Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. ~John Dewey
For those of you who are unaware of John Dewey, he was, among other things, an educational reformer working during the early part of the 19th century and who can rightly be called the grandfather of our current notions on progressive education. He was born and raised during the Victorian era, a time not unlike our own, when the prevailing ideas about education were that children are simply incomplete adults who needed to be stuffed with knowledge, forced into stillness and silence, and "manufactured" into little adults ready to go to work. If you've ever used the terms "hands-on education" or "experiential education" (the actual slogan of my daughter's school here in Seattle), you're quoting Dewey.
The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences. ~John Dewey
A typical day at Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool begins with the children arriving with their parents, washing their hands, then freely playing, or not, at any one of the "stations" I've prepared for them. We've given them names like "Blocks" and "Art" and "Drama" and "Table Toys" and "Sensory" and "Do-It-Yourself" and depending on what those things are, there can be as many as a half dozen more mini-stations in the form of special toys or objects I've planted (often after having first introduced them to the older Pre-K kids so that they can become the teachers at those "stations") around the room for children to discover. Our outdoor classroom functions the same way.
But, of course, as much as this description sometimes makes it sound like the kids get to do anything they want with the things and people they find at those stations, it's not free play in the sense that anything goes. For one thing, we're already pretty tightly hemmed in by the rules the children have created for themselves. If anything, we adults must strive to temper their enforcement, which is in and of itself a refreshing role for adults to be playing in the lives of young children. And as much as I resent it, there are a number of insurance company imposed "safety rules" that we can't circumvent without leaving us legally exposed.
But we teachers, of course, have a more important role than that imposed on us by mere rules. The main reason we have a name for each of those stations isn't for the kids, but rather so our parent-teachers know where I expect them to spend their morning, guiding and facilitating the "free play." If necessary, I typically start off each of the adults with a brief description of what I envision transpiring at their station, more often than not finishing with the advice, however, to "let the children make it their own," which is why so many of our art station projects, for example, turn into finger painting.
I approve of Dewey's definition of the role of teacher as "facilitator" and "guide." These are, importantly, open-ended terms, left for teachers to adapt to suit the child, the circumstances, and our own personalities.
To give some examples, Dennis' dad Terry and Max's mom Callie both tend to interpret their teaching role to mean they get to play with the kids, usually in a role that looks and feels like an older, wiser, more responsible child. More often than not, I find them "playing stories" with the kids, using the materials at hand to facilitate imaginative, inclusive games, that often grow to take over the room, but just as often contain themselves to small group in a corner going deeply into their ideas.
Sylvia's mom Toby and Charlotte's mom Amanda tend more toward the role of guide, often huddling up cheek-to-cheek with a child or two, asking questions about what they see happening, wondering aloud about the physics or the social dynamics or the consequences, not imposing their adult views, but rather role modeling inquisitiveness and thoughtfulness by asking aloud the questions one might logically ask oneself.
Other parent-teachers tend to say little, but fulfill their role of facilitator and guide through physical touch, by placing a hand on a shoulder, or balancing children on their loving laps. Some sprinkle the children's play with large, descriptive vocabulary words that may or may not sink in this time, but eventually will, expanding both understanding and the ability to communicate that understanding when the time is ripe. And all of us seek above all to express warmth to the children around us, always, whatever is happening, even when we forget and slip back into our Victorian habits of bossing around the "unformed humans," letting them know that we love them, that they can learn what they want to learn, be who they want to be, and that we are all in this together.
I'm expressing an ideal here, of course. Some days are better than others, but honestly, most days, most of the time, as the children freely play, we are there with them, warmly, as collaborators and partners in learning. Not telling them, but guiding them. Not controlling, but facilitating. Letting children get their hands-on, to have real experiences with materials and the other people, and to create an environment in which they can independently discover meaning for themselves.
People sometimes ask me if it's hard to work with all those "amateur" teachers. The short answer is "no." I find that each and every one of our parent-teachers already knows everything they need to know to be loving facilitators and guides, the only training any of us really need is a kind of "un-training" to help us overcome the bad habits that come from living in a neo-Victorian era.
This is what school looks like at Woodland Park. This is what teaching looks like. It's nothing special really; it's just life itself.