The struggle is real
The conference I work for recently asked its early childhood teachers to share their biggest challenge in the classroom. The answer was surprising. The most common complaint was student fidgeting.
“Teachers,” they told us, “if you have a problem with fidgeting in your classroom, you are asking your students to sit too much!”
This, in nutshell, is the paradox we find in early childhood classrooms all across the nation. Teachers are given standards and data-collecting tools, a curriculum, and a small budget. They are expected to cover everything, assess everything, and move children’s knowledge and skills forward measurably. It is assumed they will do it all in a developmentally appropriate way. But don’t count on it. As the previous story illustrates, it is easy to miss the mark.
But before we start ripping into teachers, let’s look a little more closely at what a developmentally appropriate classroom looks like.
As we enter, the first thing we may notice is that this classroom is a busy place. Children are moving around, interacting with each other, exploring and playing with 3-dementional toys and materials. Sensory exploration is the norm, rather than memorization. Instead of filling in worksheets, a child will likely play a game or build a model, then share his or her thoughts in some way. Each child is working at his or her own pace, with materials he or she needs that day to develop his or her thinking. The child will more than likely have daily choices to make about his or her own learning. There is time for free play, songs, and games both indoors and out. Student questions and interests are turned into investigations which are carried forward as deeply as the children’s interests drive them. The teacher is busy taking notes about the children’s thinking, about what they can do, or are about to do. She doesn’t notice her supervisor stepping into the room.
Will she be given grief for her methods? Current educational expectations do not value play. The philosophy of the day wants her to treat all students alike both in teaching practices and in expected outcomes. This teacher’s focus on the whole child and on individualization seems unrealistic in view of modern education.
But wait. What classroom is this? What century is this? Surprisingly, it could be a modern classroom, just down the street from you, or it could be a classroom from the early 1800’s. Yes, the struggle to provide students with an authentic and applicable education has been going on for a long time. Society’s desire to simplify and streamline the educational machine has been at odds with child development almost from the start.
A little history
You could say Martin Luther got the ball rolling. He saw a need to educate everyone, not just the wealthy young males of society. He was frustrated by the practice of keeping children out of school in order that they might work and generate income for their families. He understood that in order to reduce poverty, make social reforms, and spread the gospel, you must have a population who could read and think for themselves. His early ideas were novel, and slow to catch on (Faber). But catch on they did.
He was followed by John Amos Comenius, who developed the idea of “education according to nature” and of using concrete objects to build understanding. John Locke believed that sensory experiences were important to learning. He also believed children were a “blank slate” for teachers to write on (Goodyear), while Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed learning should be entirely self-directed (Weebly).
As educational philosophies evolved, there soon followed great teachers whose names grace modern schools even today. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi’s educational philosophy was summed up with the phrase, “learning by head, hand, and heart.” He was a proponent of play as a means for learning, and for careful pacing according to the needs of the child. He replaced the harsher methods of his day with love and kindness, and encouraged sensory exploration over rote memorization. His Yverdon school became a mecca for both students and teachers, and his ideas and methods were carried to other parts of the world. Friedrich Froebel brought the Pestalozzi method to America and further developed them. Soon had his own following, with Froebel schools thriving long past his own lifetime. Ironically, Pestalozzi’s Yverdon school eventually failed as teachers became caught up in the pressures of the day, drifting away from Pestalozzi’s emphasis on the needs of the child and focusing more on academic expectations (Frost).
The past calls us to remember what we know about children. It reminds us that the struggle to find the best ways to teach and to apply them on a large scale has been going on for a long time. It is worthy struggle. The wise teacher engages in current discussions regarding educational practices and stays current in the field, all the while remembering where we have been.
Ellen White has a lot to say
It is interesting to compare the great thinkers of educational history with the counsel we are given by Ellen White. Children, she says, “should not be forced into a precocious maturity” and should lead a simple life “free from artificial excitement and…more in harmony with nature (White 107).” She speaks of enthusiasm in the classroom (White 233) and of the importance of independent thought (230).
“We can trace the light of the world’s great teachers,” she writes, “as far as human records extend; but the Light was before them…every gleam of thought, every flash of the intellect, is from the Light of the World.(White 131-14). True higher education, true development, she writes, comes from communion with God. And love, she says, is the basis of true education (16).
An educator today must sift through both time-honored and current views of education, and must take into account emerging research as well as the requirements of the local district or conference. Everything must be tested against the Bible. It must be compared against what we know about young children and the way they grow and learn. Finally, a good dose of common sense should be applied.
What do children need?
Children are always on the move, are naturally curious and creative. They need us to understand them and to respect their needs. If we can harness the energy of their curiosity, it will take us down the most pleasant and direct route to learning. Every child is different. Some learn best one way, others yet a different way. Teachers have to resist falling into the trap of just trying to “cover” everything rather than teaching deeply and with passion. The best teachers know their students and take cues from them. The best teachers work within the flow of childhood and not against it. The best teachers take curriculum requirements and standards expectations seriously, but they put the needs of their students first. They resist the pressure to cram little heads full of material that will only be forgotten because children were required to sit still too long, or asked to do paperwork that didn’t bring the subject to life.
A guiding hand
It is a tall order to be the teacher of young children. There are many days when a teacher realizes she cannot do it alone. I’ve found myself in that position more than once. How can I do this job? How can I understand them and love them and lead them? How can I walk the fine line between standards requirements and developmental appropriateness? Some days, I feel I cannot find my way. Yet on those days when I fall facedown before the throne of grace, when I beg the Master Teacher for His divine guidance, those are the days that shine. Those are the days that conversation in the classroom turns naturally to Heavenly things. Those are the days that run most smoothly. On those days, when I know full well my lack, when I know I face failure in spite of all my careful plans, I experience the grace of God. God performs a miracle on those days I know I need Him.
I need Him every day. My program may look good on paper, and my plans may be impressive. But it is all for nothing without the presence of Jesus in the room. He moves on our hearts, He brings a happy glow to our days. He walks between our tables and steps over our toys. Sometimes we can almost see Him. When we gather in prayer and the children lift their sweet voice to Heaven, He is there smiling over us, making the classroom what it is supposed to be, comforting us though the hugs we share and speaking to us out of the Bibles we read so falteringly in our childish voices. The presence of Jesus is the most important element in Christian education.
My philosophy of education begins with God’s love for me. It moves over a lot of knowledge and experience, and it includes sticking up for the needs of the young child in a world where childhood is becoming shorter and shorter. My philosophy listens with one ear to the past and one ear toward future trends. It seeks the best methods and materials. It cautions me to let my students be children. My philosophy includes all this, but most of all it is about God’s love. For God did indeed love His children so much that He sent Jesus, His only Son, so that all who believe may be saved.
It is my prayer that each one of my students may come to know Him, and to believe.
Armstrong, Thomas. Best Schools. (2006). Book review on ASDC website.http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/106044/chapters/Early-Childhood- Education- Programs@-Play.aspx
Faber, R. “Martin Luther on Reformed Education”. (1998). Clarion 47(16). Found on Spindleworks.com. http://www.spindleworks.com/library/rfaber/luther_edu.htm
Frost, Joe. “A History on Play and Play Environments.” (2010). Found on Play and Playground Encyclopedia online. http://www.playgroundprofessionals.com/encyclopedia/p/johann- heinrich-pestalozzi
Gabbard, Carl & Rodrigues, Luis. “Optimizing Early Brain and Motor Development Through Movement.” Early Childhood online. http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=360
Goodyear, Dwight. “John Locke’s Pedegogy”. Encycolpidea of Educational Philosphy and Theory, online. http://eepat.net/doku.php?id=john_locke_s_pedagogy
Weebly online, reagarding Roussea.: http://educationalroots.weebly.com/jean-jacques- rousseau.html