(Part III and conclusion to this article)
Complete mastery of precision in technique and conceptual thinking is a lifetime’s work. But one needn’t wait until such mastery to enter the next stage of synthesis. Once the wheels are in motion to practice “relevant techniques and classified ideas,” we are ready for the third stage of Synthesis, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
If schools used to do good precision work and let kids play at recess, in summers and in kindergarten, then synthesis is one stage, with some notable exceptions, that has rarely been well-done. As students ascend in their education and narrow their chosen fields, they move into higher conceptions and yet more precise techniques. They strive for the status of an expert, writing their doctoral thesis on a narrow band of human knowledge—as in my high school history teacher’s thesis on The New York City Fire Department from 1812-1813. They stride out of the University with their PhD tucked confidently under their arm, soon to realize that the world holds little interest in those years of the fire department and real life asks for a different kind of knowledge.
Perhaps the University thinking is that life and job experience after graduation will create an automatic context for synthesis. The poet David Whyte speaks of studying marine biology and going to work in the Galapagos Islands. Out in the field observing the wildlife, he was shocked to realize that the animals hadn’t read the textbook. Now all the knowledge from books, useful up to a point, had to be synthesized into a living, breathing model of the world actually at play.
And so the doctor who has studied the classroom case studies now has to apply that knowledge to real human beings, always much more complex than the textbook models. The architect student is no longer designing models, but real buildings that people will inhabit in real places with drainage issues or shaky foundations. The engineer is helping build real bridges that she herself may drive over and the MBA graduate may open a real store competing with others in the marketplace. And all of these starry-eyes graduates will be dealing with patients who have feelings about their diseases, clients who change their mind about the kitchen design, customers who return their purchase to the store.
All of this is as it should be—school as a safe and sheltered preparation and then the real deal. And often a transition period of apprenticeship in-between, one of our best education practices.
Though schools as we know them are relatively recent in human history, apprenticeship has been the learning model of choice for quite a long time. The beauty of this model is that theory and practice are wedded from the beginning, the relationship between master and student is central to the learning and the natural mode of imitating those further down the path is honored. The apprentice and the master are also firmly in the flow of the living, breathing community.
School, by contrast, is a thing apart, a kind of monastic institution where the young scholars are taken out of the fray to concentrate their efforts free from having to harvest their food, cook their meals and wash the dishes. At its highest level, it becomes an “ivory tower,” a precious kind of place where the scholars rise above the dust of the world to get the large view and then re-enter it armed with specialized knowledge.
I was quite fortunate to go to a college that recognized the importance of an ongoing conversation between seclusion and involvement. From its inception, Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio structured its curriculum and time so that students both studied in the classroom and apprenticed themselves out in the field. By the time I entered in the late ’60’s, there were two divisions of students. While one group was on campus for three months, the others were out working in jobs arranged by the “co-op department” in all corners of the country. And so we alternated, three months working, three months studying, a practical, exciting and effective arrangement. In my own field of education, I had worked in a Summerhill school in Maine, an alternative public high school in Hartford, an elite private elementary school in Manhattan and a Quaker boarding middle school in the North Carolina mountains. When I graduated, I had taken the usual Child Development and Educational Methods classes, but also had these rich experiences with different ages and different philosophies in different parts of the country, helping bring all the theory down to the ground of actual practice in diverse situations.
Antioch was unique in this conception (though a few other schools adopted similar models), but we find that some professions recognize the wisdom of giving young students the chance to synthesize their learning in controlled working situations. All teacher-degree programs require some student teaching under the guidance of a mentor teacher, law schools send their students off as legal assistants in the summers and of course, medical schools have a highly-developed system of internship.
Five years ago, I began an Intern Program in the school where I teach. Now all the practices that teachers in our training courses experienced first hand, all the reflection they did and the books they read were ready to meet the real world of teaching kids in a school. Because the program is over 40 years old, because it features an 11-year curriculum from ages 3 to 11, because I continue to teach in this program I founded in 1975 and have enjoyed the rare experience of sharing it with two brilliant colleagues, James Harding and Sofia Lopez-Ibor during the last 20 plus years and because the program is essential to the character and identity of the school, this is an extraordinary opportunity for teachers to polish their training. It begins with observation, discussion, small participation, teaching parts of classes and ends with teaching a full unit under the supervision of the master teachers, with useful feedback and reflection each step of the way. All of this is education at its best.
The Whole Cycle
Synthesis as Whitehead describes it is more than just combining theory and practice—it is the place where play and work meet, where understanding is raised to new heights and rooted in new depths through the creative act. The true “final exam” in any unit is not the test that asks students to review and spit back the accumulated information. This is an important step (see the next chapter), but can be a kind of a game that those students with good short-terms memories will win. But when students create something new—the Science Fair experiment, the Travel Fair presentation, the Living History interviews, the poetry collection, music composition, dance choreography, finished work of art or dramatic performance—that’s when the information is most firmly embedded, most actively utilized and synthesized, most memorable. That is the final exam that completes (temporarily) the full cycle of learning.
When we look at this cycle in the big picture of child development, Romance is the
period from birth to seven (roughly the "runnin' around" phase or until the milk teeth begin to fall out). Precision is in the foreground between seven and fourteen (the elementary/middle school years ending when all the permanent teeth are in), the time to learn the details of the curriculum, the basic procedures of decoding written language, math operations, instrumental techniques and more. Precision training continues at higher levels in the third stage, from fourteen to twenty-one (the high school/college years), but new questions are generated that promote further inquiry, group the particulars of information in the larger context of theory and ideas, and actively inform practice.
All of this follows the way our brains naturally evolve and there is great wisdom in following their contour. I often give the example of the baby’s babbling in their first exploration of vocal sounds (Romance), teenagers practicing jazz scat-singing riffs over II-V-I chords (Precision) and then Bobby McFerrin playing at the far end of vocal expression with the energy and delight of the beginner and the chops and understandings of the expert (Synthesis).
But useful as these seven-year stages are, keep in mind that all three stages can be present in their micro-form as well in a unit as small as a 45 minute lesson. Begin a class playing around with an idea or skill, then teach a concrete concept or technique, then invite the students to create something new from what they’ve learned.
To summarize: All three stages are necessary to a complete education and in the order they appear. Romance, Precision and Synthesis are the nouns, Play, Work and Create are the verbs. Play first, mess around, explore. Work with the details of concepts, procedures, techniques. Create something new from the synthesis of your play and work.
Simple enough to say and understand, but difficult to do. All of it demands an artful approach to teaching, with the teacher shifting as needed from the “guide on the side” to the “sage on the sage” to the colleague that will “sing in the ring” side-by-side with the students. If the children are lucky enough to go to a school that understands the need for all three stages each and every day, they will come home dirty from play, ready to work out a few quadratic equations— and then write a poem about it all! And if that comes to pass, they may have an erudite Harvard scholar named Alfred North Whitehead and an obscure author named Robert Paul Smith to thank.