Education Opinion

Lessons From Lunch (and Recess)

By Judith Renyi — December 09, 1992 9 min read
  • Self-Generated Work. Lunch and recess, and to some extent art, allow children to determine how they will spend their time. They get to choose the kids they wish to work with or to work by themselves, to select the activity, to shape the rules for the activity (“you be the mother, I’ll be the father;'' “that tree over there is the goal;'' “you have to hide your eyes’’) and the materials appropriate to the activity (“let’s get a ball;'' “I need blue paint’’).
  • Cooperative Learning. Lunch, recess, gym, art, and music depend on ensemble work. With a focus particularly on the formal school subjects of gym, art, and music, let’s examine how that operates. Students know that successful work in gym and music more often than not involves team efforts, group work, the ready offering of the individual contribution to the greater good of the whole. No basketball game or choral singing is possible without it.
  • Individual Excellence: Drill, Exercise, Practice, Work. But team work isn’t possible unless each member of the team has practiced individually the skills necessary to the game or performance. Students willingly spend hours perfecting their pitching, their shooting of baskets, knowing full well that “there’s no gain without pain.’'
  • Clear and Present Standards. Children know from the start that there are standards of excellence in gym, art, and music, and that these standards exist in two forms: those the students expect of themselves on a day-to-day basis and those operating in the world at large. No child expects to play the piano like Horowitz on the first, second, or nth attempt, or to play basketball like Magic Johnson. No one else expects it either. But students do know that Horowitz and Johnson are out there in the world. Students generate their own standards for each exercise and each performance. The student drawing a picture of a horse is dissatisfied with the difference between mental conception and actual execution. The student does it again.
  • The Revision Process Is Built In. Redrawing the horse; shooting baskets for hours every day for months; practicing the piece--these are activities students set for themselves when they care about results. They do not have to be told to do it all the time.
  • The Teacher as Coach. Art, music, and gym teachers have traditionally acted as guides and coaches to learning. It is astonishing that they are not more frequently called upon to form the center of school-restructuring activities supposedly designed to relocate the center of learning in the child.
  • The Teacher as Drill Master. Equally important, however, is the extent to which teachers of gym and music retain authoritarian approaches which students accept readily as a necessary part of their learning in the subject. There simply are moments, and plenty of them, when students must be told to run around the field, to practice scales, to work at the drudgery of learning.
  • Performance for the Community. But all the drudgery also has its moments of glory. Art, music, and gym result in public performances for the community. Students know that there will be a game, a work of art to show off, a concert. They will offer up what they have learned to an audience of peers, teachers, and parents.
  • Seeing the Shape of the Subject. Students know that there is an object to be attained over fairly long periods of time, are willing and able to see projects as a whole from the first day and to sustain effort over time. Even the youngest child can do this, whether the project is preparation for a play begun in September and performed in December, or a sport that starts with drill and practice and doesn’t result in a public game for months. Every day’s work entails performance, which enables the student to see interim results as well as to see the place of those interim results as they relate to a much larger picture and longer-term results.
  • Gym, Art, and Music Are Lifelong Studies. Every child knows that these are not one-year courses; that they do not entail lessons that are learned once and forever; that Horowitz practiced scales at age 80 every day and that major league baseball players go to spring training. Progress is tangible and visible to the child, peers, and the community, but progress is also a matter of two steps forward and one back for a lifetime. Focus on your pitching for awhile and your team play may suffer; concentrate on pitch, and rhythm may be neglected. The whole of an art is always in use at any time, but aspects are what you practice or drill at any one time. The youngest child can see that readily and knows that what she begins to study at age 6 will still be there to be learned at 16, 60, 96.

These are but a few of the major characteristics of gym, art, and music, with a few nods to recess and lunch. The question we might consider now is the extent to which these lessons can be applied across the curriculum to all subjects of study, so that our children can learn to love the other subjects as much as they love these.

We need to reorganize our approach to the academic subjects of school in such a way that students can see them whole, internalize standards for themselves, generate their own activities, recognize the need to work to obtain results, offer up performances for peers and community, and engage in the lifelong business of learning. We need to make math, English, history, and science as important to children as baseball and singing.

Ironically, it’s math and history that children have traditionally found boring, stupid, and unimportant. They’d rather spend their free, unsupervised time practicing their pitching or the trumpet. How could we make the “core’’ school subjects as important to children as art? Let me give some examples from a variety of subjects.

Self-generated work: The whole-language movement, for example, has begun to encourage children to select real books to read for their own purposes and to develop writing for their own purposes. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’s standards for math suggest in some ways that problem solving needs to come from the kids. Specialists in other subjects also need to consider how students themselves can generate the questions and the activities they need to undertake in order to learn these subjects.

Cooperative learning: The work of the world is done cooperatively more often than by individuals. Scientists and historians, for instance, work in groups locally and internationally. We should do much more to structure work in these subjects in school so as to mirror the work of the world.

Individual excellence: We must also structure work in school so that the parts (the drill) are present but don’t drown out the whole. Old-style grammar exercises, whereby all reading was reduced to reading for grammatical purposes, effectively masked the student’s view of the whole. The child must be given opportunities to read and write as a whole from the start, so that practice on particular skills can be seen by the child from the start to have its proper and appropriate place.

Clear and present standards: The child should be able to perceive the goal of every act of learning--to see the subject whole. Children should also be aware of both the standards for world-class performance and for individual, developmental performance at every step of the way. In the rush to describe national standards for subjects other than math, we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t remember the analogy to gym or music, where daily, personal standards as well as universal standards both operate at once. Children must themselves be able to internalize world-class and day-to-day standards for history and science as well as for baseball and piano playing. That means that we must cease expecting world-class or “finished’’ performances on a day-to-day basis. Ironically, by ceasing to expect absolute excellence on a developmental basis, we open the door to helping students internalize their own developmental standards in relation to the world.

The revision process: All subjects should be taught in all grades. Like gym, science and history should not be discrete, or one-year courses, but K-12 endeavors should be seen as launching stages for a lifetime of effort. The students must know that self-correction, guided by the teacher, is the heart of learning in math as well as in painting.

The teacher as coach: Much attention has been given to the role of the teacher as coach in the field of writing and more recently math. Is it also useful in other, more content-dominated fields? The answer is yes, to the extent that those fields do not neglect drill, practice, and work either.

The teacher as drill-master: Students cannot self-generate history or science or any subject unless they have done the practice and work as well. There are real and important aspects of learning that do require mastery of content, often more efficiently incorporated through drill than Socratic investigations. To neglect this learning method would be to spend 12 years listening to students’ uninformed opinions. But to allow drill to overwhelm teaching as coaching, is to disrespect the learner. A balance is essential.

Performance for the community: All learning could be shaped in longer units that look forward to public performance, as Theodore Sizer has taught us. Students should perform every day for themselves and their peers, and look forward to seeing those performances in the context of public presentation for the school and parents. That means that some form of publication or production should be incorporated into every subject, as appropriate. Science fairs, publishing outlets for history, and performances of student writing, are just a few samples of such presentations. But all performances need to be part and parcel of legitimate exercises in the field in question. We must be sure we don’t invent performances peculiar to schools but nonexistent in the greater world.

Real writers (scientists, historians, poets) have to submit their work to juried journals and conference committees. Students should have to do the same. Not every child gets a part in the play, a chance to sing, a place on the school’s varsity team. But if every subject offered authentic juried processes like these, far more of our children would have opportunities to shine far more often.

Seeing the shape of the subject: We must cease to shape study as though the larger context were a secret to be kept from the student. Students must have a chance to see the point of what they are doing from the very beginning of their study and throughout it. Don’t just tell them about 1492; show them how history works and set 1492 in that larger context. While gym, art, and music are quintessential “hands-on’’ activities with immediate, tangible results, aspects of science and history and writing in all fields share these attributes. When my children came home from school, I asked them, “What did you learn today?’' They invariably answered, “I had English, then I had math, then I had science, then I had lunch.’' Wouldn’t it be grand if they would answer instead, “I did history, I did math I did a play,’' and then, after all, “I had lunch?’'

Lifelong learning: Never pretend that math, or history, or literature can be contained in a year’s work, that one ever masters understanding, that one can take a test and forget about that subject immediately and forever. By abandoning mastery, we enter the more humble position of the true learner who sees for herself that there will never be world enough or time enough to know anything, but that a life well lived entails the endless pursuit of knowing.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 1992 edition of Education Week as Lessons From Lunch (and Recess)