Thursday, May 30, 2013

Reflections from a Snowy Winter Day

In my pilgrimage to visit progressive schools, I had the time and luxury to reflect on the great contrast that exists between mainstream and progressive education. Here are some thoughts that occurred after I visited schools in the midwest during blizzard season in March.


What strikes me as I visit progressive schools throughout the country is the common teaching practice. The way the classrooms are organized; the way teachers talk with students; the pedagogy encompassing so many aspects of progressive education. Where have they learned it? Perhaps secret code written on the bottom of teachers desks?  These ideas and methods are rarely taught in schools of education, now shackled by the restraints of Race to the Top and its first cousin No Child Left Behind.

I see teachers trusting the innate and growing capacities of their students; putting them to independent work and expecting a high degree of collaboration and resilience. I see teachers allowing for the noisy messiness that comes with discovery and creativity.

Somewhere in navigating the educational mainstream in this country we’ve lost our bearings and decided that what is best for children is to create an educational environment that emphasizes mastery of information with the goal of scoring as high as possible on standardized tests. It arises during the time our country is obsessed with measurable outcomes and normative standards. In business, economics, and now education we develop new metrics to measure achievement and success.

Normative standards have always been anathema to progressive education. They steal from teachers the right and duty to measure in an authentic way the growth and development of their students. They move us further and further away from the focus on the individual students and their passions, interests, talents, and skills. It relegates to a dispassionate authority the responsibility of aggregating entire classes, schools, and school districts into categories that are based on student performance on the tests.  Even now, with the national zeal to formulate common core standards, we’ve determined that teachers lack the wherewithal to develop goals and objectives for their students. The national mandate to teachers in 2013: teach to the test.


The dirty secret is that teachers hate this. In February I sat with the faculty of a public elementary school in the Midwest to discuss curriculum and teaching practice. It wasn’t long before the tears were flowing; these gifted professionals were feeling more and more pressure to comply with the state assessment mandates, with prescriptive guidelines for how to structure class time, and state mandated curriculum mandates. One complained that it was like going to work in a factory – here is the text; this is what we want you to teach; this is how long you are to spend teaching it; this is how we will measure your students mastery of the material; here is how we will base your performance as a teacher. We are not interested in your creativity and judgment; be sure your students score as high as possible on the test. That is your number one priority; period.

Teachers are scared to death, worried about their jobs. Principles are under intense pressure. District administrators are obliged to push the standards. Superintendents have little room for innovation.

Good teachers understand that this is not how children learn; this is not what motivates students; these are not the ingredients that help students discover their potential. This is a narrowly focused body of skills and information, much of which will be forgotten shortly after the tests are scored and filed. There is no depth; there is not room for deep conceptual understanding; there is no time to focus on the social and emotional development of students; no time for building character. Oh dear, not even time for recess.

So, we’ve entered the era of the great “workaround.” More and more teachers and principles, at great risk to themselves, are surreptitiously finding ways to skirt the prescriptive curriculum, and bringing innovation and creativity to their classrooms. They understand that tried and true progressive educational practices are effective teaching strategies that do not put their students at a disadvantage when test time comes, to the contrary they enhance understanding. These bold and heroic teachers know that it is futile to dissent in any organized way, so they close their classroom doors and do what they know is best for the kids.

At that same Midwest school, I had a revelatory moment with two first graders. It was a below freezing day, with snow covering the ground outside, and I, a California kid born and raised, was delighted to be inside, listing as closely as I could to any available radiator. At recess time, even on these unbearably cold days, the teachers allow the kids to decide if they would like to play outside or stay inside. The school is equipped with sleds and all manner of buckets and shoveling equipment for snow play. Even though I sensed that the teachers were dearly hoping the kids would choose to stay indoors, there were two or three first graders who wanted to go out to play. So - visible deep breath - the teacher on duty said, “OK, let’s put on our gear.” And, in a senseless act of misjudgment, that only a kid from California would make, I agreed to go with them.

As much as I was pained by the cold, as I watched the students don their snow apparel and head out to the schoolyard, I was reminded of an important principle.  It is about the progressive school and its relationship with time. Do you know how long it takes for a six year-old to pull on her snow pants, jacket and snow boots? The zippers, the buttons, the laces: each one an act of fine motor control and eye-hand coordination. Many teachers would never have countenanced the time being taken away from the academic schedule. In this moment, it became clear to me that the cultural obsession to account for every minute in the life of a student is so misguided. We somehow think that a certain number of minutes per week reading or doing math is of greater value than the experience of putting on your gear and going outdoors to play in he snow.



I followed the children outside where they picked up a snow sculpture project from the day before. Here, in this project, artistry and creativity met patience and resilience. Though much of the figure had deteriorated in yesterday’s button of sunshine, undaunted, the kids had at it. One was determined to try and fashion ringlets out of the snow to place upon the figure a festive crown. Here, she was discovering the properties of ice and the nature of structure as one attempt after the other dissolved in a snowy pile. She thought it was a density issue, and packed more and more snow on her ring; but one failed attempt after another, she soon discovered the improbability of her idea. The curriculum and learning emerged as a snowman – spontaneously. And the good judgment of the teachers - to allow the time for this play and learning, created the moment of profound discovery. 

Now can we go inside?

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