Society can, and should, be judged by the manner in which it educates its children. A society that truly values free speech and the possibility in all of us to reach our full potential requires an educational system that does not shy away from ongoing dialogue between student and teacher, a curriculum that is based on the child’s needs and the provision of curricula that broadens the mind in all areas. Current public education policy in this country is stifling the individual needs of children in favor of a standards based curriculum in which one size is supposed to fit all. Teachers are becoming more and more restricted in what and how they teach and are expected to be held accountable for student achievement represented almost solely by standardized testing. Progressive ideas of education, such as educating the whole child, providing hands-on discovery learning based tasks and an individually tailored approach are not represented in current policy making. Rather a “back to basics” approach, intended to provide students with the necessary baggage to make their way in society, is enforced in many public schools throughout the country. A truly democratic country would see this as antithetical to democratic ideals and would struggle to regain the voices of the people, even if these voices are voices of dissent.
In the era of No Child Left Behind we are revisiting the social efficiency model, prevalent in the 19th century. Social efficiency educators such as David Snedden and Ross Finney, believed that “by applying the standardized techniques of industry to the business of schooling, waste could be eliminated and the curriculum could be made more directly functional to the adult life-roles that America’s future citizens would occupy. People had to be controlled for their own good, but especially for the good of society as a whole (Kliebard, 1994).” A social efficiency model is akin to the banking concept of education as discussed by Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970). This concept relates to a curriculum formed of facts and knowledge that are to be “stored” by the students. The teacher has complete control over what is taught and students are expected to passively assimilate this knowledge without questioning or debate. The child is seen in many ways as an empty vessel, ready to be filled with knowledge. What “knowledge” is to be taught is highly subjective and almost always based on the needs of the dominant society. School policy and a standards based education serves the ruling class as it is most often members of this ruling class who come together to write up the standards in use in schools. Children in many of today’s public schools are not viewed as individuals capable of constructing their own knowledge but rather are seen as vassals of the society in which they live. They are not encouraged to work things out for themselves and express opinions in opposition to the status quo.
The focus in today’s schools on testing, standards and accountability restricts in many ways the creativity of teachers and their ability to cater for a the child as a unique being. Teachers are being asked to follow set curriculum that offers little variation and opportunities for exploration and true discovery learning. Freire talks about dialogue between people as an “existential necessity”. He views it as an act of creation that must not serve as a crafty instrument for the domination of one person by another. Rousseau was one of the first philosophers to question the traditional, liberal arts model of education. Rousseau believed in the importance of children learning for themselves through experience and expert guidance. The tutor is available for the child but the child is not to rely on the authority of the teacher, rather he is to draw his own conclusions based on sensory and emotional experience. A child-centered model of education does not necessarily exclude the teacher from having a pivotal role in the education of young children; it simply places emphasis on what the child brings to the classroom and how best their needs can be met by an expert educator. Standardization of instruction and continual testing does not reflect difference of opinion or of experience. Data collected and used by schools is merely quantifiable and reduces children to mere numbers on a chart. Teachers that seek to provide relevant experiences for children that enable the child to construct their own knowledge in a meaningful way are frequently discouraged from activities that do not fit the purpose of data collection. Teachers in private schools and in public schools in middle and upper class areas are often less bound by top-down standards. In these schools teachers are still afforded a certain amount of freedom to follow their own philosophical path in regards to the education of young children. Schools in poorer areas, however, are more reliant on federal funding as they receive less money from local taxes and contributions. Federal funding, especially as it relates to NCLB, has many strings attached to it. Political motivation is behind the affording of these funds and therefore what is deemed to be of value to society at the time is what is incorporated into the standards the schools (and teachers) are expected to uphold.
Rousseau’s influence on progressive education can be seen in the works of people such as Pestalozzi and Froebel who believed that children learn best through concrete experience and interaction with the world around them. Children are able to construct their own knowledge based on personal experience and sensory motivation. Pestalozzi put forward the concept of teaching the whole child through the natural employment of the senses. Froebel saw play as essential to a child’s development as it was through play that children could fully express themselves. These educators in turn influenced younger generations of educators, philosophers and psychologist who viewed the child as a competent being, capable of unique thoughts and ideas. Good quality Early Childhood settings reflect the work of these progressive thinkers. Children are learning by doing, using manipulatives and other concrete materials to problem solve and are expressing themselves creatively in many different fashions. Curriculum is designed along developmentally appropriate lines and takes into considerations the needs of the individual child. Young children assimilate knowledge in a very different way than do older children and adults. Learning must always be in context or a ‘lesson’ will not be retained. The concrete nature of young children requires that information is processed through all of the senses and that it be relevant to their own life. Testing of children under the age of five, however, is creeping in to some Early Childhood settings, a disturbing trend that rejects expert opinion relating to child development and focuses merely on cognitive development, ignoring the many other aspects of the child that are of equal or greater importance at this (and other) stage(s) of life.
A curriculum that focuses solely on production and not on problem solving and higher order thinking reduces children to the lowest common denominator. The ‘whole child’ is no longer as he or she is simply a test taker, regurgitating deposited information. The unique qualities that define us as human beings are not valued; rather it is test taking skills and cognitive ability that take the upper hand. We all, however, are part of society in one way or another and to this end are required to play a role in the community in which we exist. Education is a means by which to define how these roles are distributed. A caring community in which mutual respect and self-awareness are promoted as worthwhile allows for greater human potential than does a society in which dominant values are imposed on the populace. Standards imposed from outside that do not reflect our needs as social and emotional beings restrict individual potential and stifle the possibility of creating a fairer world for all who live in it.