B.F. Skinner writes in his 1973 essay The Free and Happy Student that “no one learns very much from the real world without help.” An interesting notion that speaks to the necessity of effective teachers. Unfortunately, the changing landscape of education in the United States makes it difficult for many teachers to find an identity; various educational theories/philosophies, lines of research and varying opinions on “best practice” abound in our field.
On June 13th the New York Post (Yeah, I know. Not exactly the pinnacle of journalism, but they sure can pen a headline) reported on The Blue School a “$32,000 per-year private school founded by the Blue Man Group” a popular cyan-coated musical troupe. The Blue School offers education from kindergarten to grade five-according to their website- and is progressive in the most radical sense of the word. There are no books- at least none used for “teaching” in the traditional sense- and no tests. Students choose the curriculum and there is no set start time for the day (i.e., the students show up when they want to).
Recently, several parents whose children attend The Blue School have pulled them out. An article on The Blaze reports that “parents are stunned to find that their children can’t read after enrolling them in the ‘progressive’” school. According to the Post, “The Blue School is one big play date in desperate need of adult supervision.”
Progressive educational models are nothing new. There are several progressive schools in Manhattan (and elsewhere) touting similar educational styles (John Dewey’s Democracy and Education and William H. Kilpatrick’s The Project Method are great starting points for an overview of progressive educational theory). Montessori schools are internationally established as are Steiner-Waldorf schools. Several colleges included Bank Street College of Education and Goddard College offer university education following the progressive model. Clearly, the progressive model has been successful for many students at a variety of different academic levels.
However, after reading these articles and profiles of The Blue School at Time magazine and The New York Times, I found myself thinking about the teachers, what role do they play in an environment that is seemingly so unstructured with learners who are so young? How do they prepare these learners for the future? Are they adequately preparing learners for the “larger” world? Clearly, several teachers at the Blue School are having similar notions; eight are leaving at the end of the school year.
Skinner (1973) writes:
Those who would minimize teaching have contended that no preparation [for the future] is needed, that the student will follow a natural line of development into the future in the normal course of events
One can argue that radically progressive educational environments (e.g., The Blue School) are not preparing students for the future. Let’s face it, the “real world” has tests, start times and rules we have to follow. We don’t get to “choose” much of the curriculum of life. We have to pay bills, interact with people we find aversive, deal with competing contingencies of reinforcement (e.g., I’d love to go running but I have to go to work) and, frankly, do things that aren’t that “fun.”
That’s not to say that school shouldn’t be fun, creative and a place where students and teachers feel safe and encouraged to explore a variety of subjects and interests. However, shouldn’t teachers-in part- prepare students to be successful in, not only school, but home life, the larger community, and- down the road- professional environments (i.e., a job)? There are varying “rules within these environments [that] cover a host of behaviors” (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007, p.660). For example, most of us can’t show up work whenever we feel like it.
As a behavior analyst, I found myself reflecting on the social validity of the education offered at The Blue School: do the results of the educational structure “show meaningful, significant, and sustainable change?” (p 661). Clearly, learning to read is socially significant, a skill that “in every sense…meets the ethical test for social validity” (p. 661).
However, some might say: “Who’s to say that a second grader needs to read?”
Well…I’d say that the larger community around the second grader determines this. If a student’s peers, friends who attend other schools and parents know how to read, I might argue that reading is a socially significant skill. If the second grader lives in a community where he has to- for example- identify street signs, his address, his parents names and the titles of DVD’s he might want to watch, then I’d argue that reading is a socially significant skill. One that should be taught in school.
Reading (among many other “traditional” subjects) prepare students to succeed in the larger community, to actively participate in society. Skinner (1964) writes about the sustainability of education:
Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.
In fairness to The Blue School, reports of students lack of reading proficiency could be the result of the protests of a few overzealous parents. Their website does note that academic content areas are “meaningfully” culled from New York State benchmarks and the Arizona Department of Education. Although, the website also states:
Teachers use observations, field notes, photographs, portfolios, and other appropriate forms of documentation made by themselves and the children to reflect upon the learning that is taking place.
The assessment methods listed above are all indirect methods of assessment and open to subjectivity. As Starin (2011) notes, “reliability [of indirect assessment] is usually poor.” In other words, indirect methods of assessment may not accurately tell us of a learner’s actual progress.
Is school not the place to cultivate and prepare learners for the future? Skinner (1973) puts it plainly: “the free school is no school at all.”
That’s not to say that progressive schools are bad. Clearly, traditional/classical educational models aren’t working in many parts of the country. Educators criticize standardized testing, teachers report having to spend the year “teaching to the test.” Many complain about the antiquated nature of classical curriculum, a notion that Skinner (1973) recognized:
Again and again education has gone out of date as teachers have continued to teach subjects which were no longer relevant at any time in the student’s life
When you take a hard look at traditional educational models, it’s no wonder that parents are eager to find alternatives. However, I’m not sure that a radically progressive approach is the way to fix the problem.
I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Many parents whose children attend The Blue School are starting to clammer for more structure (e.g., assessments).
From the New York Times:
One parent who supported the push was David Beal, an adviser to the president of National Geographic, who noted that the school will end at fifth grade and that the children will be thrust into a test-happy world. “We don’t want to find out after we’ve left that we’ve missed some important chunk of learning.”
It will be interesting to see how this develops.
Anderson, J. (2012, April 13). Making education brain science. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/nyregion/at-the-blue-school-kindergarten-curriculum-includes-neurology.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2
Blue school. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://blueschool.org/
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007).Applied behavior analysis. (2nd ed.). Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. Macmillian. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?
Kilpatrick, W. (1918). “the project method”:child-centeredness in progressive education. Teachers College Record, Retrieved from http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4954/
Luscombe, B. (2008, November 13). At the blue man group’s school, kids rule. Time, Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1858869,00.html
Palmeri, T. (2012, June 13). A blue man ‘dupe’: Parent panic at 32g ‘progressive’ school. The New York Post. Retrieved from http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/manhattan/blue_man_dupe_6ltN21ytq0GUDCGusUYmcK
Ritz, E. (2012, June 13). Surprising? children of ‘prgoressive,’ $32k-per-year ‘blue school’ in manhattan can’t read. The Blaze, Retrieved from http://www.theblaze.com/stories/shocker-children-of-progressive-32k-manhattan-school-founded-by-blue-man-group-performers-cant-read/
Skinner, B. F. (1964). New methods and new aims in teaching. New Scientist, 122, Retrieved from http://www.bfskinner.org/BFSkinner/Articles_files/New_Methods_&_aims_in_Teach.pdf
Skinner, B. F. (1973). The free and happy student. Phi Delta Kappan, 13-16. Retrieved from http://www.education-consumers.org/research/skinner1973.htm
Starin, S. (2011, January 31). Functional behavior assessments:what,why,when,where,and who? . Retrieved fromhttp://www.wrightslaw.com/info/discipl.fab.starin.htm