Brief Thoughts On The Reggio Emilia Approach, Part II

I read a bit more in the Bringing Reggio Emilia Home book last night. I don’t know if it’s because I started reading Maria Montessori’s The Secret of Childhood which to me seems to hold an antithetical philosophical viewpoint, or I am just coming against the discomfort of a new idea, but some of the anecdotes that were shared seemed a bit bizarre. The author captured the thoughts of one of the local teachers, “Vea”, and I have selectively quoted them below:

I put a Plexiglass mirror out on the ground outside so that we could walk on the mirror… We walked on the sky and in some way, we were able to touch it… I think it’s important that the children enter into this “theater of the virtual reality” so that they can move in a different way according to the provocations that you give… The children walked on the clouds and “flew” with their arms as they pretended to be angels and airplanes… the games they played with the slides [images of the weather patterns observed] and this painting are filled with significance… we could say that these children have made a first collective work born of a common experience.

In this anecdote, Vea is talking about an exercise she created with various art media to tap into the children’s sense of “awe” and “wonder” about the world around them. Interpreting this charitably, children have strong creative faculties and their good-hearted teacher is creating circumstances where they can really let their imagination run.

But is it that simple?

In reality, nobody can walk on the sky. Angels don’t exist, and children aren’t airplanes, they fly in airplanes, which are specific physical objects with real physical properties that allow them to stay airborne despite gravity and being heavier than air. How does this work? This exercise doesn’t seem to touch upon any of this as it is related. One argument is that the children might be too young to appreciate physics. But does that mean they should be led to imagine that physics doesn’t exist, instead?

And what is a “collective work born of common experience”? The word “provocations” is probably a literal translation of the Italian cognate “provocazioni”, which has several meanings similar to the English, including “challenge, upset, anger”. I am thinking of the word “antagonize”, why are children being antagonized? Even the meaning “challenge” is confusing. Negotiating reality as a neophyte seems like challenge enough, does a teacher need to add to it by “challenging” children to walk on the sky or fly through it like angels? There seems to be plenty going on down here to contend with as it is.

Here is another anecdote:

“Let’s put in our yells!” [said one child, about what he wanted to try storing in a jar the children were given during one exercise] because they were excited and yelling. It was a lovely idea, so they yelled inside the jar closing it right away with its cover. Then, every once in a while they raised the cover ever so slightly, putting their ear to the opening to see if they could hear the yells that they had put inside.

As a wistful happenstance of young children playing, this scene is endearing, almost comical. Clearly, yells can not be contained in a jar and listened to later, that isn’t how sound works. It is “creative” in the abstract sense of a weird alternate reality book or movie where physics doesn’t exist as it does in our universe. But as something taking place in an educational environment, encouraged by teachers and with no “questioning” involved, or attempts to get behind the play to the real phenomena of voice and sound and recorded media, it takes on a more sinister appeal. What is practicing such behavior doing but confusing the mind? What are the children learning from one another here, but idle fantasies and make believe?

Earlier in the section, the book talked about the famed “Hundred Languages of Children”. It turns out this is a reference to different art materials that children can use to illustrate their experiences. Acetate, wire, clay, paint, crayon, etc., these are all media that children are instructed in the atelier (studio) to use to express their shared memories of various experiences. Again, it sounds innocent, what could be wrong with teaching children art and how to manipulate various materials for self-expression? But a “hundred languages” also has a polylogist ring to it, not a polyglot one, because in early childhood children are just acquiring languages skills in their mother tongue, and while it may be clear to them what they mean in their artistic acts of self-expression, it is much less likely that this meaning will be clear to others, such as other children, teachers, parents or adults. In fact, art is one of those things that is seemingly always up to interpretation, whereas verbal linguistics are relatively straight forward. Emphasizing self-expression through art seems to lead to a, “Think what you want to think, believe what you want to believe” kind of approach to reality and communicating with others.

But I am only two chapters into this, so I guess I don’t want to get TOO hysterical in my critical analysis!

I also watched “The Reggio Emilia Approach At Bennett Day School” on YouTube last night, seeking more information about this approach in practice. The video ended up being more about the history of the philosophy, which was helpful. A few anecdotal items of data stood out to me in the presentation:

  • The townsfolk of Reggio Emilia specifically designed their approach “so that they’d never have to deal with fascism again”
  • The local municipality once considered cutting funding for the preschool programs, and the parents became hysterical and lobbied the government to maintain the spending
  • The head marm narrating in the video described the “citizenship” focus of the Reggio Emilia approach by citing the way townsfolk became engaged in local political debates at the town councils, where she emphasized “everyone was free to argue and disagree, but eventually they reached agreement”; she cited this as a really positive example of the civic-spirited genesis of the approach

Here is the video:

And here is how the Bennett Day School describes its “Progessive education” ideals:

Based on the beliefs of John Dewey first published in the late 19th century, Progressive Education is a philosophy built around cooperative learning environments carefully constructed by teachers in order to build understanding through meaningful, relevant practices.

In a progressive education environment, students “learn by doing,” engaging in activities and lessons which help them develop the problem solving and critical thinking skills that are essential to participation in a modern democratic society. Rather than focusing on rote memorization, Progressive Education focuses on social learning and collaboration to achieve relevant, authentic goals.

While influenced by student interest and engagement, Progressive Education asks teachers to guide students through the process of learning, modeling and encouraging the development of skills and knowledge that are necessary to effective citizenship. Students in a progressive school are not merely passive consumers of information, but active and engaged members of a learning community that seeks to develop within all its members (both adults and children) a spirit of participation and engagement that will seamlessly translate to the larger global society.

 

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Disintegrate The School System!

Recently I read a post on Bill Gates’s blog, Gates Notes, about some nifty new public school concept he was impressed by. He made a throwaway comment about how important it is to bring rich and poor, black and white, etc. etc. together in the public schools, which is a laughable call coming from him because he has chosen to do the opposite with his own children.

In reading this post and following some related links, I came to understand that this “integrated schooling” concept is a real movement in Progressive circles. In fact, a Google search inadvertently led me to a blog, IntegratedSchools.org, written by a young woman in California who sees herself as a privileged, educated, middle class white woman who thinks that people like her should voluntarily “integrate” their children into nearby failing public schools in order to be the change.

I think putting your own family at risk for one’s principles like that is laudable, at least compared to the alternative of loudly mewing for more government involvement to fix the perceived problem, which inevitably means forcing everyone to go along with what you think the solution is, even when they don’t see the problem and wouldn’t agree with you on the solution. But the more I read her blog, the less I understood her motives for doing this, besides being ideologically pure and consistent. I could not discern any meaningful educational advantages to be gained by purposefully putting her children into underperforming schools, whatever the cause for their underperformance may be.

It got me thinking about my own views on educational ideals. I’m not convinced segregation is the problem, or even a problem. And I’m not sure I’d prioritize whatever it is she has prioritized with this choice rather than, say, a quality learning environment by any reasonable standard. I tried to think about what principles are important to me, and what to call them. It was hard, because a lot of words have become taboo in the “debate”, I think through the purposeful efforts of the Progressives who currently dominate it.

For example, segregation is purportedly what we have now, a school system which purposefully and forcibly (by legal connivance) separates school children into rich schools and poor schools, white schools and non-white schools, performing schools and failing schools, the haves and the have-nots. If you are against segregation, this imagined policy and its outcomes, then you are not just for de-segregation, you are for integration! In other words, the opposite of segregation is not de-segregation, it is de-segregation and integration. The Progressives claimed two words when they only needed one, and in so doing they combined separate concepts in a purposeful manner. Some people may not think the policy of segregation is a good, but they might also think that there are other ways to “integrate” (that is, combine into a larger, meaningful whole out of constituent parts) society besides a program of radical egalitarian leveling– quota systems, equal funding, equal access, equal this, equal that. Taking away words and jumbling up concepts means taking away options and limiting the debate, it’s a classic false dichotomy aimed at dividing and conquering.

If you’re against integration, it must be because you’re a segregating, secessionist racist! If you want to be part of a united America, you’ve got to do it our way, there is no other choice. This is how the logic goes when the debate is so confined.

So I need another word. And it needs to be provocative. And it needs to be meaningful to my program and principles. And I think I’ve got it: disintegration.

“Uh oh!” you might be thinking right this very moment, “‘Disintegration’ sure sounds like the opposite of ‘integration’, and we know integration means being pure and good and not a racist, so if you’re against that, then that seems to leave you in a pretty untenable spot…” But I don’t mean to throw a negative prefix on a word and call it a day, no, as an integrationist of letters and words and meaning, I seek to call attention to the whole word and the violence of it itself. I don’t want to oppose integration, I want to break apart the system completely! Start over. New ideas, new forms, new values.

When you think “disintegrate”, think about “Set lasers to stun”, but instead of stun, they go all the way to dissolve.

My slogan, then? “Disintegrate the school system!”

Here is why this best represents my principles. The school system in this country is not failing, it has failed. It could never have accomplished what it purportedly set out to do, that is, to provide a uniform level of education in core human knowledge and key civic values to all students regardless of background, ability or need. It was bound to fail for two reasons: (1) the goal was and is unobtainable, under any conceivable system that doesn’t involve divine intervention and (2) it being a political system funded and operated by government, it was bound to become another plaything of the political process and in so doing to be used and abused and confused by it, utterly so. The first reason is most devastating on a theoretical level and explains why it never should’ve been tried. The second reason is most devastating on a practical level and explains the specific reason it has become as corrupt and destitute an institution as it has become.

It is a bad idea and it is time to sweep it away, not try to save it by sacrificing ever more people and values for it. It can’t ever do anything but disappoint us, let’s be rid of it already. Let’s put this beast down, stop feeding it.

I want to live in a world without a public school system, at least in my country. That’s my ideal. I also imagine this world would see less concentration of resources, enrollment, and concern, into agglomerations of large schools, rather than smaller schools, more numerous, less risky. Why, for example, must some of the 1,200 students enrolled at the junior high school I live across the street from drive or bike several miles, while other students walk a few blocks, to get to school? Why do 1,200 students need to go to one place to learn when they just get broken up into 20 or 30 student class units once they arrive? Why not place more classrooms in those students’ own neighborhoods and save them a trip? And maybe build more of a sense of community along the way? Is there something more real about a community that consists of people within driving distance of one another, versus one that consists of people within shouting distance?

Calling for integration means buying into this premise of centralizing students and centralizing control. I don’t want to put more resources, more students and more control in the hands of lawyers, union lobbyists, state education supervisors, local school boards and district superintendents. I want to live in a world where schools get sorted out between parents, their students and their hired teachers… and only a handful of any of those at one time.

I want to know every other kid my kids are going to school with, and I want to know their parents. I want to know how they’re raising them, and what their values are. I want to know their life experiences and what they do for a living and why. I want to know if they live their lives with passion or if they’re going through the motions. I want the teachers to be people that willfully work for us because they think it’s the best opportunity they can get, and who we willfully agree to hire because we interviewed a lot of applicants and these people stood out. I want to be able to fire these teachers with the consent of the other parents (and students!) the moment we think it’s not working out. And I want to be able to raise their pay and promote them (to the extent there is a hierarchy) when we decide they deserve the recognition for their accomplishments.

I don’t want to wait 2 years, or 4 years, to hope “my candidate” gets elected, and hope he takes the time to make my concerns about how my school is being run seriously enough to do something, in coordination with all the other politicians with differing goals and masters, and wait for his efforts to trickle down to changes in my school perhaps a decade after my children have graduated from it.

If I think my school needs more resources, I’ll put more in, and encourage the other parents to do the same. If I think it needs less, I’ll encourage the school to make do with a lighter budget. I don’t want to live in a world where everyone feels like they’re being held hostage to everyone else’s perspective. “The schools are underfunded and are children are suffering for it!” “Property taxes are too damn high and I don’t get any benefit for what I pay!” This is madness with no solution that makes everyone happy. If there was one, we’d have figured it out several decades ago. It’s time to try something else.

So, I want to disintegrate the school system. Zap! Gone. And I’m planning to put my money where my mouth is, just like my zany Progressive blogger compadre. I’m going to start by pulling my own kids out. We’ll take it from there.

On Stirner: The False Principle Of Our Education

Max Stirner (1806-1856) was a proponent of philosophical egoism, which states that there is no “right and wrong” in a moral sense but only “right and wrong” in the sense of a given means being appropriate to a stated end. In this way, he sought to create a value-free philosophy, just as Ludwig von Mises claimed that economics was a value-free social science in that economics did not say whether a given economic end was “good or bad”, only whether the economic means chosen for obtaining it was appropriate or not.

Stirner was also a contemporary of the Young Hegelians, and a student and fierce critic of Hegel himself. Whereas he could foresee that the intellectual project of the Hegelian “moderns” was nothing but a new religion and a reformation of the thinking of the “ancients” of Greece and Rome which would ultimately end in a total state and an orgiastic ruination of the individual, Stirner instead tried to create something entirely different by reclaiming the idea of individual as owner of his own life. This he set out to accomplish in The Ego and His Own.

A few years before he published his primary work on the subject, however, Stirner wrote a pamphlet on the nature of the modern European debate over educational systems, entitled “The False Principle of Our Education“, in which he declared “The school-question is a life-question.”

Why is the school-question a life-question? Because, Stirner says, we are in school in “the time of our plasticity.” The various factions in society fight over the schools because they understand this is the moment when individuals are most malleable, moldable, shapeable– control the fate of an individual in his schooling of youth and you can potentially control him for his entire life.

Historically,

Until the Enlightenment… higher education lay without protest in the hands of the humanists… based almost solely on the understanding of the old classics… they selected the best education of the world of antiquity… the people were supposed to remain in the laity opposite of the learned gentlemen, were only supposed to gaze in astonishment at the strange splendor and venerate it

This is so because people have a tendency to respect and admire the past just as they respect and admire their parents and ancestors. By setting the educational model in the past, a period which is so far from recent human experience that its iniquities can be forgotten while its triumphs can be lauded and envied, the humanists created an educational system that played to people’s traditionalist bias, making it ripe for automatic respect and veneration. Then, by restricting such education to the elite of society, they managed to transfer this veneration to the elites who held such educations. They came to represent the old, respectable past and so were respected and granted authority themselves.

This was the educational system of the humanists of the European Middle Ages. The system of the “moderns” post-Enlightenment, the realists, would not replace but reform it:

To eliminate the priesthood of the scholars and the laity of the people is the endeavor of realism and therefore it must surpass humanism… the essential advantage of scholars, universal education, should be beneficial to everyone… “to be able to talk about everything”… therefore familiarity with the things and situations of the present… because it satisfied the common need of everyone to find themselves in their world and time

But the aims of the humanists and the realists were short-sighted:

to grasp the past as humanism teaches and to seize the present, which is the aim of realism, leads both only to power over the transitory

Humanists offered a materialist education– to know of things. Realists offered a formal education– to know of categories, classes, and shapes, but not the value of them to anybody. Stirner himself offers an entirely different alternative, which he calls personalism— to know the self. In this failing, Stirner sees that,

knowledge is not brought to completion and perspicuity, that it remains a material and formal, a positive thing, without rising to the absolute, that it loads us down like a burden

The false principle of education, to Stirner, is that education has never been given to others or taken philosophically to its total end, the enabling of the creation of the self, or ego. It was stopped short by both the humanists and the realists in order to serve other needs, other egos. Instead, a foundation on true principle would imply,

the final goal of education… is: the personal or free man. Truth itself consists in nothing other than man’s revelation of himself… such thoroughly true men are not supplied by school; if they are nevertheless there, they are there in spite of school… No knowledge, however thorough and extensive, no brilliance and perspicuity, no dialectic sophistication, will preserve us from the commonness of thought and will

The true purpose of education should not be to fill people’s minds with stuff (facts, figures, events, people, places) or with implications (what to think of the stuff); the purpose of education should be to enable individuals to find themselves. Everything short of this does not serve the individual, but someone else:

Only a formal and material training is being aimed at and only scholars come out of the menageries of the humanists, only “useful citizens” out of those of the realists, both of whom are indeed nothing but subservient people… If one awakens in men the idea of freedom then the free men will incessantly go on to free themselves; if, on the contrary, one only educates them, then they will at all times accommodate themselves to circumstances in the most highly educated and elegant manner and degenerate into subservient cringing souls

Educational philosophy, then, can be boiled down into three primary alternatives: to educate and create masters, to educate and create slaves, or to educate and create individuals (who are neither slave nor master).

The present state of education, based off humanist and realist principles, is one of disarray and pathetic. College students,

trained in the most excellent manner, they go on training; drilled, they continue drilling… it is not knowledge that should be taught, rather, the individual should come to self-development… we do not hinder man’s quest for knowledge; why should we intimidate his free will?

Why, but only to control him.

Stirner crushes mercilessly the lie that we educate within the current paradigm so as to civilize people, and thereby make them safe co-habitants of our society, that without education these “free egos” would turn to chaos and “anarchy” and tear society apart in violent blunder:

I oppose him with the strength of my own freedom; thus the spite of the child will break up by itself. Whoever is a complete person does not need to be an authority.

“Free egos” are only threats to those who seek control over others (for they pose a form of opposition to their own ego) or those who are in a position of subservience, control and dependence upon an authority and are thereby not free to resist the aggressions of another themselves.

Instead,

school is to be life and there, as outside of it, the self-revelation of the individual is to be the task… only freedom is equality… we need from now on a personal education (not the impressing of convictions)… knowledge must die and rise again as will and create itself anew each day as a free person.

Beware those who would argue otherwise; aware of it or not, they’re attempting to set up a trap by which to control you.