“A laboratory for the working out of an elementary and secondary curriculum which shall eliminate obsolete material and endeavor to work up in usable form material adapted to the needs of modern living.”
That was the board of Abraham Flexner’s Lincoln School In New York in 1916, as quoted in Lawrence Cremin’s most excellent book The Transformation of the School. As one who has promoted the use of “modern” learning and schooling, I love the word choice. And I love the sentiment, especially the stuff about obsolete material.
A couple of weeks ago, a bit of a Twitter debate erupted when I linked to this piece about Roger Schank where he says:
“In fact, we should not be teaching kids anything. Nobody remembers what they were told. Parents don’t ‘teach’; they discuss things with their children.” He says we should get over the idea that schools are supposed to teach. The basic idea should be to make children think clearly and any good teacher can do that.
To me, that’s much of what “modern living” requires at any time, but especially now. Thinking clearly. Solving problems that matter. Being curious. Making stuff. Co-operating and working with others. It does not require “learning” obsolete material that will be forgotten as soon as the test is over, which accounts for the vast majority of what we teach kids in schools.
So when Flexner set out to create a school for modern living, what did he do? He:
“built a curriculum around “units of work”that would reorganize traditional subject matter into forms taking fuller account of the development of children and the changing needs of adult life.”
So, first and second graders built a play city as they studied community life. Third graders studied boats. Fourth grade worked on foods while fifth graders took on land transportation. Sixth graders studied books through the ages. In high school, seventh graders took on “man and his environment,” while the eighth grade studied “living in a power age.” Then it was “ancient and modern cultures” and finally, “living in contemporary America.” In other words, no disciplines per say. Projects. Problems.
If you want a sense of what was learned in these “units of work,” see this enlargement of the photo below outlining the 4th grade boats work.
“Each of the units was broadly enough conceived so that different children could concentrate on different aspects depending on their own interests and the teacher’s sense of their pedagogical needs; each of the units called for widely diverse student activities; and each of the units sought to deal in depth with some crucial aspect of contemporary civilization.”
So don’t miss it: Not every child learned the same thing. And the outcome was that Lincoln students scored as well or above their peers on comparison tests and did better than their peers in college.
“At public school they jam facts into you,” one student insisted. “Here you really learn something.”
It wasn’t perfect, of course. But the Lincoln school makes a powerful point, I think. We’re not limited to the traditional structures if we believe other architectures of learning might work more effectively for kids.