Statement of Educational Philosophy
Cottage Co-Op Nursery School
My educational philosophy is a subject I have considered at length over a period of years. It has been a guiding force in my choices, from where I want to work, to how I approach situations with individual children and families. The principle is simple, and it describes the process through which we build an emergent curriculum: We observe, reflect upon our observations, and act to provide scaffolding for student learning. I want to talk about how we arrive, collectively as progressive educators, at this methodology, and the purpose of working in this way, which is so distinct from other, preprogrammed, curriculums.
One can hardly begin to speak of progressive education without starting with John Dewey. In his Laboratory School, he developed theories that are as vital today as they were when he was writing, a hundred years ago. Fundamentally, he asserts that the purpose of education should be self-actualization, and the interconnection of people in society. He argues that the growth and development of the individual child should be the center of all of our efforts in the classroom, and that the knowledge and subject matter that adults feel such a pressing need to impart evolves authentically from its connection to real life and tangible experience. Passionately, he states, “The source of whatever is dead, mechanical, and formal in schools is found precisely in the subordination of the life and experience of the child to the curriculum” (Dewey, p.7). The child’s real life being central to their educational experience, community with others also must be integral: “...the school itself shall be made a genuine form of active community life, instead of a place set apart in which to learn lessons” (Dewey, p. 25). That principle is what makes a community like ours at Cottage so critical to the teaching that we want to do.
Paulo Freire expands on the importance of regarding the experience of the child and community life as central concerns in education. He describes the typical process by which teachers, as authority figures, passing on the mainstream values of capitalist society, demand that students memorize and regurgitate information, actively ignoring the lived reality of the students. He argues that this method serves the hierarchical structures in place, perpetuating the system, invalidating creativity and innovation, and dehumanizing the teachers as well as the people being taught. However, a “humanist, revolutionary educator” (Freire, p.75) has an opportunity to circumvent indoctrination into the system. He goes on, “...her efforts must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization. His efforts must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power. To achieve this, they must be partners of the students in their relations with them” (Freire, p.75). Partnering with our students as co-learners, where we allow ourselves to teach as well as learn with and from them, is a fundamental value of my philosophy.
Much has been written about how we as educators get our students to engage with us as co-learners. Sylvia Ashton-Warner describes being tasked with teaching Maori children to read in Western schools with the Dick and Jane books of the time, while sitting in orderly rows of separate desks. Unsurprisingly, those books said nothing vital to children living under such vastly different conditions than those portrayed in these sterile texts, instead, invalidating their experiences and marginalizing their reality. In approaching literacy and language authentically, she makes room for what the children bring to the school, makes room for the children themselves. Speaking of the contradiction between the way she was meant to teach and the pressing needs of the students, Ashton-Warner writes, “If only they’d stop talking to each other, playing with each other, fighting with each other and loving each other. This unseemly and unlawful communication! In self defense I’ve got to use the damn thing. So I harness the communication since I can’t control it, and base my method on it” (p. 103-104). Similarly, I value the noisy, messy collaboration between our students. I believe that their urgent communications and expressions can be honored, and that they can learn to honor each other when we model our appreciation for their sharing.
When teachers fail to honor the humanity of our students, they often respond by refusing to learn from us, refusing to become vulnerable to whatever we are peddling. Herbert Kohl describes this “creative maladjustment” and the path for educators who wish to overcome it: “To agree to learn from a stranger who does not respect your integrity causes a major loss of self. The only alternative is to not-learn and reject the stranger’s world” (p.6). “My job”, he goes on, “as a teacher was to get him to feel more empowered by reading than by practicing his active not-learning to read” (Kohl, p.8). Empowering students requires of us that we love and accept them as they are. Specifically, it is counterproductive for us to label and dismiss children based on behaviors that communicate distress or mistrust. Educators must work to earn the trust of our students through authentic connection and mutual understanding, never using coercion or arbitrary assertions of authority. This is as true for our adult co-learners as it is for children.
Community, partnership, listening, and loving: those all sound like nice values, but how does that inform our practice as teachers? We often view ourselves, in spite of our understanding about how our learning relationship really works, as Bestowers of Knowledge. We have valuable information, from our lives as adults, that we persist in the belief that we need to pass on to our students, or get them to buy into as a worldview. We “‘keep interrupting the curriculum the children have for themselves’” (Paley, p.20). Vivian Gussin Paley acknowledged, “it made us feel more like real teachers when we controlled the topic, and we seldom borrowed our themes from children’s play” (p. 31). It is easy to recognize this dynamic, at almost every school, even those calling themselves “play-based”. At Cottage, we instead prioritize long periods of free play, and by “play”, i mean unstructured, child-led free choice of activities, not , “here, ‘play’ with these educational materials I have decided you should work with for the purpose of skill building”.
That brings us back to our practice of observation, reflection, and scaffolding. The true work of a teacher in an emergent curriculum environment, is to build close, trusting partnerships with our co-learners, which allow us to observe all the subtleties of their interactions, behaviors, and communications. With these observations, clear of judgement or labels, we reflect, individually and collectively, upon all that we have observed. We value collaboration with other observers, as it informs our own understanding. We document and discuss our observations, using neutral language, approaching our study with curiosity and openness. From this place of clarity, we develop goals for supporting the individual child in their learning, in the many unique and interconnected areas of growth each child has in that particular time. Emergent curriculum takes patience with the process, trust in the children, and a good deal of emotional work, learning each child over and over as they grow, and that is what I am committed to enacting.
- Ashton-Warner, S. (1963). Teacher. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
- Dewey, J. (2009). The School and society & The child and the curriculum. USA: ReadaClassic.com (Originally published in 1899 and 1092, respectively)
- Freire, P. (2008). Pedagogy of the oppressed. (M.B. Ramos, Trans.). New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. (Originally published in 1970)
- Kohl, H. (1994). “I won’t learn from you” and other thoughts on creative maladjustment. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
- Paley, V.G. (2004). A child’s work: The importance of fantasy play. Chicago, Il: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd.