Who's Lurking In Your Educational DNA?

Who’s Lurking in Your Educational DNA?




There was a question floating around on Twitter a while ago, something like “Who are your educational grandparents?”  The responses and the whole conversation were stimulating and fun.  John Dewey, of course!  Paulo Freire!  Lucy Calkins – well, yes!


But I couldn’t pare down my deepest influences in an efficient, twitter-friendly way.  I have direct ancestors, of course – I AM a Montessorian, after all – but as I think about creating a middle school curriculum that is right for the generation of kids in front of me, my family tree is much more complicated.  There are the direct and straight-laced ancestors (Piaget, for one just example), along with the otherworldly and visionary (Rudolf Steiner) and the wacky, lovable uncles who pop in and liven up the family dinner.  There are also the cool uncles wearing great sneakers, carrying a comic book the kids are going to love, and ready to get down to seriously demanding conversation at the table, too. (Cornelius Minor, I’m looking at you.)


Why does this question matter? (Besides the fact that it’s a lot of fun to consider as part of a procrastination project.)  Because we have an obligation, as educators, to be clear and intentional in our thinking, our planning and our teaching.  Just where do we get the ideas we’re following, and do they stand up to the light of day, and how do they fit together and what do they have to do with the students we are teaching?


It’s such a cliché, and that’s because it’s true:  We live in a time of great change, in society and in education.  And a lot of poorly thought out educational experiments are going on out there.  (I love that the Gates are interested in and financially committed to education, but --- really?--- is all I can say about some of their ill-advised adventures.)


With the enormity of the problems we’re leaving to the generation of students we’re teaching right now, the least we can do is give them the very best available tools to deal with those problems. So, a careful examination of where we got the ideas we’re using, and some more careful reflection on just how that’s working out, along with some decisions of what we need to change NOW is necessary.  Unless we’ve just played a cruel joke on this generation and are leaving them to face those gigantic challenges ahead with an empty toolbox.


So, I’m exploring my family tree.  The great John Dewey wins the award for the most quoted and cited without his ideas being put to use.  One of my favorite quotes from Dewey is “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”  (It makes me wonder if all the administrators who consider themselves in Dewey’s line think that life looks like 30 desks lined up facing a blackboard.)  His words definitely are part of me – but maybe somewhere further back than grandfather.  Some great-great who is spoken about in hushed tones, and his impressively framed photo in in the front hall. If you want to remind yourself of his true radicalness, you can go back to his books.  Here’s a classic: https://tinyurl.com/ycnvgcxl




Being of, as I have said, a contructivist, constructionist Montessorian, my choice for grandfather may surprise you.  Rudolf Steiner, that serious-looking Austrian visionary who developed the philosophy for Waldorf schools (as well as biodynamic agriculture and a host of other things) is definitely my grandfather.  Whether he’d recognize me as his descendant is another story.  His aims for Waldorf education certifies the relationship to me: “Our highest endeavor must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives.  The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility – these forces are the very nerve of education.”  To read more about this fascinating educator, read this biography by Gary Lachman, a founding member of the rock band Blondie: https://tinyurl.com/y9t4kl2u





It won’t surprise anyone that I consider Maria Montessori, the feminist genius scientist who looks appropriate grandmotherly in many of her photos, as my educational philosophy grandmother. She is best known in this country for early childhood education.  I’ve also known grandparent friends of mine insist that schools run by her method are places where their own grandchildren can do exactly what they want whenever they want to and are therefore spoiled rotten.  I will address that misconception at a later date.  The fact that she said “Joy, feeling one’s own value, being appreciated and loved by others, feeling useful and capable of production are all factors of enormous value for the human soul,” show that she was very much on Steiner’s wavelength.  In future posts, we’ll talk about their similarities and differences.  A good way in to Montessori for a beginner is to read The Science Behind the Genius. 





But what is clear from just this peek into their philosophies is that both of them place the child and their needs at the heart of the education, have deep respect for the humanity of the child, and place a high priority on those skills that don’t show up on a standardized test:  a sense of responsibility to the entire human community being just one really big one.



In my very next post, I’ll go into HOW I am so deeply indebted to their ideas, but for now I want to know—Who is lurking in your educational DNA?

Cynthia Webb