A progressive education for the 21st century

Close your eyes and travel back in time to your school days. What comes to mind? Probably a scene quite like this – rows and rows of students in neat uniforms sitting with their heads down, keenly peering at their textbooks, with some outliers, of course. They’re following along as the Teacher, seated at the head of the class with a blackboard behind her, reads from a textbook. This is school as we knew it, and this is how school continues to be for many children across India.

But here, at B.D. Somani International School we follow an entirely Different approach to education. We place students at the centre of their learning, as opposed to the textbook, which is what this “factory model” of schooling regards as the cornerstone of academic learning.

The factory model of education focuses on covering the textbook from start to finish and testing students’ mastery of the subject matter based on their ability to memorise various facts and regurgitate them in written examinations.

In this model, children are treated like empty pots (tabula rasa) to be filled with information, moved from one grade to the next without an in-depth and nuanced understanding of the subject. As a result, they are not empowered with the skills, competencies or habits of minds required to thrive in our complex, ever-changing world.

The Progressive philosophy, drawing from the ideas posited by noted thinkers and educationists from different cultures, seeks to address these gaps.

What is a progressive education?

The Progressive Philosophy views students as capable thinkers capable of engaging in dialogue, formulating hypotheses, analysing diverse points of view and playing an active and empowered role in the learning process.

Progressive educators pay equal attention to what students learn and how they learn it. They emphasise a hands-on approach to learning, so students learn new concepts by engaging with them directly. The agency awarded to the student in the process distinguishes the Progressive philosophy from the traditional education model.

B.D. primary progressive education framework

The B.D. Somani Progressive Education Framework is based on this progressive philosophy of education. We believe children are capable thinkers and philosophers who actively participate in learning. Therefore, our framework focuses on creating a safe environment for children to ask questions, find answers, absorb information and develop skills as evolving individuals.

This is not an easy laissez-faire model that gives the child free reign to whatever they please. On the contrary, the cognitive and emotional rigour and vigour required to sustain a democratic learning community make significant demands of both the teachers and the students.

Inspired by the recent research in education, best practices followed globally and the time-tested philosophies of progressive educators like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Waldorf Steiner, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi (Naai Taalim), JK Krishnamurthy, Froebel, Pestalozzi, Reggio Em

The progressive philosophy in action

In the primary years, our B.D. Somani curriculum incorporates the Progressive philosophy in several ways. Each methodology is crafted to focus on the child, bring their natural talents and innate curiosities, and help them develop the skills they need to thrive in the world.

Block building program

The Block program is a unique approach that imparts various skills in different areas. In the early stages, students build fantastical structures like castles, dragons etc. Engaging in the building process helps them enhance their creativity and fosters a collaborative spirit between students, which is carried over from Reception to group block building in Junior Kindergarten. As they become more familiar with the building materials, students start by building individually before joining their friends. Through block building, they also learn to take responsibility for their work. After the building process, they stack the blocks by shape in four piles (and learn some mathematical skills in the process).

With time, they start building structures they see around them, like houses, malls, school buses and police cars. This gives us ideas for field trips to places like grocery stores or fire stations, where children can experience and learn about the environments within the structures they build with blocks.

Outdoor block building includes playing with big boxes and blocks that students manipulate to create play environments. Carrying, stacking, and pushing the blocks together in creative ways, they climb, slide, balance and jump over these blocks with minimal intervention from teachers, who encourage students to find their own solutions to problems through critical thinking and analysis.

Student-led learning

Right from Reception, learning in the classroom is guided by the students’ interests and questions.

In Reception, teachers set up centres every day. These centres are related to math, scientific observation, drawing and painting, writing, handwriting, and reading. Students can choose which centre to work in on a particular day, with the option to switch.

As they progress in their learning journey, incorporating the traditional disciplines as well as arts, physical and social emotional learning, students are encouraged to ask “I wonder” questions about different topics that propel the entire class’s learning path. Students are treated as valuable resources, alongside teachers, the community and the environment. Broad outlines are in place to guide what topics and concepts will be explored and inquired into, but the learning process is entirely driven by the children’s curiosities and questions.

For example, the Plant Kingdom is one of the overarching units set for Grade 2. One class may go from germination to afforestation based on their interests. The other class may start with deforestation and learn about germination later. We take care to supplement classroom learning with experiments and activities whenever possible.

We also encourage inter-grade collaborative learning to facilitate knowledge exchange between different age groups. Great emphasis is placed on the peer-to-peer exchange of ideas and ensuring the meticulous documentation of the learning process.

We also make sure to have an informed approach to our teaching. For example, student responses and feedback help us shape our teaching strategies that lead to more effective learning within the classroom.

Alternative approaches for teaching foundational skills

Going beyond the decoding of words, reading is a personal act of making meaning. It is an act where students come together in Literature Circles to share their experiences of the books read based on their experiences and their opinions. At BD Somani, through the balanced literacy approach, children are exposed to the skills of decoding words and strategies to read between the lines and go beyond the literal. Reading books by Indian, Western and Asian authors opens up their minds to different perspectives and lives. The act of reading is enjoyed by all as it is a social as well as personal endeavour played out in the classrooms through read alouds, novel study, independent reading and literature circle.
Guided by the philosophy of the Writers’ Workshop, the Writing Process and the 6 + 1 Traits of Writing, our writing program aims to develop lifelong, effective writers. In the real world, outside the four walls of the school, writers ideate and plan their piece of writing, they create numerous drafts and work and rework on them, seek feedback on their writing, revise their writing, send it to the editor for edits and, after a long arduous, fulfilling process, publish their writing piece. Our young writers follow a similar process in their writing journey. The Workshop Model, which has underpinnings of the inquiry approach, creates spaces where students and teachers delve deep to investigate the components of a well-crafted piece of writing.

At the heart of the Writing Process is the conference/feedback time. The writers seek out their peers and their teachers, read their writing to them and welcome their feedback, which in turn helps them to move forward and polish their writing. Our safe and respectful classrooms, with trust and relationship at their core, provide a fertile ground to grow budding writers and poets who love writing.

Numeracy Skills:

Adhering to the Progressive approach, we make Mathematics interesting and real for our students. We also ensure mathematics lessons are tied into their real-world experiences. And one of the biggest reasons for our students’ joy in Mathematics is the emphasis laid on ‘Talk’ in our math class.

Number Talks are short discussions, lasting 5 to 15 minutes. Each session focusses on student solutions for a single, carefully chosen mental math computation problem. Developed as a tool to engage students in mental math by solving interesting mathematics problems, Number Talks, practised daily, help students build number sense and develop a deeper understanding of various concepts.

This gives students the ability to play with numbers, visualize problems in their minds, perform calculations in ways that make sense to them and become flexible in their problem-solving approaches. Students are able to identify multiple solutions for each problem and also cross-check and verify each solution.

Experiential Learning:

Within the Progressive philosophy, there is a significant push to look beyond the textbook as the only source of learning and knowledge. In the primary section at B.D. Somani, we incorporate real experiences for the students to engage with and learn from. These first-hand experiences help them develop more profound insight into the subject and widen their understanding horizons.

For example, gardening is an important activity in the primary grades. Students plant seeds, tend to them and watch them grow. Not only do they learn about the germination process, but they also learn values like responsibility and mindfulness.

Students are also taken on research trips to the spaces and institutions they build using blocks, such as fire stations, malls etc., where they interact with personnel to learn these spaces are run and their roles.

For students in higher grades, trips are organised to museums and other archaeological sites, where students can directly observe and interact with the artefacts and witness how they figure in the historical processes they learn about in the classroom.

Students in Grade 4 have the chance to participate in school government. Students from grades 4 and 5 vote to elect a new Student Council to represent our Primary School each year. This is the first time our Grade 4 students encounter elections and get a taste of what it means to vote. They go over specific job descriptions in class with the assistance of their teachers, along with the qualities required to succeed in these professions. The entire activity is an excellent approach for children to learn their place in a bigger civic community and their own self-awareness.

Another example of experiential learning is the entrepreneurship module, where students set up their own markets to sell handmade products. This helps them understand how transactions work in the real world, instilling a sense of curiosity and interest in the business many pursue as they grow.

A snapshot of traditional education v/s the Progressive philosophy

  Traditional Progressive Education
View of children Tabula rasa Thinker and doer
Focus Skill and drill; memorisation Deeper learning, development of higher order thinking skills and competencies
Famous educators An approach followed for mass education An umbrella term covering the approaches of John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Waldorf Steiner, Froebel, Rabindranath Tagore, JK Krishnamurthy, Reggio Emilia Approach, Constructivist Framework
Learning Process Memorisation of facts equated to learning Learning by doing and reflection on the experiences
Curriculum Text-based A flexible curriculum framework providing opportunities to ask questions, refer to the best resources available globally and implement best pedagogical practices.
Assessments Conducted to mark/label students  Assessments as a vehicle for learning with feedback forming the core.
Sense of community and service learning   Community and relationship are at the center of the teaching-learning process, and service learning is a core component
Role of Teachers Delivery of content material. Teachers are facilitators and guides helping children progress in their learning. Teachers undertake action research and are life-long learners.
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