Loving Learning: Thank You Tom Little

Tom Little’s lifelong passion for progressive education emerged directly from his experience with its antithesis.

I was six years old, and the youngest of six children, when I lost my father to cancer. On the day after his funeral, I raised my hand in class. I held my hand in the air for what seemed like a very long time before the teacher called on me.
“I just want you to know that my daddy died—” I began.
“Yes, Thomas, we already know that,”
… I shrank back into my seat, feeling worse than invisible.

51pfmbfWK2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Tom died last year but not before he finished his book. Based on his life’s work as teacher and head of school at Park Day School in Oakland, California, it also draws together the lessons learned from his 2013 trip to visit forty plus progressive schools across the country

It’s wonderfully readable, useful and personal.  And you just have to love the boldness and confidence of the title.

Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools

And he makes an excellent case for why – and how – that title rings true.

Forget about yearning for the education systems of Finland or wherever he says – we have the answer to what ails our children, our schools and indeed our democracy right here at home. (Finland drew its reform inspirations from America.)  And the answer is in the enduring legacy and practices to be found in progressive schools with their century’s old carefully crafted approaches to community, curriculum, creativity, critical thinking and caring for children.

An Enduring Legacy of Success

America’s progressive schools are scattered, unconnected, diverse and rare. Tom writes:

By my estimation, fewer than one hundred American schools still call themselves progressive….Yet I also saw much evidence of the movement’s hardy survival…. I found I could walk into a progressive classroom in New York City, inner-city Boston , or a suburb in Illinois or Ohio , and instantly feel at home. Children at these schools always seem to be somehow lighter, happier, and more engaged. Most of the time, kids are out of their chairs. There are similar inspirational mottos on the walls, and there’s always a rug in the corner of the classrooms, where the younger students can learn in comfort and focus on strengthening their classroom community during part of the day. When I’ve lingered to observe, I’ve also always noted the common pedagogy: the attention to relationships, the students’ freedom, within limits, to follow their interests, and the hands-on, creative projects that reveal the deeper meanings behind the curricula.

In coming up with that number – which I think is a bit on the low side – Tom specifically excluded Montessori schools some of which are progressive and also Waldorf schools for their allegiance to anthroposophy and the mysticism of Rudolf Steiner.

The schools Tom visited had elements in common that have survived the decades of distinctly non-progressive pendulum swings in educational thinking.

IMG_7751In these schools community, problem solving and creative thinking are not just found in the early childhood block corner or during the on-the-rug meetings.

They are also found in the systems and structures of the day – the schedule, the mixed-age activities and buddies, in assessment and the role of teacher.

They are the reason for the  emergent curriculum that allows for the interests of students;  for the integrated program that seeks connections between and amongst the subject area disciplines; and for experiential education – hands-on learning, expeditions, field trips and learning by doing.

A Definition of Progressive Education

Putting together what he learned from these many visits he crafted  a working definition:


Progressive Education prepares students for active participation in a democratic society, in the context of a child-centered environment, and with an enduring commitment to social justice.

He also identified six core strategies that have endured from the days of the early pioneer educators:

  1. Attention to children’s emotions as well as their intellects;
  2. Reliance on students’ interests to guide their learning;
  3. Curtailment or outright bans on testing, grading, and ranking;
  4. Involvement of students in real-world endeavors, ranging from going on field trips to managing a farm;
  5. The study of topics in an integrated way, from a variety of different disciplines; and, not least,
  6. Support for children to develop a sense of social justice and become active participants in America’s democracy.

Sounds pretty good to me. And you can find all of them in various forms at PDS today.

Tom sums it up as a:

16940715126_1ef7288426_oA Pedagogy of Joy

And – just to pile on that assertive title with  just a little more hyperbole:  Loving Learning can save America’s Schools and America’s Children and our Future.

As Tom points out – it is the kind of education many of those in power and authority choose for their own children. One of the schools he visited was Sidwell Friends where President Obama chooses to send his children.

16346603363_e577bf1c19_o (1)As he shows – the evidence is there – progressive education works.

Children educated in progressive schools do better. They are healthier and do better on measures of mental health and – yes – even on those dratted tests that so bedevil contemporary schools and preparing for which seems destined to drive out the last vestiges of progressive approach from the curriculum.

More test prep means less time for art, music, recess, play  and all the very things children need to thrive as healthy and happy people (and do well on tests if that’s what matters to you.)

And the values and capacities and skills we have been repeatedly told that children will need to thrive in the future are those that are intentionally and routinely nurtured in progressive schools.

Tom Little discovered he was a part of the progressive legacy of American schooling by accident. His  lifelong passion for humane practice arose from thirteen years of dismal school that left him determined  to doing something different. He found he was not alone and indeed part of a long tradition to which he then dedicated himself.

16966683505_330b28a610_oProgressive educators are an optimistic lot and Tom was no exception. I love his open-minded appreciation of the progressive heart and potential of high technology. (To ward off the predatory edtech robber barons with their software solutions and alternatives to teachers he advises a vision that keeps the whole child at the center).

The maker movement is a natural for progressive educators and Tom saw it as a creative response to the needs of children and their future. Maker Faires are a celebration of hands-on learning and he reports some intriguing evidence of the cognitive and mental health benefits of the affinity for working with the hands. Park Day School  hosted its first mini maker faire in 2011.

It’s a short book but it has plenty to say about the common virtues of progressive schools – the features they share and the positive and lasting outcomes for children. It is also a useful account of how our schools came into being, the journey through the decades – the things that have endured and some that have changed as our understanding about how children learn has expanded. The pioneer progressive educators were always looking at the evidence and the data.  The science  continues to serve progressive schools today. The evidence is clear. Progressive education is better for children.

America’s progressive schools maybe be rare but they are alive and kicking. What they stand for – and continue to  practice – is what so many are saying is what all our children need to thrive in the future. Progressive schools educate children for their futures not our past. They are indeed a cure for so much of what ails us.

I had the pleasure of meeting Tom at the NAIS annual conference in 2011.  He was warm and genial and welcomed conversation.  And when I heard in 2013 – via Twitter – that he was embarking on a journey to visit progressive schools across the country I invited him to Poughkeepsie Day School. We did not end up on his itinerary but he and I spoke extensively on the phone and I wrote down and shared some of my thoughts. He wrote about his journey and the schools he visited on his blog and on Twitter.

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 2.13.09 AM

Loving Learning has a useful list of progressive schools and I was pleased to see PDS on the list together with a number of other schools with which we have had a close connections over the decades: Bank Street School for Children (established by PDS founding director Elizabeth Gilkseon), Village Community School founded by Gilkseon’s protege and former PDS teacher Sheila Emerson Sadler and now ably headed by my friend and former colleague Eve Kleger. (I was glad to to add a couple of other PDS connected progressive schools to his list – Freebrook Academy in Brooklyn – founded by Monique Scott ‘99 and designed to bring a PDS-style education to Bedford Stuyvesant  – and our  neighbor the wonderful Randolph School in Wappingers Falls.)

How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools

As Tom points out – progressive is the kind of education many of those in power and authority choose for their own children. Shouldn’t America’s best schooling be available to all of its children. As Tom shows – the evidence is there – it works. The competitive achievement ridden race-to-the-top nature of contemporary public and private schools is not only unhealthy for kids and counter productive. The mounting evidence makes this very clear.  It is also no preparation for  participation in a democracy.

But – don’t take my word for it. Read the book. Perhaps it will leave you too feeling hopeful and  affirmed in a commitment to a joyful and effective education  – one we  know works,  does matter, and remains as a source of optimism and hope.

I am thankful to Tom and his co-author Katherine Ellison for this book. He healed that wounded six-year-old child with a lifetime of service to other children.

*Little, Tom; Ellison, Katherine. Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools  W. W. Norton & Company. 

1 Comment

  1. Fantastic!

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