Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Interview with Daniel Pink on the Conceptual Age and Waldorf Schools

Daniel Pink is a horizontal thinker. He has had his hand in business, government, law, and writing among other things. He worked with U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich and was formerly chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. He is a contributing editor of Wired magazine and an independent business consultant as well as a best-selling author who chronicles the changing of the work world. In his book "A Whole New Mind," Pink argues that right-brained thinking will dominate and drive the new economy. It will no longer be enough to rely on left-brained thinking alone. He describes the Conceptual Age as the newest phase of the modern economy in which we will need to develop and incorporate the six senses of design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning for success.

Recently, I caught up with him to talk about what kinds of schools are helping their students prepare for the dawning of the Conceptual Age and how they are doing it. Following are excerpts from that interview.

How can schools improve performance through the arts?

It starts with realizing that arts education is fundamental, not ornamental. We urgently need people to think like artists. This is especially important in the work place, where everything is abundant, automated, or made in Asia more cheaply than it is here. Creativity, design and the arts will be the way to prosper and succeed in the new economy. The arts are also a way to help people reach their potential and find their element.

How can teachers use the arts as a tool to teach?

The arts in education enables teachers to explore subjects in a way that can be better understood and inter-related. History, math, science and any other subject can be taught through the arts in a way that brings them to life. The arts provide a way to connect subjects, as they are in the real world.

How do Waldorf schools fit with the dawning of the Conceptual Age?

Waldorf schools get the idea that the arts are fundamental, not ornamental. They focus on the unit of the child, not the school as an institution. They customize education for each child. Waldorf promotes autonomy and self-direction, whereas most schools actively squelch those qualities in favor of compliance, which seems to be the most important value. The irony is that compliance is much harder to achieve and it is less important in the work world.

I think Waldorf schools are very much in synch with the notion of Conceptual Age and the ideas of “A Whole New Mind”. They foster internal motivation in students, as well as mastery and persistence. They teach the habits of the heart that children need to do well in life after school.

Can you identify any education system specifically that integrates daily art into its curriculum?

Waldorf does it. Montessori does it. There are some art and design charter schools that do it well. There is an art-centered elementary school in Maryland near where I live that does a good job of it. The teachers and principals in these schools understand the necessity of the arts in education. We are not talking about replacing math with art! We are talking about bringing out math more strongly through art. The arts train people to become horizontal thinkers who can make connections. We need to rethink this whole notion of frog-marching kids from one isolated subject to another. The world does not work that way and we are doing kids a disservice to train them that subjects are separate and unrelated before they get out into the work world. The world has very porous borders and is a tangle of interconnections. Schools should be preparing them for that.

What kinds of kinds of programs or features should parents be looking for when exploring school options for their children, be it pre-school or secondary grades?

It really depends on the kid. There isn’t a formula for this, but it is not the one-size fits all approach that we have. Figure out what is engaging for your child, what he likes and is good at and pursue that.

I think the schools have a tremendous burden on them. They can’t do everything that is expected of them from parents and the government. They can’t be all things to all people. Schools are expected to teach academics, provide healthcare, nutrition, and sex education. They are supposed to build character and morals and even participate in community service. The burdens on our schools are outrageous. Parents have to share some of the load or it will collapse.

How can parents help to improve a child’s opportunities for success in the Conceptual Age?

Pay attention to what your child likes to do and is good at and give him plenty of opportunities to follow his interests toward mastery. We want them to be intrinsically motivated and to be persistent. There is a process of discovery in trying out new things: sports, music, theater, etc and parents are great coaches and facilitators in this self-discovery. Through any of these activities, kids learn valuable skills of collaboration, teamwork, persistence, and mastery. We should not be forcing them to learn a musical instrument or play a team sport if they are not interested.

If a school only devotes thirty minutes a day to creativity, what would be the most beneficial activities they could engage in with their students?

The students should sit down and write letters to their principal asking why they only have thirty minutes a day for creativity! That is not useful! We shouldn’t be having separate, isolated time for creativity and then tell them, “stop thinking creatively because now it is time for the real learning, time for math”. The idea is to master skills and content, become curious and engaged. Compartmentalizing is not going to help them achieve this; it is contrary to it.

For more on Daniel Pink, go to www.danielpink.com
To learn more on Waldorf Schools, go to http://www.whywaldorfworks.org/

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Laughing Coyote Project

Recently I interviewed Neal Ritter and Gelsey Malferrari of the Laughing Coyote Project, which is a nature immersion experience for students from 5-14. The acres for learning, exploration, play, animals and plants are based in Lafayette, Colorado. They have programs for home-schooled children, an after school program, as well as summer day camps.

How did you come up with the idea for Laughing Coyote?

Immersion in nature is something we have both been interested in, and a part of our own individual studies, including time in Central and South America. It is very much inspired by Tom Brown Jr.’s work, teaching ancestral skills, and building a stronger connection with nature.

What is the goal of the project?

The goal here is to make kids comfortable in nature and to give them a sense of intimacy with the outside world. We also want to involve parents and the community to make a cultural change. We want to provide unstructured time for exploration, providing an opportunity to get fully immersed and dirty in the outdoors, and to teach skills we used to have, like animal tracking, identifying wild edible plants, animal husbandry, and gardening, among other things.

You both are Waldorf graduates - how does your educational background inform your work here and how does it help you in life in general?

We try to look at the world with a broader prospective and to question things. Not rebel, but to ask and ponder, rather than accept without curiosity or examination. We have a strong sense of reverence for nature, respect for others, and good imaginations. We value experiences and foster that value in the students that come here – and they love it.

Rudolf Steiner, who created the Waldorf School model, also started the biodynamic gardening movement. You have a biodynamic farm. What is the difference between organic and biodynamic?

It actually takes four years for a farm or garden to go through a biodynamic cycle. There is a biodynamic certification, but we are not focused on that. Organic means that there are no artificial inputs, but it can still be a monoculture (a single plant on the whole property), industrial in size and scope, and fertilizers and pesticides can be used as long as they are organic and not petroleum-based. With biodynamic farming, the aim is sustainability and a complete eco-system. It is a closed circle in that you do not need anything from outside, everything you need is part of your farm. The manure from your animals is the fertilizer. The seeds you use to plant come from your garden. There is emphasis on observation and awareness to correct any problems on the farm, rather than external additions. It is what people have done for thousands of years. They knew from experience and awareness when to plant and how.

How is this different from the Outward Bound programs?

Those programs tend to be about survival with the right kind of gear and they are every goal-oriented. Our program is indigenous in its approach. It’s not about the gear; it is about identification of plants and animals, awareness, and ability to survive without so much gear but with applying knowledge. Our program is purposefully much less structured and the satisfaction is found in the process, not the end product. Kids have so much structure in their day and they really do well with unstructured time for exploration.

What can families do with their children to encourage a love and knowledge of nature?

Be unstructured and skip the goal. If you are planning on going for a hike, think of it more as a long, deep exploration rather than about distance and time. Let the kids lead you in exploring – you may only cover 100 yards in three hours but they will be utterly engrossed in the experience and you can be too. Go off trail when it is possible and not harmful. That is where you see and experience interesting things.

How does gardening or nature provide a balance to children and adults alike?

It is only in the last several decades that we have become so divorced from nature, and now we take it for granted that it has always been this way. Nature is part of our blue print. We wanted to bring that awareness and connection back. There is something deeply satisfying about being comfortable in nature. There is an initiation of sorts at first, because TV and video is hard to compete with. It takes awhile to get quiet and immersed before you begin to feel that satisfaction that no amount of media can provide.

Your summer camp programs offer weekly programs for 8-14 year old children. Describe a day in the life of a summer camper at Laughing Coyote.

We begin the day in an intentional way by sitting in the circle together and giving thanks. There is a rhythm to the day, but not so much structure. They learn tracking, and how to forage for wild edibles, we have creek time where we go tubing, playing in the mud and swinging into the water from the tree swing. We have a tree fort and lots of fields to explore. We play outdoor games, take care of the animals, and do nature-based art projects, like pine needle baskets, medicine sticks, and creating and painting with our own pigments. The students walk away with a breadth of new skills and understanding about nature.

You can learn more about the Laughing Coyote Project and their programs at www.laughingcoyoteproject.org

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Factory Farms and Factory Schools Share Similar Goals

I just read a debate about whether charter schools in general are bad or good for the public schools and urban children. It seems that it helps the urban children who attend them for the most part. It was deemed bad for the public schools as a whole, though, because the best, most motivated students with the parents that are involved have left the traditional public school setting and left only the troubled, struggling students whose parents do not have the time, resources or will to attend to their children’s education. It seemed, then that the argument was that charter schools are really not in the best interest of the public good.

As a former traditional public school teacher, I can see the validity and truth of this perspective, though I can’t help thinking that the individual students that are better served in a charter school setting should not sacrifice their shot at a quality education for the betterment of those in the traditional schools. Their very presence, their parents’ involvement and the dollars that stay with them in the public school may indeed bolster a traditional urban school’s general performance, but at what cost to that student? Do other students really benefit if a student stays in the traditional urban setting to suffer a mediocre education? Or does it just make it easier on the teachers and the administrators if they stay? The standardized test scores and attendance rates are indeed improved if they stay, but can we really ask a promising, well-behaving student with motivated parents to stay for the purposes of bettering the schools numbers and making life easier for the staff? I don’t think that is a fair argument for that student and his family and we do our nation no favors thinking this way.

All of this makes me wonder if this is more about the industrialization of education than whether to offer specialized schools within the industrial system. It seems that urban public schools kids are suffering the same fate as a cow in a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).

In a factory farm setting the livestock are raised in confinement at very high density. The confinement, density, growth hormones and feed that is not a natural part of their diet causes many health problems that led to the use of prophylactic antibiotics given to the animals as a standard industrial practice. It also has led to some serious environmental hazards, as the high-density waste is not something that is easily assimilated by the natural environment. The goal of the factory farm is not the health of the environment or the animals in their care, rather it is the highest output at the lowest cost.

This seems alarmingly similar to the urban school setting, including the school where I taught. In a large urban school district with many schools under its management, the goal is the highest output (test scores, graduate rates) at the lowest cost (fewest possible teachers and programs and structural improvements). There is confinement (reducing or removing recess) and high-density and food that is more cheap than nutritious ($1.40 for a full priced lunch at Denver Public schools will get you plenty of artificial colors and flavors, nitrates, and high fructose corn syrup).

What if we approached the urban school problems and the factory farm problem with a similar solution - that of reducing density? If the density goes down there are more resources to devote to the students and the animals. With less density and less responsibility by few people at the top, there is an opportunity to better understand and make adjustments to meet the needs of the “occupants”. Lower density would make those overseeing the organization more able to focus on the individuality and humanity (or animal-ness as the case may be) rather than the numbers. It would enable them to focus on the goal of quality of output rather than the highest output for the fewest dollars. Isn’t that really in keeping with the point of education anyway?

What if we approached the question, then, more in terms of limiting the size of a district or doing away with districts altogether in favor of independence? Would the reduced density correspond to a reduction in the problems associated with density? Just as a cottage farm is far healthier than a factory farm, the same goes for a smaller school or district than for a mammoth urban industrial education organization. This is one of the many reasons for the rise in home schooling, and the increased enrollment at private schools and even at charter schools. Parents intuitively know that a smaller, independent environment promotes higher quality.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Waldorf is to Education what the Slow Food Movement is to your Dinner

The Slow Food Movement is an organization dedicated to spreading and maintaining appreciation for good, local, traditional, clean food in opposition to the fast foods and fast-paced life styles that are so globally pervasive today. Waldorf education has a lot in common with the aims of the Slow Food movement.

Just as Slow Food encourages pleasure in the experience of food preparation and eating, Waldorf creates an educational environment that is enjoyable and unrushed. Waldorf does not push children to read in Kindergarten or 1st grade. It takes a much more gradual approach. It weaves the arts into every subject, making them interrelated rather than isolated, providing a frame of reference from which the child can assimilate the subject more easily and permanently. This has the affect of piquing the students’ interest so that they want to dive deeper into the subject matter. It also makes the schoolwork and the environment of the school quite pleasurable. The students want to be at school and want to learn for curiosity sake, not for some external reward or punishment.

Slow Food advocates for clean and fair food for the health of the planet. It endorses patience in the growing of food, believing that dumping synthetic fertilizers and pesticides promote quantity and speed at a cost that is not worth the price. They believe industrial agribusiness practices produce problems with animal welfare, environmental damage, loss of local cultural traditions, and toxic residue on food, as well as unfair trade practices. The Waldorf system similarly advocates a more local, patient approach. It eschews reliance on national companies that provide standardized testing or textbooks . Rather it employs highly educated and respected teachers to educate students with their enthusiasm, patience, and expertise. They make use of classic traditions and classic literature, though they do not use textbooks. These tend to standardize and spoon-feed a lesson that is not likely to be remembered. Instead, the students make the books and they are filled with artistic renderings, math computations, science experiment observations, essays, and more. Waldorf also teaches a reverence for the environment by going on daily nature walks, incorporating the materials of nature into their lessons, and daily outdoor play.

The Slow Food Movement emphasizes the connection between the plate and the planet, seeing the whole picture. They call themselves co-producers, not consumers because of their desire to be informed about how food is produced, to be a part of that small scale production whenever possible, and to be supportive of others who produce food in a sustainable way. Waldorf’s mission is also to see the big picture and to teach to the whole child. They find multiple ways of reaching students in the manner they learn best. They encourage cooperation over competition and an attitude of questioning instead of unexplored acceptance. They do not teach isolated facts for rote memorization; they connect the subjects and question the students to get to the why, what and how.

By emphasizing local traditions and biodiversity, the Slow Food Movement aims to sustain an appreciation for them. The foods of Italy should taste deliciously different from the foods of India. So, too, the goal of Waldorf is not to create standardized students but to create happy, confident, interested, educated students with a world-view. It encourages each student to revel in their unique nature and to learn in their own way as they find their element.

The goal of eating is more than just stopping hunger quickly and cheaply. It is to experience joyfully the taste, texture, and tradition of food at a relaxed pace. Similarly, the goal of education is not just to end ignorance. It is to learn and explore with curiosity all that makes us human. It is to create well-adjusted, well-informed, productive citizens of the world. A focus on speed, low cost and standardization will produce an inferior hamburger and a less than optimal learning environment, doing a lot of damage along the way. Both excellent food and excellent education take time, patience, appreciation, expertise, and attention. We would do well to learn from the Slow Food Movement and apply its principles to education to enjoy the outstanding, sustainable results.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Trusting our Children, Not our TV

A few of my neighbors make it clear without words (our society’s favorite way of communicating disproval) that they think my husband and I are neglectful because we allow our two boys (3 and 7) to play in the football field-long alley unsupervised. Actually, letting them play freely in a very short, private road among neighbors is something with a significant amount of thought and conversation behind it. We want our children to be active, to feel a controlled amount of freedom of movement and exploration in a safe environment. We have never had a problem and they appreciate the opportunity to build trust with us. All of these values are important to us and the benefit to our family outweighs the incredibly minute risk of them getting hit by one of our neighbors as they back out of their garages or of getting abducted.

These same quietly judgmental neighbors who insist on being present any time their children venture outside, who don’t allow them to run for fear they might fall, and who limit the area that they can play in to in front of their own garage, allow their children to watch hours and hours of TV without supervision daily. Sure, there is no risk of abduction or vehicular homicide in exposing children to so much screen time. But what are the risks? What are they exposing their children to?
We do not have TV time or do video games in our house. We have no cable. We allow a movie or two on the weekends. Not only do we feel it is important to interact with our children in an active way by playing games together, talking, reading, cooking, and painting, we also feel that there are too many well-documented problems that crop up as a result of too much TV.

Children in our society spend an average of four hours a day (not including video games or computer time) passively watching a screen. By the age of 18, a child has spent more time in front of a TV than at school. There is no diploma given at the culmination of this period of intense TV watching, but what have they learned, what have they seen, and who is teaching them?
We insist on having qualified, educated teachers that have been screened and trained before they get time and influence with our children. But we don’t hold such high standards when it comes to television’s time and influence. The goal of school is to educate. The first goal of TV is to sell, the second goal is to entertain. There are a few programs and channels devoted to educating, but regardless of the program, the education television provides is pervasive, highly influential and worrisome.
In addition to the violence (even in cartoons) or other situations that are not developmentally appropriate for children, there is also the massive amount of unfettered access marketers have to children, creating strong impressions in them of what foods are desirable and the idea that materialism leads to happiness. Instead of promoting ideas of empathy and the “oneness” of all things, TV tends to emphasize the separation or distinction of classes, races, and religious affiliations, while providing an unexamined judgment of them. It also portrays rigid gender expectations, narrow ideas of beauty, and celebrates ungracious behavior.

Numerous doctors and researchers have attributed many health issues with hours of television viewing, including Attention Deficit Disorders (ADD/ADHD), visual problems, obesity, learning difficulties, sensory integration problems, and aggressive behavior. Given the risk, the scope, and the problematic nature of these health issues, I think we are better off shutting off the TV and letting children off the leash to play outside. Thanks to the media, our paranoia has increase over concerns about abductions and other scary but very rare occurrences, as our freedom to roam has shrunk over progressive generations. Perhaps we too would do well to turn off the TV!