Americans are rooted in the soil of exceptionalism. We don’t like comparisons with other countries. How can anyone do anything better than we can? But it’s refreshing to have a reality check every once in a while. Who knows? We might learn something—or at least acquire a renewed appreciation of our native capacities.
In a recent essay at the New York Times, David Kirp, a professor at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and the author, most recently, of Improbable Scholars, and Kids First, does a little cultural exporting, bringing us vivid scenes from a one-room schoolhouse in rural Colombia. Here, children learn by doing, and collaboration is the norm. They’re part of Escuela Nueva, a “new school” model where they’ve been found to outperform their urban peers. No small victory in a country where poor families are hard-pressed to see the relevance of education, often removing their kids from school to work.
Here, too, second-graders write short stories, and students garden, using the products of the earth to concoct meals based on family recipes. They’re grouped at tables, talking to each other, guided by teachers, gently prodding them into what early childhood educators might equate with Russian child psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, or the place where learners can stretch their cognitive muscles.
These schools are also laboratories for democracy, Kirp tells us, citing philosopher John Dewey, who believed children learn best through experience, and “that democracy ‘cannot go forward unless the intelligence of the mass of people is educated to understand the social realities of their own time.’” They’re self-governing communities, in which students, teachers, and parents have a voice. Parents’ involvement yields great rewards, leaving them “less prone to use corporal punishment; more likely to let their youngsters spend time at play or on homework, rather than making them work when they’re not in school; and more likely, along with their children, to become engaged in their communities.”
Sounds just right. And Kirp is convinced that this model can have an impact on the lives of millions of children across the globe—including those in the United States. But as he duly notes, this kind of education is not mainstream, and the obstacles are many.
Yet we do have models of the Nueva Escuela at home. One of America’s foremost education reformers and activists, Deborah Meier has spent her life preaching on behalf of democracy and planting seeds for it to thrive. Starting in Chicago as an early childhood educator, she moved on to create the Central Park East Schools in New York City, and Mission Hill, in Boston—small learning communities where John Dewey and experiential learning rule.
In The Power of Their Ideas, she declares democracy in danger, and ponders the question of educating all children well. Meier believes that it’s possible, but wonders if we have the will. “Democracy demands we acknowledge everyone’s inalienable capacity to be an inventor, dreamer, and theorist,” she writes, “to count in the larger scheme of things.”
We talk about educating all children well, and persistent gaps in achievement, but our actions fall short of our aspirations. We worship at the altar of innovation, and yet we stifle it every step of the way, the repercussions for our youngest learners, as Meier points out, most severe:
The imaginative play that we so early abandon, the attention to children’s nascent friendships, these are…the precursors of what Piaget called intellectual “decentering,” … the ability to imagine the world without oneself at its center. As we stint on one, we injure the other. As we eliminate from our schools and from our children’s…lives the time and space for exercising their creative imagination and building personal ties, we’ve cheated our children and our society in a far more critical way than we’re inclined to understand.
Our garden of human capital is parched, watered only in the rarified precincts of private institutions and a dwindling number of progressive public schools, besieged by high-stakes testing and other policies detrimental to teachers’ autonomy and students’ healthy development and progress as learners.
We must change course—and fast. It’s time to put some of that celebrated American ingenuity to good use.