(Continued from the previous blog)
It was in a little book by Alfred North Whitehead titled The Aims of Education that the whole matter of balancing play and work in schools becomes clearer. Published in 1929, the end of the decade celebrated in Robert Paul Smith's book, Whitehead, an esteemed mathematician and philosopher, presents some articulate and lucid ideas about education that put all the clever "new techniques" of today’s educational writers to shame. In a chapter titled "The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline," he speaks of a threefold cycle in the learning process and here we find guidance in how to navigate the treacherous waters of freedom and discipline without hitting the rocks of either shore.
Whitehead begins by questioning the notion that mental growth is a steady, ascending line from page one of Book I to the graduate exam. He observes that "life is essentially periodic...there are periods of mental growth, with their cyclic reoccurrences...Lack of attention to the rhythm and character of mental growth is a main source of wooden futility in education." He defines three basic stages of mental growth, each with its unique character and special needs.
The first of these stages he calls The Stage of Romance. Whitehead begins from the premise that is our very nature to try to make sense of the world. We want to know what things are, how they work and why they are. Just by virtue of being alive, we are buzzing with curiosity. The job of education, according to Whitehead, is a "setting in order of a ferment already stirring in the mind." The Stage of Romance is our first encounter with material, whether that material be a sound on a drum skin, the scuttling of a sand crab or the fall of an S-shaped curve of dominoes. It is characterized by possibility, wonder and excitement. Its primary mode is play, particularly the kind of play we have already described as "running around." It is the time to generate the questions, to conjecture the hypothesis, to begin to experiment, free from pressure to obtain pre-determined results.
We proceed from the free exploration in the first stage to the systematic procedure in the second—The Stage of Precision. "In this stage, width of relationship is subordinated to exactness of formulation. It is the stage of grammar, the grammar of language and the grammar of science…This stage is dominated by the inescapable fact that there are right and wrong ways, and definite truths to be known." Analysis, drill, information-gathering become essential and here we enter the arena of work, specifically schoolwork. The sequential curriculum, differentiated subject matter, textbooks, tests, mental and physical techniques, scientific procedures all make their home in this phase of the learning process.
The final stage, The Stage of Generalization (also called Synthesis, a word I prefer),
"is a return to romanticism with the added advantage of classified ideas and relevant technique. " Whitehead calls it the fruition of precise training, the completion of the two previous cycles in which play and work, love and duty, romance and precision are reunited higher up in the spiral of growth.
In the school of readin', 'riting,' and 'ritmetic, stage two has a long history of tried-and-true techniques and it is stage one that is the most neglected. Whitehead remarks: "It is evident that a stage of precision is barren without a previous stage of romance; unless there are facts which have been vaguely apprehended in their broad generality, the previous analysis is an analysis of nothing."
In the "old days" of "runnin' around," children mostly entered school armed with the gifts from five years of romance. Though rough around the edges, counting marbles, conversing around the dinner table, jumping rope and playing clapping games, catching frogs, all gave a reasonable foundation in math, language, music, science and more. Kindergarten was the transition zone where the warmth of the family-feeling and ease and freshness of the neighborhood approach enticed the children into the school building. With minimum demands of schedule beyond nap and story time and maximum invitation to play—finger paints, dress-up, tricycles, building blocks—the old-style kindergarten was one last chance to truly fool around before hit with the work of pencil and paper.
All that has changed radically in the last fifty years. Children rarely come to school anymore with the same foundation of romance. Their hurried lives are scheduled brutally early, their opportunities for free, open-ended play with a healthy dose of boredom are short-circuited by a constant stream of electronic sensation and the tradition of family conversation around the dinner table is rapidly disappearing. As Neil Postman’s book The Disappearance of Childhood so eloquently pointed out, the very concept of childhood is threatened—children are entering kindergarten already cynical, loyal to their consumer product and with posters of rock stars on their walls. When they do enter kindergarten, they find a modified first-grade. They may be more likely to sit at a computer in a cubicle than at a round table with a bunch of other kids and play-dough. Veteran teachers notice the decline in readiness and every year, education becomes more and more remedial work.
Though it's tempting to yearn for "the good old days" of education, a moment's reflection makes it clear that they never existed. (As Will Rogers quipped, “Schools ain’t what they used to be and never was.”) Many brilliant children fell into the gap between romance and precision and never quite got out. Many were victimized by the notion that sufficient interest could be aroused by the switch of a hickory stick—school as a shotgun wedding. The problem of our times is different, but equally—and possible more—damaging. Many children today get neither the gifts of romance in the family and neighborhood nor the benefits of precision in the school. One place to look for direction is "the good old days" of educational thinking. And so we return to Whitehead.
Romance in the Schools
Since we can no longer count on five years of unstructured (or more accurately, kid-structured) play before school begins, we now have the responsibility of bringing romance into the preschool—and keeping it alive all the way through college. And that means more than just restoring kindergarten to its former majesty, complete with fingerpaints, storytime and rampant play. Romance must be present throughout the entire school adventure, with teacher-directed lessons in the classroom that leave space for it to enter.
All learning needs a period—anywhere from five minutes to several years—of “messing around,” of freely exploring and playing with objects, sounds, images, motions, ideas, a time of no right and wrong answers. Witness the baby babbling her way into speech, falling his way into walking. Indeed, if school learning were applied to teaching infants the two hardest tasks of the human experiment—two-legged mobility and language—we would have a generation of mute cripples. Imagine the one-year reprimanded for not articulating “cookie” properly or for incorrect grammar in his first sentence—“Me want cookie.” Imagine the toddler punished for each time she fell down in taking her first steps. The preschooler shamed for his tower of blocks falling down or making ungraceful swoops with his imaginary airplane or graded compared to his neighbor in his first drawing with crayons. You get the idea. Within certain margins of safety, children need to try things out without judgment or fear of failure or having to measure up to someone else’s fantasy of excellence.
Recess and “free-choice time” in the class are two places that schools allow for such unstructured play. But teachers can also artfully create opportunities within their lesson plan. Before diving into a poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins, take some time to freely explore alliteration, scat-speaking explosive p’s and sharp k’s and breathy w’s, coming up with strings of playfully percussive poetic probings or cute contrived connected conundrums or whispered whats, whys and wherefores. Before learning the details of basketball dribbling techniques, throw the balls out on the court and let the kids bounce them to their heart’s content. Before delving into pattern permutations, set out the Cuisenairre rods and watch what happens. Before teaching the ensemble piece, leave the kids alone with mallets and xylophones and watch—and listen to—what happens.
With some careful forethought, you can lead children through the door of discovery to the next stage of precision. For example, if I want to teach drum technique, I might first ask the children to find as many different sounds on their drum as they can. After a time, they choose three of the best and play their first name, last name and birthday using each of the three sounds. They then share what they discovered one at a time and the others try each pattern out. More often than not, children will have stumbled on the very technique you want to teach them, but now with more sense of ownership and excitement. They’re now ready for the stage of precision.
Precision in the Schools
Having taught both teachers and students throughout Europe, I have a sense of the contemporary education system of various countries. From my point of view, Europe has much to learn from the progressive education movement and the wisdom of folding Romance into the program. In my own field of music education, Carl Orff developed his groundbreaking ideas in southern Germany, but because he tapped into some universal truths of all times and places, the seeds of his thought and practice traveled far and wide, flourishing today in countries as distant as South Africa, Iceland, China and Brazil. And yet one place where they have failed to make an impact in schools is Germany! European education (keeping in mind that there is great variety from country to country and also within each country) as a whole seems locked into an old system that cares more for the curriculum than the child, tracks kids much too early in their development, puts children in competition with each other and slavishly maintains the old hierarchy of desks in rows and teacher at the head in a strict non-nonsense atmosphere that can be summarized as “Sit down, be quiet and get to work!” (See the movie The Class for an excellent example of how the system fails to support or give guidance to a teacher’s stumbling efforts to reach his students.)
Yet for all these things worthy of critique, there is one quality I admire greatly. European children are well-educated in the old sense of the term. That is, they know a lot about a lot of things—they speak at least two languages, have a highly-developed sense of history, show good penmanship, spelling and grammar, exhibit strong math skills and have more than a passing acquaintance with the master philosophers, thinkers, artists, musicians without worrying about them all being “dead, white males.” They are also surrounded by the history they study, stepping out of the school doors into towns and
cities filled with museums, beautiful buildings, historical monuments, breathtaking churches, classical music concerts and more. In short, their education is rigorous, thorough in precise techniques and classical ideas and supported by the surrounding culture.
Meanwhile, their American counterparts are more likely to feel good about themselves, but less likely to know things. They may or may not study cursive in schools, will care more about creative expression that spelling or grammar, will know little about world history and not much more about American history. Their math scores have been down for decades and very few Americans speak more than one language—and even their native tongue, they often speak badly. (Indeed, it was a national embarrassment, to say the least, to have our former president travel to foreign countries where the foreign dignitaries he met spoke English better than he did.) Outside of school, they drive down Strip Mall, Everywhere, USA and shop at giant, fluorescently lit mega-stores in ugly buildings. They will have little cultural exposure to European classical music and not much more to our illustrious American jazz tradition—indeed, most Europeans I meet know more about jazz than Americans.
Precision has been the stage that schools—both American and European, and now Asian, African, South American and Australian as well—have been most concerned with and as we seek to balance the ratio of the stages of learning, we should be careful not to lower the standards of one stage at the expense of the other. Indeed, some of the blame for the loss of precision is often laid at the feet of Progressive Education and not without good cause. In trying to air out the room, the windows were sometimes thrown open too high and the papers and pencils were blown from their desks. Whitehead is clear about the need for precision and its power. And so are children, who love to play in the dirt, but also love to know precisely how things work and how to do things well. Precision without the preparation of Romance is painful, but when it comes just at the right moment, it is a thing of beauty.
In my music program, I am adamant that the first three years of music education in my school (from three through five years old) be exploratory, in the body and voice, based on children’s games, rhymes, songs, dances and all the ways that children can make music directly, expressively and joyfully. To begin with reading music, as I did in my own dismal music education, is a travesty and a crime against the musical promise of children. Not because it’s bad to read music—what’s bad is introducing it at the wrong time, violating the rule of sound before symbol.
Somewhere around first grade, I begin to introduce symbolic notation, again, coming in through a concrete and somewhat whimsical approach of showing different rhythmic values with cups of different colors and sizes. The kids who have started to break the code of reading and are excited by the power of the written word are often the same kids who light up to realize that rhythm can be represented symbolically, that patterns can be stored and remembered through notation and that music can be played simply by reading someone’s score. But those who aren’t quite there developmentally start looking longingly out the window at the preschoolers playing in the yard. They will have the same excitement in a year or two—they simply aren’t quite ready yet. How do I know? By observing their level of involvement, the twinkle (or lack thereof) in their eyes.
Indeed, here is where the art of teaching comes to the fore, noting when children are ready for precision, when they need more time for exploration. And often the two can be together in the same lesson in appropriate doses. Indeed, the whole power of this idea is that Romance without Precision to complete it is impotent to reach its full promise. We will never have heard of a famous jazz player who has a good intuitive sense of music and improvisation, but isn’t willing to work on the technique and theory—he or she simply would never make it to the jazz club stage. Likewise, Precision without Romance, or without sufficient Romance to prepare it, is dull and mechanical. The jazz player with dazzling technique and all correct scales, but without any Soul or playfulness, is likewise not someone we probably have heard or gotten to know.
It is in the marriage of Romance and Precision where the finest work is born and that leads us to the third stage of Synthesis.
(Part III, the conclusion, in the next blog)