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Viewpoints: Part I - The Missing Alphabet
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Viewpoints: Part I

ElephantI have long been intrigued by the Hindu tale of “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” In this story these wise men happen upon a new creature and each one touches a different part of the animal. Because of the differences, each has a theory about what an elephant might be. The one that touches the ear thinks the creature is a type of fan. The one that touches the trunk believes it to be a new kind of snake. The wise man that feels one of the strong, sturdy legs thinks that the elephant is a kind of tree. And so on. Each is partially correct but all are very wrong!

In the theory to practice education courses I used to teach, I would often begin with this tale to frame the scope of the course. A theory is a point of view, and, although most of us are sighted, we are still limited by our prejudices, expectations and experiences. In education, of course, we are not looking at an elephant, we are looking at a child and determining how best to teach that child. Every teacher, and parent, has a theory, a point of view, whether it is conscious or not.

Some theories are more limited than others. In one of his books, Howard Gardner discusses the limitations of three such theories. One limited theory is behaviorism, which sees a child as a vessel to be filled or as a piece of clay to be shaped as the adult chooses. This view ignores the incredible genetic endowments we have as a species and the incredible individual strengths to be found in each child. The result is a “one-size-fits-all” education with a set curriculum, standardized tests and instructional practices of reward and punishment.

Another limited theory is the one behind I.Q. testing—that assumes intelligence is a single thing, a “g,” to be measured. In this viewpoint some of us have a lot of “g,” some very little, and most of us are somewhere in the middle. The child is seen as a mostly unchanging I.Q. score who can be assigned to regular classes, gifted classes, or special education.  This view ignores the power that unforgettable learning experiences can have on a child’s growth and development.

The third view, pointed out by Gardner, is that the child is simply a miniature adult. If the child is no different than an adult, then there is no urgency for early childhood education and a child can be put to work in a sweatshop or selling on the streets. This view is limited because we know from Piaget and other pioneers that children are indeed different from adults, that they have stages of development and that there are critical periods that are more fertile for some kinds of learning.

A more comprehensive viewpoint is that of the constructivists, who believe that both “nature” and “nurture” matter and that a child learns through active interaction and construction of his world. This view has now been validated both by extensive longitudinal studies and emerging neuroscience. This places the child at the center of education and makes our adult understanding of children, childhood and early learning critical.

How about you? How do you see a child? What is your spoken or unspoken theory? What is the viewpoint that is overtly or covertly governing your style of parenting or teaching? It is important to know!

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1 Comment

  1. Raina
      

    The constructivist view definitely resonates with me. I have clear childhood memories of wonderful learning experiences both in and out of public school. That was decades ago and I see times are different now. Every day when my kids come home from school, I ask, “What was the most exciting thing you did in school today?”, and “Did you have fun?”. The answers: “Nothing” from my daughter and “Lunch” from my son. Day after day, this is what I hear. I know they are learning concepts and facts. I see this in all their worksheets. Gobs and gobs of worksheets. Worksheets about weather, about building birdhouses, and paying taxes (note: no birdhouses are actually built, and no taxes are actually paid :-). Usually around May, things lighten up a bit. But where has the joy gone? Where’s all the hands-on fun that sparks the drive to keep on learning? There’s no doubt that our future needs thinkers and problem-solvers. We need people who can figure out solutions regardless of wether or not the situation is perfect. Is our current school system creating the kind of people we need, or the kind of people we are?