Sunday, December 08, 2013

certainty vs. possibility...

As the educational policy makers in the US are faced with yet another slap in the face by the 2012 PISA study, we are granted yet again, an opportunity to look at what we are doing in American education and to think about what we are doing to kids. Whereas the Kindergarten model focused on building the child's sense of relationship to his or her community, the child's capacity for intellectual engagement, and the child's sense of beauty and creativity, American educational policy attempts to control the input and retention of particular forms of knowledge in the hopes that they can be measured. So far, not so good. It's not working.

The Finnish brain researcher, Matti Bergström
"concentrates on the child’s inner life and its – as we see it – chaotic ’possibility space’. Professor Bergström maintains that it is not only a question of ’white games.' The white games are our pedagogical efforts trying to bring up children in our own image. But there must also be room for the ’black games’ where children test themselves and the world around them. They must be given space. At a recent conference, Matti Bergström posed the question: do children need a knowledge lift? His answer was no, they need a chaos lift. We must allow children space and opportunity for the black games which are created in the unorganized and unsupervised meeting with other children.

"Very briefly, Matti Bergström’s reasoning can be boiled down to this: The core of culture is art. The core of art is creativity. The core of creativity is possibility. The core of possibility is play. The core of play is chaos. Therefore all culture is based on chaos. More than ever before do we wish to encourage each individual’s creativity and culture-creating ability. The skills of the agrarian and industrial society have long since become obsolete."
Finland, too, this year got a small slap in the face. Instead of leading the world in nearly all subjects as has been in the past, Finland's scores dropped to 5th and 6th in reading and math, while Shanghai, China leads the world as the top scoring economy (not nation). Of course, the whole thing would be described by Bergström as the white game in which one generation tries to enforce its standards, methods, values and thoughts upon another instead of allowing them to emerge through engagement in the real world. Can it be that when children do poorly in school that they, for various reasons are beginning to reject the values and methods that the school represents?

I will again repeat the basic premises of Educational Sloyd. As absurrd as this might sound, modern educators could learn a few things from progressive education from the 19th century.
  1. Start with the interests of the child.
  2. Move from the known to the unknown.
  3. Move from the easy to the more difficult.
  4. Move from the simple to the more complex.
  5. Use the concrete to illustrate the abstract.
If education is not working for any particular child, a classroom, a school, a community or a nation of children, there are two directions to look. More than likely, it has lost the interest of the child, and failed to use concrete engagement of the child to sustain interest. This is where art, creativity, and physical engagement in learning come into the equation. While educators are seeking certainty to prove themselves and their methods, children are looking for possibilities. Those possibilities are available in the arts.

Recent research about how art makes you smart was conducted at our own Crystal Bridges Museum in Northwest Arkansas and described in the New York Times. Art Makes You Smart. 

Make, fix and create...


  1. you make a strong point about the importance of engagement in education. in particular, the importance of children making sense with their hands. though you are right that i doubt much will likely remain unchanged in the traditional american landscape (though i foresee many years from now a switch back from the intuitive excitement of Ipads to handwork). you would likely find much camaraderie among homeschoolers. one of the reasons my family chooses the homeschool path is to ensure our girls are in the "chaos" in order to make their own discoveries. john holt also makes a case for this in his books. loving your blog and so pleased i found it!

  2. It is not surprising that many homeschooling parents take on the job because they see clearly that school has lost the interests of their child. The kids are bored and hoping for something better.

    Kids are lucky when they have parents willing to make the huge sacrifice to take on the responsibility to do home schooling well. But from a strategic stand point, we need strong public schools, as too many parents are not really capable of doing what you and so many home schooling parent do... Many parents make huge sacrifices for their kids. For many parents, putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their children's heads is a tremendous sacrifice, most particularly during difficult economic times.

    In any case, I have a great deal in common with the home schooling movement. We are all looking for something better for all our kids.