Monday, March 14, 2011

Contrasting Two Kinds of Education (Part I)

I don’t know how many people know that I grew up in Northern (West) Germany after the war. For many Germans this was definitely the worst of times. Individuals struggled to survive physically, but I wonder how many are aware of the tremendous number of individuals who were emotionally devastated. Many were in and out of mental institutions and there were many teachers among them.

In the midst of this chaos I had the great fortune to end up with a very exceptional teacher. She was young, gifted and talented and had grown up in this little town which had never been bombed (It had actually been scheduled to be destroyed by Allied bombing, but the end of the war intervened).

What made this teacher and this time so unusual was that everyone had so much freedom. New regulations had not been established for schools and education. Also, there was little money to pay teachers so we only went to school 2-3 hours a day and from 8-10 A.M. on Saturdays.

On many days, too lovely to stay indoors, we would go on hikes to a place she felt to be educational. Most vivid in my memory are visits to the local “Schloss” or castle. This was not like many museums today where isolated pieces are grouped and labeled.

Rooms had been largely left intact and this allowed my imagination to run free as I saw myself living in this kind of environment. Our teacher didn’t teach us things as part of a prepared “lesson,” but rather often pointed things out, or linked items to historical events or told stories.

Either as we walked or back in school she had us recall the type of china (Was it “Dresden?”), and furnishings (“What time period and country did it represent?”, “Where did the carpets originate?”, or “When was the castle built and why here?”).

As a result of this almost casual exchange I became fascinated with stories of royalty, their wars and relationships and other struggles – something that became linking themes and convinced me that I was meant to be an historian.

My entire education was incredibly challenging. For example, we didn’t have spelling tests. Instead she would “dictate” a story slowly and we would write as she read to us. German is very phonetic (spelled largely the way it is pronounced) and I found following with my writing very exciting and challenging.

Despite shorter time spans, many opportunities were provided for us. We didn’t have P.E. every day, but we loved it because it was entirely based on achieving our personal best. I can still remember my little sister and I walking to the local gym to practice on the ropes and do acrobatics.

We did this for fun, inspired by our limited exposure in school.

We learned to sing, went to local “children’s theatre” productions and acted in plays. Math was relatively easy because her instructions were so clear, most science was taught on our walks (types of trees, fauna, weather patterns, etc.).

At the age of 12, when we came to the U.S.A., with the exception of the English language, I was almost three years ahead of students in my classes in academics.

Not until college and graduate school did I once again come across the kind of teaching and “magical challenge” I had experienced early on.

At the end of this month, our new book, “Natural Learning for a Connected World: Education, Technology, and the Human Brain”, will be available on Amazon. I know that much of this book is the result of my own experience of the kind of teaching both Geoffrey and I now so passionately advocate.

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