Opinion
Education Commentary

Schools Need a ‘Neotenic’ Revolution

By Allan Shedlin Jr. — July 20, 2016 4 min read

We are in the midst of a period of unprecedented interest in schooling and its improvement in the United States. The past three years have seen a flood of commission and task-force reports that threatens to drown us. Until recently, these reports focused almost entirely on secondary schools. Elementary schools have been virtually ignored.

Our society’s habitual patronizing of those who work with children results from our persistence in viewing childhood as a stage on the way to growing up (rather than as an important and valid stage of its own), a vocabulary that undervalues the roles of people who work with children, and the habitual reluctance of elementary educators and others who deal with children to speak out about the importance of their work. Although this is not a conscious conspiracy, it is clear that something basic is wrong in the way we regard the different levels of schooling in the U.S.

Yet there is a growing body of evidence to support what we have known for a long time: What is learned in elementary school (and earlier) provides the foundation for all future learning. Furthermore, with the rapid changes in family structure, alterations in traditions, the influence of the media, and the impact of new technology, elementary schools play an increasingly important role in stabilizing the lives of children.

Secretary of Education William J. Bennett’s recently formed Elementary Education Study Group provides an opportunity to call attention to the importance of viewing the different levels of schooling as a continuum in which each element must be defined by reference to the others, rather than as a hierarchy in which the latest stage is the most significant. By adopting the idea of a continuum, we can begin to make learning as effective as possible by:

• Appreciating opportunities for continuity;

• Building a better-articulated curricular sequence from kindergarten through high school (and beyond);

• Integrating concepts;

• Making connections between various areas of the curriculum; and

• Calling attention to the interrelationships along the continuum.

In short, we must consider where a child is coming from, as well as where we want him to end up.

By dignifying the primary importance of the elementary school, we will be able to acknowledge that there is much in elementary-school practice that can serve as a model for improving practice at all levels of schooling. Toward this end, Secretary Bennett’s study group has the ability and legitimacy to rally forces for a carefully conceived, gradual, yet vigorous neotenic educational revolution.

The concept of neoteny, as defined by Ashley Montagu, refers to “the retention into adult life of those human traits associated with childhood.” Stephen Jay Gould and others view neoteny as having evolutionary consequences in the human species. Borrowing this concept and applying it to schooling, one can identify many characteristics traditionally associated with elementary schools that have implications for secondary-school (and even collegiate) reform and improvement.

As a matter of fact, a number of recent reports and studies suggest improvements in secondary schools that reflect practices that have always been intrinsic to elementary schools. Some of these are: an emphasis on teaching students rather than on teaching disciplines; flexibility in scheduling; responsibility for monitoring the performance of individual students; familiarity with subjects across the curriculum; a variety of instructional approaches; a clear curricular progression.

As we look to various elementary-school practices to improve other levels of schooling, likewise we should foster--rather than extinguish--certain childlike characteristics that contribute to the aims of a learning community and make schools more vital places. Among such characteristics are a desperation to learn (the inquisitiveness most children bring to school), playfulness, curiosity, a propensity to question, a willingness to make mistakes, imagination, enthusiasm, humor, flexibility, and energy.

Montagu observes that these traits tend to disappear as people grow older. It would be useful to examine what aspects of elementary-education practice encourage these qualities and can be sustained in secondary schools. We might also analyze what in secondary-school practice weakens these desirable traits.

A neotenic educational revolution will not be easy to accomplish. Neither will it--nor should it--happen all at once. We need to begin by fostering a change in attitude. We must recognize that after the family, the elementary school is the most important institution in a child’s life. We must embrace the notion and articulate the consequences of viewing schooling as a continuum that reflects the characteristics noted above, rather than as a hierarchy that leads to increasingly valuable stages of learning. We must accept the notion that there are many elementary-school practices that can contribute to improved performance in secondary schools and colleges.

In keeping with our nation’s historical willingness to take a revolutionary stand against what we see as no longer functional, or not in our best interests, the Elementary Education Study Group has the chance to fire the “shot heard round the world” in the neotenic educational revolution.

A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 1986 edition of Education Week

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