Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"A Great Teacher Is A Great Artist": Part Two

I've come to believe that a great teacher is great artist and there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit. ~John Steinbeck

Most of my writing on this blog takes place during an early morning hour before I head off to school. I've gotten pretty good at banging out my paragraphs while writing on that deadline, but yesterday, I was called to duty before I was finished with what I wanted to say, so this post will have to stand as part two.

I've always approached teaching as an artist, even when I didn't know it. The way I teach has been shaped as much by the media with which I work -- individual children and families and environments -- than by any specific educational theory or philosophy or technique. My highest goal as a teacher, always, is to create a relationship with each child who walks through our door, what I sometimes refer to in verbal shorthand as "getting us on the same bandwagon." The process of doing this is different for each child. Some arrive already pulling a bandwagon, so I just jump onto it and let them drive. Others look to me to offer a spot on my bandwagon. Many need time to warm up to the idea of a bandwagon. Everyone of the hundreds of relationships I've had with children has been unique because each of the children, in mind and spirit, are, like great art, the first and only one of their kind to ever exist. And while experience helps, the moment I begin to approach children as products to manufacture rather than people I want to get to know, is the moment I should retire.

When we start with relationships, we don't need a pre-packaged curriculum because the children are the curriculum. Each of them brings their own interests, passions, and abilities to the table. I don't need to force specific knowledge on them on a schedule, but rather create a space, a canvas, a relationship in which we can, together, explore and answer their own questions.

And this is what stands at the bottom of my visceral reaction to efforts to standardize education. It's why standardized testing and text books and anything that is pre-pacakaged and sold by education corporations strikes me as not only anti-education, but at a deeper level, anti-child. Children are not predictable, programmable widgets that need to be told what to learn and by when. They are fully formed human beings with their own minds and spirits. You can't manufacture education: it is something that is created through our relationships.

Yesterday, I suggested that this child-lead approach should continue beyond preschool, all the way through high school. A reader asked how this would work, for instance, in high school math. Of course, I'm not a high school teacher, but as a preschool teacher, I can tell you that math is something young children do for pleasure, spontaneously exploring patterns, sequencing, and sorting. However, democratic free schools, like the Sudbury Valley School or the Albany Free School represent models for what a child-lead approach looks like for older kids. Researcher and author Peter Gray, in his book Free to Learn, writes that American children report that they come to dislike school, and math in particular, more and more with each passing year, starting in about sixth grade. Children in democratic free schools report the opposite, saying that they like school in general, and math in particular, more and more with each passing year because what they are doing is directly applicable to their lives, their interests, and their passions, which is so much more motivating than ciphering on paper and memorizing formulas.

Indeed, math and literacy, the shining stars of the corporate education reform movement, do not belong at the center of education. Reading and ciphering are tools to help us with our real education, perhaps equal to, but certainly not superior to the arts, physical education, dance, social studies, economics, political science, wood shop, history, home ec, car maintenance, or anything else for that matter. The way we do it now, making math and literacy the core around which everything else revolves, is like spending 13 years learning how to use a hammer without ever actually building anything.

And this is the greatest strength of a child-lead approach to education. It taps directly into the most powerful educational tool known to mankind: motivation. When we are motivated, learning is easy; indeed, it's a joy. Standardization sucks the inherent joy right out of learning and no amount of gold stars or threats of losing recess will inject true motivation back into the process. When we start with the child, when we start with our relationships, when we understand that we are working with a mind and spirit unlike any that have ever existed, then we begin to create masterpieces.

Of course, corporate education "reformers," aren't concerned with any of this because their stated goal is to get all the kids "career and college ready," and all of this child-lead motivation doesn't necessarily feed the school-to-cubicle pipeline they imagine to be the future. Setting aside the fact that these guys are most assuredly wrong about the future as most soothsayers are, the future is not theirs to create: the future belongs to those who must live it. I will not be part of robbing children of that fundamental human right. Just because these guys think they'll need a certain number of worker bees in the future doesn't mean that's what they'll get. If the next generation decides they all want to be dancers, well then, we'll just have to build our little money making enterprises around dance rather than crass consumerism.

People accuse me of being an idealist. I see myself as a realist. We are designed by nature or God to learn through play, through our own curiosities, and to be motivated to answer our own questions. This is what education is, even when the majority of our society see it as something else. The goal is not jobs or math skills or any other kind of success. The goal is a meaningful life and I cannot tell anyone what that is. It's a question only we can answer for ourselves. I can, however, pick up my paint brush and help you get there.

Try not to be a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value. ~Einstein

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selina shahid said...

very nice


Jeff Oremland said...

Dear Tom,

Eloquent and thought provoking as always. Your words are getting me back in touch with the reasons I chose to be an early childhood teacher many years ago. In turn, you are helping me improve my craft. Thank you.

Given this stance on standards in general, a stance clearly not shared by the military-industrial-political-educational complex, a question arises. This question also arises in direct relation to your observations about math and reading instruction that is accompanied by the phrase, "you have to learn this because you'll need it someday."

In a meaningful life, whatever that may be, is there anything that must or should be learned in advance of the self-discovered, apparent need to use it?

Whether you wish to comment on this or not, thank you again.


Dawn Elise Carlsen said...

I think realists see how things are and idealists see how things should be. Both are needed to facilitate change. I appreciate your hard work, both writing and teaching, in facilitating change. You are absolutely correct, research shows, only play based programs are developmentally appropriate for young children. I am excited about the play based Kindergarten starting at Woodland Park.