About two weeks ago I was startled in the middle of the night as I awoke from the craziest dream I’ve had in years. There I was, comfortably snoozing away when all of a sudden I found myself standing in front of an old antique car. Now, you just don’t see many of those any more. But there I was, first in front and then climbing inside.
This wasn’t your great grand daddy’s Model T. It was shiny. It had a brass radiator and inside it even had a radio and dvd player! It even had a self starter! Used to be that any driver had to get in front, grab a crank, give it a couple fast turns, and pull your hand away as fast as possible to avoid breaking your arm from the whiplash!
You can understand why I was startled. The next morning I decided to call my friend the psychoanalyst Dr. Hy Brau, and see if I could get in. “Hy,” I said,” can you work me in today?”
“For you, my boy, I’d find a spot any day.”
So I went over to Hy’s office and soon I was comfortably lying down on his patient’s couch.
“So tell me, what’s the problem?” Hy asked.
I went on with the story of my dream.
“Ah, I know exactly what your problem is,” he exclaimed. “You are an educator. You are concerned about the direction of schooling in this country. What you had is an example of the ‘substitution complex’. You substituted that fancy old car for your concerns about education.”
“Hy, for once you’re talking sense, not that psycho gibberish I usually hear! What can I do about it?”
Hy prescribed a solution. He told me to read a Washington POST article online May 9 “Educators Blend Divergent Schools of Thought” and then intensely read Stephanie Pace Marshall’s great new book The Power to Transform: Leadership That Brings Learning and Schooling to Life.
I rushed back home to my friendly computer, downloaded the POST article and then ordered Dr. Marshall’s book from Amazon. (See Dr Marshall’s web site link in article 7.)
Here are some things I found: We have a division in education circles similar to the political divide in Washington. It’s between the “traditionalists” on the right and the “constructivists” on the left. Traditionalists are pushing for more details, factual knowledge, harder content, quantitative assessment. Schools should be tough, so toughen up those standards.
Constructivists, as evidenced by Alphie Kohn, one of their chief proponents, place their importance on students constructing their own base of knowledge and skills through discovery and exploration of their lives. John Dewey is their disciple.
Here are a couple quotes. Figure out who’s the traditionalist and who’s the constructivist.
“If we want kids to be deep thinkers, then why blend an educational model that features deep thinking with one that’s focused on memorizing a list of facts?’
“… if a new generation of educators figured out that nontraditional means of teaching can be merged with a solid academic curriculum, it would be a miracle.”
And the dialogue goes on. But should it? Aren’t there fundamental questions that both sides are skimming over? What is the role of learning? What is education all about? Is it linked to vocational goals? Is it humanistic? Is it for citizenship? What is schooling? Is it just the place to accumulate lots of mental “stuff”?
How do we learn? Where do we learn? When do we learn? What and where are the resources to support learning?
If you are interested in seeking answers to those questions and many more even more fundamental, read Stephanie Pace Marshall’s “The Power to Transform …” mentioned above. I found it one of the most vivid explanations of what to me is at the root of education. I want to quote extensively from her work here, and I urge you to read it completely.
“It soon became abundantly clear that life is about learning and that cognition or knowing is the essential process of life. I was fascinated by the deep patterns of wholeness, order, interdependence, and creativity in the natural world. . . .
“Our guiding metaphor of the universe, living systems, and the mind-brain was that of a deterministic, mechanistic, and predictable machine. But science has changed its mind about how the world works: the natural world is now understood as an interdependent, relational, and living web of connections – inherently whole, abundant, creative and self-organizing. I believe our children’s learning would thrive if they could learn as life does, by being immersed in environments that are natural living habitats –‘learning arboretums,’ as one of my students called them, for nurturing integral and wise minds.
“This understanding of the dynamic relationships, sustaining organization, and boundless creativity of the natural world as context for learning and schooling is fundamental. Because we unconsciously institutionalize our scientific worldview in our beliefs, assumptions, thinking, and behavior, we shape the structure and processes of our institutions, including our schools, according to the science of our times.
“Yet despite new discoveries, rigid conceptions of the world-as-a-machine have calcified into unquestioned models of thinking and design principles that continue to shape our language, stories, policies, and institutions. This worldview and its illusions of predictability, precise measurability, and external controllability continue to influence almost every dimension of our culture. But nowhere is the imprint more debilitating than in the processes and structures of schooling, in what and how we ask our children to learn and in how we were taught to lead them.”
Dr. Marshall writes so clearly and so profoundly that it is possible to turn to just about any page in her book and find portions worth quoting. Unfortunately, I don’t want to be accused of copyright violations, so I have to refrain from the urge to do so. But I can tweak your curiosity with some additional especially important observations.
Dr. Marshall goes on to write:
“The design of our current story of schooling often feels like a management contract with our students. We seem to tell our children that in exchange for following the rules of schooling – coming to class on time, paying attention, completing assignments, and passing tests – they will receive a diploma. The design of the new story feels quite different. It is transformational, not transactional. It is a learning covenant with our children – a promise as well as an agreement. . . .
“Let’s visit a possible new school: a learning center for primarily ten to sixteen year olds, the Aspen Grove Center for Inquiry and Imagination. I say possible because Aspen Grove represents a synthesis of learning conditions that already exist in some of our nation’s schools.
“An aspen grove is a powerful symbol for the new learning and schooling story. Although an aspen grove looks like a forest of individual trees, it is actually a single organism connected at its roots. Within a grove of aspens, most, if not all, the trees are related. Like an aspen grove, the generative new story of learning and schooling supports a wide variety of unique learning centers, but they remain connected at the roots, part of an intricate learning network and system.
“Learning experiences are personalized and intergenerational: As we enter the dynamic and technologically rich learning spaces, engagement, respect, and freedom are palpable. Aspen Grove serves as an incubator for inquiry and imagination. It feels like an experimental laboratory, an interactive hands-on museum, an entrepreneurial think tank, and a reflective retreat center. Aspen Grove invites and exudes life. Its space is open, colorful, and fluid. There are lots of windows for natural light and comfortable furniture that beckons conversation and problem solving. Learning studios and tutorial and production studios have telephones; copiers, fax machines, wireless tablets, digital cameras, and other materials to ensure students can access and create what they need. Plants are everywhere, and students take care of them. There is even a flourishing vegetable garden that the children attend, and once a month they prepare a meal for a community group. A large outdoor labyrinth invites their reflection.
“There are no bells to signal the end or beginning of classes. Learning experiences, learning time, and even learning locations are driven by the goals and commitments of the children and the nature and complexity of their work. Clusters of children of different ages, teachers, mentors, and community members, as well as national and international online partners, are working together. Intergenerational learning is pervasive.
“Learners are not segregated by traditional age cohorts or grades. Rather, personalized learning plans co-created with the children and their families drive the design and creation of learning experiences and multiage learning clusters. Because learning is explicitly linked to the community’s life, students are engaged in learning year round and not confined to the traditional school day. Aspen Grove is part of a global learning network where learning happens any time and anywhere. . . .
“Students are immersed in disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary inquiry. They are learning how to learn, engaging in collaborative problem framing and resolution, and creatively using knowledge learned in one discipline to inform the questions raised within others. They are learning about their own abundant and unique potentials, developing their own internal authority for learning, and developing a fluid repertoire of learning strategies essential for deeper and more complex understanding.”
Schools such as what Dr. Marshall so eloquently describes can only come about with a groundswell of community, state, and national support.
But what about NCLB and state standards and tests? What about more AP courses? Will these students be ready for the rigors of college? I wish I could make a bet with each of the doubters. I can attest from my own experience that students who receive learning opportunities such as those described here will do as well as or better than they would have if they had been in traditional classes. And think about what more they would have gained that can’t be measured on short answer tests!
We don’t need “chug buggy” schools that may do a fine job preparing students for lives in the 1910’s and 20’s. We need schools to help students embrace the challenges ahead of them in the 21st century.