I discovered a gem of a book, written by a developmental psychologist, with children in the school district, who served on the school board for nine years in NJ. "Reclaiming Childhood; Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society, William Crain Henry Holt, and co.”
This book was published in 2003 and its’ message is even more urgent today. He thoughtfully lays out the back ground of theory regarding childhood development and then debates the child-centered approach to education vs the standards approach to education. This debate, presented by someone with a ringside seat for policy making and parenting, who in fact wrote the textbook on childhood development (2) is an invaluable cross-roads of theory and application with real life outcomes.
this perspective, William Crain saw how far away from child directed learning
our obsession with the future is pulling us almost 15 years ago. He also saw
how the standards movement was robbing our children of the engrossing
experiences and quiet reflection that independent critical thinking requires.
With an eye to what the past and present have relinquished to the quest of
dominating the future, he calls out like Rousseau; who opposed feudal authority
and questioned the new faith in progress. In Rousseau's view, the forward march
of civilization was making things worse, not better. People were losing their
ability to fend for and think for themselves.
The beginning of this book is a clearly written and entertaining overview of the development of the early years of the child. "In an age when high-stakes testing and high-stress lives dominate the headlines, William Crain reminds us evocatively of a precious, irreplaceable time- the 100,000 hours of childhood."-Howard Gardener.
Crain lays out the early years of child-centered parenting. Full chapters include; The Child as Dramatist, Naturalist, Artist, Poet, Linguist; what it looks like and how to enhance the unfolding child in their natural growth. I will highlight these chapters in another blog post. These areas of interest well up from within the child and spark them passionately. Engaging with this light from within enhances physical as well as intellectual growth; organically building the human instrument. "Young children's enthusiasms are for running, climbing, jumping, drawing, water play, exploring nature and make-believe play. This enthusiasm comes from the children themselves. The activities seem to enable them to actualize their growth" -Crain. I believe this is the body tuning itself, becoming itself, sensory integration, personality expression, the guiding vicissitudes of temperament. To interrupt this pre-ordained timeline is to fundamentally interrupt what it is to become a human being, to shortchange enjoyment of mastery of one's instrument.
Children enter the world with an inborn growth schedule that is the product of several million years of biological evolution says Arnold Gesell's theory of biological maturation. The child's developing instrument is truly a wonder. Their developing nervous system a wonder of; biology, changing perceptions, and the time line of human inheritances. To understand this development is to truly understand the layers of being human. Thus, parents watch for children's spontaneous interests and give the child opportunities to pursue them.
Howard Gardener has shown that "between the ages of 3 and 8, children are naturally motivated to develop their bodies and senses, the artistic side of their personalities. Young children love to sing, dance, draw, make up poems, and engage in dramatic play." (1) I would say the art of being human.
John Dewey, the first proponent of Project Based Learning said, "I believe that interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power. I believe they represent dawning capacities" (1) pg 169 I agree that the interests provide a spark for engagement which signify intellectual development.
Dr. Stanley Greenspan takes it to the next level taking into account the "uniqueness of each child. A child's experience in large part determines what she learns. To facilitate learning and appropriate mental growth, experiences must be tailored to the child's 'individually different' central nervous system." A full childhood is biologically driven to attain a mature nervous system and with it full unique capacities.
"The educator tries to see what capacities the child herself feels a deep urge to master, and then tries to give the child opportunities to do so."-Crain (1) "For the child-centered educator, tasks are arranged to meet each child's developing needs- not some uniform, pre-determined schedule."- Crain (1) p 159
"In the child-centered view, nothing is more important than this spontaneous enthusiasm for learning. It drives intellectual development. When children are engrossed in task, they think deeply and fully and their minds expand. It is therefore a great tragedy that conventional schools do so little to stimulate this enthusiasm for learning."- Crain (1)
Child centered learning allows the child to become what he will. "It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and forordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret." Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Children develop at different rates and possess unique temperaments talents, and interests. Our task is to help the child develop his or her own emerging capacities. Whether they fit our goals or not."(1)pg 156
The developing autonomy of the child is the most important goal of the child centered educator. "Montessori wanted to promote independent learning. She never wanted children to have to turn to adults for assistance or supervision. The child relied upon her unique perceptions of reality to answer questions." Montessori's focus was to 'control' the environment, not control the thoughts of children. She sought to enhance the discovery process but not push it in a certain direction. "Kamii, a Piagetian constructivist recommends that teachers even respect children's wrong answers. For it is better for children to make mistakes than to believe that they must turn to an adult to know what is correct." (1) pg 162
constructivist norm follows Rouseau's earlier observations explained here by
Crain. "Rousseau put forth that overly difficult instruction undermine's a
childs independence. When, to take a contemporary example, we assign a math
problem that is too difficult for her, she has no recourse but to turn to a
more knowledgeable person or to the back of the book to see if she got the
right answer. And because she doesn't fully understand the solution, she must
accept on faith whatever the 'smarter' person or the book says is true. She
learns to depend on external authority rather than to think for herself."(1) p 161 -Crain Independence of thought
and development of critically thinking should be the goal of educating, not
Crain, a developmentally psychologists bemoans that " Today's schools pay no attention to the development sequence." If the job of schools is to enhance development, why is it not being informed by how a child naturally develops? To ignore the biology of human development is to not honor the child; nor enhance their discovery, enthusiasms and capacities.
In the Standards Curriculum, the high stakes testing that 'holds teachers accountable' also prevents teachers from teaching to the needs of her students. "Teachers can no longer make many judgements about tasks and activities students need. The loss of flexibility is especially damaging to the child-centered education. Child-centered teachers need the freedom to assess children's interests and provide tasks on which children will work with energy and enthusiasm. But with high-stakes tests on the horizon, teachers must put engrossing activities aside. This preparation usually consists of drills and exercises that children find extremely tedious. Test-driven education undermines the child's love of learning." (1) Crain pg 164
Standards based rely on external punishments and reward. "Parents must push children to work harder for the sake of their future. Adults must be able to convince children that their schoolwork has real consequences. Otherwise, says economist and standards advocate James Rosenbaum, adults will be "like lion-tamers without a whip."(1) Crain pg 160
If coercion is the primary motivator, it is fundamentally disrespectful of a child's own enthusiasms. Keeping the child in check and not allowing the blossoming of capacities emblazoned by passions, and fed by physical energies. The developing human spirit coupled with the dawning intellect is being held in check.
Children learn through their bodies, their eyes, their ears, movement, music. Children learn with joy when they are allowed to. "Testing preparation typically requires textbook instruction that drains the youngster of cognitive energy." (1)
Children learn joyfully partaking in a project; building a dog house, baking a cake, sewing a costume, growing a garden. These experiences give context to the information, the measurements, the words, the symbols that children are to synthesize. But without project based learning, the symbols are unhinged from the content, meaning and knowledge are lost. "High stakes testing makes even the possibility of projects based learning impossible. What's more, as the standards movement keeps pressing for more advanced instruction, students increasingly struggle with material they only half understand. They must memorize the answers that authorities say are correct rather than making their own discoveries and figuring out problems on their own. Finally, the test itself often produces feelings of chronic fear and dread. To anyone who believes that there should be joy and excitement in learning, test driven education is a disaster"-(1) Crain pg 166 And he observed this long before NCLB was being debated never mind implemented.
Diane Ravitch, Former Assistant of Education who helped to champion the 'standards' reform has repudiated the position she once so staunchly advocated. "In my travels over the past two years, I have seen the wreckage caused by NCLB. It has become the Death Star of American education. It is a law that inflicts damage on students, teachers, schools, and communities."
She continues in another interview: "NCLB cannot be fixed. It has failed. It has imposed a sterile and mean-spirited regime on the schools. It represents the dead hand of conformity and regulation from afar. It is time to abandon the status quo of test-based accountability and seek fresh and innovative thinking to support and strengthen our nation's schools." She has indeed written a book entitled, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education." NY, Basic Books, 2010. And yet NCLB is not dead yet and will take a long time to undue the damage it has inflicted.
I believe William Crain's "Reclaiming Childhood' makes the case for where to turn for this fresh innovative thinking. He turns to the well-spring of enthusiasm within the children themselves, Child-Directed Learning. This is, of course, if the collective goal of education is to bring out the full capacities of children, so that they may participate fully in civil society, and contribute to the common good. The participation in society that requires communication, debate, fully vetted public opinion, and political action that democracy requires.
Dr. Crain speaks for the developmentally appropriate child-led learning. "Rational goal-directed modes of thinking are valuable but so too is the child- like delight in the world as it unfolds before us. To devalue the childhood experiences is to short change thinking itself." (1)
child is learning about his world using his entire instrument, checking
observations, recording cause and effect. They work on problems in a holistic
fashion and they need time to process these experiences.
"Children need stretches of unhurried time to create imaginary dramas, to draw or compose poems, to wander alongside a brook, seeing what they can find. Indeed, children need the opportunity to get in touch with nature's own rhythms as when a child sits in a day dreamy state by a pond, feeling a oneness with the water. In the Berkeley schoolyard, the children said that the nature area invited them to sit quietly, listen to the birds, look at the trees, and just think. What the children thought about we do not know. My guess is that they sometimes thought about their personal problems, and these problems seemed smaller in the context of the beautiful and intricate web of life surrounding them. In any case, just sitting and thinking was calming and helpful, and the thinking required unhurried time." (1) pg 152 A bucolic notion in this modern world, it may seem. But now it is rapidly becoming an unanswered biological imperative, if we are to develop the next leaders of the human race.
John Holt also advocated for the full development of children in body, spirit, and intellect. "No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. A person's freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us."-John Holt
also believed that an educated child should have full use of his capacities to
bring to the democratic commons and participate fully in the democratic process
of communication, debate, and political action. Independent thought based
on individual perceptions of reality are balanced within this democracy in
Dewey asserted that complete democracy was to be obtained not just by extending voting rights but also by ensuring that there exists a fully formed public opinion accomplished by effective communication among citizens, experts, and politicians, with the latter being accountable for the policies they adopt. In his eyes, the purpose of education should not revolve around the acquisition of a pre-determined set of skills, but rather the realization of one’s full potential and the ability to use those skills for the greater good. He notes that "to prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means to train him so that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities" (1897, p. 6).My pedagogic creed.
I am beginning to be of the opinion that the NCLB has perverted this notion of full and ready use of capacities. That by pushing children along to showcase their incompetence is a way to make the authority figure loom larger as the only one who is informed. High school students are barely reading at a fifth grade level, well below what an informed electorate needs to engage in public debate.
If freedom of thought is truly the bedrock of democracy than it should start with a child's freedom to discover for himself the wonders of the world. To defend the 100,000 hours of childhood, when a child is honing their physical instrument and allowing for changing perceptions that developing maturity requires. Developmentally appropriate does not mean we are losing the global initiative race to the top. It means we are building a foundation of human capital that may think in disciplined and creative ways to solve the problems that lay before them. Critical thinking, problem solving, and clear observations of reality are what the future requires. Why are we educating them for the opposite of this?
Noam Chomsky posted an article just last week in which he argued the public school is 'Failure By Design";"Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that political leaders call for popular education because they fear that "This country is filling up with thousands and millions of voters, and you must educate them to keep them from our throats." But educated the right way: Limit their perspectives and understanding, discourage free and independent thought, and train them for obedience."A chilling assessment of the legacy of NCLB and defunding public universities.
(1) "Reclaiming Childhood; Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society, William Crain Henry Holt, and co.".(2) "Theories and Devolopment: Concepts and Applications, William Crain (Prentice-