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A contemplation from our Symposium on Progressive Education

by Marc Loon

Last month our school hosted a symposium on the trends in progressive education in South Africa. This felt like a landmark event for our school. Perhaps it represents a milestone of our journey. We’ve been chugging along for these years, enduring all sorts of curve balls thrown at us. But here we were, in our Grade 5 classroom with the head of St John’s Prep and deputy head of Jeppe Boys College on the one end of the room, the heads of two Reggio Emilia-inspired schools, one of the country’s top experts in Waldorf Education, as well as many parents interested in progressive or alternative ideas in schooling.

The discussions were rich, inspiring and insightful. If I were to list some of the points made that were most interesting to me, they include:

  • We South Africans need to develop our own localised version of progressive education.
  • We need a new word for “alternative education”
  • IEB is preparing an alternative curriculum to the CAPS system.
  • Tests and preparing for tests is a tricky way to keep order in a school
  • Are we listening to children’s voices, really?
  • There’s a dissonance for parents to knowingly send a child to a school they don’t believe in.
  • Art is about us — but most of the curriculum is nothing about us. But drama is also history! Art is also literature. There’s the art of writing; the art of science; art is everything, in everything.
  • How many teachers do you remember who deeply inspired you?
  • We’re teaching children to be human: what we learn to do, but also how we can learn to be!
  • We learn when we’re emotionally engaged.
  • How can we adjust our schools so we support the sustainability of the planet?
  • Paideia — educating the whole person for an ideal society
  • Why was the Gauteng Department of Education not joining us?
  • To be effective, the teacher needs to be (1) kind and (2) organised.
  • Teachers of colour need to prove themselves before they belong
  • Adding to the three RRRs: the skill of listening — developing emotional & social literacy.
  • Fostering the ability for children to learn to collaborate skilfully
  • Improving the capacity for resilience in children
  • Our children need to grow up feeling good enough
  • Boundaried parenting — give ourselves permission to lead
  • We sit here in a circle looking for friends for the educational revolution.
  • “I want more of this [i.e. these sorts of conversations]”. 

From the outset we conceived of Kairos as a school that may inspire other schools to do things differently. We’re influenced by educational modalities that are generally unfamiliar to South Africans, and even in countries where they are more common, they are still not the norm. In South Africa, Waldorf and Montessori schools are quite well known, and increasingly so are Reggio Emilia-inspired schools. However, even when parents do question the conventional school system, there are obstacles for them leaving it. Waldorf is often too much of a leap for many parents, as they achieve a separate matric certificate, and Montessori and Reggio don’t have much history beyond kindergarten. 

For decades, there has been a growing awareness worldwide of the many educational shortcomings of the conventional school system. In historical terms, the global schooling system is relatively new. As recently as 1920, not more than 10% of any country’s teenage population was in school. I find that an extraordinary fact, considering it’s difficult to imagine a world where not every child is expected to complete a matric certificate in almost every country.

The emergence of the mass schooling system coincided closely with the celebrated success of the proliferation of American factories, so it’s no coincidence that mass schooling emulates a factory. This was an explicit intention: in the founding documents of this system, children were declared to be “educational products” which were to be “manufactured by the school-factory according to the particulars demanded by a modern industrial society” (wrote influential educationalist Franklin Bobbit). The educated child was to be manufactured. The design of the school system is directly linked to this conception, from architectural design of school premises and the grade-by-grade curriculum down to the actual factory bell that divides school lessons from each other.

Even as early as the 20th century, before the proliferation of mass schooling worldwide, alternative ideas around schooling were emerging: what a pity the factory model emerged as the preferred solution! John Dewey founded the University of Chicago Laboratory School back in 1896, an experimental school that emphasised child-centred education and the integration of education with real-life experiences. Maria Montessori started her first school in 1907 (in a low-income district of Rome). Rudolf Steiner helped start the first Waldorf School in 1919 (in a cigarette factory named Waldorf-Astoria). Alexander Neill founded the Summerhill School in 1921, granting pupils an extraordinary amount of autonomy in their learning journey. The first school that was inspired by the thinking of Jiddu Krishnamurti was in 1926 (which I visited in 1996). Progressive education continued throughout the emergence of the globalised mass schooling system we now know as the norm today, such as George Counts and his Social Reconstructionists of the 1930s; Reggia Emilia kindergartens in the 1940s; Open Classroom Schools in the 1960s; Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Movement in the 1970s; and more recently, Big Picture Learning and High Tech High schools have championed project-based learning with great success.

Much of these progressive schooling traditions are largely unknown to South Africans. So at this symposium on 16 September was a significant event in that we were bringing significant educational traditions into one room together, both protagonists of the establishment and voices of the progressive alternatives. The symposium on the 16 September was hugely significant for Kairos in that it united established educational figures and progressive advocates into one room more so as And our hosting the event was also significant in that we conceive ourselves as a balanced integration of the mainstream establishment and the alternatives. We don’t introduce formal tests or marks for children in the early grades, but we do introduce tests gradually towards writing exams in Grades 6 and 7 (and we hear many mainstream schools are now emulating us in this regard). We work with a flexible “kairos” relationship with time, but we still have a clear “chronos”-oriented timetable. We have developed our own in-house curriculum, but we carefully align every curriculum objective from the national CAPS curriculum with ours. 

Therefore, just as we integrate our educational ideals with the mainstream school system in a balanced way, we were able to bring together significant but disparate educational voices into conversation this morning of 16 September this year. We look forward to the conversation continuing.

— Marc Loon, headmonster, Kairos

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