Two Schools of Thought
For the past several hundred years, the biggest question in the field of education has been “should students focus on memory work and content or on learning to think critically?” As a matter of fact people in search of certainty tend to focus the discussion completely in one direction or the other.
This discussion came into sharp focus in 1892, when the Committee of Ten, a group of prominent college and prep school leaders came together and defined the high school curriculum that has been used ever since in most US schools. The big divide between the group was along the lines of those who favored a content-rich curriculum based on memory work and a group who favored critical thinking based on direct contact with objects of education.
Looking back in time to Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), a product of the enlightenment and a renowned Swiss educator, one finds a champion of direct experience in education but it is important to note that he did not fail to see the power of memory.
I have taken great liberty in summarizing his six critical points about education and they follow:
- Personality is sacred.
- As “a little seed…contains the design of the tree,” so in each child is the possibility and promise of the adult.
- Love is a foundation of teaching (Pestalozzi abolished flogging in his school).
- To rid education of “verbosity” or endless lecture, Pestalozzi developed his doctrine of Anshauung or direct concrete observation.
- To perfect perception, objects must be identified and named and then used in action.
- Meaning-rich repetition must follow direct contact learning.
In these six seemingly simple points there is a resolution between those who would favor content mastery and memory and those who favor learning by experience.
Many call Pestalozzi the father of progressive education but he was certainly more of a mainstream person in the history of education than just a progressive.
Woodlawn’s curriculum mirrors many of the ideas proposed by Pestalozzi – we have traditional elements such as content-rich Advanced Placement courses, but we always surround those pieces of content with experiential, project-based learning. At Woodlawn, it is easier for us to bridge this centuries-old divide because we are a small community with a dedicated faculty. Our students benefit tremendously from this melding of seemingly contradictory ideas – they are prepared for a lifetime of learning.