Looking Both Ways
Principal Comments September 14, 2005 Clara Barton Open School
We are living in an era of ideological extremes. It’s most obvious in the political arena but, in reality, the either/or, right versus wrong, good versus evil characterizations that inundate us daily through the media and our public leaders are influencing policy decisions in all of our lives, educational institutions included. Schools are now evaluated by one set of tests with results simplified into a five star rating system served on a stick at the State Fair. Minnesota had its own version of an educational extremist when Cheryl Yecke rode into town to serve as our Commissioner of Education. No matter what her qualifications were, it was ultimately her extremism at one end of the continuum that made her unfit for leadership in the state department of education. The MN Senate clearly made the right choice in rejecting her nomination.
I want to explore a way of thinking about opposites that might help us understand what progressive education is all about, and, maybe, be useful in trying to sort out what is happening even beyond the world of education. We have the largest student enrollment (760) in all the years I’ve been principal here (14). We have 94 students new in grades 1-8 and over half of the kindergarten class made up from new families to the school. It’s more important than ever that we work together to build good understandings of what progressive education is. Beyond the number of new families, I’d argue that this task is even more essential because of the political climate that surrounds us. Educational policies are increasingly more conservative and narrow in scope, the prime example being Federal legislation dictating accountability standards to institutions that historically have been the epitome of local, democratic control. We live in unusual times to say the least, especially for those of us who desire progressive democratic schools for our children.
Developmental psychologists have been thorough in articulating the stages children go through as their thinking develops. What is obvious to parents and educators are the significant steps children make as they progress from thinking that is tied to concrete experiences, real things, to thinking that is more abstract, generalized. We see this most profoundly in the school years during the transitions 5th and 6th graders are starting to make in being able to understand more complex mathematical problems but it is reflected in the middles graders’ response to all subject matter. The more theorizing, generalizing, abstracting students can do the more complex the curriculum becomes, progressively through the high school years. What’s missing in most descriptions of thinking development is an articulation of what comes after formal, abstract thinking. Adult development that moves beyond abstract thinking incorporates this step: the ability to hold conflicting, contradictory ideas at the same time and to see these opposites as tensions or polarities that might reveal truths on each side. The writer/poet Donald Hall has said it this way, “truth is always contradiction. There can be no clear and distinct force of emotion that is not contradicted by an opposite force. Only contradiction allows any possibility of growth and learning.” I know this all sounds a bit esoteric but bear with me. I’m going to start with some examples that I think all of us can relate to…
The reading curriculum wars exemplify the most visible of the either/or thinking battles in education…whole language/literature based reading programs versus phonics/skilled based programs (progressives versus traditionalists). These wars are real and have influenced many state legislatures and local school boards in dictating one way or the other in regards to officially approved reading programs. But anyone who clings to one position in this tension ends up neglecting the different ways that children actually learn. The truth about how children learn to read lies in the tension between these extremes. Many kids do learn to read because of rich opportunities to engage in authentic reading and writing experiences. All children need these authentic experiences. Some children need a more sequenced skills approach before they are able to internalize the range of strategies that makes one a reader. An open school program must continually adapt instructional materials to fit the needs of children, rather than thinking children will fit into a prescribed reading program.
The field of mathematics is engaged in its own battle of extremes, or its own version of whole language versus phonics. The names are changed to fit the discipline but the war is the same: a conceptual, applied, problem-solving approach versus a tightly sequential, skills-based, drill and memorize the rules approach. This battle is compounded by general perspectives from the public that faster and more in mathematics is better than deeper with increasingly more complex applications. But the best math teachers recognize that the truth is in the tension…there are important pulls in each direction and some kids need more or less of one than the other but all kids need teachers who see both ways.
In the late 1960’s, when open classrooms were being implemented in pockets throughout this country, there was often more understanding of what this progressive approach was against, rather than what it actually stood for. Certainly the rigidity, uniformity and lifelessness of the mainstream curriculum were worth moving away from. But without clear images of where we were going, there emerged as many sloppy practices in open education as there were irrelevant programs on the traditional side. Things have changed dramatically since those early beginnings, and Barton, as one open school with a long history, has benefited from many years of better understandings of learning and instructional practices that have paid attention to children as unique learners. Children, no matter what the rhetoric from the No Child Left Behind legislation, just don’t seem to come off the educational assembly line looking like their neighbor. They differ in temperament, aptitude, intellect, social competence, and emotional vulnerability. And, of course, all children are alike in some ways and every child resembles certain children more than others.
Here’s my basic premise…
A healthy, vibrant progressive school, like Barton, must ground itself in the best tenets of traditional education. And, conversely, a solid, thoughtful traditional program, like Barton’s, empowers learners when it reaches for the best tenets of progressive education. We can live in both worlds if we see a dynamic tension between them, rather than a right or wrong way of doing things.
Maybe a more helpful metaphor for us, rather than tensions, contradictions or opposites, is to remind ourselves that, when educating our children, we need to look both ways. It’s good basic advice when it comes to crossing streets. I think it’s one of the more helpful ways to talk about a progressive school program like Barton’s. We’ll just say to others who want to know what were doing, “we’re looking both ways.”
Here are some examples from an article in the Kappan (with the subtitle “Tapping the Best of Traditional and Progressive Education”) with a little elaboration on my part…
Traditional tenet: Uphold standards of excellence in evaluating student work. I have no trouble with this tenet although I’m regularly troubled by the narrow way we measure learning through standardized tests but that’s another issue.
Progressive tenet: Do not try to make one standard fit all learners. The performance standard for what can reasonably be expected of a particular learner at a particular time, in any given domain, may differ from that which is reasonable to expect of another learner, even one of the same age group.
Traditional tenet: Provide firm foundations for children in the intellectual development of reading, writing and mathematics.
Progressive tenet: Recognize that the social, physical and emotional life of the child needs to be as much a priority as the measured academic achievement—perhaps even a greater priority. Just because we don’t have the measurement tools for things like cooperation, responsibility, self-control, honesty, courtesy, empathy should never allow us to undervalue these qualities in a school environment.
Traditional tenet: Discipline-based knowledge is the firm foundation on which interdisciplinary/thematic learning takes place. Subject area perspectives provide critical perspectives, essential knowledge and tools of inquiry.
Progressive tenet: Recognize that learners search for holistic knowledge. Discipline based learning is necessary but it is not sufficient for helping students developing a harmonious and coherent set of lenses on the world. Students desire and schools need to assist them in developing understandings that reflect real knowledge integration.
Traditional tenet: Not all topics and questions are of equal worth.Teach that which is of deepest value for students. With tactful insistence, hold students to clear, critical thinking that is rooted in powerful ideas.
Progressive tenet: Do not treat the mind of the child as if it were a receptacle. Mindful learning requires an engaged learner. Learners interpret new information in terms of what they already believe to be true. Honor what children bring to the text.
Even within progressive education tenets, there’s a need to look both ways…
Create opportunities for individual choice and self direction in learning, as well as, create opportunities for cooperative group work that demands intellectual and social give and take for learners.
Give students opportunities to make decisions about what is studied and how something will be studied, as well as, give teachers opportunities to make decisions about what is studied and how something is studied. Both ways should tap into passions of the learner, teachers too.
Give students a balanced experienced with the arts, the humanities and the sciences, looking several ways here. Our preoccupation with standardized testing is driving the curriculum to extremes in many schools where there is no time for science, no time for the arts; we have to practice for the reading and math tests…
Our Leadership Council is committed to providing several opportunities this year for Barton parents to explore the educational tenets that make for a healthy progressive school. For lack of a better term we have casually referred to these sessions as Barton 101. A first one will be scheduled for Thursday, October 27, with additional details to follow in our school newsletter. We hope that many of
you will be willing to participate in these beginning community discussions of what is open education and how can we best meet the needs of our children?
Let me review the basic premise I’ve tried to highlight tonight…
A healthy, vibrant progressive school, like Barton, must ground itself in the best tenets of traditional education. And, conversely, a solid, thoughtful traditional program, like Barton’s, empowers learners when it reaches for the best tenets of progressive education. We can live in both worlds if we see a dynamic tension between them, rather than a right or wrong way of doing things. Looking both ways is what’s best for our children and it’s ultimately what’s best for parents and teachers who share the responsibility for creating the conditions that nurture all children as learners. Thank you.
—Steven R. DeLapp, Principal