Saturday, January 13, 2018

Steve Nelson: First Do No Harm

We hear the term "progressive education" thrown around a great deal, but what does it actually mean?

Steve Nelson, a teacher with decades of experience, has a pretty good idea, and in his book First Do No Harm,  he lays out what progressive education is, and is not. (It's not that loose hippie thing from the 60s). He opens with eleven statements about education that he plans to debunk ("School choice will motivate improvements in education and give poor families the same opportunities that rich folks have") and he offers his own idea about the primary purposes of education:

1. To stir in each child a continuous commitment to be thoughtfully engaged in the ongoing evolution of our democratic republic and to exercise his/her individual and collective responsibilities within the global community.

2. To allow all children to learn and grow into deeply satisfying and ethical lives.

From there, Nelson goes on to put the ideas of education and the fallacies of reform into the context of the pursuit of a true progressive education. This is one of those books where you won't necessarily encounter new ideas, but you will get to see a larger picture of how those ideas-- both good and bad-- connect to the greater whole.

There are some specific items that are fascinating on their own (for instance, an explanation of how all students can improve on a test and the test result average can then go down). You may not agree with every specific that Nelson brings up (he's a big fan of the multiple intelligences model), but the big pay-off here is the larger picture of progressive education, and why that picture does not fit with the various grand designs of education reformers. So if you are trying to understand what is going on as well as trying to grasp what it all means,  and if you are trying to grasp exactly why ed reform seems like an existential threat to progressive public education, this is a book for you.

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