A Clash of Philosophies

Today I went to visit a school. I had visited it before, and came away with the feeling that it was a very nice school. This is a school for early childhood students, ages 2 through kindergarten. The directors are very nice and extremely proud of their school. They should be proud. Their school has a reputation for being one of the best early childhood learning facilities in town.

During my visit I asked the director about their educational philosophy. “Oh, we are very academically oriented,” she stated. “Our pre-k is usually reading by the time they move on to kindergarten.” Indeed, a glance around told me that they are very academically oriented. There are very few toys in the classrooms, and a lot of tables and chairs. I recalled that during one of my previous visits the director mentioned that they only get the small amount of centers materials out to play with when their state consultant comes to visit. During our discussion about educational philosophies the director said, “I know that there are a lot of centers out there that are more hands-on…manipulative-based…” She was searching for a word. “Free play. They are more centered on free play. I have found that a lot of chain centers are like that. Are you like that?”

I said, “Yes, I teach through play. Hands-on, project-based learning. I write workshops designed to teach others how to teach that way as well.”

Her demeanor towards me changed almost imperceptibly after that. It was almost as if she felt that I had been contaminated by them. Those play-based educators who have no idea what they were doing because all they do is let the children play all day. Do their children read? Before kindergarten?

When I left the center, I felt disheartened. I understand that the directors of this center have the freedom to have whatever kind of center that they want, and the parents of the children enrolled there have the freedom to have their children in whatever type of program that they want. However, I know from educating myself on developmentally appropriate practices that children who are in a play-based program develop better social skills, creativity, problem-solving skills, and other life skills better than schools that simply focus on academic achievement. The school’s enrollment is quite high; the director said that most of their classes are full, which means that a lot of the parents in this area value the academic approach for their children.

It is all about value, after all. The directors of this school and the parents who enroll their children value academic achievement above all else. And as a culture we have been taught that academic achievement has to be valued in order to have a successful life. But the tides are turning. Innovation, creativity, and the ability to problem-solve are valued more by today’s businesses. Innovation, creativity, and the ability to problem-solve are best learned through playing with ideas, developing strategies through brainstorming with others, and using imagination to create. These skills aren’t built through simple academic instruction.

I remember a boy who was in my class at the age of two. He was bright and precocious, creative and full of fun. He had a wonderful sparkle in his eye and a curiosity that ensured learning. He left my class and enrolled at this school. He came to visit a few months after he left, holding a worksheet that he wanted to show us. The sparkle that I had so loved about his eyes was gone. I have never forgotten the change that I saw in that child from just a few short months in a purely academic environment. His parents were proud. I was shocked.

As I said before, it is all about values. His parents obviously put more value in the academic education than the building of creativity, imagination, and social skills that the play-based environment provided. Some parents do. Perhaps most parents do. Our culture has taught them to.

Being Prepared to Fail

Yes, I know, I said that we shouldn’t stigmatize mistakes and that we should label mistakes as “attempts” instead, so that we can learn to move beyond the mistakes and learn from them. But the truth of the matter is, the word “fail” is in our vocabulary. People use it all of the time to describe what is going on in the world around them. Take a look at the popular “FAIL Blog” to see what I am talking about. (Although, as I got mesmerized by the entries when I went to copy and paste the link, I realized how many of the entries show the creative nature of the human race – and their willingness to put themselves out there.)

This morning I have been browsing the website of Edutopia, or the George Lucas Educational Foundation. Yes, you read that right: the film guru George Lucas is now involved in educational innovation. When I found this out this morning, I felt like I had been living under a rock because I have been following Edutopia on Twitter for a couple of months now without knowing what it actually was. But I was browsing the website this morning and I came across a blog post that sounded interesting: What You Need to Be an Innovative Educator by Terry Heick. The suggestions and advice seem sound to me, but when I got to number five, “Willingness to Take Risks”, I had to smile:

But a real willingness to take risks means being prepared for failure. And failure might come in the form of lost funding, an article written about you in the local newspaper mentioning a “project gone bad,” unflattering data, and a million other possible outcomes.

Being willing to take a risk shouldn’t empower you to implement wrong-headed, half-baked ideas under the guise of an “innovative spirit,” but you should be prepared to fail. Which is fine, because education has been failing long before you got here.

Yes, I had to smile at that, because I have found that the further into this project that I get, the more I seem to take myself entirely too seriously. And worry about failure. “What if the ideas that I am putting forth in this workshop/lesson plan aren’t understood?” or “What if I can’t get my point across?” Some of the ideas that I am presenting are radical by the standards of traditional education, but have been talked about in the realm of progressive education for a long time. A lot of the progressive ideas have been misconstrued and misrepresented by traditionalists for years – one of the hardest parts of my early research was educating myself beyond the myths that have been laid out there. And if that was one of the hardest things for me to do – change my mindset – how difficult is it going to be for me to change the mindset of others? The key for me was being able to take the ideas that I encountered directly into the classroom and try them out for myself, thereby seeing the change and results for myself. I have tried to include this feature in my workshop so that educators can take the ideas that I present directly into the classroom and use them for themselves. Of course, it won’t be easy at first – change never is easy – but with support it can work.

Of course, I need to mentally prepare myself for failure because it could happen. But this quote reminded me to stop taking myself and failure quite so seriously, because education has been failing long before I got here!

prepared to fail

The Theory of Loose Parts

For the fourth of July Independence Day celebration, I took my daughters downtown to the street fair. Every year they have a section of the fair just for the kids, and every year they have a booth set up with barrels and boxes full of loose parts. On the tables are rolls and rolls of masking tape. Children are encouraged to pick out whatever they want and put it together however they want, to make whatever they want. Every year, it is one of our favorite booths.

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She’s trying to make a guitar.

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Have you ever heard of the Theory of Loose Parts? I have only just heard of it, and I am surprised that I haven’t heard of it sooner. In 1972, an architect by the name of Simon Nicholson proposed the theory, which states:

In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.

Basically Nicholson is saying that the more loose parts you have , and the different types of loose parts that you have, the more inventiveness and creativity you will see.

I can see where he is coming from. A few weeks ago, the kids and I got some small electric appliances for the purpose of taking them apart to see what was in them. I also told them that they could create whatever they wanted out of the rubble. I know that they had serious fun dismantling the items…

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… but I didn’t see a lot happening in the way of creativity afterwards. To be fair to them, they didn’t really have enough time or the right tools to make a great project out of it (a hot glue gun would have been helpful, but it was at dad’s house). And as we know from previous posts, time, tools, and tolerance are necessary for creativity to emerge.

Nicholson says that, for the majority of people, there is more to it than that. For most people, whether or not they are creative is a mindset:

The dominant cultural elite tell us that the planning, design, and building of any part of the environment is so difficult and so special that only the gifted few – those with degrees and certificates in planning, engineering, architecture, art, education, behavioral psychology, and so on – can properly solve environmental problems.

The result is that the vast majority of people are not allowed (and worse – feel that they are incompetent) to experiment with the components of building and construction, whether in environmental studies, the abstract arts, literature or science: the creativity – the playing around with the components and variables of the world in order to make experiments and discover new things and form new concepts – has been explicitly stated as the domain of the creative few, and the rest of the community has been deprived of a crucial part of their lives and life-style. This is particularly true of young children who find the world incredibly restricted – a world where they cannot play with building and making things, or play with fluids, water, fire or living objects, and all the things that satisfy one’s curiosity and give us the pleasure that results from discovery and invention.

Nicholson proposes providing more loose parts for children to experiment with in different environments so that they can have opportunities to realize their creative potential. Luckily, more schools and early childhood educators are understanding the effect that loose parts have on children’s play, and are providing more loose parts to inspire creativity in their classrooms.

For more information about the Theory of Loose Parts, visit here.

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