Making Good Schools: Reflections of a Life-long Educator
In today’s society dialogue is barely civil, so it is exciting to read about the Good Project’s ideas about Good Work and their application to education. My question is: can the Good Work enterprise leave the realm of ideas and become a wide reality, bridging the gap between theory and practice?
Since my early 20s, I have tried to make better learning environments by founding and running both schools and a children’s museum. Eureka? No! The schools served vanishingly small numbers. After nine years, the preschool, which had received much acclaim, folded, defunded by the political morass in Washington, D.C. The junior high school preceded the charter school movement, became well-instantiated as the D. C. Public School’s safety net, and tripled in size and budget. But today, 26 years after opening, the school has an uncertain future: a Trustee is alleged to have stolen a huge amount of funds. And the Museum? For over 20 years, it served many thousands annually. In 2010, the Trustees closed the museum, sold its property to a developer, reopened in a storefront, closed soon thereafter and never reopened.
I find it a disgrace that some charter schools today are more about profit than pedagogy. I am disheartened that school success in the lower grades is mainly quantified by outcomes on one-right-answer tests and that politicians continue to “make schools better” through shallow measures, not by discerning if students have learned how to learn. I am saddened that many bright young adults dismiss teaching as a career. I am chagrined that pre-service education does not teach classroom management skills and that good lessons proposed by teachers-in-training that do not “fit” the standard curriculum are not used. I am disappointed that museums do not play larger roles in more children’s education. And few teachers know how to use new information about the brain to make learning more effective.
On the positive side, there are far more alternative schools now than in the 1970s. Yet we know little about their effectiveness. Public opinion on education is based on the media’s showcasing isolated practices that may—or may not—be exemplary. These are stumbling blocks in making better schools. Philosophers and researchers on Good Work need to guide schools. Good ideas and realities on-the-ground must meet.
To meet contemporary challenges (ranging from climate change to mass immigration), education must help children become reasoning, compassionate, and creative adults. Solutions must come from wise theorists and experimental practitioners who collaborate to help all children learn how to learn.
So I ask: What if . . .
1. Models were identified of high-caliber teachers and classrooms in three categories: 1) exemplary; 2) could become exemplary with slight change; and 3) potential to be reworked. Models diverse in geography, pedagogy, culture, and economic status would become observation and placement sites for trainers-in-training and teachers-in-training. Model teachers would be the “best and brightest” leaders, most capable, charismatic, and open to change. Stand-alone classrooms could be within larger schools.
2. Diverse approaches were identified that have proved effective over time, reflect research on the brain, exemplify best practices, and use some form of authentic assessment. Some examples include theories and/or practices of (in alphabetical order):
-Edward de Bono, British physician and creator of the term “lateral thinking.” He developed an approach to teach creative skills that reflect intelligent thinking.
-Reuven Feuerstein, Israeli psychologist, created 1) a theory that adult/child interactions modify cognition; 2) a testing of one’s capacity to change, not what one has learned; and 3) multitudes of exercises to develop thinking, used worldwide.
-Howard Gardner, American psychologist, created Multiple Intelligences theory, heretical when proposed but now accepted widely. MI replaces the idea of one intelligence center with many areas for different kinds of intelligences.
-David Hawkins, American physicist/philosopher, believed we learn from “I” (learner), “thou” (teacher), and “it” (what is taught) relationships and open-ended “messing about” with rich “its” and knowledgeable teachers.
-Salman Khan, American educator, created Khan Academy, a free on-line school with lessons in 20 languages and many subjects from kindergarten to college. The approach is based on the belief that anyone can learn anything once strengths and weaknesses are identified.
-Loris Malaguzzi, Italian, founder of the Reggio Emilia Schools, called the world’s best, based on a belief in children’s competence. Curricula emerge as 3-month to 6-year-olds collaborate together and with teachers on complex problems.
-Maria Montessori, Italian, medical doctor, anthropologist, and educator. Created a philosophy, robust materials, practices, and teacher education methods used worldwide. Neuro-science now affirms what she knew intuitively.
-Seymour Papert, South African, mathematician, philosopher, and computer scientist. Created LOGO, a language for young or low functioning children to “program” computers to act in intrinsically interesting ways; merged LOGO with LEGO.
-Theodore Sizer, leading education reformer. Created the national Coalition of Essential Schools. Hundreds of schools changed all facets of practice to meet rigorous standards including limiting school size to about 200 students.
-Rudolf Steiner, Austrian, social reformer. Created Waldorf schools, today about 1,000 worldwide, emphasizing education for the head, heart and hands with no limits on content.
-Lev Vygotsky, Russian, psychologist. Created a socio-cultural theory that accounts for the role of language in thinking as the basis for how we learn.
3. Content were to build skills in focused attention, intention, reflection, observation, and documentation; collaborative endeavor; and compassion. Such content would enable:
-Skill in the art of focused, respectful conversation
-Proficiency in “reading” printed materials, images, and body language
-Understanding and application of mathematical concepts and functions
-Capacity to manipulate phenomena in the sciences and technology
-Competence in using diverse materials and tools
-Agility in musical, theatrical, graphic, plastic, kinesthetic, and media arts
4. Classroom management skills were to support:
-Individual or small group work
-Conversation among teachers and students
-Long, uninterrupted work time
-Respectful use of permanent, natural, and consumable resources
-Individualized instruction in decoding, encoding, presentation, and quantification
-Understanding of diverse cultural practices
-Development of varied cognitive abilities and multiple intelligences
-Techniques that use cognitive means to quell negative emotions
-Authentic assessment to provide evidence of students’ annual growth
Such models would be brain-worthy; would engage students’ diverse interests, competencies, and intelligences; would direct misbehavior into productive endeavor; would prepare students to meet 21st century challenges; and would help students learn how to learn. Such models would be evidence that theory and practice were integrated.
Ann Lewin-Benham is an educator and author. Her website is annlewin-benham.com. She can be reached at Ann@AnnLewin-Benham.com.