Summer Reading – Some synthesis of alternative, progressive and emergent approaches

Over the delightful uni hiatus, I’ve had the chance to actually read some of the books that have been piling up precariously around the place. Full disclosure, I haven’t quite reached the end of two of them, I’ll let you guess which.

The Element‘ stands out as the piece not specifically written about schools. Sir Ken stitches together a host of stories about famous and less famous individuals, and how they have unearthed, arrived at, or searched for those things in life about which they are passionate. He talks about the importance of ‘being in your Element’ as a key way of finding meaning (and joy) in life. It is only in the final chapter that he addresses how the education system needs to change to help kids find their Element – and it feels a bit like the book is a Trojan Horse to the world at large… drawing them in with anecdotes about Meg Ryan to get them on side for a (brief) lecture on education reform. If you’ve read or seen any of Sir Ken’s work there’s nothing particularly new here, but it’s a nice read.

One of the schools Sir Ken highlights in The Element is Grange Primary School in the UK. Richard Gerver was the head teacher at Grange during its transformation into a model for innovative education, and ‘Creating Tomorrow’s Schools, Today‘ is an overview of his pedagogical beliefs (the first half) and how they came to life at Grange (the second half). A self-professed non-academic, Gerver is readable and pragmatic, but firmly grounded in well-researched and considered opinions. Highlights include an overview of ‘Grangeton’, a program where the school creates a simulacrum of society, with everything from a healthy-eating shop (mentored by the local supermarket owner) to a daily radio show. I also like Gerver’s comments about using the ‘evils’ of advertising to ‘sell’ school to kids as the ‘consumer’ – as he puts it, ‘How do we make school as exciting as Disneyland?’.

Both ‘The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education‘ (ed. Edwards, Gandini and Forman) and ‘Emergent Curriculum in the Primary Classroom: Interpreting the Reggio Emilia Approach in Schools‘ (ed. Wien) are collections of papers documenting the Reggio approach and looking at how it can (and has) been imported to the US. Wien’s is much more light weight – it reads like a selection of final ‘action research assessments’ for a post-grad course she seems to be running to spread the good word. The papers are written by practitioners gushing with excitement over ‘giving this Reggio stuff a bash’ in their classrooms – with varying levels of insight and success.

The tome by Edwards, Gandini and Forman is something else altogether. Criticised (on Amazon) as not being readable, this is a serious collection of reasonably academic papers, and gives a thorough and considered overview of Reggio pedagogy, and some of the issues in bringing its key ideas to other shores. The book begins with papers outlining the Reggio story (including an interview with Loris Malaguzzi), then some specific articles on different elements of the approach (such as an excellent overview on the role of the Reggio teacher by Carolyn Edwards) before showcasing several American perspectives. The latter does very well to show the different ways and depths with which teachers in the US are adopting and engaging with Reggio ideas.

Compared to this relatively engaging tour of the world of Reggio, ‘Schools of Tomorrow, Schools of Today: What Happened to Progressive Education‘ (Semel and Sadovnick ed.) can be hard going. Having said that, I think this kind of detailed review of previous attempts at innovative and alternative education is important – and something that perhaps is too often ignored, leading to the danger of ‘reinventing the wheel’. From an in-depth review of the Dalton School to a chronicle of the rise and fall of the ‘open’ Butterfield School, the editors present case studies of eleven different US schools, giving a thorough overview of the progressive education movement in that country.

Reading these different books provided a chance to start identifying common themes that recur throughout, and (to be honest) are of interest to me. While they may not sit neatly within a single philosophy or paradigm, they each strike a chord with my personal vision for better schooling. Some of the key areas I was left considering were;

  • environment… the creation of spaces for children that are beautiful, real, engaging, different, homely… places for children not just to learn, but to live
  • relationship… the connection between ‘teacher’ and ‘student’, often becoming something far more real and powerful… echoes of Rogers and perhaps psychotherapy here
  • emergent curriculum… both the power that is harnessed by using the interests of children to drive the agenda, as well as the challenges that this places on teachers… the way planning becomes an ongoing activity rather than ‘set and forget’… and the obvious conflict with standardised testing and curricula
  • community… the engagement of parents and the community at large with the school… from building school buildings, to activities that transgress the ‘boundary’ of the school… all of which makes schools specific and local, and hence limits scalability
  • reality… from projects worth doing, to acts that have a place in the real world, with real impact… moving away from the idea of ‘school work’ to something more meaningful and connected to life
  • transience… the degree to which so many progressive schooling successes relied on a particular historical moment, the alignment of the stars… the difficulty in maintaining ideals as people move on… the impermanence of small, independent organisations in the face of social change and large institutions
  • integration… a complete move beyond disciplinary ‘subjects’ to an integrated curriculum where themes bring students into contact with everything from math to culture to music… and the difficulty in linking that with defined curriculum outcomes
  • social play… the role of everything from multi-age classes to group work in building social skills and personal strengths

…and underneath it all, the move from ‘teaching’ to the facilitation of ‘learning’ – a firm and powerful belief in the child, and the capacity of the child to learn through inquiry and discovery.



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