Loving Learning: Book Review

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


by Tom Little and Katherine Ellison

Tom Little, in collaboration with Katherine Ellison, has written a very nice book about Progressive Education. To start with, it is just easily readable. Not only is it readable but it is quite enjoyable as well. While authorship is given to Tom Little (co-founder of Park Day School) and Katherine Ellison (journalist), it is written in the first person from Tom’s perspective. At 200 pages of text (plus some useful appendices), it can be read leisurely in just few days.

Tom helped start and then direct a small independent progressive elementary school in Oakland California. At the end of his career he decided to tour the United States visiting other schools that identified as being progressive or that he thought met the definition of progressive. This book is the outcome of that tour. Sadly, Tom died of cancer shortly before the publication of this book.

The book starts out giving Tom’s history of becoming a teacher and founder of Park Day School. He weaves into this a brief history of progressive education since the late 1800s of John Dewey and Francis Parker. In giving us this history, he also gives us a definition of progressive education.

In an early chapter he give us six core strategies which he distills as “passed down form Dewey, Parker, and the other pioneers, and still in robust practice at progressive schools today” (p.52). In sum these are: Emotions as well as intellect; Student interest as a guide; ban of standardized testing and ranking; real-world endeavors; integration of curriculum and disciplines; and active civil participation for social justice. He illustrates these ideas through the rest of book.

However, mostly what this book does is describe what progressive education looks like, using anecdotes from Park Day School as well as many of the other progressive schools Tom visited. He uses these stories to illustrate the points about what progressive education is and can be, and why it is so vital to both a solid education and to a democratic society. In this way it reminds me of the style of two of my very favorite books in education, Deborah Meier’s The Power of Their Ideas, and Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence. All of these books are told in conversational tone, using the authors’ own experiences to illustrate important big lessons about what education can and should look like.

If you want an easy and enjoyable read on the power and practice of progressive education, then you must pick up Loving Learning.

Play is the Work of Children

Two first graders come tearing down the hall and run into their teacher.
“Children, what was the head master just talking about today? Remember, no running in the halls.”
“But Mrs. James, we weren’t running, we’re horses.” At that, they galloped off into the yard.

This anecdote (much abbreviated and paraphrased here), comes from a talk by Michael Armstrong, author and former teaching principal, at this year’s North Dakota Study Group meeting of progressive educators. He used it to illustrate the essential aspect of playing with language. We learn language by playing with language. It is language that allows humans to be creative beings.

The title of this column is attributed to Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), the German philosopher, and coiner of the term kindergarten, which literally mean child’s garden. Over the last couple hundred years, other philosophers, psychologists and educators have come to the same conclusion. These range from theoretical giants such as Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey to modern practitioners and thinkers such as Benjamin Spock, Vivian Paley, Eleanor Duckworth, Deborah Meier, and Michael Armstrong, listing just the tip of the iceberg.

What these and many other educators and psychologists have discovered is that play is an, maybe the, essential manner in which humans learn. In fact not only humans, but many mammals learn the important skills they will need for adult survival though play, as anyone who has watched kittens or puppies knows.

Piaget, one of the first to empirically study how children use play to learn, demonstrated that children use play to discover how the world around them works, to develop their schema, and organize the structure of their thinking. It is through such play that children develop intellectually. Piaget demonstrated that while with didactic teaching we can get students to parrot back scientific or logical principles, such rote learning does little to really help individuals internalize and use such rules and theories. According to his research, only when we can play and experience these things for ourselves, test out theories of how the world works, can we make these ideas our own and apply the principles appropriately in real world situations.

Vygotsky saw imaginative play as important beyond the logical-mathematical realm that Piaget focused on. Through his research, Vygotsky demonstrated that through play and imagination children try out new roles. They imitate, creatively, the roles they see of those who are older than them, the adults around them. They develop socially and culturally through this process. In all realms, through play children can go above their current level of being and development. Like an actor, play frees children to act in ways they may not yet be able to do outside of play. Play creates a safe place to task risks, try out new ideas, and take on new roles.

Benjamin Spock, the famous child psychologist of the 1960s, in reaction to rigid and controlling theories of child rearing that were popular at the time, advocated for the importance of play in children’s lives. He explained that children do not engage in play because it is easy, but precisely because it offers meaningful challenges. Human being like to be challenged and solve problems. Otherwise they get bored. It is through such challenges that children learn, learn at just the level that is appropriate to their particular level and skill, what Vygotsky would call, their Zone of Proximal Development.

Many other practicing educators have described the power of play in educational settings, such as long time elementary teacher and author, Vivian Paley, in her book A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play (excerpt), Eleanor Duckworth (who worked with Piaget and Inhelder) in The Having of Wonderful Ideas, Michael Armstrong in Closely Observed Children and Elizabeth Jones and Gretchen Reynolds in The Play’s the Thing: Teachers’ Roles in Children’s Play, to name just a few. When you read these books, you see the joy and excitement that can fill classrooms when play takes a center stage. You see that rather than making school less “rigorous,” play actually makes them a more challenging and intellectually demanding place.

Deborah Meier has developed many schools based on the theory of play as central to learning. Meier’s small public schools of choice serve predominantly low-income minority students. Her work has documented how, when an entire school is designed with the importance of play as central, both in the literal sense of blocks and doll centers for young children, and the intellectual aspect of playing with ideas and theories for people of all ages (including the teachers and other adults) the levels of success for these students skyrockets.

As in the first anecdote, through playing with language, children not only have fun (though the importance of, and their right to, have fun should not be underestimated. Remember, this country was founded on the idea that we have the unalienable right of the pursuit of happiness), but they learn to frame their reality. The anecdote with which I started, in a charming way, illustrates how playing with language is a political tool—we use language to frame an issue. By defining themselves as horses, they find a way of framing reality where they are not breaking the rules—the rules apply to kids, not horses, and horses gallop, not run. These children are becoming powerful users of language, which we claim is a major purpose of education.

Play is a form of practice. But it is not rote practice. It is intellectual practice. Through play children are, in Piagetan terms, developing the schema of how the world works. Through play children have the freedom to discover how materials can be used, the limits and possibilities of those materials. Through play, in Vygotskian terms, children create a low-risk setting to move to the next level in their Zone of Proximal Development intellectually and socially. Through play comes discovery and invention. Through play comes power over language.

Despite all the evidence built up over several centuries, both theoretical and empirical, on the importance and power of play, it appears to be disappearing from the lives of children, especially their school lives, a place where they are compelled to spend 6 hours a day, 180 days a year.

This month, I observed one of my student teachers teach to a class of low-income Latino second graders. She did an hour and a half Reading First language arts lesson (a curriculum that is mandated in Program Improvement schools), following the lesson plan faithfully. The children responded dutifully and more or less competently to the assignments. Not once during that lesson were the children allowed to, much less expected to, use their imagination, to answer any question that did not have one right answer, nor did it allow them to explicitly use any experiences they might have had outside of school.

This experience is not the exception, but rather becoming the rule in schools serving low-income students. If you go into most public schools today, you will see that even in kindergarten (a term which is fast becoming an oxymoron), children spend most of their time sitting in seats filling in worksheets. When not doing worksheets they are engaged in other teacher directed activities. There is almost no time for children to choose their own activities or to freely explore materials. Where there is time to play, it is usually for those who finish their worksheets early, as a way to keep them busy.

Preschools, despite several recent large studies that show that children who attend developmentally oriented preschools outperform those in academically oriented preschools in later years (for more detail on this, read my March 2007 column), are more and more looking like the “traditional” first grades of my childhood—children spending their time doing teacher directed work sitting in chairs. Well-to-do parents are being convinced that only by engaging earlier and earlier in such “academic” work can their children win the race to get into the best schools later in life. Low-income parents are being told that only through such early preparation will their children have the skills that are required for entering kindergarten (when did we start expecting children to enter kindergarten with academic skills?).

There is also evidence that children have less opportunities and experiences engaging in imaginative play outside of school. Homework expectations are rising. Children, especially those of the middle and upper classes, spend more time than ever before in organized structured activities, such as sports, ballet lessons, or music lessons. While these activities are undoubtedly good for children’s development in many ways, they do not engage children in imaginative play. During the unstructured time they do have, children are spending more and more of it in front of electronic media, either television or computers. Neither television nor computer games stretch children to actively use their own imagination. At best they allow children to enter the imaginative worlds of the creators of these shows and games.

To those reading this column who are classroom teachers, I urge you to think about your own teaching. What are you doing in your classroom that allows children to use their imagination? Where can they express their own voice? What percentage of the day? Where are the spaces within the scripted curriculum that you may be mandated to use, where you can allow creativity and student voice?

To all of you, I ask, if you agree with the above critique, what are you doing to change the current system under No Child Left Behind that is driving out much of the space for imaginative work in schools? Preparing students to do well in high stakes standardized testing is often the reason teachers are told they may not allow creative lessons. The only national organization that is actively working to oppose the misuse of such tests for high stakes decisions is FairTest, working on a shoestring budget against the multimillion dollar budgets of the test publishers. At a minimum you can let your elected representative know.

One organization that is currently specifically working on saving the space for play in children’s lives is the Alliance for Childhood. Their site provides articles and links for more information and resources about play in children’s lives.

If you want to read some wonderful books on how to do such curriculum, you could start with any of the following books, some of which were mentioned above:

• Vivian Paley, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play
• Eleanor Duckworth, The Having of Wonderful Ideas
• Michael Armstrong, Closely Observed Children
• Elizabeth Jones and Gretchen Reynolds, The Play’s the Thing: Teachers’ Roles in Children’s Play

A useful teaching video is:
• Play, a Vygotskian Approach, by Elena Bodrova; Deborah Leong; John Davidson; Frances Davidson (Davidson Films).

For more scholarly academic work on the theory and evidence you might start with:
• Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (1996). Tools of the mind: The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education: Merrill.
• Vygotsky, L. S., & Cole, M. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.

New City School

In my role as professor, I often supervise student teachers in schools serving some of the most disadvantaged students. For the most part, such education has been reduced to scripted curriculum that turns learning into a lifeless chore for students and teachers alike. I especially find it appalling to enter kindergartens, where I see these young children engaged in either whole class teacher centered instruction, or individual worksheets at their desks for the large majority of the day. All those things that the author of “Everything I need to know, I Learned in Kindergarten” learned are no longer being taught, in our rush to start our children on what we call “academics.” There is no time for creativity, children following their interests, learning to be social beings, or the engaging in the real work of childhood, which is play. Only the future will tell us what the cost of this will be to the next generation.

However, I actually am writing this column to talk about a school visit that renewed my spirit of what is possible! This was an impormptu visit last June to one of my favorite schools. On a vacation to visit friends and family in southern California, my wife and I were driving past Long Beach, when I suddenly blurted excitedly to my wife, “Can we stop here and see my friend’s school?” My wife agreed, somewhat reluctantly, as she has little interest in the topic of education, and few positive memories of her own schooling. I called up my friend, Stephanie Lee, the director of this small charter school in downtown Long Beach. She was more than happy to let us visit.

The New City School, or actually 2 sister schools now, are a pair of two-way immersion (Spanish-English) democratically run small charter schools (K-8), with multi-graded classrooms, and team teaching, using a project-based, constructivist approach to learning. With students from all walks of life, and a large proportion being from low-income Latino families, it represents virtually all the ideas I respect and admire in education.

Their new site, which I had not visited before, is a converted factory floor. The largely open space has mostly partial walls dividing the “classrooms,” with a couple of closed off rooms for particularly noisy or particularly quiet activities. The office is the old office of the factory, which looks down from above on the goings on below from its glassed in window, letting one see all the buzz of exciting activity. In walking around the school, we saw children engaged in projects of all sorts, from making life-sized anatomical drawings of the human body, to creating model cars. Each of the projects had some sort of “academic” aspect, often a written product, to demonstrate the learning of subject area content, and acknowledging that students did need to learn to become proficient in academic writing. Every wall was covered with creative works, arts and crafts. Wherever we went, students were busily engaged in work they cared about, and that had a purpose to them. My wife was amazed that this could be done in a public school, and was now glad she had agreed to come along. She loves music and dance, and was really excited to watch a group of kindergartners engaged in a hip hop dance routine as part of their elective in the afternoon as they learned their second language (dominant English speakers choose activities that took place in Spanish and vice versa).

While recognizing that standardized tests are not accurate measures of meaningful learning, they have managed to do what they need to do to keep their scores high enough to not fall under the thumb of state or federal sanctions. This is more than can be said for most of the schools I visit who use the scripted curriculums specifically designed to raise such test scores, yet still end up missing their targets. The success of The New City School has meant that they have a waiting list as big as the school (which was why they opened a second campus). Since under the requirements of NCLB and the State of California, the required scores are a moving target (each year the scores requirements are raised), how long they can sustain this is anyone’s guess. But for the meantime, this is one school where children are learning that education can be meaningful and worthwhile, and that it can allow for creativity, social learning, and be done in an environment where people treat each other with respect.

If you are in Long Beach, you might see if you can get a chance to visit! It restores my faith in what education can be. Maybe it could do the same for you!

School Reform: Where is the Evidence?

Under the Bush administration, the rhetoric is that the decisions we make in schools should be based on “scientific” evidence. Not only must it be “scientific,” according to the administration, but it must be based on the controlled experimental design, which is actually just one acceptable form of evidence within the scientific paradigm. No actual scientific field relies exclusively on this one form. However, putting that aside, even accepting a broader range of scientific evidence, the basic tenets mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) are not based on any empirical evidence, controlled experiment or not(1), and many, as I will outline, are in contradiction to accepted educational and organizational theory.

What are some of these mandates that I am referring to? High stakes testing, external tutoring programs, state takeover or charter school reform for “failing schools,” are the ones I will discuss in this column.

High Stakes testing has been around for a long time, and each time it is used it tends to show gains in test scores in the early years which quickly flatten out. Long term educational improvement of any sort has never been demonstrated. NCLB is different in that the stakes are quite higher than in previous reforms, so many argue that previous evidence(2) is not valid. However, the best that that leaves us with is an untested experiment on a massive scale, affecting nearly every public school child in the nation. I won’t even discuss here the massive amounts of monies going to the corporations the make these tests. They get money for developing the test, then selling the tests to the schools, and then for scoring the tests. Then they develop curriculum to help students prepare for these very tests that they design so schools can boost their test scores.

Another major feature of NCLB is that schools that do not reach the required test score goals must offer children tutoring that is done by an outside agency. The theory is that if the school failed the children, they are obviously not qualified to help these children. There is some logic to that theory. However, again, there is no evidence that outside agencies, as a generic category, are better equipped to help failing students than the public schools themselves(3). The administration did not first pilot this approach in some places, and test it against in-house support to demonstrate that it was more effective. Therefore, this mandate is another massive untested experiment, moving enormous Federal dollars from the public to the private sector.

If schools continue to fail to reach mandated test score goals (with rising moving targets—every year a larger percentage of students are required to “pass” the test), then they can be taken over by the state or turned over to private charter agencies. What is the record on this? School districts have been taken over by city or state governments in the past. In California, Compton, and recently Oakland have been the targets of such take-overs. In neither case have there been any significant changes in the education students receive. State governments, not surprisingly, have shown no more capability for creating positive educational changes than the local bodies they replaced. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a theory to support why one would expect them to(4).

Charter schools, which began as an experiment in the early 1990s, and quickly spread across states and cities nationwide, were based on a theory that more freedom from state regulations and forcing local public schools to compete for students would create educational innovations and improvements. This is based on the market theory. This is a reasonable theory, especially in a country whose economy is based on such a theory. In fact many charter schools are exciting places, with innovative pedagogy showing successful results. However, after extensive research, charter schools as a class, have shown no higher test scores than their public school counterparts(5).

Another possibility in some states is the use of vouchers to send children to private schools. However, again, if you hold demographic variables constant, even private schools show no better results on standardized test scores than do public schools(6). If we are supposedly doing this reform in the name of accountability, private schools have no accountability either to state governments nor their local constituencies. There are no public school boards nor open meetings laws required of private schools, nor are their financial records open to public or government scrutiny. Once more, this aspect of NCLB is based on a theory which current evidence does not support. In most states private schools do not have to administer the same standardized tests that NCLB holds public schools accountable to. While public schools, who are answerable to the public directly, are not trusted without such tests, for some reason, private schools do not need to demonstrate any such accountability.

Is there evidence for other ideas? There is something that schools that have made a significant and dramatic difference for students have in common—local control. Some of the most effective schools are those where the people closest to the kids—the teachers, parents, and community—are actively involved in deciding the mission and curriculum of the school. It appears to matter less what that curriculum and vision is than that it was made by those closest to the kids. Virtually all of the reforms being called for at the sate and national level are based on a profound mistrust of those very people. Yet it should be obvious that when people feel coerced they are less likely to work efficiently. When people feel empowered, they are most effective. The evidence bears this out. Find a school that has significantly beaten the odds with low-income and minority students, and I’ll bet it did not happen based on external mandates! Progressive examples such as the Central Park East schools in New York, as well as models based on more conservative ideas, such as the KIPP academy and Core Knowledge demonstrate this. Not only that, but it honors our democratic ideals. Democracy is based on  the absurd idea that all citizens are capable of making the important decisions in the public sphere and should do so an equal basis. While it is absurd, no one yet has devised a better alternative.

In terms of a particular approach to learning, there have been a number of longitudinal studies showing the success of progressive and developmental approaches to teaching and learning. These are forms of teaching and learning that are the opposite of the scripted teacher-centered approaches mandated in schools that fail to meet the standardized test score targets required under NCLB. The famous Eight-year study, started in the 1930s, which followed students from their freshmen year in high school to four years after graduation found that those in the progressive schools did better on all significant measures, both in high school and in college, than their matched counterparts(7). The more extensive the reforms, the more impressive the results. Despite these dramatic findings, the public mood had shifted away from such innovations, and the results were ignored after they were published. Another more recent example is the Central Park East schools (both elementary and secondary schools) in New York City, and their resounding success of working with poor minority students in East Harlem, with 80 to 90% of the graduates getting into and being successful in four year colleges. Yet these schools are under constant attack to discontinue their innovative approaches(8). A couple of recent studies of preschool practices, comparing developmental child-centered approaches against academic skills based approaches have shown better academic and social outcomes in later elementary grades for those in the child-centered developmental programs. One of these was done in Florida(9), and the other an international study covering over 5,000 students in 1,800 preschool setting in 10 different countries(10).

The reforms of NCLB are based on a premise that those closest to the children should not be trusted to make the important decision about their education. The teachers should not be trusted to make the important decisions about how to teach the children, and the parents should not be trusted to govern the schools locally. It is based on a theory that unless coerced, these parties will not act in the best interest of their own children. It is based on a theory that unless coerced, children are not interested in learning. This is in direct contradiction to the basis of democracy. Democracy is based on the theory that no one is better positioned nor has more of a right to make decisions over their own lives than those most directly effected.

As children spend twelve or more years incarcerated in these institutions called schools, which are becoming more and more anti-democratic, our children are losing the one public place where they might learn what it means to be citizens in a democracy, where they might experience democracy in practice.

If you believe as I do that NCLB is counter to the educational needs of our children and the democratic needs of our society, at a minimum let your state and federal representatives know, as NCLB is up for reauthorization very soon. Unless they hear otherwise, these legislatures will take the politically safe course and not make any significant changes. If you would like to be more involved see my links page for some organizations that are working actively on this issue, such as The Forum for Education and Democracy, and FairTest.


1. Gerald W. Bracy, “Things Fall Apart: NCLB Self-Destructs,” Phi Delta Kappan, February 2007.

2. A.L. Armrein and David C. Berliner, “High-Stakes Testing, Uncertainty, and Student Learning,” Education Policy Analysis Archives 10, no. 18 (2002).

3. Bracy, “Things Fall Apart: NCLB Self-Destructs.”

4. Kenneth K. Wong and Francis X. Shen, “Measuring the Effectiveness of City and State Takeover as a School Reform Strategy,” Peabody Journal of Education 78, no. 4 (2003).

5. Katrina Bulkley and Jennifer Fisler, “A Decade of Charter Schools: From Theory to Practice,” Educational Policy 17, no. 3 (2003).

6. Sarah Theule Lubienski and Christopher Lubienski, “A New Look at Public and Private Schools: Student Background and Mathematics Achievement,” Phi Delta Kappan, May 2005.

7. Wilford M. Aiken, The Story of the Eight-Year Study (New York: Harper and Row, 1942).

8. David Bensman, Central Park East and Its Graduates: Learning by Heart (New York: Teachers College Press, 2000).

9. Rebecca A. Marcon, “Moving up the Grades: Relationship between Preschool Model and Later School Success,” Early Childhood Research & Practice 4, no. 1 (2002).

10. Jeanne E. Montie, Zongping Xiang, and Lawrence J. Schweinhart, “Preschool Experience in 10 Countries: Cognitive and Language Performance at Age 7,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 21, no. 3 (2006).