What we see in a word or two

Bird Droppings October 9, 2009

What we see in a word or two


“There are people who, when they see the word passion in a book’s title, may not open its cover because that word conjures up imagery of excessive feeling that shortcuts clear and dispassionate thinking. Though the relationship between the word and the imagery is understandable, it would be a grievous mistake to pass this book by.” Dr. Seymour Sarason


So starts Robert L. Fried’s book, The Passionate Learner, in the Forward. I would have liked to say this was about my book but I am still editing and have a great Forward by Dr. James Sutton. I started reading again last night this book after I finished up my going through IEP data and reviewing material on motivation. Dr. Sarason is a professor emeritus at Yale University and a leading figure in questioning our educational system, he starts Fried’s book. It is interesting how Dr. Sarason in his writing


“Education has been based upon an axiom that wholly or in large part is invalid.  That axiom is that education (schooling) best takes place in encapsulated classrooms in encapsulated schools.” Dr. Seymour Sarason


As I started reading again Fried’s book The Passionate Learner an idea struck me, as amusing as I researched this morning. I found a quote in Sarason’s essays that actually illiterates my idea stated above.


“Every child is a passionate learner. Children come into the world with a desire to learn that is natural as the desire to eat and move and be loved, their hunger for knowledge, for skills, for the feeling of mastery as strong as any other appetite. They learn an amazing variety of things in the years before they enter school, including, miraculously how to talk in their native language. …. Something happens to a child when learning is replaced by schooling.” Robert Fried


Reading further and I have only just started back again on the book but an idea hit me. Several times I have used the illustration of a child as compared to a sponge, absorbing, and learning, literally soaking up information from birth. Fried alludes to what educators and psychologists call a language acquisition factor in children occurring between one and four years of age. Dr. Glenn Doman at the Philadelphia Institute for Achievement of Human Potential in the early 1960’s found children could learn multiple languages if exposed at this early age and had children learning four five or six languages fluently, like a sponge absorbing every bit of liquid presented.  I was reminded as a teacher brought her new baby by the school yesterday evening. She speaks Portuguese and Spanish fluently being from Brazil. I asked her if her baby boy was trilingual yet.

In young children this idea is a key issue. Small children are not mobile and there fore have a difficult time acquiring knowledge without having it available, which leads to socio-economic issues in the disparity of education and learning. Seems money is always at the root of things in life. A sponge can only soak up what is there to soak, assuming equally sized sponges to start. But then school starts and an interesting process, Sarason uses the term encapsulated. As I read Fried last night I envisioned the little capsules that can be purchased where you drop them in water and they grow into dinosaurs or other figures. I was seeing as I thought many times how school can be the reverse process.


“Nobody conspires to deny these children their birthright as passionate learners. Students, teachers, parents fall victim, too often, to a system of education that readily substitutes a kind of hum-drum, low energy, task oriented compliance for the intensity, enthusiasm, and joyfulness we see in the infant learner grasping at the world.” Robert Fried


School slowly and inevitably begins the process of instilling parameters, encapsulating, taking that sopping wet sponge of a passionate learner and implementing walls, encasing and encapsulating as Sarason states in a smaller and smaller capsule. Very soon that learner is so contained only bits and pieces make it through. Sarason adds to his idea of encapsulating with the following.


“Schools generally are and have been uninteresting places for students and others.  They are intellectually boring places. … Developments in the mass media, and their ever-growing influence, have created for young people a wide, unbridgeable, experienced gulf between two worlds: that of the classroom and school and the “real” world.  In terms of interest and challenge, the former cannot hold a candle to the latter. By virtue of their encapsulation, physical and otherwise, schools have two virtually impossible and related tasks: to simulate the conditions that engender interest, challenge, and curiosity, and to make the acquisition of knowledge and cognitive skills personally important and meaningful. As long as we uncritically accept the axiom and think of reform only in terms of altering classrooms and schools—what goes on in them—educational reform is doomed. There are alternative ways of conceiving and structuring formal education.  They would require two things: recognizing the invalidity of the axiom, and the use of non-school sites for learning.  I recognize how difficult it will be for people to consider these alternatives.  It took me decades to get to the point where I could consider alternatives, and that was only possible when I confronted the intractability of schools to change.” Dr. Seymour Sarason


Advocating learning somewhere besides school was unheard of, unthinkable, scandalous, incredible, despicable and even terrible by many standards. What would teachers do? What would administrators do? What would we do with all these schools, school bonds and school taxes? These are extremely serious questions and perhaps exactly why little has changed in education in 100 years. Last week I had several students come into my room and make the comment, “I could learn in here”. Even yesterday after a long day of meetings and conferences a little girl came by who had never been in my room before. She stared about almost like a three year old and not sixteen and said this is fantastic I have always wanted to come in here but did not know I could. In my Hodge-podge of stuff and critters, quiet music playing students become fascinated, interested and learn indirectly sort of almost through osmosis and my favorite the teachable moment.

One of my students made the comment that I should take something’s home and I asked what and as she started naming items as she went she rationalized herself not to. It was interesting to watch how she rationalized each animal or thing. We need to add water to the capsules. How do we instill passion back in kids? How do we provide avenues for learning, not simply providing content but providing context and make learning meaningful? Sadly as I listened to a teacher explain a new math program it was about learning a concept simply to pass a test. Not to learn how that concept came to be or why just know this so you can answer this. It saddens me to watch encapsulating teaching going on. Makes my job of trying to encourage those encapsulated students will harder but one day I will soon fill the room with passionate learners. Please keep all in harms way on your mind and in your hearts.




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