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Toward 'Re-Inventing' Childhood

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"It is not better curricula that American students need most; it is better childhoods," observed Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, in an address to the naesp's state leadership conference last summer.

Among his proposals for "re-inventing" childhood was a call for programs to support nonprofessional child-care providers:


[Policymakers should create] local programs to encourage and train caregivers for our youngest children, from birth to preschool age, whose mothers work outside the home.

Here, let me emphasize, I am not talking about child-development specialists with college degrees; though we badly need them to supervise child-care programs, we cannot wait until we have enough such specialists.

Instead, we must begin now with those caregivers, usually women, who take neighborhood children into their homes or apartments for the day. Our entire attitude toward such amateurs has been negative, aimed at discovering them, licensing them, and often putting them out of business.

Some, to be sure, should go out of business--as well as those with degrees who do not provide a service. But a wiser approach would be to recognize that such amateurs would not be in the child-care business if there were not such a demand for their services, and to help them do a better job of what they will continue to do anyhow, whether we approve or not.

Let us help them meet health and safety standards, not just penalize them for their failure to do so; let us help them use those early years for child development, not just sneer at them for being ignorant babysitters. Let us offer short, tax-supported evening and weekend courses--with their attendance paid for--to help them become smart babysitters.

At a recent symposium on national standards for American education, transcribed in the fall issue of Teachers College Record, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot argued that, even should such standards be established, "the initiative for change and development must be a local effort."

As a way of linking national and local definitions of "goodness" in education, Ms. Lightfoot, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggested that schools be required to prepare institutional "self-portraits":


Part of the process of definition for all schools might be shaped by requiring that schools--every three to five years--construct their own self-portrait: a descriptive, dimensional account of who they are; a sketch of their institutional character--including their ideology and goals, their curricular structure and content, their pedagogy, their relationships with parents and community, and so on.

I picture a dialogue between the national and local levels. On the one hand, the body setting national standards would construct realistic, coherent, universal standards of achievement and accountability, systematically reviewing and reassessing them. On the other hand, the schools' job would be not only to assess how they are measuring up to the national goals but also to draw an institutional self-portrait.

In seeking to portray themselves, schools would not only be forced to become self-conscious about who they are, but the process of reflection and self-criticism would itself be an exercise in institutional improvement. A central quality of good schools is active self-scrutiny. Good schools have a strong sense of self-claimed identity.

In requiring schools to draw authentic, descriptive portraits of themselves, we would surely be asking more of them, not less of them. We would be probing their practical knowledge and local wisdom. And we would be joining, at the local level, two of the critical levers of self-improvement: responsibility and power.

In a recent speech at the National Academy of Sciences, Leonard Garment, formerly a special consultant and acting counsel to President Richard M. Nixon, explored the impact on children of education and experience in the arts:


The experience of dealing with the arts is necessary for younger children. For most of them, producing art is their introduction to the idea of work. They start learning the discipline that they will need to achieve their goals. They learn what powerful satisfaction work can provide. They learn to explore, and they experience success. These are the impulses a human being needs most if he is to work hard and happily in life, and no children's activity is better than art at instilling these attitudes. ...

If we think as we must about the early education of disadvantaged children, the case for the arts becomes even more powerful. This is an area in which such children are not disadvantaged.

The arts provide them with alternative ways of achieving success, giving them a feeling of pride, a sense that they have a place in the world, and a vision of a productive future. The same is true for the education of disadvantaged older children as well. If what they learn of the arts is diverse, then they, too, have an increased chance of discovering a field in which they are among the best.

And the arts, we are coming to understand, provide instruments and techniques for research at the earliest stages of child development, identifying specialized gifts and capacities and nourishing them during the most fruitful stage of the learning process.

With older children, teaching about the arts is important in other ways. If our children are to innovate, they must have a broad education that makes them at home in the world. If they are to vote on issues and decide among goals and values beyond the realm of their personal experience, they must know about the arts, which as much as anything have taught Western civilization the difference between what is lasting and valuable and what is not.

In the May issue of Harvard Educational Review, the researchers Mark B. Tappan and Lyn Mikel Brown advocate a "narrative" approach to moral education: encouraging students to tell stories from their personal experience about moral conflict and choice.

In the following excerpts, the authors compare the narrative method with other approaches to moral education:


A narrative approach to moral education, in contrast [to Lawrence Kohlberg's "just community" approach], does not take as its sole focus ... the democratic process and issues of justice and fairness--that is, it does not set a content-specific agenda for moral education.

Rather, it encourages authorship, authority, and responsibility by focusing on individual stories, and, therefore, on potentially very different moral voices and moral experiences. ...

Given this commitment to pluralism, a narrative approach to moral education is, in many respects, similar to a "values clarification" approach.

Such an approach encourages students to clarify their own values and ethical assumptions through discussion and analysis of moral dilemmas, social issues, and contemporary problems. The role of the teacher in a values-clarification program is to act as a mediator in discussions of values--a mediator who has the dual task of both presenting problems and clarifying discussions. At its core, therefore, a values-clarification approach seeks to avoid indoctrination and to promote, instead, the use of reason in the determination of values. ...

While a values-clarification approach to moral education is similar to a narrative approach in its avoidance of indoctrination and its commitment to pluralism, there is at least one fundamental difference. ...

We would argue that a values-clarification approach pushes toward a kind of radical individualism and relativism, in which each student's values are clarified, but which leads, ultimately, to the view that "everybody has a right to his own opinion."

A narrative approach, in contrast, depends on a context of relationship in which the author and his audience (most likely his teacher) engage each other and learn from each other through the stories they construct and understand together. Consequently, while a values-clarification approach ultimately seeks the clarification of students' individualized values in isolation, a narrative approach ultimately demands a connection between author and audience.

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