Image of the Child

by Shelley Welch     

     To create an educational environment and experience, begin with an image of the child. Begin with your beliefs and assumptions about children (are you aware of what your assumptions are about children?), the ways in which they learn and develop, and their interests. Why begin here? Because any other starting point will not be an image of the child, rather an image of you. Any other starting point will be your agenda, your strategies, your instructional outcomes. And well, haven’t we pondered those topics long enough?

     David Elkind in The Wisdom of Play summarizes the history of early childhood education:

The philosophical foundations of early childhood education were provided by John Amos Comenius, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Its curriculum and methodology were created by the likes of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, and Rudolf Steiner. Most recently, it was scientifically grounded by the research and theories of Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, and Erik Erikson. While there are differences in the approaches of these progenitors of early childhood education, they are overshadowed by one common principle: that early childhood curriculum and practice must be adapted to the maturing needs, abilities, and interests of the child.

David Elkind

     Education must be adapted to the child – not society, technology, the workforce, religion or science. To the child. Do we believe – I mean, really believe – education should be adapted to the interests of the child, and if so, are we doing that? Even if we do believe this, how radically do we believe it?  How far do we take it? Is it possible to swing too far?  What are our beliefs and assumptions about children, their learning and their development that keep us from adapting education to the needs, abilities and interests of them? Does anyone in America actually believe that a worksheet comes anywhere near preschool educational practices that are adapted to the maturing needs, abilities and interests of the child? Yet, many preschools use worksheets and try to teach reading and math before children are even ready to sit still.

     Literacy no longer means literacy. Literacy means knowing how to read and write, but it didn’t always mean only that. Prior to the late 19th century, literacy more commonly referred to those who were well-educated and familiar with literature. Literacy, in fact, comes from the Latin word literata, the meaning of which includes both “an alphabetical sign” and “a liberal education”. Have we, indeed, sacrificed our liberal education for the almighty alphabetical sign? In doing so, have we sacrificed our children’s freedom to reinvent our (their?) world?

Kate Silber quotes Pestalozzi as stating,

I wish to wrest education from the outworn order of doddering old teaching hacks as well as from the new-fangled order of cheap, artificial teaching tricks, and entrust it to the eternal powers of nature herself, to the light which God has kindled and kept alive in the hearts of fathers and mothers, to the interests of parents…

     Pestalozzi died in 1827, yet his perspective could be applied just as fervently today as during his own lifetime. Both Pestalozzi and Froebel supported active learning, Pestolozzi calling his approach simply “Pestalozzi’s Method” and Froebel coining the term “self-activity”. Both educators placed emphasis on child-led activity and spontaneous exploration. Shocking, isn’t it, to read the words “spontaneous exploration” in reference to education?

200 years later, Sir Ken Robinson is attracting attention for bringing voice to these same ideas – ideas that organizations like AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization) have, since 1989, been working towards manifesting in the world. Their mission is to “create an education revolution to make student-centered alternatives available to everyone.” Sound familiar?

     So, what happened between Pestalozzi and Robinson? One argument is that the industrial revolution happened and that its influence careened through the world of education, culminating in Bush’s No Child Left Behind rhetoric. Most discussions about education – both how to do it and how not to do it – center around poverty as the seminal point of social, economic and educational division. Those who have it (money) create communities to give it to their own. Those who don’t, can’t. No Child was poised to fix all of that messy poverty stuff. Except that it didn’t. Why? Because poverty is the single most complex problem in the world. Furthermore, poverty fuels the spread (or at least blocks the solution) of nearly all other complex problems in the world.

What if education in America adapted itself to the child? What might that resemble? What if we saw the goal of education as more than the sum of a child’s developmental stage + cost of his education + his economic potential? What if we saw education like this:

Academics aren’t all kids need. Kids need so much more. School should be where we teach the meaning of life; where kids learn they are needed; where they can learn community skills. We like to think that school is also important for developing a good self-image, a strong sensitivity to other people’s feelings…and understanding it matters to take care of others. We definitely want to incorporate all those things in education.

     If we saw education like this, we’d be Finnish instead of American. More specifically, we’d be Krista Kiuru, Finland’s Minister of Education. Yet even Finland’s educational system is not immune to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (read: PISA poor). Even so, isn’t there something about Kiuru’s statement that resonates?

      So, what did happen between Pestalozzi and Robinson? Perhaps the more essential question is: what does the story of what happened on the road between Pestalozzi to Robinson have to do with this moment in educational time? what does this story mean for students in my classroom in this moment and this next moment and the one right after that? Would the road between Pestalozzi and Robinson have twisted so violently had each individual attended mindfully to the children in her presence in each moment?

Shall we engage in a little “spontaneous exploration”? Let’s see what happens in a year at a preschool in a three year-old classroom with two educators…

© 2014 Shelley Welch