Saturday, April 09, 2011

Context (Because We Say So)

Sorry for the long, late post, but . . .
I have a hundred difficulties which I have promised to clear up, and a thousand distresses and domestic misadventures crowding in upon me thick and threefold, one upon the neck of another. ~from Tristram Shandy, Sterne
The single greatest influence on me as a teacher was my own daughter's preschool teacher and North Seattle Community College parent educator Chris David. No matter how many books I read or classes I took, I learned most of what I started out knowing by working as a parent-teacher in her 3-5's class for two years. Our daily schedule, our songs, our stations, our over-arching philosophical approach to working with young children are all rooted in what I learned from Chris. For my first year or so as a teacher, I spent a lot of time consciously trying to be her. I found myself constantly searching my mental files for not only the exact words I thought Chris might say or thing she might do, but even trying to reflect her body language, her cadence, and her vocal tone.

Over time, of course, while I believe I've remained true to the core principles I learned from Chris, my teaching style has become my own to the point that I doubt there are many people who would observe the two of us and find similarities beyond the superficial ones of schedule, songs and stations. And that's how it ought to work, of course, Chris and I are different people. It is only natural to expect that we would form different kinds of relationships with the people in our lives. Yet we are both progressive educators.

The biggest challenge in communicating about how progressive education works, I think, is that it really can only be discussed and understood "in context." When guys like Bill Gates (who for better or worse has become the poster boy for a cookie cutter model of education) promote their versions of education, it's a much easier task because it's a one-size-fits-all theory with a pot of gold (literally, in the form of a "job") as a reward. And like all "beautiful" theories (e.g., Marxism, libertarianism, neo-liberalism) it may be made to work in a small scale, well-funded, incubator-like setting, but it will always fall apart when tried out in the context of actual humans behaving like actual messy, wonderful, diverse human beings, and not the theory's concept of how human beings ought to behave.

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. ~Socrates

Progressive education, by it's very nature, means different things to different people. To me, it starts with relationships among the people involved: the kids, the teachers, and the parents. Alfie Kohn writes, "Progressive education is marinated in community," and that has been my guiding principle since before I'd heard of Kohn, or indeed, ever really thought about progressive education. The factory approach to education that has been largely in vogue since the Industrial Revolution relies heavily on a hierarchical model of a boss-teacher to fill all those empty vessels with the information deemed important by those higher up the chain of command, which more often than not meant the guys who own the "factories" in which these kids were presumed destined to be employed. Up until this point in Western society, education had been a much more free-form, community-based (what we today might call "progressive") endeavor, but people educated in this way simply don't do so well in the mind-numbing repetitious factory jobs industrialists were creating. So even more important than the information they sought to pour into those kids, they shaped schools to reflect what they saw as the "realities" of the modern workplace, making it more about things and specific skills, and less about people and their relationships.

As it turns out, most of us don't spend our lives working in factories, but this rather radical (in the context of history) educational model has stuck with us, serving business, but not necessarily children or our wider community. 

We keep hearing that public education is in crisis, and I don't doubt it, but the solution is not to double down on the factory model, making school more competitive, more standardized, more hierarchical, which is what the Gates-lead reform movement seems to be all about. But, of course, what can we expect from these guys? As our colleague Barbara Zaborowski wrote in the comments the other day, "Remember, Microsoft is just a couple of geniuses and a whole lot of worker bees." In this new age of technology, they still need all the "trained" drones they can get.

As I see it, we need to return to the "traditional" (e.g., pre-Industrial Revolution) models of placing relationships at the center of education.

When I look at progressive schools, no two are alike. We are Reggio Emilia and Montessori and Waldorf and forest and outdoor and alternative and free and cooperative and every permutation and mixture imaginable. My own school, Woodland Park, is even different from year to year, depending on the relationships that form between the children, the parents, and with me. As a teacher, I play to my strengths, as we all should. I learn from other teachers and other programs, of course, but ultimately there is no "progressive template," no one-size-fits-all. Progressive education is not an off the rack endeavor, but rather a community sewing bee in which everything is custom made. And there are no bosses, only relationships between people, who have equal rights and responsibilities even if some of them are "just kids."

That's the context in which progressive educators teach. When I write about putting children in charge of their own education, I'm writing about the struggle all of us have to "forget" our industrial education backgrounds and treat children as people, not underlings.

See what I mean about context? It took me 900+ words to explain my version of one aspect of the context of progressive education. Nine hundred words of preamble to get me to where I feel like I can make my point. (It's a real "competitive" disadvantage to not be able to rely on everyone understanding the shorthand of progressive education the way Bill Gates can count on a general comprehension of the context of his advocacy for an industrial model for education.)

I do not teach children, I teach people. It would never occur to me to resort to, "because I said so," with a person, big or small.

In response to yesterday's post, a few people admonished me, insisting that there must be times when "the adult just as to be the adult" and boss the kids around. While I reject the idea that this is part of the definition of being an adult, I will, however, be the first to concede that teachers in our prevailing system are far too often expected to perform functions beyond that of education, like crowd control. That's because factory education is not about the children as much as it is about adult agendas that dictate with what and when we're going to fill these empty vessels. Children are expected to learn certain things at certain times in certain places, and as anyone knows who works with people of any age, the only way to make that happen is to put them at the bottom of a hierarchy and tell them what to do.

I'm not making the claim that I, or anyone, is so perfect in their relationships with others that they don't sometimes take the shortcut of commanding, especially when health and safety are at stake. But still, we wash our hands at preschool, not "because I said so," but because we don't want to give one another swine flu. And that's actually what I've been saying to the people I teach for the last couple years, "I want you to wash your hands because I don't want to catch your swine flu." I do not command them to wash their hands, I express my desire along with a real reason, just as I would with an adult, and I have never had a child refuse to wash his hands. Yes, a few of them will say something like, "I already washed my hands at home," but when I take the time to reiterate my desire and my reason, they wash their hands.

In my relationships with people I sometimes have responsibilities, one of which is to make sure the people in our school respect the rules that we have made together. When I see a child hitting another child, for instance, I don't make her stop, "because I said so." I make her stop because "you and your friends made a rule against hitting." I'll even say, "I can't let you hurt my friends," because it is my responsibility to this community, not because I'm the adult.

Try as I might, I still boss at least one kid around every single day, and when I reflect on it, I almost always find that it's because I placed my agenda over that of the child's. I suspect that's when most adults find themselves bossing the kids around, especially as parents when we are trying to get somewhere on time, or as teachers when we are following a schedule of bells that dictate when and where children should be and what they need to learn. As in every relationship between people, there is a balancing act between all those agendas. When I must insist on my agenda (like not wanting to catch the swine flu) it's still not "because I said so." It's because "if we're late, we'll miss the ferry and not get home tonight," or "if we don't go inside now, we won't have time for a story." Informational statements of fact, not commands. And this is not just semantics, the difference between directional and informative statements is real.

I'm not suggesting that anyone else can or should do things the way I do, just as I would never presume to tell any person how to manage their relationships. Chris David and I may be very different, but we are both progressive educators who understand that what we are doing is about community, not hierarchy, and we do not have the right to say, "because I say so."

This leads some to conclude that what we are advocating is some sort of hippie dippy, law-of-the-jungle style classroom, in which children are allowed to run wild. Many people, I think, have a hard time understanding how humans can get along without an "iron fist" of some kind, often evoking the novel Lord of the Flies* as evidence.

And I suppose the children in progressive schools do run wild. Their minds are ignited by the prospects of being in a place where their power, imaginations, and abilities are given free rein. They run wild within the limits and expectations of their unique community, which is the thing they come together to build, and by which they are nurtured, every single day. It's not because I say so, but because we say so.

It's not easy and it's not something anyone can manage right out of the box. We need experienced teachers because there's no instruction book on how to do it, and there's perpetual tinkering involved. And, frankly, I think that's what the so-called reformers find so threatening about progressive education: it tells them that teachers are not something you can make in a factory.

(*This book gets referenced so often in these discussions that I must address it. Lord of the Flies is a work of fiction and philosophy. While this is a solid novel from a narrative point of view, the only British novelist I can think of with a dimmer view of the human condition than William Golding is Thomas Hardy. This book gives us a lot to think about, of course, but we can't forget that it's a parable written by a person who saw man as essentially evil in the tradition of Thomas Hobbs. Progressive educators, almost by definition, see the world through the John Locke-Jean Jacques Rousseau prism of man as essentially good, whether we know it or not. That's why I'm much more likely to quote Enlightenment influenced authors like Laurence Sterne -- as I did at the top of this post -- than Golding.)

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Annicles said...

Teacher Tom, you make may heart sing. I read you so often and think - I must remember that and point the parents at school towards reading you because you are so eloquent and thoughtful and generally RIGHT!!! Thank you.

Renee said...

Beautifully articulated! As a Montessori assistant of three years in a 3-6 year-old classroom, it has been an arduous task to change myself from that "obedient" adult.

Perhaps it is my relative inexperience, but I find that sometimes the children still choose to hit one another or they still choose not to wash hands - even when they are told that it is in everyone's best interest and safety. You mentioned the line being between one child's fist and the other child's chin - which rings true in more situations than just hitting. Even if "because I said so" were to come out of the mouth of the "adult in charge" the TRUE REASON would be the safety of the community - which is so easy to lose sight of as an adult raised in a "because I said so" setting. It can seem like a completely viable reason for doing something, when it is so ingrained in our past experience. "Because I said so" robs the children of knowing the reality of the situation - the reasons we behave the way we do in a society - even if the intention is for the good of society.

Rushing children to get somewhere on time is another great example of that. The child might hear it's "because I said so," when it reality it is because we respect the time of the people we are meeting at xyz time. Or because if we miss the bus we will be stranded on the other side of town. Or if we don't leave by 4:45 we will arrive at the gate of the zoo as they are pulling it closed, or you will fall asleep before we get to the zoo and we'll have to come home for a nap (natural consequences can be terribly inconvenient sometimes!).

The same is true when we go along blindly with our children's demands, which causes us to miss out on opportunities for education: "I need a bandaid!" (oh, you look hurt! are you bleeding? let's wash it and take a good look at the injury, sometimes just washing it helps our body to stop bleeding; often children need comfort, and don't know how to express it, so they ask for a bandaid no matter the injury) Young children often need help verbalizing exactly what it is they need; maybe because they hear us verbalizing what we need by saying "because I said so". I'm new to it, but the book/series Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life is greatly shaping my understanding of this topic these days. This has been on my mind so much lately!

Deborah said...

Hi Tom,
I don't know how to describe or "label" my philosophy when it comes to teaching - I avoid being backed into a corner:)

When getting my masters degree, we were made to write out our philosophical beliefs and each time I wrote them, they changed. I know the change in my philosophy was based on current circumstances such as what I was going through as a teacher or the personalities of the children or the existing issues I would see as I trained other teachers.

For example, if I had a teacher whose classroom was out of control - then I might be more "bossy" for just awhile as I began the process of helping the teacher understand how to help the children "own" their own experiences and choices.

As the children begin to trust and relax in their environment, then I would begin to encourage the teacher to relinquish the role of boss because it is no longer necessary. In other words, I sometimes will have to teach in a way that I don't prefer but it is always with a goal to swing things around to the kind of teaching practice I do prefer.

I base my decisions on how to manage and teach each child based upon my experience, my skills, my relationship with each child, and what I determine to be the right choice or what is in the best interest of the child or class as a whole for any given moment.

There are times when I take the role of "boss" in the classroom but I work diligently to guide and direct and instruct through teaching rather than through bossing. In other words, I place boundaries that I believe will help with the overall flow of our classroom day but I "boss" by investing time in helping children develop their sense of understanding of why the boundary exists and how they can be successful within those boundaries.

I hope this makes sense:)

When I took on my job about two years ago as strictly a trainer at our three schools - I found that many of the classrooms were wither OUT OF CONTROL on were under complete control of the teacher.

The children and teachers were all so miserable - and I knew it didn't have to be this way. I really felt under qualified to help them. But I pushed up my sleeves and went to work. It has taken a long time to help these teachers and their students learn new ways of learning and working together. It has been a daily struggle to help teachers learn to let go of their way and at the same time - help children build new habits of behavior and trust. I have had to deprogram the entire program first before I could actually help them. But we have made wonderful progress and I am so proud of it all. EVERY day I learn something new and EVERY day I change my mind on what I believe is possible and right when it comes to teaching:)

Barbara Zaborowski said...

Points to you, Tom, for spelling my name correctly. You wouldn't believe how often it's misspelled, even by friends. And quadruple points for another wonderful blog entry. As I read your words, I find I'm always thinking to myself "Yes, of course, that's the way it should. That's certainly what I aspire to."

Noah said...

awesome and eloquent.

I have to absolutely agree with Barbara Zaborowski above - in reading your posts I also often find myself thinking "ahhh - YES! Exactly! THAT'S the kind of teaching I aspire to..."

Your last few blog posts have been about the 'why' inside of the shapes of schools, and actually a lot of other things. It's so important to be reminded that we need to look really broadly and work to understand how the shapes of the places, schools, institutions, workplaces, whatever influence HOW we ARE in those spaces. We want kids to learn how to work together so that they can go on to make the world the best possible place - and we also need to understand that the way that we are with them, the rules of the spaces we work with them in, shape our interactions and learning.

If we want people to work together, we need to work together with people.

I'd written this all out already in a comment box that somehow got lost in cyberspace when I clicked the button - my internet hiccuped and there went my words. But I think the gist is still here - as teachers we need to be extra thoughtful, curious, and considerate so that we can investigate the spaces we share with kids and make them as emancipatory as possible. And that is really difficult, hard, challenging work to do.

That's why 'because I said so' and the other shortcuts are so tricky - they ARE easier. But look at the trouble that easy has gotten us into - all over the world.

We need to work hard so we can make room for the kids we work with to dream up new ways of being and working together.

Thanks for making some room, and giving us room to think about it all.

PS - thanks for the bit about Lord of the Flies, too.

rosesmama said...

I knew I would push your buttons with my comments yesterday, and I'm sorry if I was more confrontational than I meant to be. I actually agree with, and follow, your philosophy, but I am aware almost all the time of the *privilege* I have when I am able to practice it. And I mean privilege in both the sense of 'a good thing for me' but also the sense of having the time, money, education and social position.

I have noticed several times that you speak of never wanting to work anywhere else. Yesterday, I meant mostly to point out what a privilege this is. In your classes, you are able to see your philosophy to fruition, because of the privilege of the situation. You don't have to take shortcuts as frequently as others might because of the shortness of the day and the abundance of dedicated, educated manpower.

I work in a public school, across the hall from a kindergarten class with one young lead teacher, an assistant and 28 children, many of whom have language delays, behavior and emotional problems, poor home lives and some prenatal drug exposure. I listen to the adults struggle most of the day with simple safety issues. What is left of the day is consumed by state mandated curriculum. It is heart wrenching that they, and I, do not have "world enough and time" to give the children all the privilege they deserve. But there is only so much a person can do if they have few resources. Many good teachers don't last long in the public schools for these reasons, and the teachers who do last are the ones who can "keep order". Getting something like Woodland Park to function in such a setting is beyond my imagination.

P.S. I am not convinced that Golding is depicting a Hobbesian world in the Lord of the Flies, rather he is saying more about the logical outcome of the education of the English boarding school. For a factual account of this, see the memoirs of Raould Dahl.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

This was more excellent food for thought. This is a very interesting topic, and good to see all the discussion.

Mother Teresa said...

Thank you for this piece, Teacher Tom! "Because I said so" has never been an acceptable response for me to use or hear.