Welcome to July! On this day 42 years ago, I was preparing to leave Bali to travel to Japan. It was the last month of a year-long trip around the world. That story I’m writing in what I hope will be my next book, a combination of my memory of that extraordinary year and excerpts from my journals from that time. My entry from July 1, 1979 included this:
I’ve been thinking about the inroads to cultural values that language reveals. For example, the word “belum” in Bahasa Indonesian, which translates as “not yet.” This beautifully expresses a state of process, a movement that allows for all possibilities, that acknowledges a flow to our life without fixing things in stone. If you ask someone if they’ve done this or seen that, they never answer “no” because that would feel like a closed door. Their answer “belum” keeps the door to possibility open. For kids in my class who can’t get the folk dance steps right or play the recorder song,, “belum” implies that of course they will get it, it’s just not time yet. “
The teachers amongst the readers might recognize this idea as the brainchild of psychologist Carol Dweck in her book Mindset, published in 2006. When a child says, “I can’t do this!” the teacher reminds him or her to add the life-changing word “yet.” Then both the teacher and the student set to work to figure out what’s needed to transform “not yet” to “now.” The Indonesians were way ahead of Ms. Dweck, but I'm thankful she shined a light on the important idea.
So this got me thinking about all the “new” ideas in education that are simply reincarnations of old ideas given a catchy name, a new vocabulary, a new slick packaging and marketing plan, the training program and the conviction that this is the latest and the greatest and if you don’t get aboard the train, you’ll be left behind on the trip to Progressive Education Town. My own field of Orff Schulwerk echoed a bit of this process, with a few differences. First, Carl Orff was clearly aware of his debt to timeless ideas and practices. He said:
“All my ideas, the ideas of an elemental music education, are not new. It was only given to me to present these old, imperishable ideas in today’s terms, to make them come alive for us. I do not feel like the creator of something new, but more like someone who passes on an old inheritance, like a relay runner who lights his torch at the fires of the past and brings it into the present.”
Secondly, both Orff and his colleague Keetman were drawn into the world of education reluctantly, without ambition, almost resisting the calls that came serendipitously and began watering the plant into bloom. They heeded the call, noted the world’s response and all was set in motion, not as a fixed dogma, but as a continued experiment in elemental music that the two continued for over half a century. That sense of constant experiment, habitual creation and re-creation, disciplined improvisation created a body of work and a practice that is forever renewing itself. Orff writes:
“The elemental remains a foundation that is timeless. The elemental always means a new beginning.”
Finally, the sheer breadth of the Schulwerk, enlarging the very definition of music to include dance, drama, speech, poetry, body percussion, varied instrumental ensembles, folk dance and more guaranteed that each of our multiple intelligences are touched, awakened, strengthened, cultivated long before Howard Gardner ever came up with his theory.
Back to “belum” and “growth mindset.” I think of the countless hours I spent in my school staff meetings with the next “educational breakthrough du jour” that was presented by a guest teacher paid way too much money. All had a good idea or two and a few occasionally found their way into the school’s intuitive teaching practices, but truth be told, most had a brief period of enthusiasm followed by a sharp decline and a return to what we’ve always done. And I believe every single one without exception was describing something already present in our Orff program and often done more effectively and authentically. Without looking anything up, I’m thinking of the Open Classroom, Great Books, Math Our Way, New Games, Cooperative Learning, Tribes, Multicultural Education, Differentiated Instruction, Multiple Intelligences, Social Emotional Learning, Project Zero, Design Thinking, Mindfulness, STEAM and yet more. If you are an Orff teacher, you can most likely say with conviction, “Been there. Done that. Did it better.”
There is nothing wrong with organizing ideas under the umbrella of a title. But from my point of view, the most radical and effective approaches already happened in the first half of this century with visionaries like Montessori, Steiner and Carl Orff. They are the solid banks between which the stream flows on while so many of the above proved to be so much flotsam and jetsam.
Some day we’ll stop grabbing on to clever titles and well-organized packaging and get down to the bedrock of truly effective, dynamic and child-centered education. But as of now, I think we’d have to say “belum.”