Monday, November 14, 2011

Uh-Oh, I'm Opinionated About Something

As someone who took zero education courses in college and has no experience parenting a child older than sixteen months, I deem myself to be pretty well qualified to write intelligently about childhood learning.

Ha ha ha!

Clearly, I'm not academically or even experientially qualified to do so.  But I think I'm common-sense and generally-educated qualified.  And hey, I spent a year and a half teaching adults, so kids can't be that different, right?


Last week, I received an email from a sweet girl in England whom I've never met in my life.  She attached an essay she'd written for a university assignment and asked me for some editing advice.  Well, really, she wasn't asking me; she was asking another lady who has the same name I do (had to be in the UK!), and she got our email addresses mixed up.  I ended up giving her some advice on the paper anyway, because I thought it would be a good thing to do, and because I miss school like crazy.  (My ultimate pipe dream would be to just be a professional student forever and get degrees in almost everything.)  Her essay was describing the influence of the Italian educational system on the newly revised education system in Northern Ireland, a topic about which I knew -- of course! -- absolutely nothing.

Through reading her paper, I learned about the Reggio Emilia approach, an educational philosophy centered around self-guided learning.  Now, I'm far from an expert on this approach after having read one college essay and a Wikipedia page, so I won't speak to it specifically.  Rather, I'd like to focus on a general trend I've noticed.

I'm not comfortable with what I've perceived to be a pretty strong push toward "child-led" education.  And it's not that I think early childhood education should be like the military or that kids shouldn't have time to just be kids -- far from it!  But whenever I read things like "children must have endless ways and opportunities to express themselves" or "the teacher is considered a co-learner and collaborator with the child and not just an instructor," I can't help but roll my eyes and shake my head.  I'm sorry if this is the heart and soul of what you espouse, but I ain't buyin' it.

Children absolutely need time to be children, time that is unstructured, when they aren't doing school or sports or music lessons, time when they can tap into their unlimited creativity (how I envy them that!) and explore the world on their own terms.  And I think there is even a place for that within an instructional setting, sure.  But I don't think that should be the focus in school.  It's true, we're not trying to train-up our kids to fit into a nice vocational role and contribute their fair share to some oppressive Marxist society.  But we are certainly training them to be adults.  And I don't know about you, but I can't tell you the last day I had "endless ways and opportunities to express" myself.  Or, you know, was able to indulge my outrageously expensive dream of being a professional student, which would require me to neglect my duties as a wife and mother. That's not how life is, and I think that's okay!

When I was teaching, I often had a hard time wrapping my brain around the vertical relationship I had with my students, because many of them were almost as old as or older than I.  Regardless, it was still there, and for good reason: within the realm of what we were doing, I was more knowledgeable and more experienced.  As well I should have been; what a pitiful education it would have been otherwise!  With children, I have no trouble whatsoever recognizing this vertical relationship.  And neither should they.

Children are wonderful and beautiful and innocent and smart, and when we're with them, we often see the world anew.  But we know more than they do.  We are capable of more than they are.  We have years of accumulated wisdom, and they have nearly none.  This is a good thing!  They need us to lead them.  They need to feel safe.  They need to know that their mom and their dad and their teachers are in positions of authority because they deserve to be, because they will help them and guide them so that they can one day be mature and responsible adults, too.

I can't help but feel like the child-driven model is largely a reaction to the shortcomings of traditional schooling -- the one-size-fits-all approach that relies on rules, rigid curricula, and testing testing testing.  I'm glad we're aware of the pitfalls of this system, because it's true: all children learn differently and have unique needs.  This was beyond obvious to me growing up, as my brother and I had completely different learning styles and needs.  Mine were addressed adequately enough by traditional schooling; thank God there were special education programs available to him, because a "regular" classroom would have failed him completely.

My thinking is that it doesn't make sense to try to fix the problems with a rigid traditional schooling system by jumping all the way to the other end of the spectrum and letting kids do whatever happens to strike their fancy.  I realize that most Reggio Emilia enthusiasts and the like would probably be pretty peeved by that statement and would say that it is a gross mischaracterization.  Honestly, I hope that it is.

I guess it boils down to this: I believe children need structure and rules, and I believe children need to understand that their relationship with adults is a vertical one in which the adults are in charge and deserving of their respect. 

What do you think?  Am I being an ignorant, um, witch?  Should I wait until my kid is school-aged before I go spouting off about educational philosophies?  Is this just my ultimate square personality rearing its ugly head?  Or did I possibly make a point here?


  1. Ooh! Let me bite! I, too, have very strong, but conflicting opinions on education. And I have just as much expertise! :D (Maybe slightly less? I did spend 3 years in charge of a classroom of students both my age and older than me, but I only did it very part time.)

    I'm torn. I excelled in the traditional school model. Other than the speaking up/participation aspect, that is. I lost 'points' a lot of times for not raising my hand, and no speaking up, but on paper, I did very well.

    Even when Cam was a toddler I definitely held that same strong opinion that you do. The whole 'Montessori' trend (which has often been misinterpreted and applied to schools just to encourage parents to jump on a school because it follows the trend) seems to have kids "doing their own thing." I won't pretend to actually have done much in depth research about any of it, but from what I've gathered it's supposed to play on children's natural curiosity and the fact that as a child learning IS play.

    I instantly rebelled against this loosely structured educational style. Kids need structure and rules. I LOVE structure and rules.

    As Cam has gotten older I find myself reevaluating. I've also read many studies (translate: read the summaries of many articles and vague references) about how boys are *active* learners and are often failed by the structured passive classroom.
    As a boy who just physically cannot sit still, I wonder how being forced into this structure could result in him losing focus, and worry about how that might cause him to lose interest in learning altogether.
    One on one - he excels and it's obvious that he is intelligent (obviously taking after his mother. haha). But in a classroom setting, he shuts completely down and hides in the corner.

    I never thought I would be open to non-traditional avenues of the education system. But now sometimes I wonder...

    So, yeah, in sum - not arguing with your point, cuz - dude, I *agree* on pretty much all your points wholeheartedly. But even at two, I can see how differently Cam approaches learning. And it's starting to scare me how he'll do in traditional school?

    Don't get me wrong, I don't see anything wrong with forcing children into this mold of education as youngsters since it does help prepare them for the same role as an adult. If we let them have free reign to follow whims for their education, how will they ever learn to succeed in our adult world that has absolutely nothing to do with their whims? So I'm still conflicted, but I thought I'd respond with my sort-of-on-the-other-side opinion. :)

  2. This is exactly the kind of comment I was hoping for! Because, see, with topics like this I tend to either be a yes-man (ok, woman) with whatever anybody says regardless of how I feel, or sit and stew about it entirely within my own head without getting feedback from anyone. And that doesn't really help to develop my thinking very much.

    First, I gotta say that I loved your reference to your R&SK days. :D

    And yeah, I can totally see where you're coming from. It really helps to hear the perspective of someone who has a son! Elise is content to read books basically all day long, which I easily identify with. But with boys it would be completely different. (Okay, perhaps a sweeping generalization there, but your "active learner" and "physically cannot sit still" comments evoke memories of many little boys I went to school with. Who, um, are apparently men now. Remember Socrates? Oh wow, I'm really digressing.)

    So my thoughts are still evolving. I guess my main sticking point is just that I don't think it makes sense to put *too much* of the child's learning in his or her own hands, because they are simply not equipped to take *that much* of a lead. But how much is too much? It's very ambiguous. So of course I don't know. :)

  3. Yes, indeedy! And at this point were Cam going to direct his own education he would want to learn entirely about racing and balls.

    And to reference another Socrates (slash Aristotle and all that jazz), at one point, learning *was* pretty much student directed. Students approached their 'teachers' and made discoveries themselves by their own motivation, with a slight bit of prodding here and there.

    And isn't that just a perfect idealistic litte idea, right? But, I agree, that in practise so many would not benefit from the model. Heck not even just the active kids who don't want to learn about academic things - I wouldn't even benefit from that model, because I'm the opposite of self-directed. I want to be told what to do and what to learn, and then like a robot I will spit it all back out. :P

    I do think if our entire education system changed to a completely student driven experience, a lot fewer students would seek it out than the 100% that is aimed for with the current model. Thus driving a bigger gap between the educated and the uneducated masses.

    I dunno, though. I make no claims to know more than the most cursory information of what I speak on. The joys of being out of school. I'm allowed make statements without citations and research. Score.

  4. I think there is a way for kids to go through a very structured and traditional school environment while still being encouraged to be creative, particularly at home. Paint, color, read a book, learn sign language, play outside and make up games - these are all things a 3 year old I babysit does!

    The problem with too much "un-learning" is that kids are not able to think properly. To really develop reason and cognitive analytical skills, kids - and really, teenagers and college students for the first two years (IMO) need structure.