Progressive Practices

Spring 2016

By Peggy McNamara, Jackson Kytle, and Shael Polakow-Suransky

Learning comes alive in the relationship between one student and one teacher. Listen to Johanna working with her third-grade class at Midtown West in New York City:

In Johanna’s classroom, students are doing silent reading. Twenty-eight students are spread across the room, filling every nook and cranny. Johanna moves around with a clipboard and her pad of sticky notes. She sidles up to a student splayed out on the rug. A restless reader, she was twisting and turning on the rug while reading Who Was Abraham Lincoln? 

“Destiny, how are you doing with that book?” asks Johanna. Destiny looks up and gives a half-hearted thumb waggle. “Hmmm,” says Johanna, kneeling down. Destiny moves from her pretzel position to sitting cross-legged. Johanna says, “I thought we decided you would try a biography because you have been reading so much fiction.” Destiny nods. 

Johanna writes something on her clipboard. “I know how much you love fiction. What do you like most?” Destiny smiles and says, “I love adventure.” There is a long pause as Johanna waits for Destiny to say more. Destiny looks down, plays with her laces. 

Ten seconds pass and Johanna asks, “So you like to read adventure... what kind?” Destiny nods and says, “I like when people go searching for other people or they go after a treasure or on a journey.” 

“So it sounds like you’re into when people pursue things either outside themselves, or when they go after personal goals,” says Johanna. Destiny nods again and says, “I guess Abe Lincoln sort of did that, too.” 

Johanna smiles broadly. “Yes, you’re right. If you read a biography, you see how the person has a life of adventure and pursues success. I’ll tell you what,” Johanna then pulls off a few sticky notes, “take these sticky notes and go through the parts that you have read. See if you can find moments when Abe Lincoln was on an adventure.” 

Destiny takes the notes and starts leafing through her book. Johanna stays seated cross-legged next to her, jotting more notes for herself.

“Johanna!” Destiny smiles and points to a passage. “Here is an example,” and she reads, “Abraham finished with school for good at the age of 15. Altogether, he had gone for only about a year, but he learned how to read. Now he could teach himself anything he wanted. He read every book he could find. He once walked 20 miles to borrow one.” 

After a few more exchanges, Johanna gets up and says, “It was great to talk with you about reading. Can you find two more examples of adventure in the book? Can we find them by Wednesday? Can you write them down for me?” Destiny gives Johanna an energetic thumbs up and Johanna moves on.1

Learning is nurtured in human relationships. This brief exchange between student and teacher demonstrates the observational, relational, and deeply personal nature of progressive classroom practice, which helps students connect to academic content.

What about the teacher? How we treat teachers shapes how they treat students. How can we nurture and educate and sustain a progressive teacher over a long career? For Johanna’s students — or her own education — what principles define what Barbara Biber called an “optimal learning situation”?2

While some tailoring to different age groups is necessary, the same principles apply to learning throughout the lifespan, whether it is in a Pre-K classroom, a field trip for adolescents, a master’s degree program, or a professional development workshop for experienced teachers.

Progressive Principles

What are the core ideas in the progressive vision? As our vignette suggests, a personal relationship between student and teacher is paramount. A well-prepared teacher structures the class and then works with individual students or small groups, asking questions and gently moving the process forward.

Relationships are also important in how the children relate to one another in class, as well as how they relate to other adults in the school and at home. Deborah Meier says students and teachers should be known by name as unique individuals.3 Johanna knows Destiny well and understands her individual interests.

Human-scale learning occurs best in democratic schools where teachers of children are choreographers more than disciplinarians. And teachers of adults like Deborah Meier are facilitators of adult learning that is rooted in inquiry, looking closely at the quality of student work and the implications for teacher practice.

The whole person, child or adult, is valued — not just for his or her cognition but for all facets of human existence. It follows that learners bring diverse resources to class: cognitive, emotional, physical, social, spiritual, and cultural.

Teachers work from students’ strengths and interests instead of their deficits. Student engagement is the first purpose; learners in Johanna’s class are not passive objects but active subjects in carefully constructed situations where students make choices and take responsibility for those choices.

Back to Johanna: With clipboard in hand while moving around her classroom, Johanna observes her students. A progressive teacher observes closely and takes notes to aid reflection and find solutions, rather than just sticking with fixed ideas or curricular mandates about what works best.

Observation and Recording is a seminal Bank Street course. This course prepares teachers to be descriptive observers, avoiding judgment until they have identified patterns of behavior in the child. This practice allows teachers to co-construct learning with their students.

While keeping external mandates in mind, teachers like Johanna view themselves as active curriculum makers with a sense of agency. Each day, progressive teachers build active classrooms from what they have learned about human development and stimulating curricula, paying close attention to how students are thinking and feeling — and what they are learning.4

Research Support

The merits of progressive education stimulate lively conversations, pro and con. What is the evidence to support a progressive approach to teaching and learning? External researchers have conducted many evaluations of our programs at Bank Street. In 2012, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) was asked to conduct a multi-year, multi-method study examining the preparation, practices, and effectiveness of our graduates.

The use of qualitative and quantitative methods, surveys, and observational studies of progressive classrooms and schools all add validity to the major findings, which are just now being released.

Linda Darling-Hammond and Ira Lit studied the value of a Bank Street education and employment pathways after graduation of 1,384 graduates from 2000 to 2012 in comparison to the benchmark of a random sample of New York state teachers. Three findings stand out: First, 87 percent of our graduates report that their teaching program was “effective” or “very effective” in preparing them to teach, compared with only 66 percent for a comparison sample of New York state teachers.5

Second, Bank Street graduates persist in the field of education: 87 percent were working as a classroom teacher or in another education role up to nine years post-graduation, whereas researchers have reported that 33 percent of all new teachers leave after three years and 46 percent after five.6

Third, a sample of employers say that more than 90 percent of Bank Street graduates are "well prepared" or "very well prepared" as teachers, relative to peers from other colleges.7

These findings speak to the power of integrated teacher preparation. When intensive, clinically-rich supervision is integrated with academic studies weekly, teachers develop the knowledge, skills, disposition, and stamina to build a teaching practice for a long and productive career.

How Teachers Should Be Prepared

Teachers should be educated in the same way they are expected to educate children. From the admission process through graduation, they should learn the value of reflection and the powerful ways to facilitate their own learning, as well as that of their students. Graduate professors demonstrate how a teacher constructs learning experiences to foster both independent and collaborative learning.

Barbara Biber once said that developing teachers need both “third-person thinking,” which emphasizes analysis and conceptual development, and “first-person thinking.”8 What does she mean? As teachers develop, they must have the opportunity to engage in active reflection about their own development and teaching practice to understand emerging personal strengths and challenges, while simultaneously connecting their lived experience in the classroom to knowledge about child development and effective pedagogy. It is deep work on both these projects that best prepares teachers to engage and nurture the whole child.

Advisement is the heart of a progressive education at Bank Street. Every week a “protected space” is created through a conference group. Aspiring teachers, who work in public and independent schools, participate in a collaborative conference group with their faculty advisors and other teachers. They engage in ongoing, in-depth conversations about teaching and their own growth as teachers.

The conference group has no set curriculum — it is a forum to work on issues and needs that teachers bring to the group. In the group, teachers learn how to present significant educational issues and how to provide constructive feedback. The skills and strategies learned become a “launching pad” for how a teacher will become a member of a school community.

Advisement also includes an intensive coaching relationship with a faculty advisor. Teachers learn to construct experiences for diverse students, to help them explore and reflect on themselves, others, and the wider world in which they live. Faculty advisors observe once a month for a full year of supervision, providing focused and detailed observations of the teachers and their students.

During bimonthly conferences, faculty advisors lead teachers through a process of analyzing and reflecting on their teaching decisions and the potential impact on individual children. This feedback sets up a cycle of authentic assessment, reflection, and thoughtful instruction. Through coaching, faculty advisors guide teachers to integrate their academic courses, their classroom experiences, and their developing professional identity.

What happens after a teacher graduates? How can progressive practice be integrated into the work teachers do in their schools? Johanna graduated from Bank Street and has had different roles over a long career: exemplary classroom teacher, cooperating teacher, adjunct instructor, and teacher leader in her school — all based on the relationships for learning that she co-constructs with students and colleagues.

Teachers and schools often face “top-down” instructional directives that run counter to what’s right for children. Bill Ayers summarizes an approach that he calls subversive, saying that “the people with the problems are also most likely to be the people with the solutions.”9

In just that spirit, we have created a new Education Center to work with schools and school systems. We want to strengthen the role of teacher leaders and to support administrators who want to build a professional culture that nurtures teachers as learners.


1. Ira Lit and Linda Darling-Hammond, with Eileen Horng, Sam Intrator, Soyoung Park, Jon Snyder, and Xinhua Zheng, The Threads They Follow: Bank Street Teachers in a Changing World (Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, 2016).

2. Barbara Biber, What Is Bank Street? (New York: Bank Street College of Education, 1973).

3. Deborah Meier, The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002).

4. Nancy Nager and Edna K. Shapiro, A Progressive Approach to the Education of Teachers: Some Principles from Bank Street College of Education., Occasional Paper Series 18 (New York: Bank Street College of Education, 2007).

5. Lit and Darling-Hammond, The Threads They Follow.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Biber, What Is Bank Street? 

9. William Ayers, “Spreading Out Its Roots: Bank Street Advisement and the Education of a Teacher,” Thought and Practice: (1987-1991), Journal of the Graduate School of Bank Street College of Education, 3 (1), 2016.

Peggy McNamara

Peggy McNamara ([email protected]) is chair, General Teacher Education Department, Graduate School of Education at Bank Street College.

Jackson Kytle

Jackson Kytle ([email protected]) is senior advisor at Bank Street College.

Shael Polakow-Suransky

Shael Polakow-Suransky ([email protected]) is president of Bank Street College.