Education in Blue

Picture a preschool class shrouded in black light to induce serenity in something called "glow time," as distinct from the archaic "nap time." Back up to a more rambunctious period of the day in this school's "Wonder Room," a physical space packed with padded constructions to facilitate jumping about and scrambling up a climbing wall. The pads, when removed, reveal an interactive light floor on which children can play "high-tech" games, although one child has preferred to plunge herself in shaving cream, piled on a table. "Speaking tubes" wind along the ceiling, enabling students to communicate with each other at a distance. (More reassuringly, artifacts from the old pre-school classroom - blocks, clay, and even books - are also to be found.)

No mere futuristic gleam-in-the-eye here. Rather, I give you the high-tech, progressive Blue School in New York's East Village, a private, $27,000-a-year kindergarten founded by the Blue Man Group. Margot Adler at National Public Radio has described the group as "the humanoid trio with blue heads who play weird instruments on stage and do crazy things," and whose original performance-art show has grown into a multimillion dollar theater operation with companies across the world. Having not witnessed the bald, mute Blue Men in performance, I cannot speak either to the weirdness of their music or their craziness. What they seem to be about, according to Raf Katigbak, is "slapstick theatre and social critique, weird science and arena rock." Among the "cultural" objects that intrigue them is junk food, notably, Cap'n Crunch, which they have turned into a percussion instrument; Twinkies, which they value for its engineering; and marshmallows, Jell-O, and gel toothpaste, in whose reflective and other properties they revel. Among the musical instruments the trio has invented is the "backpack tubulum," a portable device that allows the performers to move around and launch rockets at the same time as they drum on plastic pipes.

The Blue Man Group, say two of its founding members, created the Blue School both for personal reasons and as a social experiment. They wish to provide for their own children the "'excitement, vigor and passion'" which they feel to have been lacking in their schooling. They also hope other schools and educators will adopt their goals of teaching children in fast-moving and complex America to think "divergently," or in multiple ways, and to view common objects (beyond Twinkies and backpacks, one presumes) in "'different, creative'" ways.    

The Blue School's Reggio connection

In addition to engineering a zany, high-tech classroom, the Blue School, which its founders hope will eventually offer classes up to fifth grade, has hired educational reformers trained in incorporating the methods of the Italian Reggio Emilia pre-schools. This particular form of progressive, child-centered education, which took root in the early 20th century, stresses exploration, the graphic arts in children's education, an aesthetic environment within schools, themed and collaborative learning, documentation by teacher-"recorders" of children's work, parental and community involvement, as well as learning via a "hundred languages" (drawing, movement, words, play, etc.). The approach, founded by Loris Malaguzzi in the city of Reggio Emilia after World War II, has been adopted in many countries, including the U.S. According to the New York Times, "a critical mass" of Reggio schools is springing up in New York City.

Malaguzzi placed special emphasis on children as active, indeed powerful, agents of their own development. The "resourceful child" he envisaged, explains psychologist Carolyn Pope Edwards (quoting Carlina Rinaldi), "generates changes in the systems in which he or she is involved and becomes a ‘producer of culture, values, and rights.'" Teams of teachers support and "negotiate" the children's explorations, not with clearly defined methods and goals, but through sensitive listening, observing and recording work in process, and reflecting upon it collaboratively. The children's interests lead the way for the teachers, who do not offer focused instruction in reading and writing. As summarized in the Times, "the Reggio approach is centered on a lack of structure in the curriculum, substituting inventiveness and fluidity." 

At root, Edwards writes, this approach is based on "an explicit idealism" or a "turn away from violence, toward peace and reconstruction" as well as social constructivism, a psychological theory which holds that humans construct knowledge and meaning from their experiences, and which is frequently tied to pedagogical practices that emphasize "active learning," or learning by doing.

The ‘new' Blue-Reggio model's old, discredited ‘progressive' roots

Progressive education, whatever its labels and shades of differences (child-centered, constructivist, Reggio Emilia, high-tech blue, and others) has been criticized since it came into being. Among its more notable critics in recent decades are:

  • Diane Ravitch emphasized progressivism's most deleterious result. In The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945-1980, she concluded that the practices of the "new" education in general, as early as the late 1940s, sought to change "students' attitudes and behavior to conform to social norms ... rather than subject matter acquisition," causing a decline in academic studies. (Plus ça change. The most prevalent criticism of the Reggio schools today is that it disregards the basic learning that children need to advance academically - and this, to reiterate, because the approach permits children to define their own lessons and projects.)
  • Charles Sykes, in Dumbing Down Our Kids, linked constructivism in the hands of some "educationists" to postmodernism, the academic theory which argues that knowledge itself is merely a social construct, because reality, facts, and truths are not fixed and cannot be objectively put forth or comprehended. Thus, human beings, including students, are awash in subjectivity and relativism, as they must decide for themselves the meaning of language, events, and the past. As implemented in elementary and secondary schools, Sykes observed, such ideas boil down to a kind of postmodernist "'slumming,'" as concepts "facilely manipulated by [postmodernist scholars] find their way into the hands of junior high teachers and assistant superintendents" (and, so it would seem, Blue Men and their fellow Reggio-ites). What a "convenient gloss," Sykes says, for neglecting and misrepresenting the past, and for rejecting standardized or objective tests that might hold students and teachers to account for their performance.
  • Richard Johnson, specifically addressing the Reggio model (in a flawed but partially useful Marxist and anti-colonialist critique) points out that "wide-eyed and uncritical" members of the educational establishment, with their insatiable appetite for novel pedagogies (multicultural, whole language, and so on), "appear to be choosing large-scale adoption of the Reggio approach with seemingly minimal background knowledge." Johnson also considers it "unrealistic" for use in most U.S. schools, because of its costly engagement of art teachers, low teacher-child ratios, and lavish resources and materials, as well as "50 years of post-war community building in Reggio and 2000 plus years of Italian culture."
  • Then, with broad and insidious consequences for this and other nations whose citizens mindlessly adopt progressive education, Jeanne S. Chall, in her 2000 work, The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom, definitively demonstrated that progressive education, in its various forms, resulted in a decline in academic achievement.
                                                          
                                                                       ******

One can but wish the Blue School and its progressive counterparts success. But they have about them an aura of unreality that leads one to ask, with added urgency in today's global climate of financial and political insecurity: Will the children in their charge, formed as they are by directing their own learning, be able to attend to anything that is "uncreative" and "unexciting"? Can they produce goods, manage money? Above all, will they be able to keep their families and the nation safe?

Such little practicalities are among the outcomes to monitor, if indeed a revival of progressive education is underway.
 
Hat tip: Joan Battey


Dr. Candace de Russy, a nationally recognized writer and lecturer on education and cultural issues, is a regular contributor to National Review Online's Phi Beta Cons.
Picture a preschool class shrouded in black light to induce serenity in something called "glow time," as distinct from the archaic "nap time." Back up to a more rambunctious period of the day in this school's "Wonder Room," a physical space packed with padded constructions to facilitate jumping about and scrambling up a climbing wall. The pads, when removed, reveal an interactive light floor on which children can play "high-tech" games, although one child has preferred to plunge herself in shaving cream, piled on a table. "Speaking tubes" wind along the ceiling, enabling students to communicate with each other at a distance. (More reassuringly, artifacts from the old pre-school classroom - blocks, clay, and even books - are also to be found.)

No mere futuristic gleam-in-the-eye here. Rather, I give you the high-tech, progressive Blue School in New York's East Village, a private, $27,000-a-year kindergarten founded by the Blue Man Group. Margot Adler at National Public Radio has described the group as "the humanoid trio with blue heads who play weird instruments on stage and do crazy things," and whose original performance-art show has grown into a multimillion dollar theater operation with companies across the world. Having not witnessed the bald, mute Blue Men in performance, I cannot speak either to the weirdness of their music or their craziness. What they seem to be about, according to Raf Katigbak, is "slapstick theatre and social critique, weird science and arena rock." Among the "cultural" objects that intrigue them is junk food, notably, Cap'n Crunch, which they have turned into a percussion instrument; Twinkies, which they value for its engineering; and marshmallows, Jell-O, and gel toothpaste, in whose reflective and other properties they revel. Among the musical instruments the trio has invented is the "backpack tubulum," a portable device that allows the performers to move around and launch rockets at the same time as they drum on plastic pipes.

The Blue Man Group, say two of its founding members, created the Blue School both for personal reasons and as a social experiment. They wish to provide for their own children the "'excitement, vigor and passion'" which they feel to have been lacking in their schooling. They also hope other schools and educators will adopt their goals of teaching children in fast-moving and complex America to think "divergently," or in multiple ways, and to view common objects (beyond Twinkies and backpacks, one presumes) in "'different, creative'" ways.    

The Blue School's Reggio connection

In addition to engineering a zany, high-tech classroom, the Blue School, which its founders hope will eventually offer classes up to fifth grade, has hired educational reformers trained in incorporating the methods of the Italian Reggio Emilia pre-schools. This particular form of progressive, child-centered education, which took root in the early 20th century, stresses exploration, the graphic arts in children's education, an aesthetic environment within schools, themed and collaborative learning, documentation by teacher-"recorders" of children's work, parental and community involvement, as well as learning via a "hundred languages" (drawing, movement, words, play, etc.). The approach, founded by Loris Malaguzzi in the city of Reggio Emilia after World War II, has been adopted in many countries, including the U.S. According to the New York Times, "a critical mass" of Reggio schools is springing up in New York City.

Malaguzzi placed special emphasis on children as active, indeed powerful, agents of their own development. The "resourceful child" he envisaged, explains psychologist Carolyn Pope Edwards (quoting Carlina Rinaldi), "generates changes in the systems in which he or she is involved and becomes a ‘producer of culture, values, and rights.'" Teams of teachers support and "negotiate" the children's explorations, not with clearly defined methods and goals, but through sensitive listening, observing and recording work in process, and reflecting upon it collaboratively. The children's interests lead the way for the teachers, who do not offer focused instruction in reading and writing. As summarized in the Times, "the Reggio approach is centered on a lack of structure in the curriculum, substituting inventiveness and fluidity." 

At root, Edwards writes, this approach is based on "an explicit idealism" or a "turn away from violence, toward peace and reconstruction" as well as social constructivism, a psychological theory which holds that humans construct knowledge and meaning from their experiences, and which is frequently tied to pedagogical practices that emphasize "active learning," or learning by doing.

The ‘new' Blue-Reggio model's old, discredited ‘progressive' roots

Progressive education, whatever its labels and shades of differences (child-centered, constructivist, Reggio Emilia, high-tech blue, and others) has been criticized since it came into being. Among its more notable critics in recent decades are:

  • Diane Ravitch emphasized progressivism's most deleterious result. In The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945-1980, she concluded that the practices of the "new" education in general, as early as the late 1940s, sought to change "students' attitudes and behavior to conform to social norms ... rather than subject matter acquisition," causing a decline in academic studies. (Plus ça change. The most prevalent criticism of the Reggio schools today is that it disregards the basic learning that children need to advance academically - and this, to reiterate, because the approach permits children to define their own lessons and projects.)
  • Charles Sykes, in Dumbing Down Our Kids, linked constructivism in the hands of some "educationists" to postmodernism, the academic theory which argues that knowledge itself is merely a social construct, because reality, facts, and truths are not fixed and cannot be objectively put forth or comprehended. Thus, human beings, including students, are awash in subjectivity and relativism, as they must decide for themselves the meaning of language, events, and the past. As implemented in elementary and secondary schools, Sykes observed, such ideas boil down to a kind of postmodernist "'slumming,'" as concepts "facilely manipulated by [postmodernist scholars] find their way into the hands of junior high teachers and assistant superintendents" (and, so it would seem, Blue Men and their fellow Reggio-ites). What a "convenient gloss," Sykes says, for neglecting and misrepresenting the past, and for rejecting standardized or objective tests that might hold students and teachers to account for their performance.
  • Richard Johnson, specifically addressing the Reggio model (in a flawed but partially useful Marxist and anti-colonialist critique) points out that "wide-eyed and uncritical" members of the educational establishment, with their insatiable appetite for novel pedagogies (multicultural, whole language, and so on), "appear to be choosing large-scale adoption of the Reggio approach with seemingly minimal background knowledge." Johnson also considers it "unrealistic" for use in most U.S. schools, because of its costly engagement of art teachers, low teacher-child ratios, and lavish resources and materials, as well as "50 years of post-war community building in Reggio and 2000 plus years of Italian culture."
  • Then, with broad and insidious consequences for this and other nations whose citizens mindlessly adopt progressive education, Jeanne S. Chall, in her 2000 work, The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom, definitively demonstrated that progressive education, in its various forms, resulted in a decline in academic achievement.
                                                          
                                                                       ******

One can but wish the Blue School and its progressive counterparts success. But they have about them an aura of unreality that leads one to ask, with added urgency in today's global climate of financial and political insecurity: Will the children in their charge, formed as they are by directing their own learning, be able to attend to anything that is "uncreative" and "unexciting"? Can they produce goods, manage money? Above all, will they be able to keep their families and the nation safe?

Such little practicalities are among the outcomes to monitor, if indeed a revival of progressive education is underway.
 
Hat tip: Joan Battey


Dr. Candace de Russy, a nationally recognized writer and lecturer on education and cultural issues, is a regular contributor to National Review Online's Phi Beta Cons.