Born to think and learn

Dear readers,

The NY Times followed up its piece on STEM jobs and the causes of unemployment (see below) with one on testing: “The Trouble With Testing Mania.” (Sunday, July 14, p. 10) The editorial headline is the best thing about it, but it opens a few more doors for us among potential allies. A second hurrah.

But can we shift the conversation from the “accountability/testing” mania to a real meaty discussion about how learning takes place. Maybe we have to dig deeper into what purposes we expect schooling to serve, or each step forward or back may represent just a new no-nothing fad. Until then we are avoiding the BIG question, “accountable for what?”

Example: It always amazes me how often intelligent people cannot imagine how one can learn if no one is “teaching,” “telling” or at least “showing.” My old City College guru, the marvelous Lillian Weber who taught so many of us how to observe children well, started off by asking us to list all the things that virtually every kindergarten child knows before he/she starts school. And then, we brainstormed how we thought they had learned all these hundreds of skills, concepts, words, and on and on. It was a tough task.

This is why I hate the expression used too often to promote pre-schooling—”learning to think” or “ready to learn.” We are born thinkers and learners–and quite sophisticated ones. We come into the world as theorists of a very high order. It was this simple idea alongside that amazing list we compiled that convinced me that the clue to schooling lay in keeping this incredible openness to learning new things continuing in school too. How? By imitating the same methods the child has already successfully used out of school. It requires the company of both adults and peers, access to wonderful materials and resources, and a respect for curiosity and self-initiative, even when it leads to partially or even totally “wrong” answers. “I’ve got an idea” is on the tip of every one-year-old’s lips; before that too. What this child is missing at two is the jargon for saying this. But just watch the faces of children in classrooms—can we find that same look on their faces, that same reaching out to explore? If “I’ve got an idea” is not on the tip of the tongue of every 5-12 year old, maybe even 13-82 year old, something has gone sadly wrong. The world is simply too interesting to pass children by without awe, wonder and curiosity—unless we insist on introducing boredom—alongside of trying to read the teacher’s mind rather than reading the world!

I was reminded of this at the 3-day workshop I attended a few weeks ago in Manchester, New Hampshire, run by Gary Stager on project-based learning. We need something like those three days—Gary take note—in every town and village. Gary was a student of Seymour Paper of MIT, who was in turn a student of Jean Piaget of Switzerland, who was…., well he got his ideas in a large part watching and listening to children!

The real “crisis” within schools today is that we are in the process of literally throwing away the carefully constructed ideas that flowed from these (and other) giants’ work. The garden for children (kindergarten) was a late 19h century invention that we are fast abandoning. The ideas behind such “gardens” are not only wise, but critical to imagining that democracy needn’t be utopian—that it’s possible with “ordinary” people who are all really quite extraordinary. Reminder: democracy was “invented” as an answer to “who is accountable.” But “for what” faces each generation anew.

In the meantime Gary and colleague Sylvia Libow Martinez have published Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. (

I’ll be quoting from this book a lot! Alongside of The Having of Wonderful Ideas by Eleanor Duckworth (who joined me in New Hampshire). “Some wheels may require reinventing, but hopefully not the idea of roundness itself” (Thanks to Alan Dichter for this quotation. And welcome back to NYC Alan and Vivian Orlon))

p.s. I’m fast (?) recovering energy from the dual attack of a bug carrying both Lyme and Erlichia! Query: Do they play any useful role?

7 Responses

  1. Another giant is John Holt of course. His deep and sensitive understanding of children ( illustrates that accountability driven education serves to suppress and run roughshod over the natural learning process.

    Politicians, especially those with the mind that suits the hard-nosed world of journalism, are entirely the wrong type of leader to steer education in the right direction. They will necessarily operate from a systems viewpoint, literally ignoring the customers – the children. The matter is so extraordinarily bad and so far removed from the optimum approach that it is no surprise that children survive rather than enjoy school. And for many, the scars of that survival remain for their whole life as they are literally taught to feel inadequate.

  2. So sorry about the bug but the plus is allowing us to hear more of Nicholas’ voice. The pain I experience is realizing after all these years the ideas are still or once again so ‘cutting edge’. Are we spending enough time in education courses discussing ‘how’ learning takes place? It is beyond me how a teacher who understands could continue the policies be enforced now.

  3. If we really want to shift the focus from Accountability, we need to change our grading practices, which penalize the curious, the lateral thinkers, the unconfident, and the playful.
    Our community is overwhelmed with parents and educators who think the whole educational process, elementary to college, is a race, so we have introduced change in an unusual way: we give grades, but we insist upon including grades for values that students and teachers decide upon mutually. Accountability-itis is naturally going to occur when people feel pressured: teachers need to free themselves not to race through curricula that they know, going in, would take a year and a half to teach. Rallying cry to all teachers: Risk it all to have that great, deepening conversation with your class! Insist on rich experience.

    • Every year I work to free myself from a ‘race through a curricula’ in order to maintain my focus on my students. I try to create a learning environment that excites and motivates children. Obviously I can’t ignore the curricula that I am required to teach, and in fact, I think that the curricula is appropriate. It is the method and the pacing that needs constant calibration. When the High Stakes testing period approaches, it becomes more difficult to maintain my focus on my students and not worry about their test scores. Since I teach children with IEPs and children who need remediation in math, I know that many will not do well on the test, because although they have made good progress in my classes, they may still not be proficient at their current grade level. I end up feeling angry and stressed every year as the testing eats into instructional time and demoralizes my students, who before taking the tests were excited about what they were learning and proud of their success. This obsession with testing must end!

      • Yes, it must end.
        You are obviously a bright, articulate, passionate teacher. Revolution starts in your heart and it has already begun. Follow your heart. Close the door of your classroom. Face your students. Teach the lessons you must teach, not the lessons of a bloated bureaucracy. You must only feel angry and frustrated if your life’s work is not self-determining and authentic. Think of all the learning your students can have at the end of the year if you are the kind of teacher you know you must be. Trust in the goodness of the world when we all do this. Risk it all.

  4. Deb, you are right here to focus on the insider’s, teachers’
    view of learning. I need to zoom out though, and talk of the outsider (‘consumer’s’) view. The macro view of “accountable for what?”

    This week, “accountable for what?” should be loudly answered with “accountable for no Detroits”!

    Detroit’s downfall isn’t an accident of nature or economic winds. It’s a 30+ year record of bad ideas. Fed by a first mis-educated public, then by a largely un-educated public.

    A public that fell for personality and empty promises instead of effective and progressive leadership.

    As a counter-example, the Pittsburgh of my youth was a city based on steel jobs. The entire city smelled of coke and steel. The buildings were black from soot. In a city nicknamed for it’s Three Rivers, everywhere you went along those rivers, (continuing on down to WV and southern Ohio,) you’d find steel mills. Almost all are now gone. No one works in steel.

    Yet Pittsburgh has since regularly been listed among “America’s most livable cities”. It’s economy has done very nicely. It’s a tech and business leader.

    Why such very different outcomes?

    The answer lies in the ideas and leadership of the peoples of those cities.

    • Which people, Ed? The decision-makers in Detroit were probably well-educated–in the usual sense. Bu yes, democracy doesn’t work well if the gaps in education and money are too great. Nor does a good economy–perhaps. I hope they are connected because democracy alone is not high on the agenda of most Americans–not to mention others. deb

      p.s. What has happened to the people who used to work in the steel mills–I wonder. Have we simply pushed them out of the city–as we are fast doing to the poor in NYC! And Detroit may be next.

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