The Social Contract of Child Education
“If you could design a learning environment for your child, not for other people’s children, but for YOUR child, what would that look like?”
Define, Thread, Court
The US Navy with all its hierarchical power structure and bureaucratic bloat is not the place one would expect to find innovators such as Benjamin Kohlmann. By finding like minded thinkers, leaders that supported his vision, and working within the culture of the Navy, he was able to run design sprints, reforming from within. For educators his example hits with an impact. Schools, like the Navy, can seem intractable to change. Our hierarchies of decision making, “best practices” and metrics left over from the era of New Public Management, and adherence to quantitative research based learning often detract from our potential to be communities of reflective practitioners, designers of learning environments, and facilitators of what Dewey called “experience”. Teachers became implementers of top-down programs. Many would not feel equipped to answer Kohlmann’s question. As a teacher colleague said, “I have always done as I am told, and that has made me successful in this environment, but it has not made me a great teacher.”
Then this last month I met Rachel Fink, director of The Journey: Early Childhood Center in Tel Aviv, who, when dissatisfied with her search for the right school for her daughter, decided to create it for her. Like Kohlmann, Rachel did not just follow her belief system, she formed a community of like minded teachers and parents who were discontent with what preschools offered. She reflected on her own experience with Reggio Emilia in New York, connected with Dr. Naama Zoran and others who have worked on growing the Reggio Emilia culture in Israel, and researched the early childhood history of the Kibbutzim.
Memory and Experience
Kahneman describes the difference between memory and experience. Like Susan Sontag’s tourists armed with cameras to separate themselves from experience, we buy memories. The images we capture are fantasy narratives of the experience we wish we had. In the US the trend is toward education as a free market where packaged predetermined memories are sold as “programs”. In a linear mono-chronic assembly line straight out of the industrial revolution, segments of time, normally 45 minutes, follow a rhythm of the lesson plan…
- establish a goal
- access prior knowledge
- present new information
- apply this new knowledge
- generalize the goal
Each time unit, planned as a prepackaged bundle of knowledge, a linear progression toward a test, leaves little room for spontaneous construction. Marzano and others are so right in their research identifying aspects of learning that work within this school model, particularly in the Cognitive Domain of Blooms Taxonomy, but with little consideration for the Affective and Psychomotor Domain. The prepackaged memory model treats Blooms Taxonomy as a hierarchy of cognition, a building from lower to higher levels. What is missing is Vygotskian constructivism where learning happens in the context of tools within one’s environment — tools with the purpose of either construction or as artifacts to spark inquiry — where upper levels of cognition frame and spur the lower levels, and as Dewey explains, learning is driven by repeated experience and reflection.
Time, especially when imbued with meaning through music, according to Stravinsky, is psychological, not ontological. Institutionalized learning, organized around mono-chronic principles, should also account for the poly-chronic. Cycles of experiences and reflections, iterations of learning products should culminate in “critical events”. Kahneman would most likely say we have created a system where we fool ourselves into believing that real learning has happened, we prepackage memory without investing in all the factors that create the meaning in “experience”. Like the vacation photos that stream on Instagram that may as well have been assembled with a green screen and a Google image search, we create simulations of learning experiences, an image of learning captured in a metric.
Mixing Fertile Soil
Beginning with the concept of Experience over Memory is a step toward answering Kohlmann’s question. In Rachel’s journey, Experience meant creating an environment based on the Reggio Emilia approach, not a program, and contextualizing those principles in Tel Aviv. Howard Gardner explains,
“I think it’s a mistake to take any school approach anywhere and assume that like a flower you can take it from one soil and put it in another one. That never works. We have to reinvent it, we can’t just transplant it. We have to figure out what are the aspects that are most important to us and what kind of soil do we need here to make those aspects thrive.”
The soil of Israel provided two critical nutrients, 20 years of a Reggio Emilia movement promoted by Dr. Naama Zoran, and the education model of the Kibbutzim, which Rachel explains paralleled the Reggio Emilia almost one for one in its approach to constructivism, collaborative learning, environment, and catalyst for societal change. Rachel says,
“We take from both of these places. Some parents grew up in that context, and lots of teachers were part of the Kibbutz movement.”
It makes sense. Reggio Emilia was formed by communities of women who had no schools after the destruction of World War II. They decided to create a new school system themselves, one that would reflect their values and hopes for the future, far from Fascist Italy, and further from pogroms of the past. The Kibbutz education movement, heavily influenced by Rousseau, Froebel, and Zionism meant to create a space where children would grow up communally, close to the land, an attempt to “make the desert bloom” (Rachel Bluwstein), a territory linking the construction of a new jewish identity with statehood.
Rachel is quick to point out the distance between the early Kibbutzim and JECC in modern Tel Aviv, but at the same time believes in the continuity of their early childhood beliefs, that children are capable constructors of their learning and contributors to society. To emphasize the point she explained how their current site is a reconstructed bombed-out building and on opening night parents gathered on what was a construction site at the time, the perfect metaphor for the malleability of all things, particularly learning environments — a lesson hard learned by the Gates Foundation, who after years of trying to identify the traits of an ideal teacher, have scrapped scaling teacher methods for a more holistic ground up systems based community approach to school improvement.
Learning from JECC?
Most educators will not start a school based on core beliefs, but what if we looked at our own learning environment with the lens of Kohlmann’s question. How would we change it for our own child, and if not for the whole school, then for one classroom at at time? Our schools are clumsy constructs of complex, often competing systems, never ideal, but here are three anecdotes that I believe could be tweaked for any environment…
While working in a magnet Arts school in Galveston, Texas, the cultural divide was inescapable. The teachers lounge showed the split, one half Latino, one half African American, no mixed tables except for a couple of white dots, myself and a visiting poet, Jenny Browne. From the beginning of the year I had laid the groundwork by making home visits to every family with a student in my classroom. Jenny then worked for three and a half weeks on poetry in a laboratory model — “experience”, write, share, reflect. At the end of the month a “critical event” was held, a poetry reading in an historic setting on The Strand in downtown Galveston. Poems that had gone through multiple versions with feedback from different students, brought to life through oral presentation, recorded in book form for each family. Through cooperative effort, a culminating “critical event”, proactive threading, and belief that community is critical for a learning environment, seemingly institutionalized obstacles were overcome. Latino parents, most of whom were illegally in the country, may otherwise have been suspicious of “the institution”, and African-American parents who began the year hostile to the idea of “Visual Math”, all came together to validate all the students poetry.
Inquiry based learning is normally associated with Project Based Learning, Design Thinking, Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Waldorf/Steiner, and Papert’s constructionism lab at MIT, but even the most rigid of systems can account for student wonder. Allowing space for carefully curated immersion and time to wonder and reflect is more efficient than beginning with preordained essential questions, rubrics, and expectations — particularly when accounting for motivation, engagement, and the narrative framing of one’s learning.
While coordinating and co-teaching a six week project on native peoples students used digital and physical resource in the library to collect artifacts about a particular group of people. In small groups, a teacher facilitated a see-think-wonder routine recorded questions that were then posted on a giant wall. Small groups revisited the questions, creating affinity groups and titling each category with their own “essential question”. This launched the next six weeks of study as questions were revisited during check-ins. The inquiry process took 90 minutes by blocking together a Social Studies and Library period. By using rotations, each with a teacher facilitator, and by making sure the “artifacts” would by continuous points of research and reflection throughout the project, no time was lost. Two days into the project every students knew what problems they were trying to solve over the next weeks. Even within a learning community where belief systems varied greatly teacher to teacher on how much students could manage their own inquiry, the project showed four critical aspects of collective inquiry.
- validates both individual and social constructions.
- time efficient.
- students created an incredible depth of inquiry we would not have dared prompt them with.
- facilitated affinity grouping and group formation of essential questions produced an almost identical replica of essential questions teachers had written previously.
Validate What is Already There
Teaching in International Schools in Latin America can be a challenge for parent — teacher communication. Society is structured by classes down to your monthly utility bills based on stratus 1 to 5, determined by average incomes in the area. A director once called a faculty meeting informing all the foreign teachers that they were not to socially engage with anyone below Calle 70 because of associations with poorer neighborhoods. Meanwhile we all looked at each other bewildered since half of us lived below 70. Basically, “teacher” can be associated with empleada. A pencil falls off of the second grader’s desk and the student looks up at you, waiting for you to pick it up. Coming from the U.S. public school system, this child appears over-indulged, consentida, mimada. Yet that same child most likely arrives to school with a defined sense of self at an early age, an agency of voice, and few inhibitions in learning.
Generally, Colombian identity and belonging form in concentric circles — family at the epicenter, extended family, social clubs and organizations, work relations. Young students expect to bond with their teachers and treating education like a business exchange creates a cultural rift. For this reason relations with parents are important, moving teacher, in the child’s eyes, closer to that epicenter of belonging. Students need to see their teacher as a friend of their parents, and this is a challenge given the family, extended family, and clan-like makeup of society. I learned this the slow, hard way and would often not talk to some parents until there was problem or crisis.
Then a colleague passed me a parent inventory of child learning habits which I asked parents to fill out the first week of school during parent night. I was overwhelmed with the care, attention to detail, and brutal honesty parents took in explaining their child. The real key was taking the time to read these carefully as ethnographic study, then revisit them and highlight key points. During parent-teacher conferences, with grades and data spread out on the table, we would spend most of the time talking about the inventory combined with examples of student work and anecdotal narratives from my own running notes on the child.
This is not pandering to parents, it is centering the discussion on learning between three central perspectives — student, parent, teacher. The quantitative data is there to help us understand what is happening, but the why of learning can only unfold through our own sense making, through our reflections combining experiences, learning artifacts, and analytics. The quantitative data can merely inform our beliefs and the narrative we create around learning.
Beyond the One Classroom
These anecdotes worked for those particular students and parents for that particular year, but I also understand that these small communities disperse once the year is finished. All this care and effort is like creating a Tibetan sand mandala, scattering it to the wind when the time comes, before the next cycle begins all over again. The challenge is to not just influence a classroom community for a year at a time, but to change a school culture over a long period of time, and potentially sway education policy on a grander scale. To create impact, Benjamin Kohlmann and Rachel Fink provide a model…
- reflect on your own experience within and beyond your school
- clearly define your goals
- find like minded people in your community
- court supportive leadership within your institution
The early Kibbutzim attempted to solve the challenge of communal child education by creating an environment where the children belong to everyone, an unprecedented social experiment in child development. There is something to applaud here and draw on for schools everywhere. Maybe we need to contemplate broadening our social contract in regards to these communal learning spaces we call schools, and design for others what we would create for our own child. Kohlmann’s question marks a great starting point.
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