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.

Brief Thoughts On The Reggio Emilia Approach, Part I

A relative recently gave me a copy of Bringing Reggio Emilia Home and asked me for my thoughts. Having never heard of “the Reggio Emilia approach”, I initially thought the book title implied a character named Reggio Emilia who was returning from somewhere they had been taken. It was only after I started looking into it on the web that I realized it is an educational philosophy originating in northern Italy.

I cracked the book open today and read through the first chapter, which details the author’s move to Reggio Amelia with her family (a husband and two young sons, all American) to pursue a one year internship as an observer at a preschool in the town, along with some of her first impressions. I still don’t know where the story is going or what kind of scenes will take place. Right now I am just trying to read with an open mind and understand what the author thinks the virtues of this “approach” are from an educational standpoint and what problems it helps to solve. I also want to be aware of problems I see it creating without addressing, but so far there hasn’t been anything like that.

Without going into further detail for now, the author lists the following as the “fundamentals of the Reggio approach”:

  • the child as protagonist
  • the child as collaborator
  • the child as communicator
  • the environment as third teacher
  • the teacher as partner, nurturer and guide
  • the teacher as researcher
  • the documentation as communication
  • the parent as partner

Here are some impressions so far.

The school sounds small, both physically and in terms of student enrollment. I think the “approach” recommends smaller class sizes and smaller overall school enrollments (20-30 total) and that typically there are two teachers per class who work in a supportive team. This seems to be the case at the Diana School she is observing.

The school has a team of cooks who prepare fresh snacks and pranzo (lunch) for the students, teachers and themselves. I really like this. The children take a nap after lunch. I also like this. Paying attention to nutritional needs and making mealtime special is part of my ideal lifestyle. Listening to the body’s needs and relaxing all the way to napping when called for, especially in the case of small, growing children, makes a lot of sense to me. I wish that the teachers didn’t read “fairy tales” to the kids before they took their nap though– this tells me that being reality-oriented is not a high priority for the “approach.” I like that the teachers and cooks get together and share their meal while the children sleep and that they do this at a leisurely pace and focus on social topics rather than “their work” (ie, working lunch).

The lesson plan or day’s activities starts with a debrief between the teachers and the children. There appears to be a lot of questions from the teachers aimed at understanding the children’s priorities and interests to be explored throughout the day’s activities. The children are semi-organized– some pursue independent activities, some work together, some volunteer to assist the teachers in engaging with other, younger children.

The town of Reggio sounds pleasant. The author and her husband walk to their local cafe bar for their morning espresso. Their sons ride their bikes to school through the city streets. Their neighbors quickly “adopt” them and have them over for dinner and vice versa to teach them Italian cooking and traditions. Interestingly, I noticed that the parks and public places are described as having a variety of age groups using them simultaneously, including youngsters, “amorous teenage couples”, families and old people sitting around talking and getting fresh air. When I think about the public parks where I live, I notice there are never any old people about, and that families with small children only go to certain parks with playgrounds, and adults or individuals with pets go to separate parks or go at different times, and few people think of spontaneously meeting their neighbors or community members in the park, or scheduling a get together there with a friend or associate. This seems like a sign of beneficial urbanity in Reggio that is strangely missing from where I live, but which I have noticed in public places in big American cities and in other public parks around the world– though in the US and certain less wealthy countries I have visited, there is also a problem with vagrancy and other undesirables using these parks.

Review – The School Revolution

The School Revolution: A New Answer for Our Broken Education System

by Ron Paul, published 2013

I got a lot of ideas from this book, so it will be difficult to rate it poorly but ultimately I believe that is what it deserves. The book is repetitious, poorly organized and lacks flow, which is exacerbated by the suggestion to send emails to various “@aweber.com” email addresses for more information about the Ron Paul Curriculum– it’s almost like reading a poorly-done web marketing pitch page as a book.

Also, I am pretty confident this book was ghostwritten by Gary North. Gary North is one of the people behind the Ron Paul Curriculum, the RPC website looks identical in layout and voice to Gary North’s website (right down to the weird bursting red orb icon that displays in the title tab of each site on my browser) and the repetition and constant reference to “the principle of X is: italicized principle for effect“, which is a Gary North trade mark. That’s disappointing for two reasons: first, Ron Paul, if he’s actually written most of the other books of his I’ve read, is a decent author in his own right and certainly his way of making a point is unique, so it’s a shame to not really hear from him in a book with his byline; second, Gary North is actually a great writer himself (his Mises on Money is a great summary/intro of Mises’s voluminous writings on the subject, and his web essays on economic subjects are thoughtful and methodically argued) but it just doesn’t show up in this book, which makes him seem like a poor communicator because he is constantly repeating himself.

So that’s what’s primarily wrong with the book and that’s why it’s going to get a low score from me. But as I said, it gave me a lot of ideas, so I still felt the need to record my thoughts more extensively and what better place than this review?

Paul/North have not provided us with a well-researched book on the history of the “rise and decline” of the US public school system. Nor have they provided us with a careful logical demolition of the philosophy behind our current compulsory public education policy (or shown us its Prussian heritage, or how it is designed to serve special interests and not local communities), or investigated the collapse of urban school districts into chaos, violence and low test scores. They mostly take it as given that if you’re reading the book, you understand the public education system could be improved upon in one way or another and you’re sympathetic to cutting ties with it in the meantime.

This book is not a recipe or handbook for reforming or revolutionizing the educational system in this country as it stands. It offers no panacea for the system itself. Instead, it suggests something simple: go around it.

The author(s) believe that, much like UPS and FedEx carry the truly valuable mail while the USPS schleps around coupon books, catalogs and other junk mail marketing offers no one asked for or intended to receive, the advent of the Internet as an even-lower-cost mass communication medium will allow people who want to have a great education from a top-tier provider get one, and no local district admin or state bureaucrat or federal educational gestapo can say nay or get in the way, devil take the whole system.

And surely there is something to this. As the author(s) points out, Harvard, MIT, etc. have already put their imprimatur on the movement by giving free access to their best lecturers on the web. Coursera is one of many other providers competing to provide similar access at similar prices to not-quite-top-tier but pretty close lecturers and content, and then there is the Khan Academy which is seeking to address K-12. While quality, format and specific content may differ, what is similar about all of these services is that they are voluntarily provided and are competing for their audiences, whereas government schooling is a monopoly.

The other key piece of the puzzle is who is financing these education systems. With the government, it is tax-financed. You’d think this means tax payers thereby control the system, but that’s the funny thing about government and anyone who isn’t totally naive understands it doesn’t work like that– the tax payers donate, the government does the honors. With these other systems, investors, entrepreneurs and nominally-private (ie, the major research universities) teaching institutions are the financiers and, to the extent that the consumer is paying for it in some way (ads, prestige, subscription fees), they get to call the tune. Without changing the funding method of education, it will be impossible to change the values reflected in it nor the structure by which it is conducted.

There is no need to critique the argument too tightly here because I think it’s very sloppily made, even though it could be done in an airtight, holistic fashion. The point is simply that there are ways to get around the public education system if one wants to, and I want to, and utilizing free or low-cost curricula offered on the web is likely going to be part of the tool kit for me and many others. The point is to be the change and not wait for permission or for someone else to make a horrible monopoly better.

There are a lot of forceful ethical claims in the book that I think are worth noting:

  • As individuals mature, they must accept greater responsibility for their actions
  • If we want people to believe we are serious (about reforming the world), they must see the consistency in our own lives
  • The statist educators are committed to this principle: parents are not trained nor competent enough to make decisions about their children’s education
  • If parents understood that they are responsible for their children’s education in the same way that they are responsible for their feeding, housing and clothing, we would see far more attention given to the content and structure of educational programs

These are claims I agree with. I think it’s impossible to resolve these things with public education. So we are going to opt out.

One thing I wondered about was starting an alternative (privately funded) school. One problem revealed to me by this book is that in so far as it’s an “institution”, it’s going to get tangled up in a lot of the same problems that plague the public education system controlled by bureaucrats and regulators. Another problem (besides making the economics of it affordable) is that schools and lecture-based education cater to the least common denominator in the class (that is, the slowest student). The other students who are picking up the material quickly are left frustrated by the process. I was one of those students growing up, and it was miserable.

It may be that creating an alternative school is not a practical solution to the problem. It could also be that the alternative school would need to greatly rethink the method of schooling in general to be successful. One thing the author(s) suggest which is a novel idea for me is that the purpose of education is to promote the capability of self-learning. I say this is novel in that I have hovered around this belief for some time and even see it as core to my philosophy of parenting, summarized as follows: parents bring children into the world, without their permission, in a state of total dependence; the process of maturation and growth is a process of increasing independence; the parents’ obligation is to aid the child in the process of learning and self-discovery that will allow them to incrementally gain their complete independence; ideally, the parents’ could provide such an appealing moral example that they could also instill in their child the primary socialization value of interdependence, as well. Therefore, this idea of the purpose of a formal educational program aiming at teaching children how to learn whatever it is they want to learn, makes total sense to me.

If the early part of one’s education is centered on meta-learning (how to read and take in new information, how to think about it analytically, how to synthesize new information and understanding from it, and how to communicate it to others), then there is a point in the curriculum of the student where they can take the initiative in their learning and become self-guided and autodidactic. This principle dovetails with the idea of education as an act of self-discovery. Self-discovery can not occur when the self is incapable of thinking and learning on their own.

The book has some specific suggestions about important elements of such a curriculum:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Public speaking
  • Digital media
  • Academic research
  • Time management
  • Goal-setting
  • Job vs. calling
  • Study habits
  • Mathematics
  • Self-pacing
  • Tutorials

You can see quite clearly that this curriculum is aimed much more at the tools of self-learning, rather than specific values or content within categories like “Art, History, Science” etc. (although the author(s) does suggest that part of the advanced curriculum he offers for older students includes specific content tracks that explore these categories in integrated ways based on the student’s interest). So one idea I got from the book in this regard is that I need to do some research and thinking about the curriculum I will follow with my children, at least early on in their education, to try to best prepare them to become self-learners.

Another interesting idea for an improved school is as a gathering place for tutorial groups of exceptionally talented and motivated students to pursue a kind of “Socratic dialog” based study of a subject, or as a place to be introduced to new or important ideas. The author(s) suggest that the method of lecturing to students to teach them material is outmoded and ineffective (only 10% of the lecture is retained, on average, 3 weeks after it is received, and which 10% varies per pupil). But they suggest that lectures if short and interesting CAN be useful for informing people of a subject they didn’t know existed or for exciting an interest in the usefulness of studying a particular subject, which they could then engage in a course of self-directed learning on their own.

One way to think of how this might apply at an alternative school is that rather than fixed courses with fixed classes and the same teachers droning on, students might pay for individual intro lectures for subjects they’re considering studying, performer by visiting scholars or experts who are actively trying to promote the topic as worthy of study. The school might also have classes which apply a particular methodology for a particular purpose (ie, a Montessori seminar for young students). Finally, as suggested, the school might be a common forum for tutorial groups of excellent students to meet, discuss and coordinate study on a focused topic of inquiry.

There were specific things in the book I also really liked. The author(s) is a big proponent of essay writing as a way of practicing the understanding of specific content one is learning about. The suggestion was for the student to start a blog and write essays or blog posts about what they’re learning, not necessarily a journal but more as a kind of conversation or demonstration of what they think the meaning or import is of what they’ve learned. They also recommend the use of YouTube and other social media to practice these skills, practice conveying ideas, and to interact with others with similar interests. Their specific approach is based around creating “leadership”, which is another important value for me that gives me ideas about how I would want to approach this with my own kids.

I also like that the book emphasizes individuality and reminds the reader that every student is different and part of designing a good educational program means paying attention to their individual needs– again, not an idea that gets much attention in the public system, nor can it.

One thing I thought was bizarre about the book (and the values of most parents in general) is its suggestions on how to make the acquisition of a college degree by homeschooled children affordable and achievable in an accelerated fashion, ie, around age 18. Higher education is largely a scam that wastes time and money and leads to enormous confusion of values and purpose. If you could successfully help a child to gain mastery over their own learning at a young age and watch them develop their own interests and knowledge for an extended period of time, I don’t understand why college (either the acquisition of a degree, or the social experience itself) would be beneficial or interesting for them at that point. What can they get from college that they can’t get on their own pursuing a career, starting a business, etc.? That seemed like a sop suggestion to the parents reading who want to do something radical but aren’t ready to completely intellectually flip out.

With any luck, my children will be holding down part-time jobs and/or entrepreneurially making money WHILE they’re pursuing their youthful education. They’ll come to my business and see and learn what I do and be a part of it or do something else they fancy. There won’t be a sudden point at which they stop being a student and start being a self-paying adult; ideally, they’ll incrementally gain both capabilities at once and continuing their life immersed in self-directed learning, growth and productive gain.

This approach might not be right for everybody, but then, I don’t think public education is right for anybody, so you could certainly do worse.