Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Elder Gods' Attention Span Will Get You Eventually

I've concentrated on reading instead of writing these past two days, with good results.  Right now I'm about fifty pages into Deborah Meier's The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem (Beacon Press, 1995, 2002), which I've been meaning to get to for years.  I've seen Meier's articles here and there, and she seemed like someone I should listen to.  I was right.

Meier was one of the founders of Central Park East elementary school in 1974, a small and very successful alternative elementary school.  In 1985, the same core people founded Central Park East Secondary School, which was harder because there had been, she says, far fewer efforts at continuing progressive educational ideas into high school.  Usually alternative high schools were "only for the 'gifted' (often wealthier and whiter) or only for those having trouble with school (darker and poorer).  Such mini-schools tended to come and go at the political whim of the district or school supervisor" (35).  But CPESS survived, and is still around.

Meier has been influenced by many of the same educational reformers I've valued, like John Holt and Gerald Bracey, so it's not surprising that there's plenty of useful wisdom in The Power of Their Ideas.  For example:
We all have more in common with five-year-olds than we imagine: adults remain, in Piaget's terms, "concrete thinkers," and little kids, lo and behold, are capable of some very fancy abstractions.  Think about how deeply we've accepted the notion that young students lack "attention spans" because they're "immature," when in fact it's young children who have the longest and most tenacious attention spans.  (Watch an infant struggling for half an hour to work out some new theory of how an object moves from one place to another.)  It's boredom and anxiety that drive concentration away; fidgetiness appears in first grade and grows worse over time [47].
A number of things impress me there, including the reminder that adults retain many of the thinking patterns commonly associated with young children, not always for the better; if anything, we lose the concentration and ability to bounce back from failure and mistakes that every infant learning to walk exhibits.  This fit with a foolish and harmful article a friend linked to the other day, which I hope to return to before long,  But for now I want to forge ahead in Meier's book.

(Image from Avedon's Sideshow.)