It was 1980 when Kansas City Young Audiences helped set me on this path of becoming a teaching artist. That was when I first really paid attention to what goes on in public school classrooms. The how of teaching had already fascinated me due to my experiences in dance — and the need for any dancer who intends longevity in the field to learn how to teach dance.
I wanted to catch kids in elementary and middle school and let them in on some secrets about dance that should be public knowledge. I knew how to show them steps and combinations, but I also knew that would only appeal to a small subset of the students. So when Young Audiences asked for a group of us potential teaching artists to design short residencies that linked our art forms with a curriculum area, I saw a perfect opportunity to engage in some guerrilla dance education.
While reinforcing lessons on language or science, I could be showing students how much fun they can have with dance if they treat it as a creative tool rather than an exhibition of technical skill. So I plunged into the assignment, which included what amounted to a mini-course in education theory.
As I learned about Bloom and Piaget and classroom management, what captured me about working in schools was the discovery that there was a body of knowledge about how we learn. And the best practices of effective teachers were centered first of all in being life-long learners themselves, and in being facilitators of learning rather than dispensers of knowledge. That was the huge insight that smacked me somewhere in my training experiences.
Consider: the factory education model that American public schools are almost invariably built on treats teaching and learning as one-way processes. The teacher teaches: she (usually, though there are more males at upper grades) dispenses information and tests for how much of it “stuck” at the end of each unit. The students learn: they take in the facts and figures and are able to spit them back out accurately.
In this model, all students are interchangeable. Think of the move for national education standards. Now think of the work “standardized” in the context of a classroom. The drivers of education policy at the national level want things to be simple. They want to be able to walk into any classroom in the country and find students learning the same things at more or less the same time, and getting perfect scores on standardized tests.
This has brought us to the current set of initiatives. Blindly building on the intentionally worm-infested structure of the No Child Left Behind law, the current administration now proposes a sort of carrot-and-stick approach to education reform. It is focused on the teachers, looking at “merit pay” (students pass test, you get more money) and “accountability” (your students don’t pass, we make life tougher for you).
This approach implies that the factory workers (teachers) simply need incentive to “teach better” if their students are not “achieving” (reaching the mandated test scores). If they don’t come up to the mark, then they need to be punished until they do. This sort of behavioristic, Dickensian view of what schools should be like conjures up images of institutions straight out of Upton Sinclair.
There is another approach. In this approach, educators view each student as unique. They understand that some children are ready to master certain skills before or after others. They know that true learning is a combination of information (knowledge), experience, meaning, and collaboration. They understand that we all build, or “construct,” our understanding ourselves, and that it cannot be bestowed upon us by a teacher, no matter how skilled.
In this view of education, learning is a two-way process. The teacher and the students fluidly move between roles, sometimes delving deeply into their own processes, sometimes adapting them and learning new ones through teamwork and problem-solving. Now the teacher, freed from the requirement to cover the curriculum (a physically impossible feat), is able to assist the learners in uncovering it.
Humans learn about the world by interacting with it. Our factory education system takes children out of the world and attempts to indoctrinate them with information instead of showing them how to discover it for themselves. We cannot afford to keep “re-forming” this fundamentally flawed and totally inadequate system. As a species facing problems far too global and life-threatening to survive using half-measures, we must step up, take some deep breaths and do whatever it takes to transform education into the vital and vibrant field of play it should be.
In short, learning comes from play at least as much as it comes from work. Teaching and learning should be playful, social, creative, active, and exciting. Students and teachers ought to be champing at the bit to return to “school” the next day, filled with the possibilities of what may evolve from their latest explorations. “Going to school” ought to be the most fun job in the world. We know why it isn’t. But why can’t it be?