Progressive Education and Making, a personal reflection


by Heather Pang -

I have been thinking about making and progressive education for a while. We started taking our children to the maker fair years ago, and we have a long history with Peninsula School in Menlo Park, CA. My sister and I attended the school in the 70s from kindergarten to 8th grade, and one of the reasons my husband and I moved into the neighborhood we did was to send our children there. They started in nursery, and my daughter graduated last year; my son is in 6th grade. The school was founded in 1926, and has stayed true to the progressive tradition. I served on the board for one term while we were revising the mission statement, and one of the things that struck me was how consistent so many of the values of the school had been over the years.

The revised mission statement is quite clear: “Peninsula School creates a space where children thrive and develop their full promise as confident contributors in the world.  Here they learn about themselves and others, discovering their passions and growing intellectually in an inclusive community rich with choices, exploration, and play.”  But the community felt that such a short statement could not encompass what Peninsula School really is, so in addition to the mission statement, the school has a list of core values and core beliefs. There are a few that relate directly to what I see as the benefits of making and fab labs in education.

In the values section:

•       Freedom and Responsibility
Children learn best by experiencing daily opportunities for making important choices and reflecting on the results.

•       Meaningful Academics 
Children explore their world and develop strong critical thinking skills through a progressive teaching and learning program, with opportunities to discover, problem solve, and meet challenges.

•       Play 
Children need ample time and space for safe, open-ended exploration in our richly varied environment.

In the beliefs section:

  • Each child is a unique individual whose intellectual, social, emotional, creative and physical self must be honored and nurtured. 

  • Time and space for making choices and for play are essential to children’s learning and development. 

  • Relevant and effective curriculum must include hands-on learning grounded in the arts and the natural world.

  • Teachers need to have the freedom to develop excellent age-appropriate curriculum and to be authentic in their teaching styles.

This mission statement is a recent revision, but the goals and values of the school go back to its founding in the 1920s. And when I was a student there in the 1970s I was privileged enough to think that this was what school was about for everyone. It made perfect sense to me to learn about things by doing things.

And I spent a great deal of my time in three places: the weaving room, the clay room, and the woodshop. In each of these places I learned to imagine, design, and make the things I wanted to, using the skills and techniques around me. I did a great deal of math creating patterns for weaving, I did some geometry to build things in wood, and I learned iteration and patience as my skill as a potter took years to develop.

Project based learning seemed natural to me, not only in these separate activities, but also in my classrooms. We planned every meal, every route, and every scrap of gear we needed to take on our two week long 8th grade camping trip. We had been participating in the planning and organizing of our trips since about the 3rd grade, and we loved it and learned. We did projects for all kinds of subjects, including history, English, and science. For math and spelling we met in more traditional configurations, but still learned by doing, building, and exploring. 

So when people ask how did I come to bring making into my classroom, I have to say I brought it back. I still love to weave, and I have not found a way to put that into my curriculum, but I have taught sewing and soft circuits in an elective (which will be much better the second time around next year!) and I continue to think about ways that teaching and learning are enlivened by a wide variety of making.  I guess I never really left.