Monday, March 02, 2020

The Medium Is the Human Mind And Spirit

Sofia Minson

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

I've had a lot of conversations with a lot of cool people over the years on the topic of how do we go about transforming education. We are people who know that what we currently do to and with children in the name of education is, at best, weak sauce, designed, whether intentional or not, to train children in much the same way we train pets, to obey, to be good, and, yes, to be brilliant, but only within certain proscribed ways, akin to jumping through hoops or running arbitrary obstacle courses. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down or pulled out to be forever bent. The tall poppies get cut while the short ones get trampled under foot. No one boasts about how our system seeks to create a standardized product, but that's what it's best at doing, with it's top-down, out-of-a-box curricula, it's testing, it's narrowing of focus to those things that can most easily be measured, and on the rote learning of things that some committee somewhere decided that all children must learn and by when. There's a handful who thrive, most endure, and the rest, one way or another, drop out.

Karntakuringu Jukurrpa

I've been having these conversations for some twenty years with cool people from all over the world: professors and pedagogues, educators and academics, parents and entrepreneurs. Generally speaking we know what needs to happen. In our new world of education, children would be in charge of their own learning and our adult role would be, essentially, that of a gardener (to use Alison Gopnick's metaphor): protect the seeds, keep them watered, but to otherwise allow the seed to sprout, grow, leaf, bud, flower, and fruit all on it's own. There were cool people before us who started these conversations, people like Freidrich Froebel and John Dewey and Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky; people like Maria Montessori, Loris Malaguzzi and Rudolph Steiner; people like John Holt and Bev Bos and Magda Gerber and Eleanor Duckworth.

Artemisia Gentileschi

There is a point in every one of these conversations, going back as far as I've been able to take part, either directly or indirectly, where everyone agrees that we need a transformation, but how? We talk about how maybe we need to all figure out how to speak with a single voice. Maybe if we all could get together, speaking as one, people will listen. This is where groups like Play Iceland and Play Athens have come from, not to mention the thousands of "play-based" and "child-lead" Facebook groups out there, each of which, at bottom, seeks to change the world. We wonder if maybe we need to put our ideas together into some sort of program or curriculum or written philosophy, something that others can pick up and implement. Perhaps we need to start a political movement, one that either lobbies or rebels or otherwise shakes up the status quo.

Hallgrimskirkja as viewed through a sculpture by an unknown artist

And then there is the problem of the other kinds of people seeking transformation. Those who are attempting to double-down on the old way of doing things, just with more technology and the introduction of business practices like data collection and standardization. They steal our words like "play" and "critical thinking" and "freedom" and turn them into marketing slogans for the same old grindstone. They are louder than us because they have money, and if money is speech (as the US Supreme Court ruled) it's the equivalent of shouting everyone else down.

Sydney Opera House

Last week I was having another of these conversations, this time with cool person Jesse Coffino, the chief interpreter and translator for Anji Play founder Cheng Xueqin, a modern day pioneer in the practice of play-based, child-led education whose work in China is beginning to receive international recognition. It didn't take us long to get into the conversation about transformation. How does one make change happen? What are the things blocking us? At one point we began talking about the pioneers and how their foundational ideas are so often misappropriated, misused, and misunderstood. Jesse said, "Dewey and Montessori and Steiner and Piaget -- all of them -- were right. The problem is that people became their students. We can't just be their students, we need to be Dewey, Montessori, Steiner and Malaguzzi."

Street art in Athens, Greece

I've been reflecting on this over the weekend. Bev Bos, for instance, wasn't a student. She was Bev Bos, a person transforming her corner of the world. Same with Magda Gerber and Rudolf Steiner. Of course, they had learned from those who came before them, but instead of simply attempting to recreate the work of the "masters," they were inspired to become masters themselves. This work we're doing, this project of caring for the children, of creating environments of love and belonging in which children can ask and answer their own questions, pursue their own interests, and practice the habits of critical thinking, questioning, inventing, and working with others, is not the work of manufacturing. This work we're doing is the work of artists.

Dale Chihuly

I can admire the work of Loris Malaguzzi, but I'm not Malaguzzi, I'm Teacher Tom. I can learn from Maria Montessori and Cheng Xueqin and John Dewey, but I can never be them, nor should I try. My canvas is my canvas, my medium is my medium. My environment is different and I am different. I owe the children who come my way, all of me. That is how I respect them, by giving of my unique creative self, not a weak imitation of the work of someone else, no matter how much they have inspired me. We did not all stop writing and become mere copyists because Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. We did not all stop singing after Maria Callas sang Brunnhilde. People went right on painting after Leonardo made the Mona Lisa.

Mark Tobey

This is at least part of how the transformation happens, I think, the acknowledgement of our profession as an art, one with a rich tradition, one built upon the shoulders of giants, and upon whose shoulders we all stand to make our own masterpieces from the medium of the human mind and spirit. It can't be standardized: it is created, every day, by the children and the adults who care for them.

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