- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Grove Press; Reprint edition (June 24, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0802122701
- ISBN-13: 978-0802122704
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #522,811 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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I Learn from Children: An Adventure in Progressive Education Paperback – June 24, 2014
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At the tender age of 17, Caroline Pratt began teaching at a time in which many of today’s education “reformers” would feel right at home. Children sat in rows of desk/chairs bolted to the floor and learned a standardized curriculum in the “common schools”. It did not take Pratt long to realize that the bright, curious, inquisitive children who came to her soon turned into dull, listless, unmotivated students who, at best, did as they were told and silently lost the life in their eyes. She started to wonder if maybe, just maybe, it would be possible to change the school to adapt to the child rather than the child to adapt to the school. What a revolutionary thought!
After getting her credentials from Teacher’s College, Pratt attempted to teach kindergarten, but found she simply couldn’t bear to teach kids to be butterflies when they’d obviously so much rather be lions. Her superiors rightly recognized that, being from the country, she had a good pair of hands, so they put them to use – Pratt ended up teaching shop to teenage boys of all things. But it was in the course of learning woodworking for herself and teaching it that she began to question a lot of assumptions about learning and the supposed necessity of doing it in a pre-determined order of allegedly increasing difficulty. Freeing her students to pursue their own interests, she discovered that they learned to use all tools and procedures equally fluently and in line with the need given the project(s) which they were pursuing. Making real-life, usable objects actually motivated the kids to learn new tools and procedures as they needed them, regardless of the perceived “difficulty” of the task.
These lessons stuck with her as she began her own school, drawing initially from the working class children near her home in Greenwich Village, New York. But over time, it was the artists and other independent thinkers of the day who were drawn to the school, seeing children actively engaged in the “work” of play as they set about to understand their own world in concrete, visual, direct experience and hands-on ways through field trips to actual community locations and bringing back their experiences to re-enact with blocks and other materials in the classroom. Pratt is, in fact, credited with creating the “unit blocks” that are still in use in many pre-schools and kindergartens today.
Pratt had little use for fantasy. She felt that play was a child’s way of learning about his or her real environment and preparing for his or her role in adult society. Her field trips included, for instance, visits to the harbor to watch real boats move in and out and to speak to real men working the boats. She did not take her students to typically kid-focused places such as museums or amusement places. Similarly, she was highly suspicious about books and reading as she didn’t want to fill her student’s head with stuff and nonsense. She preferred the children to be read (or, later, to read to themselves) stories of real people, places and things, especially after they had been exposed to such real people and things as a way to expand their experience and knowledge.
The book chronicles how Pratt’s school (originally called the “Play School” but changed to the City and Country School when the children protested that they were not “playing” – their pursuits were serious work to them) grew and developed over the years and her own trials and errors. Each year as the oldest kids moved up to the next level, Pratt and her staff put serious thought into how they were developing, what they were ready for and what experiences would best facilitate their development. Over time, the older students demanded to have real, meaningful jobs within the school, so they developed a school store, a post office system and a printing press, among other things. All of these pursuits were directed by the children, with each child getting a chance to assume all roles within these occupations. Further, these occupations then led to developing the curricula around the students’ interests arising out of these pursuits. For instance, as the students worked their store, not only did they learn the necessary math and reading to be able to do so, but they also became interested in the history and development of trade, which itself leads to learning about different cultures and how those cultures encounter and interact with each other. In this way, the curriculum grows authentically out of the children’s interests and real daily pursuits.
Part of what makes this books so delightful is how Pratt’s personality shines through. She was clearly a strong, opinionated woman who had set visions for her school. But, given that democracy was a cornerstone of her vision, she soon ran head-long into the messiness involved in sharing power. She freely admits that she didn’t always get along with parents, especially when she felt they were interfering with her vision, but she also brings herself down a peg by realizing that they too are valid stakeholders and, in fact, that they share mutual goals, if not the best ways to achieve those goals. Similarly, she is very frank about the tension between fostering democracy among her staff while wanting to have control herself.
Pratt clearly possessed a well-honed intellect and she delivers many a barb regarding the absurdities of her day (many of which will be familiar to modern readers). It is quite amusing to read these barbs today, but I have to admit I’m glad I wasn’t around to be on the receiving end of them.
All-in-all, this is a fascinating look at the early hey days of progressive education from a remarkably gifted teacher, writer and visionary. Although progressive education has evolved, like everything else, since Pratt’s day, it is evident how much her ideas have shaped what progressive education remains today. My daughters attend a small progressive school and I was nodding in familiarity with much of what she says. Today’s progressive ed students tend to learn to read earlier than Pratt felt proper, and they are indeed filling their heads with what Pratt would probably consider “stuff and nonsense”. But they still learn that the life of the mind is not divorced from “real life”. They are still busily engaged in solving real-life problems in self-directed, hands-on, meaningful ways that prepares them not only to be good workers, but good citizens and simply good people.
This book is liberally filled with pictures from the City and Country School, from Caroline Pratt’s day through the present time. While clothes and hairstyles change from picture to picture, the types of activities in which the students are engaged remain relatively constant. Rarely (if ever) do we see students seated at desks, all quiet and doing the same thing. In fact, as Pratt says, it is most likely that the teacher is the only quiet, seated, one in the room.
If you, like many these days, are wondering if, just maybe, school could be something more than it typically is these days, I highly recommend this book. Sadly, following its heyday, progressive education has suffered some serious setbacks (some, admittedly, of its own creation), but Caroline Pratt was ahead of her day in understanding children and responding to their needs and interests in a way that promoted academic, physical, emotional and relational health and growth. Maybe some enterprising young teachers today will realize what Caroline Pratt realized about a hundred years ago and maybe child-centered, holistic, progressive education with make its resurgence.