Jul 21, 2014

The Progressive Conundrum

We work with outstanding independent schools all across the country, ranging in educational philosophies from traditional and classic to experiential and progressive.  Among the interesting challenges we have continued to witness is what I call the “progressive conundrum”.  This is an interesting phenomenon that I would describe in this fashion, making a distinction between “what customers want” and “what customers demand.”

What Customers Want: Parents and students deeply desire an “outside the box”, progressive, innovative, experiential, cutting edge approach to education. At the youngest of their students ages, they find this sort of learning environment is more developmentally appropriate.  They want a school or college that is on the leading edge of educational philosophies, and one that is engaging for the student and fun to learn.  They have read all about the changes in education, the new classroom, and the impact of technology on the learning process. And, they even understand intuitively how some subjects are better off “flipped” in the classroom to improve the learning experience.  They even understand how traditional metrics of measuring student success, such as standardized tests, just don’t sense anymore.  They get it.

What Customers Demand: Regardless of how positive the experience might be for the student or the parent, these same customers demand excellent college placement to the same, traditional highly selective, well-endowed and deeply entrenched colleges and universities.  They demand excellent job placement at the most distinguished firms and corporations.  And, they understand that this game requires winning in the waters of traditional metrics of success, such as standardized college placement tests.  The longer they remain in a progressive environment, they begin to question the efficacy of the approach.  Will it get their student to where they want go?  Does progressive education really work?  Will it stand up against the traditional, old guard of learning and be successful?

Interestingly, we notice the battle for the consumer getting played out in their marketing messages.  Just like a political campaign, where the two parties pander toward the middle just before we head to the polls, both progressive schools and traditional schools start to sound very similar.  Over time, we find that progressive schools start to sound very traditional in their approach to outcomes.  And, traditional schools start to sound very cutting edge and progressive in their educational approach.  Heck, even public schools are starting to sound progressive in their mindset.

Progressive education is not a new concept.  It has been around for a long time.  And, we all know that progressive education works.  The challenge is how long it takes for a very mature mindset about measurement of success, specifically in higher education, changes in relationship to progressive education.  As long as we continue to insist on progressive inputs and measure with traditional outputs, we will see the progressive conundrum linger.

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