Promoting Life-Long Learners
People often ask what defines “progressive” education. And, of course, opinions differ depending on who answers. But for Touchstone, the notion of progressive education is straightforward. Put simply, a central characteristic of a progressive school is a commitment to creating an environment that encourages students to be active and engaged in learning (as opposed to becoming passive and feeling alienated in the learning process).
“When I think of progressive education,” reflects Tamara Brayshaw, Head Teacher of 7-, 8-, and 9-year olds (grades 2 and 3) at Touchstone, “I think of an education where the children are as involved as they possibly can be, and that involves experiential learning. It involves respect for other children, respect for your environment, your surroundings, and everybody and everything in it. It involves children being held responsible for their learning and being able to think for themselves. And, a big part of it is about self-discovery, about how you understand things, how you learn things, and what you can do with that knowledge.”
In short, Touchstone’s learning environment strives to build multiple competencies, connectedness among community members, and student autonomy.
Interestingly, research in psychology has found that, for children to success, it is essential that learning environments support student competence, relatedness, and autonomy. In fact, as psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci write, environments satisfying these three psychological “needs” facilitate “optimal functioning of a child’s natural propensities for growth and integration as well as for constructive social development and personal well-being” (p. 68).
Notably, the critical factor in school environments is student motivation. Research consistently shows that intrinsic motivation is more closely related to achievement than extrinsic motivation. (Extrinsic motivation refers to the drive that comes from external rewards like praise, reward, or other incentives.) Research also shows that successful students are able to internalize their extrinsic motivation, and learning environments that help these students become successful are ones that cultivate feelings of relatedness, competence, and autonomy.
This finding is especially relevant to Touchstone, where teachers use experiential learning as a way to motivate students to develop a commitment to life-long learning, individual effort, and respect for the community.
“There’s that old Chinese proverb: I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand,” explains Tamara. “The ‘doing’ is the experiential part.”
“We give them as many experiences as possible, and that way when they move forward they can make connections and comparisons, and recall things they’ve learned before. And the world starts to make more sense that way.”
“I think this helps students develop the idea that their learning is valued and that they as people are valued,” says Tamara. “They have something to offer, something to bring. I think they carry that with them, and I also think that leads to a ton of creativity that doesn’t get squelched.”
 Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(l), 68-78.
 Ryan & Deci (2000).