Among elementary schools in Los Angeles, Westland is widely known and respected as a pioneer in the teaching philosophy known as progressive education. This philosophy evolved in recognition of the limitations of traditional education and its emphasis on training children to memorize and recite large amounts of information. As we enter the 21st-century, information storage has clearly become the domain of technology, but our most human traits—the ability to wonder, to think critically, to question, to share, to create, and to care about each other—are timeless and uniquely valuable. These are the qualities that Westland has sought to develop in our students since our founding more than 60 years ago. Through our historical dedication to these ideals and our bold vision for their relevance in the future, Westland has become an inspiration to other elementary schools in Los Angeles and around the world. Progressive education at Westland means teaching with these fundamental ideas in mind:
When groups of children generate their own questions to answer and teachers give them space, tools, and encouragement rather than pre-packaged solutions, amazing things happen. Mastery of subject matter occurs through discovery of insights and answers that are relevant and meaningful to students. Critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration are all developed naturally as part of the process of solving problems in groups. View this slide show to see examples.
When groups of children generate their own questions to answer and teachers give them space, tools, and encouragement rather pre-packaged solutions, amazing things happen. Mastery of subject matter occurs through discovery of insights and answers that are relevant and meaningful to students. Critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration are all developed naturally as part of the process of solving problems in groups.
A growing body of research supports what progressive thinkers have understood for more than 100 years: Children learn best through hands-on experience rather than passive memorization. One way we incorporate this concept into our approach is by taking frequent trips to visit the people and places that we are learning about. Los Angeles is one of the greatest cities in the world for providing dynamic experiences, surrounded as we are by a uniquely diverse array of ecology, economy, and culture. From mountains, deserts, forests, and oceans to museums, theaters, international culture, world-class universities, and scientific research, L.A. offers a limitless playground for the adventure of learning.
Progressive education emphasizes teaching many concepts that are integrated into thematic studies. This encourages children to see the connections between things and understand the context for what they are learning. Social studies, used frequently in the Westland curriculum, acts as an integration framework fusing subjects such as math, art, language arts, and science into a single integrated study of a particular people. These studies often focus on a topic over 8 to 12 weeks. Younger students study topics closer to them in time and space, like the local economy and their immediate family. Older students reach further, looking across oceans and back in time to explore ancient worlds.
We measure students’ success not merely by what they know but by who they are. Children at Westland are expected to become active and responsible citizens in a democratic society. This starts with a strong sense of commitment to the school community, where a warm and supportive environment for emotional growth is the right and responsibility of every child. Many activities at Westland are designed to foster these ideals. These include our partnerships, emphasis on group projects, cooperative play, conflict-resolution approach, class jobs, and community service projects.
Westland believes that in order to empower students to become informed, engaged, and active citizens in a democratic society, they must be provided with explicit and intentional anti-bias and social justice education. Through the integrated studies at Westland, students are engaged in developmentally appropriate learning that investigates personal identity and how the individual connects to the group community, to the larger school community, and finally to society as a whole. Concurrently, students learn to recognize, understand, and respect differences, in addition to identifying systemic inequities. Through Westland’s anti-bias and social justice curriculum, students learn to initiate positive change as community members.
We honor the idea that each child has a unique learning style and pathway through his or her individual development process. Our school’s low student-to-teacher ratio allows us to customize the learning process to the strengths or challenges of each child. We also adjust the class placement of our students every year to optimize the social, emotional, and intellectual journey for every student. Our flexible grouping system has been refined over the years to allow students to change peer groups periodically without stigma, stress, or falling behind.
21st Century Education
With technology rapidly and profoundly changing the world, the very nature of communication and work is changing. The value of an education that promotes collaboration, problem solving, information analysis, adaptability, and intrinsic motivation is greater than ever. Westland students know how to ask good questions, use the right tools to find their answers, and engage their imagination to innovate solutions. They can think across disciplines to see the big picture and are fluent in working in networks of collaborative peers. We have developed and refined our approach to teaching over the last half century so that when our kids graduate from Westland, they are ready to perform and contribute in a number of capacities:
When kids are truly interested in a topic they have taken a role in choosing, they naturally seek information and take pleasure in sharing it with others. Westland encourages this process by providing students with frequent opportunities to find answers to their own questions. They learn that information is everywhere if you know where to look. As students present their ideas to each other and to larger groups, they learn to take responsibility for the quality and accuracy of their findings as they cement their knowledge. Through the cumulative sharing of each student’s research, the knowledge base for the group expands far beyond what would be possible if everyone were learning the same thing at the same time.
Developing a capacity for empathy allows children to see the world through the eyes of others, assessing situations from multiple perspectives and providing the open-mindedness required for solving complex problems. Empathy is also the root of the strong community that we foster in all aspects of the Westland experience. Teaching partnerships between older and younger students create an atmosphere of kindness, cooperation, and support throughout the school. Classroom and school jobs teach students responsibility to their groups and the school itself. Students play an important role in our weekly Sings, when children, families, and teachers come together to share and celebrate. The Westland community is truly like no other.
Westland kids learn to communicate in many modes and contexts. They collaborate in small groups to get work done as well as present to larger groups to share ideas and information. They must learn how to listen and how to be clear, flexible, and attentive. Beyond outstanding abilities with language arts, Westland students are also fluent in non-verbal communication, expanding on ideas with graphs, charts, and illustrative drawings and on creative concepts through art, music, woodworking, block-building, and dramatic performances. Our kids know how to express complex ideas using a range of tools and styles.
In adults, we value people who can think “outside the box.” We cherish risk-taking and the ability to explore, discover, and innovate to bring about positive change. Traditional approaches to education often discourage these qualities by grading children on their ability to conform to a single set of performance criteria. Children learn to play it safe, studying only what they are told will be on the test. The approach at Westland builds on children’s natural sense of curiosity by giving them the opportunity, confidence, and tools to take risks in their work and play—without fear of failure. Our students become self-motivated, enthusiastic learners, comfortable raising a hand, speaking up, and venturing a guess in any situation.
Children work in groups at Westland as often as they do individually. Group projects might involve a small team, a whole class, the school, and even the teacher and parent community. Through this group work, children learn how to collaborate both as contributors and leaders. They learn to give uncommon ideas a chance, to value each other’s unique vision, to build consensus, and persuade others when necessary. By learning effective collaboration skills, Westland kids lay the groundwork for being leaders in large-scale problem solving and positive change in the world.
We challenge students to solve problems in every subject at their individual level, in small groups and even as a whole school. Our teaching approach creates a “need to know” so that problem solving evolves in the context of personal motivation and curiosity. Children learn all the skills they would in a traditional academic education, but with a sense of relevancy. They also learn the benefit of exchanging knowledge with others. These skills aren’t just for the classroom; our kids problem-solve on the playground, using applied thinking and communication skills to resolve conflict, deepen friendships, and approach challenging life situations with confidence. Westland’s philosophy honors students’ individual differences and develops flexibility, adaptability, and respect for others and oneself.