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Reform in Practice

Schools Where Children Learn by Joseph Featherstone Liveright, New York, 180 pp.

By Peter M. Shane

IN THE "free marketplace of ideas" which is allegedly characteristic of America, most problems of broad social concern fall to achieve the sustained meaningful interest of the American public. Each year, as the "hip" issue changes--from the war, to the environment, to women's rights, or to the drug culture--bookstores are deluged with mountains of publications which arouse intense, but momentary interest before the next big issue arises. Obviously, America suffers from such flightiness. All these areas deserve the ongoing attention of people interested in change, and reformers with insight and ability to add to their sincerity find their real efforts toward improvement reduced to mere fads.

The movement for reform in America's schools has attracted increasing momentum through the 1960s, chiefly thanks to a number of writers like John Holt, Herbert Kohl, and George Dennison who have dramatized areas of inhumane and unthinking practice as well as various attempts at reform in the classroom. Now, "integrated day," "informal school," and "open classroom" have become as familiar as the jargon growing out of the work of John Dewey and the Progressive Movement. Unfortunately, the Progressives left behind little more in practice than jargon. Advocates of reform along the lines of informal schooling fear that without painstaking attention to new experiments in education, their insights and progress will fall similarly by the wayside.

It is especially in this light that the contributions of Joseph Featherstone '62, a contributing editor of The New Republic, have been exceptionally important. With numerous articles and with his Reports on British infant school education, Featherstone has tried to keep reformers' attention focused on improvements in actual practice and on the need to realize pedagogical theory in the day-to-day associations of teacher and child. Schools Where Children Learn continues this all-important effort, presenting much of Featherstone's journalistic work along with his current commentary on the issues and on the developments his articles discuss.

BESIDES THE virtues of clear and thorough reporting, Featherstone's book boasts at least two other invaluable assets; an unremitting emphasis on the need to resist dogma and to create change thoughtfully, if slowly in practice as well as in theory, and a refreshing understanding of where reforms probably begin and end, of how far schools may improve with straightforward changes in practice and to what degree boarder issues of race, inequality, income distribution, and public finance will have to be faced before more fundamental change is realized. Schools Where Children Learn centers on what Featherstone, in an interview, called the "micro-issues" of reform, changes on the level of the school and classroom, although both his commentaries and the articles themselves have strong implications on a macro-level, too.

Children and Their Primary Schools, a 1967 study for the British government by the Plowden Committee describes the progress of British infant schools (for children from 5 to 7 or 8 years old) and junior schools (for children from 7 or 8 to 11 or 12). As cited by Featherstone, the theory of teaching outlined in the Report puts a stress on "...individual discovery, of first-hand experience and on opportunities for creative work. It insists that knowledge does not fall in neatly separate compartments and that work and play are not opposite, but complementary." Featherstone outlines primary school examples in Leicester shire and Bristol where time and space are freed to allow classroom explorations to cover more than a single rigid discipline at a time, to permit children to learn from one another, and to facilitate each individual's development of confidence in self-expression by making choices available among learning opportunities. The teacher helps to create situations which fulfill the children's real interests and requirements. An emphasis on "messing around with stuff" or dealing with the concrete has grown out of a greater consciousness of work in developmental psychology and a growing realization that children do have individual educational needs.

Certain institutional factors have made such progress easier in Britain. Teachers and principals have more autonomy within the British system than they do in America. Furthermore, this idea of a principal more closely approaches that of a head teacher than the American concept of principal as administrator and disciplinarian.

THE RESULTS of many British primary school experiments have been remarkable: exceptionally imaginative and colorful writing, a more widespread conceptual grasp among students of mathematical tools, and a heightened level of classroom activity coupled with a more purposeful, more self-directed employment of time. Detractors object that such skills do not prepare children for life in the real world, and that, on standardized tests, informally schooled youngsters do no better, if as well, than students in formal schools. Featherstone properly replies that "The best preparation for life is to live fully as a child," and that the better performance of formally schooled pupils on tests reflects most of all that their instruction is examination-oriented. After moving on to secondary schools, students from informal schools quickly make up any lags, and what should be most surprising is the good test performance of these pupils despite the entirely different orientation of their schooling.

Among American experiments included in Schools Where Children Learn are the Colorado classroom work of Frances Hawkins, Herbert Kohl's sixth grade class in Harlem, the work of the Teachers and Writers Collaborative and the Street Academies in New York, two schools in Roxbury, and various "career ladder" programs for involving community people, expecially the poor, in social service positions. None of this work has been entirely successful, yet what success has been demonstrated--and the good work is impressive--has resulted largely from the simple desires of parents and teachers to improve the education of children.

A major question with which the book deals briefly is the absence of any work as encouraging on a level higher than the primary schools. Featherstone believes that a major cause of the difference is the keener involvement of public high schools in macro-issues from which primary schools are considerably more removed. Economic and social pressures focus more sharply on the high schools, which are closer to the job market and to colleges. These may demand that more of a selection process take place according to different abilities as measured by traditional tests. In this, he is corroborated by work done in the economics of education by people like Herbert Gintis, lecturer in Education, and by Samuel Bowles, associate professor. These two have demonstrated how little secondary education changes economic relations, particularly as reflected in income distribution. It is further seen in work like Charles Silberman's Crisis in the Classroom how much sketchier high school reform is both in theory and in practice.

IF REFORM is to come on all levels of education, these economic and social issues must clearly be faced. In Featherstone's work, it is properly emphasized that a beginning is made in recognizing what we do not yet know about education. While much research on education has been significantly illuminating, reform in education will not ultimately spring from research. Rather, reformers must admit where their vision is unclear and slowly work out, in practice, improvements that are fruitful. In an upcoming book on Dewy, Featherstone hopes to reflect on traditional weaknesses in the reform movement: a failure to deal with overriding macro-issues and to recognize that reformers form an interest group which must deal with other professionals and parents.

In America, a chief obstacle to change in areas like primary education where change in the classroom is already conceivable, springs from a trend made apparent in the so-called "academic revolution"--a predisposition to research as opposed to practice. As Featherstone has stated, among Dewey's insights is the realization that far from being a frontier-oriented problem-solving nation, America has become a nation which eschews practice for theory. This trend in graduate schools away from classroom experience--as well as the persistence of state legislatures and teachers' unions in making entry into the profession difficult--obstruct the kind of micro-reform that could be going on on a much broader level.

The ultimate value of Featherstone's work lies with the impetus it may provide toward a greater realization of the importance of teaching practice and toward a better balance between research and actual classwork which may help minimize self-deception and self-righteousness in the reform movement. Meanwhile, we have at our command the tools necessary to make large segments of schooling more humane, more fulfilling, and, in a basic sense, more educational. Featherstone writes: "In reform, as in anything else, there must be priorities, and the first priority is simply to see clearly." If parents and teachers see the prospects for change clearly illustrated in Schools Where Children Learn, the problems and challenges in improving children's education may yet become an ongoing rather than occasional American concern.

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