Putting students in charge of classrooms

Published 9:47 pm Wednesday, September 24, 2014

By Clay Scott

Progressives claim that traditional approaches to teaching diminish student agency and limit perspectives. This begs the question: What should the student be allowed and expected to do in the classroom?

The classical approach is simple. Teachers teach, and students study. The framework of understanding is the teacher’s. As an expert in his or her subject area, that framework is trusted and relied upon to properly shape the students’ understanding in that class. By learning right thinking, the student is empowered.

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The progressive approach is more complicated, Teachers motivate, inspire, guide, explain and many other things, but they do not “teach” in the true sense of the word. That is, their main job is not to clearly present information so that it can be processed by students.

Information may be transmitted, but it is not often specific. This is why progressive teachers will tell you things like “I’m more concerned with how a child thinks than what a child thinks” and “There is no right or wrong answer to this question.”

Progressive students, likewise, do not study in the true sense, either.

A true student would read the words of great thinkers like Frederick Douglass, Aristotle or Marie Curie and try to adjust his or her thinking to incorporate the brilliance of those individuals. This is what it means to study and learn. By identifying goodness, truth, beauty and reality, as understood by great thinkers, a good student learns to think like those great people.

The progressive mentality flips this pattern upside down. First, they are unlikely to teach great thinkers of the past, because they over-emphasize anything new and flashy. On the rare occasions that great thinkers do come up in lessons, the students are trained to accept pieces of the thoughts of Douglass, Aristotle or Curie so as to make them fit into their own way of thinking.

Think about this. In the progressive classroom, the most important thought is that of the student. That may sound forward-thinking, but it is completely backward.

Are the thoughts of your average teenager really more valuable than those of Frederick Douglass? Sure, there are some astute students out there, but for the most part our teenagers’ thinking is fed a steady diet of crass humor, loud music (or at least that’s what they call it), violence, sex and whatever else our overindulgent society comes up with.

By contrast, Frederick Douglass’ thinking was fed almost exclusively with the classics.

When progressives promote agency, they are talking about letting students think what they want to think. They talk about “constructing” truth, rather than discovering truth. The problem is that regardless how much we want something to be true, we do not really have control over that.

When one believes in absolute truth, rules and limits are empowering. When one does not, rules become oppressive.

When I come to a stop sign, I could see that as a hindrance designed to limit my agency. I might decide not to subject myself to such arbitrary rules and then choose to drive straight through. The problem is that, while I may want to create my own world, there are things I cannot control. If I blow through the stop sign and get plowed by an 18-wheeler going 60 mph, my agency becomes severely more limited than it was before.

So it is with education. Training students according to principles of nature, politics, morality and beauty may appear to be oppressive on the surface, but it is quite the opposite.

The progressive classroom may look and feel like an empowering place, but like the car on the highway, ultimately it limits students far more than any other approach to education.

Clay Scott, a resident of Franklin, teaches Spanish at King’s Fork High School. He holds a degree in Spanish from Brigham Young University, an MBA from Ashford University and is a doctoral candidate at George Washington University. Email him at teliosacademies@gmail.com.