Progressive Education


Change and innovation are the major themes at most independent school conferences today. What does innovation mean exactly? How can schools change while maintaining what they have always done well?

As Purnell concludes its 50th year, it is an opportune time for us to reflect on our roots as a pioneer in progressive education and create a new vision for the future.

One way we have begun the process of respecting the past and creating a vision for the future at Purnell is by developing a shared understanding of what terms like “innovation” and “change” mean. In The Other Side of Innovation, Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble suggest that there are two forces at work within organizations that sometimes make it difficult for schools to change. In fact, Govindarajan and Trimble suggest that “Organizations are not designed for innovation.” On the one hand, you have Performance Engines whose major goals are productivity, efficiency, repetition, and accountability. These goals, although critical, make it difficult for innovation to grow. Innovation calls for trial and error with room to make mistakes. How can organizations reconcile these two forces and move in alignment toward a vision that is relevant and sustainable? This is exactly the work Purnell is engaged in.

The first step is to get the vision right. The second step is to get all the stakeholders aligned. Albert Einstein stated that, “Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want.” What this means to schools is that everyone from the Board to the faculty to the parents need to be aligned around a set of core principles that serve as the template for everything the school does internally and externally. The principles drive day-to-day operations, serve as a guide to train and evaluate all community stakeholders, guide adoption of policies, inform how resources are allocated and ultimately help differentiate one school from another in the competitive market place. Our principles must be data-driven, specific, action-oriented and live deep within our learning organization.


Purnell School and Progressive Education

Purnell is an all girls’ boarding and day school with a tradition of Progressive Education since 1963 that celebrates diversity in abilities, ideas, needs, cultural identity and relationships. Both Purnell and Progressive Education believe deeply in individual differences with an emphasis on the role community plays in the development of critical thinking and self-advocacy. What is Progressive Education? Why was Purnell founded on the principles of Progressive Education? How does it align with our new vision to educate and celebrate girls with different learning styles, abilities, and cultural identities?

During the twentieth century, the term "Progressive Education” was used to describe ideas and practices designed to make schools more effective agencies of a democratic society. Progressive Education has its early roots with Plato and Socrates, and later in the Progressive Education movement advanced by John Dewey, Rudolf Steiner, Kurt Hahn, Henry Stack Sullivan, Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, Carl Rogers, Robert Coles, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, Howard Gardner, and others. The pursuit of knowledge, truth, dialogue and community weave their way through these theorists as a common thread. Progressive Education consists of a set of humanistic principles that offer an insight on how humans develop and learn, and what kind of role a community can play in the educational process. By the end of the 20th century, Progressive Education had evolved towards encouraging schools to have at least two major goals in addition to the teaching of core subjects. They are:

Respect for diversity, meaning that each individual should be recognized for his or her own abilities, interests, ideas, needs and cultural identity, and the development of critical, socially-engaged intelligence, which enables individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common good.




There is a reason why Lytt and Sis Gould founded Purnell on the principles of Progressive Education and Head of School Jim Carney embedded Purnell’s pedagogy in project-based learning. Clearly, the founding guidelines of truthfulness in all relations, consideration of others, and use of common sense are supported by the principles of Progressive Education. Our world has changed dramatically over the past twenty years, and one could argue that there is so much more to education today than there was, say, fifty years ago. We now live in a global world--one that will pose complex economic and political, as well as environmental challenges to our students. The future lies with those who can quickly learn, relearn, and adapt, and our schools need to harness students’ high levels of intrinsic energy by creating space for risk, challenge, and adventure in the curriculum. Students need to be encouraged to reach beyond their perceived limits and to learn from their failures as well. Disciplined, analytic, active solutions to complex problems lay the foundation for global careers in medical research, entrepreneurial business, creative arts, teaching, and living.



Progressive education at purnell




Respect for diversity and critical thinking are more important today than ever. The fact that all learning occurs within relationships is also important today in our fast-paced world. Purnell’s progressive founding was rooted in the early understanding of learning differences. Purnell is moving into the future by rooting its new mission and vision in Purnell’s past. Today, Purnell proudly extends the learning differences/learning differently envelope to our entire community. The fact is, Purnell always did - we just didn't know that was what we were doing because we thought that ALL students learned differently which of course, as we now know, they do.

Purnell is moving into the future by rooting its new mission and vision in Purnell's past.What connects our past to the future? It is rooting teaching and learning in Purnell’s tradition of Progressive Education. What is different and exciting is that we are now using language that better describes what has always been going on. But now it is with more defined pedagogy given the new science about learning. Purnell is shaping a school that is holistic and complete. Purnell is cultivating girls who understand what they need in order to succeed and who can advocate for it. This requires that the adults empower the students and encourage them to participate in decisions so that these students can shape the environments they live in. Self-advocacy begins with respect for all voices. This developmental process requires providing girls with both structure and freedom to practice, grow, and learn from their mistakes.

Purnell is a place where girls can learn about themselves, find support from their peers and mentors, and explore what they are passionate about. Toward this end, our founding and continued aspiration is to align everything in the school including academics, co-curricular activities, and residential life. Purnell’s approach remains a total human development approach to teaching and learning.