Post 19: Education Reinvented in Chicago

Thursday, April, 25, 13 § 1 Comment

While Christian, Zoe and I have been blogging about re-forming school, I’m inspired to report that a writer and educator named Theodore Richards has been doing it for the last couple of years, through a program called the Chicago Wisdom Project.

I first heard about Richards in January 2011, when I met with a widely-known spiritual leader named Matthew Fox. Matt is a former Catholic priest (and bestselling author) who is deeply involved in the movement toward a more life-loving–and less guilt-ridden–human relationship with spirituality.  He’s also a close friend of Aaron Stern, and visiting scholar at the Academy for the Love of Learning, so through Aaron I had the honor to meet with him at a lively community event in a public high school in Oakland.

Over a free community lunch of locally-grown organic food, Matt and I chatted at length about our shared concerns regarding the values and practices of the current educational system. He described his YELLAWE after-school program, which presented a reinvented curriculum and pedagogy for children from some of Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods. At that point, the program was not thriving in Oakland, Matt explained, because the remarkable man who’d been helping him run it had moved to Chicago.

He was talking about Theodore Richards. My research took me elsewhere, however, and i didn’t follow up until last week, when Aaron handed me a book that Richards has just published: Creatively Maladjusted: The Wisdom Education Movement Manifesto (Hiraeth Press, MA).

The term “creatively maladjusted” comes from a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” For Richards, this means that salvation is a communal process–not an individual achievement or gift–that we move towards “not by conforming to society…. but by transforming it.” In other words, if we’re going to survive as a species, what needs to be “adjusted” is not so much our selves, but the values and societal structures that, when we abide by them, plunge us towards ecological and economic collapse. Adjusting our schools, of course, is among the top priorities.

Richards isn’t trying to adjust schools directly–he’s humble enough to admit he’s not sure how to approach such a mammoth endeavor–but he is adjusting the way we educate young people through his after-school program in “inner city” Chicago. Rather than help these kids do better in their conventional schools, like many other after-school programs attempt, Richards is offering them an entirely new type of education, called Wisdom Education.

In his book, Richards explains that conventional education systems, which grow out of monastic traditions but were launched en masse following the industrial revolution, operate within a worldview that is mechanistic (students and teachers are like machines, inputting and outputting fragmented bits of information) and capitalistic (heavy focus on competition and individual success). Wisdom Education, in contrast, presents an organic view of teaching and learning, in which teachers and students are creators, rather than in-takers and out-putters, and in which collaboration and communal success replace the long-misapplied story of “survival of the fittest.”

His manifesto goes on to describe six tenets of this “Wisdom Education Movement”:

  1. Creativity and Imagination. No, not simply adding more arts classes, but shifting the actual way teachers and students engage so that  learnings is not information-transmission but an active, expressive process. “To learn anything in a meaningful, profound way requires that we contextualize it and integrate it from our own perspective. This requires imagination.” And learning creatively not only helps people learn better, but can also help students imagine how to “reshape our world.”
  2. Nature. In Wisdom Education, students reconnect deeply to nature so that they understand that nature is not something separate from us–we are nature. Once they begin to realize they are genetically and physically connected to everything else in the universe (not a quick lesson), they cannot help but shift the way they see them selves and the world. Fragmentation gives way to unity, interconnectedness. The natural world (including other people) is no longer a resource to be studied or exploited, but a partner, a fellow traveler.
  3. The Intellect. One might suspect Wisdom Education to not focus so heavily on intellectual development, but the opposite is true. Richards explains: “…while modern education provides our young people with many facts, it does not provide them with the intellectual tools to discern which facts are valuable and which facts we should accept. Our students are neither trained nor encouraged to challenge the ideas that are put before them.” Drawing from the work of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, Wisdom Education employs a rigorous training (Richards suggests starting with media literacy) that helps young people develop a keen and deep critical consciousness.
  4. The Body. As an alternative to the West’s “radical separation” between mind and body, Wisdom Education calls for a more holistic education that employs activities like meditation, art-making, and martial arts to help young people reconnect to their bodies, and develop a healthier relationship with their body. This new awareness of our physical self  translates into a more receptive mind and healthier relationships with the natural world.
  5.  The Soul. “The soul,” Richards writes, “however one defines it, is as important as any other aspect of the human. We must address our students’ yearning for meaning, their trauma, and their emotions if we are to truly educate them. Wisdom requires not only that we be able to know the world, but to know our selves as well.” Young people strive to answer the question “Who Am I?” and it is society’s responsibility (the “elders,” you might say) to help them develop the tools to find an answer. Wisdom Education draws heavily on the idea of rites of passage, in which young people make a break with who they were before, enter into deep instruction, and then reenter the community as a new person.
  6. Doing. Knowledge is mere cleverness, for good or bad, until it is applied in a conscientious way. In requiring students to undertake projects that help their community, Wisdom Education ensures that young people develop the values and ethics to understand that their success must not come at the detriment of other peoples, or the environment (or their own selves.) Richards explains: “Imagine a poor child from southern Mississippi who goes on to be an executive at British Petroleum. Would society look at him as less successful because he contributes to the construction of his bio-region and his forefathers’ way of life? Probably not.”

I have not yet seen Richards’ Chicago Wisdom Project in action–I hope to make the trip soon–but I am greatly encouraged and inspired by the tenets of the Wisdom Education Movement. Far beyond the tinkering of school reform fads, this movement offers a truly reinvented understanding of how young people learn, and how we can guide a child towards becoming an “educated” person: someone who, by Richards’ succinct definition, “is creative, has a relationship with nature and the body, tries to be healthy of mind and spirit, is intellectually astute and thinks critically, and does something meaningful and useful with all these capacities.”

I plan on taking Thoedore Richards’ five-week online course on Wisdom Education, starting next week. I will report on what I learn in future posts–for now, you can learn more about Theodore Richards and this inspired endeavor at


Post 16: The Core Curriculum

Wednesday, March, 13, 13 § 4 Comments

A couple of weeks ago, Santa Fe education guru (and my colleague at the Academy for the Love of Learning), Patty Lee shared this surprising blog post from Diane Ravitch.

Ravitch, in case you don’t know, is a high-profile education historian, one of those national policy figures to whom the New York Times and CNN turn when they want an opinion. When she was Assistant Secretary in the US Department of Education in the 1980’s, she advocated heavily for a standardized national curriculum.

But in this blog post, she shoots the idea down.

She writes passionately against the adoption of the national “Common Core Curriculum,” a list of the skills and facts, in reading and math, that US kids should master during each grade, from Kindergarten to 12th. So we know what we’re talking about, here’s a few of the items from this list, pertinent to the 10th grade English classes I used to teach. As you read, I encourage you to “delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in the text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; and recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced.” (According the Core Curriculum, you’ve known how to do that since 8th grade):

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7 Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus).
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9 Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).

They’re not that bad, actually, if you can make it through the jargon. I can even see how I’d teach translate these two standards into classroom action: one day I’d show Picasso’s Guernica and a Rodin sculpture, and lead a lively class discussion on what’s there and what’s missing. Then we could read The Sound and the Fury, and I’d show them the line from MacBeth that gave Faulkner his title. Have the kids write a little essay showing what they learned and ELA 9-10.7 and ELA 9-10.9 are done. So what’s the problem?

According to Ravitch, the problem is that the standards are untested, were not developed by teachers (but by “experts” funded by corporations), have been unfairly foisted on states, and expect such a sudden leap in what kids do and know, they’ll generate unfairly high rates of failure. Her arguments are consistent with those of her 2012 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, in which she blasts what she calls the “corporate reform agenda,” and its heavy focus on test results to assess how well kids learn and how well teachers teach. (See my review, on our Literature and Film page of this blog.)

Though Ravitch’s arguments are sound, and I believe true, she stops short of pointing out the real problem with this type of standardized curriculum. No, it’s not that the experts are fascist adults, deciding what kids should learn. Contrary to what they think over at the “do-what-you-like” Sudbury school in Massachusetts, I believe adults have an obligation to give children guidance, to expose them to skills and knowledge and perspectives that will let them discover their talents and participate in a larger culture. The problem with the national curriculum is that it’s completely absurd.

To think that every child in the US will learn the same things at the same age is a fantasy, a theory that could only be hatched by people who’ve no experience with real teaching, no idea how complex and unpredictable and wonderful a process learning really can be.

Here’s what it’ll look like, when I deliver my Core Curriculum class: I come in with my lesson plans, my Guernica Powerpoint and my interactive group-based activity, my brilliant ten minute lecture. The kids come in with their curiosity, their hunger (for learning and for food), their family problems, their beliefs about Picasso, their beliefs about war and horses and Spain, their hatred or love or disinterest toward school, toward me, toward the desk in which they must sit. The bell rings. I begin teaching. Maybe 80% of them listen, on a good day. And of that 80%, maybe I happen to explain the idea and structure the activity in a way that appropriately challenges all those currently held beliefs–on a good day, again, maybe I hit 80% of them. Under the best of conditions, then, I’ve got 60% of them learning ELA 9-10.7–the same percent, by the way, that graduates from high school in Santa Fe.

Proponents of the Common Core will say that’s an instructional problem, not a content problem. Which is how you end up with districts adopting scripted curricula–actual words and sentences–that teachers must deliver to their students, to ensure that the standards are being taught. Another terrible idea: if 80% of my students pay attention to a brilliant lecture on Guernica, I’ll be lucky to get 20% to listen to a scripted speech from some textbook. I doubt I’d be able to pay much attention myself. (See here for one Washington DC teacher’s critique of the way the Core Curriculum would have him teach the Gettysburg address.)

The bottom line is the Core Curriculum is a bad idea because it’s a pipe dream. You can’t standardize what kids learn and what teachers teach because real teaching and learning–the stuff that happens in real classrooms, with real people, is by its nature unpredictable. It takes both teacher and learner in directions they did not foresee when the learning began. It begins with the teacher’s individual passion and experience and knowledge, and then sparks something different in each student. Real teaching and learning is a hodge-podge endeavor, more like a summer swimming pool than an assembly line. Often the most teachable moments happen sheerly by luck, and often the students don’t realize what they’ve learned until long after the tests have been taken, the last bells rung.

This isn’t to say parents and policymakers shouldn’t have any say what gets taught. But at the end of the day, it’s the teachers who decide what gets taught, and it’s the students who decide what gets learned, and often, both happen on a subconscious level. Yes, teachers should have curricula for their classes, schools and districts should invite public opinion on what is taught, should bring teachers together so they know what’s going on in the classrooms around them. They can even talk about the Core Curriculum, as a guide.

But the federal government, and the state governments who are chasing its grant money, are going to be disappointed–again–by the results of the Core Curriculum because it fails to recognize–again–that the only path to more effective schools lies through the teachers. If you want good, dynamic classrooms where kids will be turned on as learners and develop a set of ethics towards others and the world (the only core curriculum we really need, in the end), you’ve got to foster good, dynamic teachers with a set of ethics toward others and the world. Which is not that complicated, really. Slow, yes. Costly, maybe. But Finland pulled it off, and great schools in the US are pulling it off. They’re empowering and supporting their teachers, giving them time to meet and plan and reflect. They’re not giving them lists and scripts.

Those government experts can still help out. We need people to take notes when our teachers meet, present them research on child development and brain science, help mark papers, maybe sub now and then, so teachers can observe each other’s classes. The government experts can be trained to help ensure that our children and teachers are being treated with respect, that our schools are free of racism, sexism, homophobia and other expressions of violence that make learning impossible and life miserable for young citizens.

But we don’t need experts writing up dream lists of what kids should learn, when. Maybe in a few generations, when our schools are a bit more on track, when students and teachers aren’t dropping out by the minute, we can start thinking about comparing what they’re teaching over in Vermont to what we’re teaching in New Mexico. For now, let’s stay focused on something we might be able to achieve: inspiring and supporting real teaching and learning in our schools.

-Seth Biderman | March 13, 2013

Profile: El Nido and El Atelier

Friday, August, 10, 12 § Leave a comment

Children as protagonists and teachers as learners: two learning centers in Colombia inspired by the groundbreaking pedagogy of Reggio Emilia.

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