This week I was going to write about giving kids time in school to read, but I'll save that for another Friday. Last night I chaperoned an overnight field trip with my son's sixth grade class, and it gave me a couple of new perspectives on my own job.
My first thought was that while I had thought that my ninth graders were at peak kookiness, now I am convinced that peak kookiness occurs in sixth grade. I don't know how my son's teacher does it. I learned a lot about dealing with the middle-school set from her equanimity, her patience, and her good humor.
My second thought was that teacher-dominated explicit instruction can, despite my reservations about it, sometimes actually be better than independent work. The field trip was an overnight at the science museum in Boston. I hadn't been to the museum for years, but I remembered lots of hands-on exhibits, lots of DIY learning where you do things like experiment with gear ratios and gyroscopic effects, wire up primitive circuits and climb inside Apollo landing craft. Most of the museum was indeed as I remembered it--but most of the students I was with seemed to get very little out of those exhibits.
There was a table with blocks that was designed to help students explore the way volume changes as length changes. The students played with the blocks, but then they started throwing them at each other. There was a playground with swings, spinning circles, seesaws and huge scales with 500 lb. weights on one side and ropes hung at different points on the other side of the fulcrum. The sign said: Do not climb on the ropes. Naturally, my students immediately started climbing, and I heard no students talking about leverage, torque, rotational momentum or any of the other mechanical concepts they were supposed to be exploring. There was a shadow theater which was designed to help students explore the connection between how close the shadow puppet is held to the light and how large its image becomes. The kids had a great time making up a shadow play, but as far as I could tell they didn't give a thought to the concepts the exhibit was intended to make them think about. A light sensitive wall on which you could take shadow images of yourself was an opportunity, for the kids I was with, to create pornographic tableaux in silhouette. A display that allowed you to change the group behavior of fish was played with for about forty seconds, far too short a time to notice what changed with the different settings.
The self-directed exhibits were fun for the students to explore, but without help from an adult--and usually the kids were more interested in each other than in me; it was a field trip, after all--I noticed very, very little thinking about the ostensible subjects of the exhibits. Maybe having so many children in the group creates a social buzz that can't help but swamp any interest in the topic at hand. I remember a passage in Rousseau's Emile that suggests that the best form of education would be to take the child on walks in the countryside, and help the child to point out interesting phenomena for the child to puzzle over--for example, to notice that the sun is rising in a different place in the sky than it had been a few months before. This method might work with one kid, but if you had a larger group it seems likely that nobody would be paying much attention to the sun. But I remember the same kind of impatience with the exhibits from my own visits to the museum as a kid. Maybe Rousseau's method would work better because the natural setting would be richer than any preplanned lesson or exhibit could be. Or maybe I was wrong, and my son and his classmates were actually getting much more out of the exhibits than I realized.
Whatever the case, my visit made me question my usual bias in favor of student-directed exploration. Summerhill is my usual ur-text, but on this visit I kept thinking about Lord of the Flies. Not that the kids were necessarily so out of control--and in any case Lord of the Flies is less a counter to Rousseau than his complement, since it seems to me that Roger and Jack have been made sick by the horrifying adult world whose war they were fleeing when they crashed and whose supposedly civilizing influences are represented as tragically inescapable in the bitterly ironic last page, with its clueless naval officer and his "trim cruiser" representing the machinery of civilization that has left the boys so traumatized. I thought of the book last night for two reasons: the fact that on their own, or at least as a small group, most of the kids didn't seem able to learn; and the contradictory fact that they were, nevertheless, surprisingly willing to be civilized by somebody who was authoritative and commanding enough. The boys seemed to want someone to take charge, and they were happy when someone did.
For while the self-directed exhibit halls didn't work very well for my group, the lecture-like lessons in the lecture halls and cinemas worked amazingly well. First we had an introductory lecture (or "show) on sound; the students were engaged and entertained throughout. Later we saw the demonstration in the "Theater of Electricity" (lightning coming from huge Van der Graaff generators and Tesla coils, etc.), and the kids loved it. The planetarium show too was amazing; the wildest kids were rapt throughout. And of course the film about migrations in the Omni Theater was a huge hit.
I know that hands-on learning is supposed to be messy, and that neat, entertaining lectures may be less effective than they seem, no matter how quiet they keep the kids, but still, the contrast was remarkable, and made me wonder if I should try to be more entertaining, if I should try to get more comfortable with being on stage. Is being a charismatic, engaging teacher necessarily mind control? Is it okay to indoctrinate kids, if its in the service of The Good? Is it possible that explicit instruction really works?