Four cities, ten days and eight schools from the West to the East coast of America – not to mention meetings with alumni along the way and a boarding recruitment fair in California. This was the whirlwind tour I embarked on during October half-term last year. My quest? To tap in to my school’s rich past through its former students and look to its future by learning from our like-minded cousins across the pond.

Although progressivism was a pedagogical approach developed in Europe in the latter part of the 19th century, its reputation on this side of the Atlantic has suffered a few bumps and scrapes in recent decades. This is not how it is on the other side. The USA, land of entrepreneurs and free-thinkers who aren’t afraid of failure en route to success, continues to embrace the progressive movement. I wanted to find out more.

My first stop was Chicago. Here I visited two schools - the Francis Parker School and the University of Chicago Laboratory School – two of the oldest progressive institutions in America. Their founders, Colonel Francis Parker and John Dewey, are also hailed as the architects of US progressivism.

"Learning should be experiential and creative and, crucially, led by the child’s natural curiosity."

 

Today, these remain fine schools doing fascinating work in advancing the progressive ethos. At their heart are the same ideals we value at Frensham Heights: that learning should be experiential and creative and, crucially, led by the child’s natural curiosity, so that he or she discovers their own passion in their own time, with teachers as facilitators of learning rather than figures of authority.

To someone used to seeing children learn in rows, a typical progressive classroom in the US can come as a shock. Quite often learning doesn’t even happen in the classroom, and certainly not at a desk. Children might be lying on the floor, working in a corridor or writing on the walls.

Traditional subjects overlap in a kind of 3D approach to learning, and yet teachers told me how these students will leave school with the same knowledge base as if they had been taught in a more traditional way. Importantly, however, they will be able to apply that knowledge more effectively.

Not boxed in by a national curriculum and free from standardised exams like our GCSE and A-level, these schools have immense intellectual freedom to develop their own timetable, from nursery up to 12th grade, the final year of school.

The very nature of being progressive is to progress. I found these schools to be at the cutting edge of educational thinking, often working closely with universities to devise their dynamic cross-curricular project work.  

"There was a sense of purpose amongst students and evidence of real rigour."

For instance, at one of the schools I visited in California, I saw outstanding examples of 12th graders working on solutions to social justice issues which concerned them: the causes of increased homelessness in their city, or what impact abortion laws are having on immigrant mothers in border towns. These are big topics, but the students, free from the constraints of preparation for national exams, take them on with zeal.

There was nothing fluffy about the learning I saw. In fact, quite the opposite: there was a sense of purpose amongst students and evidence of real rigour. Teachers do lots of testing, but while in the UK this kind of data is front and centre, in the US it is used discreetly to inform teachers about an individual’s progress.

As I moved on from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I realised that what I was witnessing was a playfulness about learning. Progressive schools in the USA recognise that this very playfulness is the key to keeping students engaged in learning and taking ownership of it, a message they are keen to share, as we do at Frensham until Year 8, when students step on to the treadmill of GCSEs and A levels. Whilst we approach imaginatively the content we need to teach, as all good teachers do, we are certainly, for the moment, somewhat restricted from going further off-piste.

Presidio Hill school in San Francisco now has its own highly regarded teacher training facility, where graduates learn about progressive approaches to learning and go on to work in the state sector.

"Imagine six-year- olds with hammers and saws in a UK school?"

The same is happening at Bank Street School in New York, where I visited four schools and saw Design Thinking in action. Originally developed by academics at Stanford University, and now widely taught in higher education and used by businesses to offer creative ways to solving problems, progressive schools have embraced this innovative approach to project work.

Maker Spaces, as they are known, are also a familiar sight in progressive schools. Virtual reality headsets, 3D printers and carpentry tools might be found here. The idea is that children create and explore freely. Imagine five and six-year- olds with hammers and saws in a UK school? Yes, there were one or two accidents, a teacher in New York told me, but that element of risk – and failure – is a key aspect of the education they offer.

Crucial to all this is the staff student ratio. Every class I saw had at least two teachers and quite often three. A progressive education might be highly-prized but it comes at a price. Whilst we agonise that boarding fees in the UK can be well over £40,000 a year, in Manhattan they can be an eye-watering £70,000. However, schools have extensive financial aid programmes and, with a commitment to inclusion, hugely diverse student intakes.

But no matter how progressive your school is in the US, the only yardstick of success for parents is how well students are prepared for university. With most progressive schools doing away with SATS and Advanced Placements (APs), the traditional preparation for university entry, they have to work closely with admissions departments. In New York, academics from Columbia, Brown and Harvard are regular visitors to progressive schools, but, in a society where success continues to be measured by a university degree, many parents pay for separate entrance exam tuition.

"They all spoke of the warmth of their old school and the focus on encouraging individuality."

All the schools I visited are members of the Progressive Education Network, a collaborative organisation which stages conferences and enables sharing of ideas and best practice.

With our rich historical links and very similar ethos, I look forward to working with this inspirational group in the future. As I reflect on my trip, I realise that perhaps what struck me the most was the nature of relationships between staff and students. Just like at Frensham, it was warm, open and respectful everywhere I went.

And what of those old Frenshamians I caught up with? All had built extraordinary lives for themselves. Coming from a school which prides itself on creative arts, it was perhaps not surprising to find that many had pursued careers in that world. But others I met were doctors, journalists, lawyers or financiers. They all spoke of the warmth of their old school and the focus on encouraging individuality which had given them confidence to pursue their dreams.

Coming to the end of my first year as head of a school with a proud tradition of being non-traditional, I feel emboldened by my visit to our cousins in the US. Some 94 years ago the three pioneering women who founded my school felt that the stifling education system of Victorian times was no longer fit for purpose. In the same way, I believe the UK’s current system, restricted by standardised exams, could well have passed its sell-by date.

The workplace of the future will favour the independent thinker, the problem-solver and the risk-taker, those who have moved beyond the desk, learned outdoors, and have been creative during their school years.

When it comes to educating the next generation, I am more convinced than ever that there is another way.