TRANSFORMING EDUCATION—B(u)y the book! Lessons from Thoreau, Alcott, Gleason, and Lichtman

November 27, 2017
by Peter Gow, ICG Executive Director (This post originally appeared in the ICG’s October 2017 newsletter.)

This fall we’ve encountered a several books that interrogate the ways in which we think about teaching and learning. Perhaps surprisingly, two of these focus on advanced educational thinking in the early 19th century, and those with a more contemporary focus take up similar themes in urging us to change the way we think about schools and education.

HENRY DAVID THOREAU: A LIFE  by Laura Dassow Walls (2017) presents the man who might claim to be one of the progenitors of “progressive” education as a fully engaged human being and active moral being—not just a hermitic naturalist who generated a whole lot of senior page quotes in high school yearbooks. Walls reminds us that field trips, hands-on work, and exhibitions of learning are not exactly “innovations”—arguably, Henry and his brother John invented the field trip as we know it. Walls’s presentation of Thoreau’s active role in the Abolition movement also reminds us that courageous and high-stakes resistance to oppressive government policy is nothing new—enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 saw armed Federal troops mustered to intimidate outraged citizens in Boston.

RECORD OF A SCHOOL by Elizabeth Peabody (1835; paperback edition 2006) dates from a long time ago, but the challenges and conundrums that faced polymath and obsessive gadfly Bronson Alcott as he attempted to transform education at his short-lived Temple School in Boston seem as present to us in 2017 as they were to his insightful and intentionally contrarian self. The Temple School may not have lasted long, but its ideas have been motivating forward-thinking educators from his early disciple Henry David Thoreau down to this very day, and Alcott deserves to be remembered as the educational pioneer he was.

AT WHAT COST? DEFENDING ADOLESCENT DEVELOPMENT IN FIERCELY COMPETITIVE SCHOOLS by David Gleason (2017). Gleason, a consulting psychologist and wide-ranging explorer of schools and student life, makes the neuroscientific as well as the moral and educational case for reframing school so that it is not a toxically, even fatally stressful environment for students. In the vein of the “Turning the Tide” report, Denise Pope et al.’s Challenge Success, and the films of Vicki Abeles—along with the ICG’s own Principles of Independent CurriculumAt What Cost? tells of trouble at the heart of some of the most “admired” aspects of contemporary education—in particular selective school and college admissions—and that more clinicians working with more individual kids is not the way to fix it. The root cause, says, Gleason, is that in our achievement-fixated culture we tend ignore the facts of adolescent brain and social development as we extol “successes” that gratify adult and institutional actors—especially parents and schools—at the cost of student well-being.

MOVING THE ROCK: SEVEN LEVERS WE CAN PRESS TO TRANSFORM EDUCATION  by Grant Lichtman (2017) picks up where his ground-breaking previous work, #EdJourneys (2014), left off. Grant will be familiar to most readers of the ICG newsletter as a shrewd and compelling advocate for new approaches not just to curriculum and assessment but to the entire enterprise of school. A pragmatist and a keen observer, Grant presents in Moving the Rock a strong case for harnessing current technologies, accepted best practices, trends, and even anxieties to create a climate in which more student-centered learning and more flexible, democratic schools become universal desiderata instead of “progressive” or “alternative” oddities accessible and interesting to only a relative few. Grant knows schools inside and out, and his thesis is both provocative (in the best sense) and persuasive.

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