Some choice quotes from an interview with Alfie Kohn published fourteen years ago:
Independent schools share some problems with the enormous public school factories. First off, there is an emphasis on competition. Every time you set up such a system the message is clearly that other people are potential obstacles to your success.
Schooling, including in most independent schools, is still by and large a process of teacher-directed instruction; it is not about students making meaning. It’s still not about students helping each other understand controversial ideas and moving off in unpredictable directions. It’s still not based on the questions that students have, or their need to make sense of the world. It’s still about a bunch of facts being transmitted to students who are viewed as empty vessels. It’s obviously a far cry from that kind of critique to talking about violence in schools, but its all of a piece in a way, because children’s intellectual, social and moral needs are often not being met – even in very expensive private schools.
Have you seen this next bit happening anywhere? I have.
There are independent schools that have a tradition of progressive pedagogy but have lately been back-pedaling in a way that many of us find terribly discouraging - schools that are running away from labels like progressive and constructivist and chipping away at a very proud tradition that now has more research support than ever before. It’s one thing to look at an institution that’s always been very traditional and conservative. It’s another to look at schools that have been blazing trails for everybody else now compromising on their essential mission to the point that those schools are indistinguishable from those in the mainstream.
Many of these schools are doing it because they are under pressure from their boards and their parent bodies or they are afraid that exciting, enthusiastic learning in a classroom might somehow prevent their kids from getting into Harvard. That is not only vitiating the best kind of instruction at the upper school level, it is trickling down to the middle and lower schools to the point that really good exploration-based science and whole language and constructivist mathematics are coming under attack as well.
And then there’s this exchange, which goes hand in hand with the blow-off phrase “hippie school.”
Thuermer: Does this entail a hands-off, laissez-faire approach to teaching?
Kohn: Hell, no. That’s a caricature of progressivism kept alive by traditionalists who want to make their own stultifying methods look better. The best teachers are vitally active and involved, but not in propelling students toward right answers. Not in filling them full of facts. Not in giving them worksheets that consist of naked numbers, or disconnected sentences in which the point is to circle vowels or verbs. The teacher starts with the kids and then gently challenges them, subtly disorients them, throws them off balance with new ideas that the students have to struggle to reconcile with the way they’d been looking at things. This is really hard, of course. It takes effort and talent to work with kids to explore controversial issues, to design interdisciplinary projects with them, to assess their understanding by watching and listening instead of giving quizzes.
Or How to Encourage Emergent Curriculum
This post has been sitting in my drafts folder far too long. Rather than sharing it as something complete, I offer it as a conversation started. Please feel encouraged to share, react, alter, repost, etc.
What is the framework for an emergent curriculum in a democratic environment that values collaboration? There can be many (for example, KWL), but I offer this curriculum in questions as one alternative. By simply asking a series of questions each morning (some each week), often leaning on answers given in previous days, a curriculum emerges. During my final year in the NMY, we approximated this approach. As part of our morning meeting each day, we began with “What will we do today?” and we developed a schedule for the day (and updated our calendars for the days, weeks and months ahead) to fit the answer.
What commitments (to others and to yourself) do you have pending? What are the consequences of not following through with those commitments?
What do you want to do today? (What are you going to do today?) Does this honor your commitments?
Why do you want to do that? Why is what you are going to do important to you and/or to others?
What do you need to be able to do that? Who can help you do that? Do you need pointers to resources, references, materials? Do you need someone to help you with physical tasks? (Do you need more hands, eyes, ears, etc.?)
What are the costs of doing what you want to do? How does it impact others (social cost)? How does it impact the earth (environment cost)? How does it impact your ability to do other things (opportunity cost)? How does it impact your budget and the class budget (financial cost)?
How can you help others with what they want to do? By sharing what you are working on and asking others about what they are working on, you can support each other and learn from each other.
What did you learn? How do you feel?* Reflect on how you spent your day/week. By doing so, you can decide whether the choices that you are making are good for your well-being and are helping you learn.
What values and qualities are supported by a curriculum in questions? It’s hard to say what produces any quality, but here are some of the qualities that we regularly saw and appreciated in the NMY students. I’d like to think that they were in part the product of their school experience.
Independence and Autonomy: choice in what to do, developing a sense of self
Interdependence and Appreciation: commitments to others, helping others, depending on others for their help, acknowledging that we never really do anything by ourselves, understanding that our actions impact others
Communication: articulating what we want to do and why, answering the seven questions (and their sub-questions) of the curriculum, sharing what is learned and the process of learning it
Curiosity, Creativity, and Agency: asking questions that provoke thought, recognizing problems to solve, defining those problems, solving those problems
Reflection: pausing to think about what has been done, asking what is the value of our actions, checking in with each other
*These two questions were stolen shamelessly from AC4D's POW reflection videos. See this example. The NMY Class of 2012 did this once a week during their eighth grade year. They each ended up with a collection of 36 videos, which they chose to display as part of the graduation exhibition they prepared for their guests.
Three short passages from Josef Albers: To Open Eyes
From page four:
"Sit on your own behinds," was what he told them all — deliberately using blunt language to emphasize the need not to follow someone else, but to look within yourself with the recognition that "genius is the power to light your own fire."
From page six:
A chorus of former students recall him as a lively and flexible teacher who cautioned them to “stay off the bandwagon,” especially his own, and whose interest in formal values led his students far beyond any so-called Bauhaus style, and beyond the Western canon as well.
From page forty-nine:
Albers’s disdain for bureaucrats and administrators was deep-seated. As he wrote to Perdekamp, “The more you administer the more you make your intellectual helplessness known. Each new problem falls from the sky, without any administration.” Administration, which had efficiency and organization at its goal, was to Albers an unproductive, uncreative, and futile endeavor.