Thursday, April 02, 2015

A Democratic Revolution

Education does not need to be reformed -- it needs to be transformed. The key is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions. ~Ken Robinson

Yesterday, in anticipation of my upcoming travels to Greece, I wrote about the notion of transforming rather than reforming schools. This morning, as I contemplate the question of how that might come about, I recognize that, as an American, and specifically, an American who lives and works in a cooperative preschool in the upper left-hand corner to the US, I am truly blinded by perspective. I can speak about my personal experience quite well, the experience of my immediate community with some authority, and my own nation with a certain level of confidence, but the farther afield I go, the more I find that I don't know. I've decided here, to stick with the things I know. I expect that some of it will translate directly into "Greek," while some will be alien, so please, wherever you live, take what is worthwhile and disregard the rest. This is the reason democracy is essential to transformation: alone we are but a man, but together we are a genius.


There are some, and I'm included among them, who believe that a revolution is coming in public education. Indeed, I feel emboldened these days, not just by recent evidence that the regressive corporate "reform" movement and their Dickensian drive to subject a generation of children to labor in test score mines, has been forced into a small strategic retreat, but also by the fact that the pushback is coming from parents, teachers, and students representing all points of America's political spectrum. Change seems to be in the air. The media seems to be finally noticing, and if this article in The Atlantic is any indication, they are starting to notice that the biggest problem with American public schools is poverty.

Like any good revolutionaries, then, assuming anything like "victory" is possible, we can't simply settle for a return to the status quo. Stopping "reform" is not enough: revolution is our opportunity for transformation.

I'm not going to pretend to know how to solve poverty, although I'm certain that it will require some version of the perfectly reasonable solutions devised by the children I teach: give them jobs, give them food, give them homes. (On that third point, the state of Utah has seemingly managed to actually cure homelessness in just this way.)

I have a few ideas, however, on the transformation of schools.

The first, and perhaps most difficult part, will be that we, as a society, will need to get past the hubristic belief that adults inherently know best how and what to know. We do not. Only the learner, whatever her age, can know this. As Peter Gray details through an exhaustive survey of anthropological research in his book Free to Learn, during most of the 10,000 years of human evolution we lived in hunter-gatherer societies in which free play was the norm for children. There is no evidence of the notion that adults had anything to "teach" other than that which could be conveyed through role modeling, like hunting, gathering, cooking, and singing. It's in this environment that the young learned what they needed to learn without classrooms, text books, lectures, and, most significantly, adults vainly persisting in the fallacy that they know how and what to know. It's in this environment that humans have evolved to learn, through free play, through free choice, through experimentation and observation.

I often think that my own childhood of roaming neighborhoods in Columbia, South Carolina and Athens, Greece, playing outdoors with the children and things I found there, with few toys and lots of time, and largely unsupervised, comes as close as the modern world has ever come to matching this hunter-gatherer educational ideal.

Lest this sound like I'm suggesting that children can thrive in a world entirely without adults, I assure you we will always have a significant role to play. We have experience: the stuff of wisdom. We know about important things like safety, schedules, and courtesy to others. And our heads are chock-a-block with bits of potentially useful information and true stories to tell, because questions will be asked and perfect moments will arise when just the right word, metaphor, concept, or idea can help build bridges for children when the gap is a bit too far to span on their own. It's the role of protector and guide more than all-knowing teacher.

As I wrote yesterday, it appears to me that a model for transformation already imperfectly resides in our play-based preschools and those few democratic free schools that dot the landscape. I suggest that our educational transformation can be built from this foundation, perhaps from the early years up, the way things are properly built, rather than this pie-in-the-sky notion that corporate "reformers" have of reverse engineering from the top down.

I see schools that are locally controlled if not locally owned, schools in which parents, teachers, and students work together to shape the physical and organizational environment, the "third leg" of the stool in Reggio Emilia parlance, because each neighborhood, each population of families, must be allowed to shape the culture of their own school if it is to truly serve its children. I don't see any reason why this transformation cannot begin with the facilities we already have in place, with their walls, libraries, computers, and outdoor spaces, although I'd be inclined to remove the doors from their hinges. I don't see any reason why this transformation cannot begin with the teachers we already have, although their role will shift from one in which direct instruction predominates to one more akin to "loitering with intent," concentrating mostly on the things adults understand best, like safety, schedules, courtesies to others, and, when called upon, to dispense those bits of information and tell those stories we've acquired through experience. Parents will be welcome at any time; indeed, they will be vital to the functioning of these learning communities, perhaps even in the way they are the lifeblood of our own cooperative preschool

As for the children, these transformed schools will be places they want to be, just as we were driven to escape each day into our neighborhoods to play with our friends. They will group themselves not by the strict superficialities of age, but rather according to their own interests and needs, learning through their processes and one another, discovering their unique talents, personalizing their education, and it will be through this, supported, but not directed by adults, that children will discover their true passions.

Am I dreaming? Probably, but revolution is in the air, and I fancy myself a revolutionary: now is the time to dream. 

In August of 2013 I was in Auckland, New Zealand conducting a teacher training. I've been doing this sort of thing for the past couple years, speaking to groups of teachers and parents in New Zealand, as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Greece, and Australia. This was the first and only time teachers arrived carrying copies of their nation's early childhood curriculum framework: Te Whāriki

As a citizen of a nation in which our national curriculum (Common Core) is being imposed from on high, I naturally assumed that they were hoping I'd perform a sort of on the spot criticism of their curriculum, but instead I discovered they had brought their copies proudly, to show me what was possible, but I still didn't really understand. It has taken me 12 months to get my mind around this alien idea of a national curriculum being almost universally embraced. In fact, it wasn't until a second trip Down Under where I met Wendy Lee, New Zealand educator and project director of the Education Leadership Project, that I finally "got it." As she discussed the development of the Te Whāriki, it clicked for me that one of the reasons these teachers felt so much ownership was that it had been developed through a transparent, inclusive, democratic process, as opposed to the behind-closed-doors, top-down, my-way-or-the-highway approach taken with our own disastrous Common Core.

It takes time to develop and implement a curriculum that is accepted, inclusive, meaningful and makes a difference for children. ~Prof. Helen May (lead writer of the Te Whāriki)

No one ever said democracy would be fast or easy, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't work: it means that to do its work well it takes time. It takes time because at the heart of democracy is a consultative process: if anyone's voice is excluded, then it's not democracy. Developing the Te Whāriki was a process that spanned the better part of two decades beginning in 1991.

From the book entitled Understanding the Te Whāriki Approach, authored by Wendy Lee, Margaret Carr (another lead writer of the Te Whāriki) and others:

The curriculum development process was organized to ensure dialogue with all parties having an interest in early childhood education. Representatives from all national early childhood organizations, government agencies, universities and research and teacher training institutions sat on an advisory panel and gave feedback on all the papers. A review group was established by the Ministry of Education to represent the government and evaluate the document . . . A curriculum development team of 15 practitioners, trainers and nationally recognised individuals formed the core working group. The curriculum was structured to enable the development of common principles, aims and goals, and also to provide the opportunity to negotiate the identity of diverse provision within the curriculum framework. Six specialists working groups were developed, enabling six core 'communities' to have a voice at the curriculum table.

Those 'communities' were the Infant and Toddler, Young Child, Māori Immersion, Pacific Island Language, Home-based Services, and Children with Special Needs working groups.

From 1991 to 1993, the framework was developed during a process of circulating a series of working papers and gaining feedback from early childhood educators, from a diversity of services, in local workshops and conference presentations across the country. Draft guidelines were published in 1993, inviting further published feedback. It was through this process of intensive consultation that consensus concerning the proposed curriculum principles and the aims and goals for children was able to be reached amongst the diverse early childhood services.

Only after the Te Whāriki was officially published in 1996, a document that by this time contained no surprises for anyone, did they then turn their attention to assessment, the place where the Gates Foundation and for-profit education testing companies, those who essentially wrote our Common Core, bizarrely, started. In the words of Helen May (link added by me):

The Ministry of Education subsequently funded several research projects towards developing frameworks for evaluation and assessment based on the inclusionary principles of Te Whāriki . . . followed by Kei Tue o te Pae-Assessment for learning: Early childhood exemplars, a project that was lead by Margaret Carr. The exemplars use a learning story framework of children's interest, strengths and dispositions. This represents a shift from internationally dominant paradigms of assessment for children based upon checklists and developmental measures of competency, skills and content (my note: not to mention high stakes standardized testing). A key principle being that diversity must be accommodated.

This is why the Common Core has been such a disaster from the start and is doomed, ultimately, to it's rightful place in the ashcan of history. It was designed to serve one constituency only: those imaginary "employers of tomorrow," fantastical creatures whose "needs" can't be foretold five years into the future, let alone decades from now when today's preschoolers will comprise the core of their workforce. The entire rest of American society, including our teachers, parents, and children, were intentionally cut out of the process, leaving us with a fait accompli, a set of dead documents, imposed in an act of intellectual imperialism, with, tellingly, no accommodations for feedback, change, or criticism. 

Te Whāriki translates from the indigenous Māori language of Aotearoa as 'a woven mat for all to stand on' and is the national early childhood curriculum in New Zealand. As a document it defines overall Principles and Goals for all early childhood programs. As a metaphor, Te Whāriki enables the diverse early childhood services and centers, their teachers, families and children, to 'weave' their own curriculum pattern shaped by different cultural perspectives, the age of children, the philosophy or structure of the program. ~Prof. Helen May

The Te Whāriki, is intended to to be a living, breathing document, open to an ongoing, democratic evolution. If I'd known then what I know now, it wouldn't have surprised me when New Zealand teachers proudly brought copies of their national curriculum to show me:

There was a high level of support for the curriculum by the early childhood sector relieved that: Te Whāriki was no takeover by the school national curriculum; it respected the existing diversity; it affirmed some strongly held beliefs about early childhood practice; it was very much a New Zealand statement and not another import from abroad. On the other hand it soon became apparent that Te Whāriki was complex, partly because it resisted telling practitioners what to do: it asked each program to 'weave' its own curriculum pattern.

There is so much to admire about Te Whāriki as a national early childhood curriculum in terms of content, structure, implementation, and evaluation, but from where I sit, the most important lesson for us in the rest of the world is the process by which it came about and continues to evolve. This is what democracy demands: an open, inclusive transparent process, be it undertaken on a national level, state-by-state, or even city-by-city. This is the primary lesson we can learn from the study of successful curriculum models (links added by me):

The stories of SingaporeFinland, and Ontario are not about the triumph of scientific methods. They are not about the triumph of markets, or successful standardization. They are about cultural and governmental settlements to particular forms of education and, indeed, forms of life. ~Allen Luke (educator, researcher, author)

I am by no means an expert on either Te Whāriki or Common Core, but the more I dig into the former, the more I find to love, while the more I learn about the later, the more appalled I become. The difference, I assert, is taking the time and care to "do" democracy properly: it's the difference between pride and shame.

I'll finish today with the foundational aspiration for children of the Te Whāriki, one I propose as a place to begin our own national, democratic discussion about the transformation of education -- the first small step in a journey of a thousand miles:

To grow up as competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body, and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to the world.

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1 comment:

College Reine Marie said...

Great valid points. Education is more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. It is one of the most important investments a country can make in its people and its future, and is critical to reducing poverty and inequality.