Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Forgotten, But Not Gone; Paul Freundlich Remembers Education

Today I asked documentary filmaker Paul Freundlich to contribute a blog entry on education and he graciously offered an op-ed piece he had already been working on.


The ‘60s generation, the Baby Boom, has come in for its share of criticism, yet the issues it has struggled with have produced important learnings, many of which have been obscured or forgotten.

Take our education system. At the end of the ‘60s, I made a feature length documentary film about black education, “Questions Instead of Answers.” The US Department of Education, Carnegie and the Ford Foundation had backed the best minds among black educators to develop Upward Bound. A new generation of African-Americans finally were getting a wider opportunity to attend colleges and universities, yet the public education that had prepared them was woefully inadequate.

At the program I filmed the Thirteen College Curriculum Project. Education was dissected, sliced and diced: Start with where students are, train teachers to build on student experience and engage them in the disciplines that could systematize and sophisticate their natural curiosity.

For example, a sociology class began with the experience of the black family that every one of the students had experienced, and led them to directly confront the theories of leading social scientists – let the chips fall where they may.

English class began with theatrical but lively demonstrations of what goes on in the street. Not such a big jump to the gangs that prowled Renaissance Italy in Shakespeare’s plays. A physics class accepted the premise that you can’t survive crossing an urban street without intuitively understanding mass and velocity. In a math class, one boy explained his ability to derive rapid answers to problems was based on running numbers.

In each case, the students were hooked, helped to understand there was a relationship of what they already knew to disciplined learning. The classrooms of the Thirteen College Curriculum Program were radical laboratories in which both students and teachers were prepared to go forth, multiply, and add to the store of educated youth in our society.

Tens of thousands of students learned within that program and had more productive lives as a result. But experiential learning isn’t just for poorly educated youth of color. Every one of the lessons learned could be adapted and applied to any students, any classrooms, at any level, anywhere.

Enthusiasm for learning starts with the natural curiosity children have about the world. Granted that conditions have changed so that TV and electronic games provide seductive diversions, but the internet is an amazing tool. Grappling with the challenges of our times just means cutting to the chase of different questions and using different tools.

If we recognize that an informed, concerned citizenry is critical to a healthy and civil society, the questions for our classrooms become obvious: Why are there vast differences between wealth and poverty? What does America have to offer the world, and why are we both admired and resented? Is it better to have cheaper goods or higher wages? How can we calculate the impact of global warming? What is the difference between competition and striving for excellence? How do choices about diet and exercise affect long-term health and immediate self-esteem? Is this a land of opportunity for everyone, or are there likely limits based on race, class and heredity? How do we connect with the past of our parents, and can we imagine a future fit for our own children?

Bringing that sense of engagement into the classroom at every level from pre-school to secondary school is a goal far more important to achieve than rote memorization and raising standardized test scores. We learn to walk and talk because there is a natural inclination towards competence; a natural curiosity to take the next step, but never disconnected to the steps before we crawl, we walk, we run.

In the ‘60s, educational theory and practice responded brilliantly to the challenge of equal opportunity, yet we have forgotten the roots of that triumph. The result is an educational disaster that affects our whole society. The pioneering classrooms I filmed insisted there was a connection to the experience of the learners. They built on that towards the competence and citizenship we need as badly today.

Paul Freundlich is President of the Fair Trade Foundation, and has made more than 25 film and video documentaries around the world.

Thank you, Paul. Paul is also author of Deus Ex Machina.


Tom Hoffman said...

Thanks for this, Frank. Whenever I hear about "21st Century Learning," I think I'd be happy to settle for the kind of '60's and '70's progressive education that you describe.

Paul Fruendlich said...

In the early '80s, I had my older son in a progressive private high school in Madison CT. Nice school, excellent teachers, great kids but nothing special on the methodology or curriculum end.

One day, I was talking with headmaster, and told him a little about the 13 College Curriculum project. When I finished, he got a far away look in his eyes. "Oh, yeah, I remember that stuff."

It was like selective amnesia overcame a generation of educators. I have no explanation for why, except it's always tough switching systems, and there needs to be some real will behind it. That we had in the '60s and early '70s.

- Paul Fruendlich