Monday, March 15, 2010

The Nature and Purpose of Education by Maurice Holt

“The Nature and Purpose of Education" by Maurice Holt was originally published by the Center for Ecoliteracy. © Copyright 2004 Center for Ecoliteracy. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

In her celebrated The Classic Italian Cookbook, Marcella Hazan wrote: "What people do with food is an act that reveals how they construe the world."

At the time — 30 years ago — it was a sentiment that needed a word of explanation; the Japanese meal respects aesthetics, the French cuisine respects subtlety, Italian food respects its ingredients.

We now take what we eat much more seriously, and it is timely to ask: What does a school lunch of reheated burger and chips have to say about how we construe the world? For that matter, what does it say about how we construe the nature and purpose of education?

Pausing to ponder the nature and consequences of a burger bar in the center of Rome was how a major eating revolution began. Carlo Petrini, a prominent Italian journalist, was walking past a newly opened McDonald's franchise when he stopped and said: If this is fast food, why not have Slow Food? In much the same way, I was thinking about the standards-based school curriculum, with its emphasis on regurgitated gobbets of knowledge, when I recognized the analogy with fast food. What we have created, with our tests and targets, is the fast school, driven by standardized products. So why not devise a Slow School, driven by an emphasis on how ideas are conceptualized, just as Slow Food is driven by how the innate qualities of ingredients can be realized?

The concept of Slow, as it has emerged from the Slow Food movement, derives its power as a metaphor from its moral force. It is about what it is good to do; to enjoy "quiet material pleasure," as Carlo Petrini has put it, which entails making judgments about conduct, virtue, and balance. In the Slow City, for example, the virtue of courage emboldens citizens to restrict the growth of hypermarkets so that specialist providers are not put out of business. As a result, people can conduct themselves thoughtfully in a society that values personal experience.

Since education is essentially about equipping our children with the ability to act responsibly in a complex society, the idea of a Slow School follows very readily from the metaphor of Slow. It brings to mind an institution where students have time to discuss, argue, and reflect upon knowledge and ideas, and so come to understand themselves and the culture they will inherit. It would be a school that esteems the professional judgment of teachers, that recognizes the differing interests and talents of its pupils, and works with its community to provide a rich variety of learning experiences.

Unfortunately, schools in a number of countries are obliged, by political decisions, to conduct their affairs in a totally different manner. This is particularly the case in England and the United States, where public education has taken as its model not the moral character of Slow Food but the commercial character of fast food.

What matters in fast food is not the process of preparing or educating, but the outcome. And the product itself is so worthless: a burger has little nutritional value, and schooling based on standardized tests and targets treats students as vessels to be filled rather than people who want to understand, to be inspired, to make something of themselves.

These "fast schools" do little to prepare students for the world of tomorrow, based as they are on the idea of "standards," which in practice means comparing performance on content-based tests. If we want our students to look ahead rather than in the rearview mirror, the metaphor of the standards-based school has to be replaced by the metaphor of the Slow School. The metaphor of standards conjures up a folk memory of fighting battles and winning wars, of steadfast purpose and reliable automobiles. It's a powerful image, but it's completely wrong-headed.

The underlying assumption is that if we can make car engines to a high standard, why not turn out students to a high standard? The answer is simple: manufacturing crankshafts is a technical problem, while educating pupils is a moral problem. As Aristotle recognized, different kinds of problems need different methods of solution.

In the case of the Slow School, we have to solve complex, practical problems of a moral nature. So at the heart of the Slow School is the idea of bringing together, when new proposals are to be discussed, the responses of its students, parents, teachers, and other stakeholders. In this way the school renders a continuous account of what it is doing to those with a real interest in its work. Accountability is built into the process of curriculum — it's part of a continuing narrative that has real meaning for pupils and parents.

This is much better than the summative form of accountability generated by standards-led schooling. Parents are confronted with tables of comparative performance on tests which baffle rather than illuminate. Numbers alone tell us very little. Who benefits from this emphasis on standards? Certainly not students, who find such a curriculum boring; nor parents, who are totally excluded from real judgments about their children's school. As for teachers, the effect is to lower their morale and undermine their professionalism. Only the politicians benefit; when the numbers go up, they take the credit, and when they go down they blame the schools.

Support is growing for the Slow School movement. Some schools, already on the right track, are beginning to discover that they are really Slow Schools! And an inspired way to get the Slow metaphor into schools is to confront the burger-based lunch and show students how to devise their own, home-grown, slow lunch. At a stroke, they have to challenge received opinion, think about fundamentals, and devise alternative strategies. It's a good recipe for learning how to build a Slow School curriculum.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

On the Positive Side - a Public Education

I have spent a lot of time on this blog talking about the challenges of public education, but in all of my research I have learned that there is no perfect educational setting. I also learned this week that there are plenty of things that are good about public education. Even in Ronan's fourth day back in public school it is clear to see that there are many good things about it, however imperfect it may be.

- The socialization factor is significant. Because we were eclectic in our approach and non-religious, we had a difficult time finding age-appropriate homeschooling peers to interact with on a regular basis. It is probably easier if you are pure in your approach, like homeschooling with only Waldorf materials and lesson plans. At a public school there is a built-in rich social structure with age-appropriate peers of different races, religions and socio-economic backgrounds.

- The public school we attend is considered a neighborhood school, which tends to strengthen neighborhoods and build communities. In only four days, I have gotten to know a few of the parents of Ronan's new friends and we will both likely deepen those friendships and create more through time and common experiences. This tends to create a web of relationships that support and nurture those who are part of it. It also creates a stronger sense of place for our whole family within our community.

- The separation of the roles of mother and teacher proved to be important in the health of my relationship with Ronan. He had a hard time with making errors because I think it seemed important to him that I saw him as very capable or smart. Every mistake was regarded by him as proof against these traits he so valued, rather than an opportunity to learn. It is often remarked that our kids seem to behave differently with other groups of people than they do within the family. Maybe the stakes aren't so high if a teacher sees mistakes. Also, as a friend who also tried homeschooling for a short time said, being your child's teacher seems to magnify the inherent challenges in your relationship. A separation of those roles helps to reduce the tension that comes from those challenges.

- There is something to be said for having a trained, passionate teacher with a prepared curriculum, who has plenty of support in place to educate your child. The teachers that Ronan has have already found ways to motivate him with novel materials and approaches. It is also helpful for children to learn to cope with different styles of leadership, as they will do throughout the school years.

- Peer pressure sometimes works in our favor. Ronan saw his brother Jude doing a lot of playing and he naturally wanted to join him and not do school work. Now he is with a group of kids who are doing school work when they are supposed to and he wants to gain the level of competence and ability that he observes in some of his classmates.

- Although I have had plenty to say against school bells and rigid schedules, there are positive attributes to it. Kids like routine and like knowing what is coming next. It also helps to have consistent exposure to each subject. I loved the flexibility of the homeschooling day, but that flexibility didn't provide as much consistency and routine that Ronan seems to thrive on now.

- Support and involvement of a school is a great way to be a part of something bigger than yourself. It is the most natural way of doing good and working with a group toward a common goal. This kind of civic duty is one of the earliest examples of philanthropy and altruism your kids can observe and someday emulate.

- A public education is (mostly) free! In that way it has the potential to be the great equalizer in that everyone has an opportunity to learn and better themselves.

I can see the benefits of homeschooling, neighborhood schools, magnet schools, charter schools, and private schools. After having tried nearly all of these options, I know there is no perfect solution. What works for one family may not work for another. What works right now, may not work well later. I am grateful to have so many choices. What riches we have before us for learning and growing! I am especially grateful that our current choice is going so well and has produced a lot of happiness and relief for everyone in our family. After all the negatives I have pointed out in the past, I can't help but appreciate a public education right now.

Monday, March 8, 2010

St. Elizabeth's Episcopal School

I recently toured St. Elizabeth's Episcopal School in Denver and asked many questions of Walter McCoy, the charismatic Head of School and the parent representative that graciously guided us around the school and told us all about it. Here is what I learned about the school.

I understand that socio-economic integration is a chief goal of the school. Why is that so important and how do you ensure that goal is met?

Part of the main mission of the school is to integrate children for different socio-economic backgrounds because that actually helps improve learning. By having a sliding scale for all families, it ensures that more students, regardless of family income, have the choice to attend a private school such as ours.

The largest class size is 18. That is much lower than Denver Public School’s cap on class sizes. Why is this important and why 18 as a cut off?

Small class sizes are critical to good learning environments.

Arts are featured heavily in your school. What do you offer, how often and why?

There is music and visual arts offered multiple days a week. We feel it is important – creativity stimulates the senses and improves education and performance.

Do you use standardized testing?

There is no standardized testing. Teachers routinely assess each child as the year progresses and communicate the progress to parents.

St. Elizabeth’s is an Episcopal school, yet it is said that students from all religions are welcomed. How would a Buddhist or a Jewish person feel at the school? How much of a role does religion play at the school. Please describe the beliefs and traditions of an Episcopalian.

The Episcopal Church is liturgical, similar to Catholic and Lutheran churches, and there is “chapel” time twice a week for 20 minutes followed by a Faith Studies class that looks at what all the world’s religions offer. Episcopal schools enroll a wide range of Christian and even non-Christian families. We do not proselytize, and we hope that whatever faith a family brings to schools will be stronger when they leave.

Describe the community feeling at your school. How do parents and students integrate with others of different socio-economic, religious, or racial backgrounds? How is community nurtured and encouraged at the school?

There is a strong Parent Association that is very active. We have events that foster community and there is a lot of volunteer work that unites people. Play dates and birthday parties abound. Our sliding scale tuition, the Family Commitment Plan, unites families in a sense that all contribute according to their financial ability.

How long has the school existed? Where do most of your students come from and why did they choose the school?

The school has been around for 2 years now and most of our students come from varied socio-economic backgrounds from the Park Hill, Stapleton, and Five Points neighborhoods.

Respect and dignity are mentioned more than once on your website. How is this fostered? How are learning styles and speeds honored? How do you handle a child who is reading below grade level or not doing as well at math as a second grader might do?

There is a learning specialist that helps students who need help. Reading is a big focus.

Do you have a pre-school? Do you have an after care program? What are the hours of the school?

There is no pre-school, it is currently K-2 and we’ll add a grade each year. School lets out at 3:10 and there is an after-care program until 6:00.

I saw some “workbooks” and understood that worksheets are sent home for homework. How much do worksheets and textbooks comprise the work and homework?

Kindergarten: We do not send home homework. Most of our classroom time is spent manipulating and investigating new concepts and then followed up with showing that knowledge on paper.

First Grade: Our homework in first grade goes home to students on Monday and is due on Friday each week. We have a reading chart on each assignment sheet so kids can track how many minutes they read each night. The written homework is comprised of weekly spelling lists (that follow phonetic patterns) to study, a language arts worksheet, and a math worksheet. We also have occasional special projects, such as our mathematical masks for the 100th day of school for which students gathered 100 items for the masks at home.

Combined First/Second Grade: Worksheets and textbooks are used for daily lessons as well as for homework. All work is interrelated for a classroom theme or subject. I would say we use them about 50% of the time. The rest of the time, we are using Morning Journals, Literature Logs, and guided or leveled readers.
As for class work, we are a traditional program in the sense that we do expect our students to complete written work that coincides with our thematic units. We keep the classroom work balanced, however, so that kids are completing written work, doing art projects, and working together in different hands-on centers.

How are science, social studies and history learned? Do you use textbooks?

Kindergarten: Our science, social studies and history are all comprised by the teacher and based somewhat on core knowledge content standards as well as standards used in other schools we chose to model our program from. We do not use textbooks.

First Grade: We align our science and social studies units with the Colorado state standards, but do not use textbooks. Judy, Kim, and I have met to determine what units the kids should be learning in each grade level so there isn't much overlap. Judy and I integrate our thematic units, which usually pertain to social studies and/or science, into our daily language arts work in order to help students make meaningful connections. Kids complete written work, do research projects, and delve into hands-on work as they learn about science and social studies. Our field trips are almost always designed to enrich our science/social studies units.

Combined 1st/2nd grade: Science and Social Studies are taught at the first and second grade levels. We create our own units through various resources. We do not have textbooks for these two subjects.

For more information about St. Elizabeth’s School, go to