems to be an extraordinary achievement that you can take children from a very early age where they have endless curiosity, and by the time they reach the age of 10, they’re feeling jaded, irritated, bored, and disengaged from school,” says Sir Ken Robinson, renowned educational advisor, in a discussion with Maryam Al Hajri, Director of Academyati. “The problem is not children; it’s not learners; it’s how we do school and how we do education.”
Education systems have remained virtually unchanged for the past century. Despite fundamental changes in our society, we still subscribe to what is termed “the factory model of education” that was cultivated to suit the needs of the industrial era, in which young people needed to acquire a specific skillset to be able to work in the factories.
For this system to serve its purpose, students are sorted based on their age, and are required to sit in a classroom with an educator for a set period of time to learn a pre-determined curriculum, after which they are tested and graded on their mastery of this curriculum. The higher their grades, the greater their prospects. This is now the mainstream education model.
Since the Industrial Revolution, schools have been based on a very narrow concept of economic need. Education has been shaped by a view of utility. In other words, people are steered away from subjects they would like to study by well-meaning people who tell them that they won’t get a job if they do that.
This is a primary reason why children generally dislike school: the creative subjects for which many children have a natural affinity are sidelined in favor of more hard subjects, like science and math. The content of these subjects is easier to assess, and therefore better suits the mainstream model which values the quantitative evaluation of student abilities.
We are now in a post-industrial era. Our world is changing at an exponential pace, and we no longer have clarity about the kinds of jobs our children will end up having. “The learners have also changed,” adds Maryam Al Hajri. “They’re no longer passive learners. At school, they’re constantly thinking ‘Why am I doing this? How’s that going to help me? You know what, I know more than my teacher.’ Our institutions haven’t responded well to this change.”
Responding to the needs of our time
The progressive education movement aims to re-imagine school to accommodate these changes and harness children’s natural capacity to learn. Since the Industrial Revolution, many classical thinkers like John Dewey and Maria Montessori have emerged to critique the “traditional system” and offer new theories on how schools should work.
These theories focus on child-centered pedagogy and critical thinking as opposed to traditional textbook learning. Their ideas have managed to influence public school curricula over the years, but only recently have many independent schools emerged to push these ideas to extremes, not shying away from revolutionizing everything we take for granted about education.
“We’re re-inventing how schools work. Breaking down the barriers between ages, breaking down the barriers between disciplines, breaking down the barriers between teachers and students,” says Sir Ken Robinson. “The progressive movement of education is concerned with holistic education, that’s to say physical, spiritual, and emotional competence. Those principles have always mattered, they just matter more and more now.”
Many schools around the world have adopted this progressive vision, and the results are quite astounding. “When you step foot into one of these progressive schools, you can see the difference in the children,” says Al Hajri. “You instantly realize that there is something wrong with our schools. This is right.”
One of these schools is right here in Qatar. Her Excellency Sheikha Hind bint Hamad Al Thani, Vice Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer of Qatar Foundation, had a vision for a progressive school to serve the community of Qatar, and Maryam Al Hajri who rose up to the task. After spending two years doing research and fieldwork in schools all over the world, Al Hajri managed to oversee the launch of Academyati in August 2019.
“At Academyati, we wanted to go back to the basics,” says Al Hajri. “First and foremost, it is important for a student to be passionate and curious about what they’re learning. That passion is something we wanted to nurture from an early age here at Academyati.”
At Academyati, students get to choose what they want to learn. Every day, there are four different activities, called “quests,” and children (aged 3-6 years) get to pick the quest they want to join. Through these quests, students are able to discover their interests and their strengths, and lead their own learning journey.
After the quests, the students have a free hour in which they can play, eat, or engage in any activity of their interest. This is followed by “Discovery Rooms” at the end of the day. There are many different rooms, and the students get to choose which room they want to spend their time in. These rooms include the “Living Things Room,” which contains plants and insect farms; the “Sensory Room” which has lights, vibrations, and sounds; the “Building Room” which has Legos and play dough; the “Kitchen,” where students can cook real food; the “Reading Room,” where students can read or listen to stories; the “Art Room,” which has arts and crafts; the “Imagination Room,” where students can wear costumes and pretend to be different characters; and the “Music Room,” where students can play instruments.
“At the end of the day, the children choose where to go on their own, and through that choice, we will know their interests. We’re putting students in a position where they need to take control,” says Al Hajri. When the students feel empowered, they feel like their interests and passions have consequence. Consequently, they are happy to learn, happy to engage, happy to be at school.
Al Hajri notes that the greatest flaw of mainstream schooling is that students and children are viewed as incapable by default; they need to absorb a mass of information, regardless of whether or not they have a talent or a passion for what they are forced to learn. If they do not, then they get low marks, which further lowers their self-esteem.
Children have amazing energies. Those energies need to be put to work to provide solutions for the world. We can’t keep thinking of them as empty vessels needing so much information to be able to start thinking. No, they are able to come up with solutions; they are very creative; they have a lot more energy than adults; they are very proactive. And it’s beautiful to see that come out in these progressive schools.
Every progressive school is different
The progressive movement in education is wary of systems. It does not offer a set-in-stone curriculum or pedagogy for schools to follow, or else it runs the risk of doing exactly what it criticizes in the first place: it subjects learning and education to a set arrangement that is, by definition, difficult to circumvent. Personalized education is a key component of the progressive school movement, and no structure or theory will ever be effective for every child. On the level of progressive schools, this means that we see a different way of doing things in every case.
On 19 November 2019, representatives from seven other progressive schools around the world gathered for the Leading Educational Advancement through Progressive Schools (LEAPS) Summit, organized by Qatar Foundation’s Pre-University Education (PUE). It is the world’s first progressive schools’ summit, where representatives had the chance to share their experiences and exchange ideas.
There was much to learn from the sessions where each school narrated their unique approach to progressive schooling. For example, Kingsland Pre-Prep, a school by Rocket Productions in London, England, focuses a lot on the design of the spaces. In this school, there are no “classrooms” in the traditional sense of the term, rather, what they term “theaters of learning.” These are wonderfully-designed colorful spaces that kindle imagination and encourage children to be more creative.
Lumiar is another school that upends the traditional model. Based in Brazil, the school is known for its project-based approach, meaning that instead of dividing learning into the traditional subjects like math, languages, science, etc., Lumiar divides it mainly by project. These projects are decided by both the students and a mentor, called a “Tutor.” Following this model, students can pursue their interests and develop skills and competencies along the way. It is through these projects that the students acquire subject-area content usually imparted in a traditional classroom setting.
The way that Lumiar evaluates its students is also unconventional. Instead of giving them tests and exams and quantitative grades to measure apprehension of information, Lumiar’s approach is a qualitative assessment of competency and skill development. This is all presented in a “Mosaic Matrix” specially developed for this model; it is a visual representation of what the student already demonstrated through their projects and what they need to work on.
Based in Massachusetts, USA, NuVu Studio is another school without subject classes. It is an open studio designed to encourage collaboration and creativity among middle and high school students. Students come into the school and are presented with a real-world challenge and are expected to collaborate and create something to address this challenge. To guide the students, there are coaches that help them design their innovations, as well as industry experts—professional architects, engineers, filmmakers, designers, etc.
NuVu Studio is one of the schools that Maryam al Hajri visited while she was developing Academyati. With reference to that experience, she says: “Those were high school students; they were happy; they were engaged. They didn’t want to leave. They were in that makerspace until evening, working on brilliant projects that you would have never expected to come from teenagers. It was phenomenal.”
Redesigning the school experience
“We have to break old habits,” says Sir Ken Robinson, “and particularly, we have to break the habit of creating conditions that disengage children from their natural appetite to learn. We have to rethink the fundamental conditions of schooling based on what we know our ancient principles of human flourishing. I think that’s that key to the future.”
The progressive school movement is gradually gaining traction all over the world, and innovative and disruptive schools are emerging everywhere. More and more education stakeholders are now seeing the value of overhauling the traditional method and doing something different. Looking to the future, there are many developments to anticipate in this regard, developments that will hopefully lead to a better school experience for all.