kitchen table math, the sequel: in today's mail

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

in today's mail

from the 25th Anniversary edition of the Harvard Education Letter:
[Jerome Bruner’s “Man: A Course of Study”] was my first deep exposure to progressive education, and I liked what I read, heard, and observed: the hands-on experiences, the deep exploration of inviting topics, the belief that the questions asked are as important as their answers, and that the reasoning behind questions and answers is crucial. I became a card-carrying enthusiast of progressive education, American style.


As one personally committed to progressive education, I was well prepared for my initial visits in the early 1980s to the small northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia, home of what are widely regarded to be the finest preschools on the planet. Initially launched in the post-World War II era, these municipal school operate on the assumption that children’s natural curiosity should be the centerpiece of education. An object (or experience) that captures the children’s attention—a shoe, a fax machine, a rainbox, a birdhouse, or a carved lion at the central Piazza—can become the focus of curriculum for weeks, even months. As the young students explore this fertile object, they have the opportunity to draw on the “hundred languages” that are the birthright of every child—their senses, available media and symbol systems, the arts, the sciences, the natural world—to gain relevant insights into the various spheres of life in which these objects occupy a role. What is learned and created each day becomes the starting point for the following days’ activities. And these learnings are publicly displayed – or “documented”—so that teachers, parents, and other children can share in them and build on them.

Alon with other educators, including my mentor Jerome Bruner, I have visited, studied, and learned from the Reggio Emilia approach for 30 years. This flagship educational enterprise has changed my mind about what is possible to achieve with young children, the importance of group—as opposed to individual—learning, and the role that can be played by documentation of learning over days, weeks, and even longer stretches of time. I have also learned how a single educational experiment—conceived 50 years ago by a determined grouop of citizens—can affect practices all over the world.

Yet shortly after visiting Reggio Emilia for the first time, I undertook a series of trips to China. There I found that my progressive educational philosophy—Italian as well as American style-was sharply challenged. In classrooms in major cities around the country, I saw the same “prefabricated” lessons presented in essentially the same manner. Little latitude was permitted to either teacher or student. Indeed, in one college class in psychology, I was shocked to observe obviously talented students simply repeating the same lesson over and over. When I challenged the teacher about what seemed to be an obvious waste of time, we had an unproductive conversation that she finally terminated with the terse remark, “We’ve been doing it this way for so long that we know it is right.”

Yet I was also surprised by some of the positive results. In a first-grade art class, I watched the students slavishly copy a model over and over. I wondered whether these six-year olds could use their developing skills to portray an unfamiliar object—in this case, an Italian stroller that they could not possibly have seen before. Although the teachers protested when I proposed this assignment, I stuck to my guns. To everyone’s astonishment, the students were able to draw the stroller with considerable skill—far greater aptitude than would have been shown by most American youngsters. This experience convinced me that an effective education can begin with a singular focus on skill building rather than on the play of unfettered imagination, and that the skills that are developed, often precociously, have the potential to be mobilized to more creative ends.

From Progressive Education to Educational Pluralism
by Howard Gardner
Harvard Education Letter
September | October 2010

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