Scaling the Education Monolith

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Location: Virginia, USA

PostPosted: Wed Nov 30, 2005 5:27 pm
PostPost subject: Scaling the Education Monolith
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I have been teaching teachers for more than thirty years on and off. I am not the most popular teacher educator on the circuit—I teach teachers how to be more like the kids they teach. I do this by showing them that playful communication—sparked by the use of ‘puppet language’—can make them very effective in reaching and motivating kids.

This is not an easy-sell. In a teach-and-test learning culture there is no room for such flight of fancy creativity. Teachers are curious about using puppets, but for a multitude of reasons they are not eager to pick one up to ‘sugar-coat’ a lesson in their classroom.

Their bosses would frown on it. Parents would raise their eyebrows, and many are just unwilling to risk their persona of authority.

In all shape and form, play has been banned from school. Historically, it never had much of a chance anyway. In a culture where control over teacher and child is paramount, play is a threat to the controller and to the self-censor. Hovering around teachers and children, the self-censor helps to keep the controller in control. In the learning culture, the least imaginative and self-expressive are in control of the most imaginative and self-expressive. Education in the Land of the Free has become a social-psychological prison posing as the certified place of learning and academics.

If you’re a teacher who is big enough to agree with that view, you’ll probably want to keep reading.

Of course, only idealistic fools seriously pursue change.

Why should anyone care if school has become rigid? Besides, what’s the alternative? Life, the argument goes, has become complex, and the process of educating so many children requires discipline and a system that cannot bend to the individual child. In school, it is sink or swim, eat or be eaten. The test trumps all; and all, whether we like it or not, must pass the test or fail.

Thirty years teaching teachers about puppets and play is a long time. Why have I done this? Because my early encounters with teachers, kids, and puppet play led me to believe that our premises about conventional learning and teaching were not only wrong-headed, but also toxic and damaging to the minds of young people and to the adults who ‘taught’ them. I'm not alone in my thinking, but sometimes it feels that way.

Like Schliemann, the dreamer who believed he knew the underground location of Troy when professional archeologists laughed at his dreams, I believed that I had stumbled on an idea that could transform all that we knew about education—its philosophic foundations, practices, and benefits.

Obviously, I was either delusional or full of grandiose notions. Something big had to have happened for me, a kid from Long Island with no advanced degree and several years of teaching in an urban high school, to think such grand thoughts—and indeed something did happen.

My early encounters were of ‘a third kind.’ As a puppeteer, I had watched children through a hole in my theater talking to my puppets, an experience that altered my mind and propelled me forward on a quest to eradicate the mundane nature of teaching.

Under a series grants in the early 70s, I showed teachers how to make very simple puppets out of paper and to use them—not as performance art—but as parts of a teaching language, as conversation pieces. I tinkered, took notes, acquired patents, collected teacher accounts, wrote, and built a web-based showcase. That work has evolved over the course of decades.

The bottom line: You simply cannot find a more powerful, more systemic antidote to the ills of institutional learning than in the behavioral effects of the hand puppet.

If the classroom had become a sterile box of disaffection, pressure, stress, and control, puppet-based play language communication could humanize everything.

If education reform was perceived as a complex, immovable rock of politics, polemics, and platitudes, then play-based communication could transform the rock, everything in the classroom—the people, the content, the culture—a comprehensive, overarching, systemic reversal of polarity, premise, and experience set in motion not by policy-makers and laws but from the inside out, starting inside each individual, as a playful act of nature.

If the classroom box had become a wasteland of de-natured cubicles outflanked by expensive tests, text and workbooks, and commercial resources that benefited publishers while robbing kids of their right to a sane learning culture, the use of play language cost nothing, empowered teacher communication and creativity, opened the windows to energy and excitement, invited nature into the room, and, I repeat, changed everything.

Last year, I took a giant step closer to becoming the Schliemann I had envisioned. I received an invitation from a Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a huge consortium of over 100 nations, including the U.S., focused on the big-ticket issues of international economics, population, health, science, and education. The OECD has a brain-based learning Unit called the Center for Education Research and Innovation (CERI). Believing that I had invented a practical application of brain research, the OECD/ CERI asked me to speak at an annual symposium attended by brain scientists from all over the world studying cognition, emotions, and learning. They were recognizing my project, my research, and the unique pathway I had blazed that intersected with science and art.

But Schliemann made his mark because all the world knew of Troy, if not its actual location. My problem was that the ‘buried city’ I had discovered was unknown, invisible, and contained treasures of antiquity that merely revealed the biological foundation of learning which only one individual –I--had been searching for. Instead of a real but buried city to be unearthed, it was as if I had instead presented an Einstein-like Theory of Relativity that stretched the very boundaries of knowledge and awareness in education. In science, Einstein got the attention of the field even if it sparked controversy and disruption. In education, who cared? I had gone as deep into the center of the education world as any explorer or thinker could ever go—not just in the abstract but in practical reality. I had created cold fusion in the classroom. I had created a machine that could turn every teacher into a miracle worker. I had discovered a way into the hearts and minds of children, and made the way practical and economical.

I discovered an art form that was actually alive— literally an outgrowth of brain—unique to human play and communication (but similar to animal communication)—that revealed a unique pathway for reaching kids. I had reinvented this art into a language for practical application. I had used the language in brain research that confirmed the art’s reputed impact. The art had been used in the classroom—not in vast numbers—but in the hands of enough teachers to have generated enough evidence that it was more powerful than any other medium or tool used in the classroom. I had documented that the art had a transformative effect on the three most change-resistant areas of education: communication, content, behavior.

But all that was in the realm of Education--a dense mass of bureacracy, paper, credential, encased in academic thinking.. My work tried to seek its own level, but it was mired in obscurity, indifference, and ignorance. Writers, editors, producers did not speak my language, could not see what I had created. My story interested no one. Innovation, it seemed, was reserved for things tech, but not in education. Entertainment and performers could struggle to be discovered, but in education talent in the hands of teachers did not register on the creativity scale.

How many pioneers in education were there? How many, tinkering with the likes of paper and glue, without an advanced degree, developed something that could get them invited to Europe to address brain scientists looking for new applications of brain research?

How many introduced a new theory of communication? How many had re-invented and harnessed a social and brain-based art, making it into a language?

How many developments in education carried the promise of turning conventionally prepared teachers into consummate communicators?

Education is a terrain that’s nondescript, a pine barrens of mediocrity, bureaucracy, self-selective gurus that stroke folks in the yoke. How many pioneers have introduced a means of escape, a means of dissolving the bonds of boredom for both kids and teachers alike?

In a field averse—almost immune—to change, how many pioneers have introduced a vaccine that chemically dissolves the cultural calcification that has paralyzed the field of education almost from its inception?

In the history of education, when had anything like this been introduced?

Perhaps I had selected the wrong media. Puppetry is a marginalized art, good only for the very young, TV commercials, or the occasional cameo on a TV sit com. If you mentioned the P-Word, and weren’t Sesame Street, you were inconsequential or only for toddlers. But I had proven them wrong in this as well: I had teachers using the medium in high school and college. The issue was not age-apprpriatness; it was about the universality of play that people ignored and discounted. The best side of human nature, the brain's invention, 'the nicest thing that nature ever did for us' (MacLean) was banned or shunned by educators. Nowhere to be found on the radar screen.

But history is replete with the exploits of dreamers and searchers who prevailed in the end, if for no other reason than sheer doggedness. For better or worse, I am a fine example of vision and doggedness.

You see my tail? It’s still waggin’

Are you still with me?
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