Doing Education Old School

I attended the award dinner for the Brock International Prize in Education last week, where this year’s winner, Jeff Duncan Andrade, spoke eloquently about creating equitable learning environments in which people care for one another. As he finished his acceptance talk he said (a bit more smoothly than my rough paraphrase), “I know this prize is about innovation in education, but what we’re really doing is old school.”

Old school.

Human wisdom. Foundational.

It made me think about one of my early encounters with old-school, foundational approaches to learning.

The year was 1964 and my Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Watson, was way ahead of her time (or so it seemed). She promoted inquiry, discovery, and learner agency. She allowed us to discover our own solutions to problems, both intellectual and social and remained completely relaxed when we failed. She introduced us to new ideas and information, created an environment where we could explore those ideas, and provided coaching when asked. Most importantly, she insisted that we care for each other treat one another fairly.

My description of the school might make it sound like Mrs. Watson was implementing some innovative new approach to classroom learning. In reality, she was just doing things old school, the way she had learned in small communities and rural life as a child. She simply created a caring, nurturing environment where everyone was loved and where everyone was expected to love and care for others (including classmates, rabbits, chickens, rats, and other life forms).

She created a foundational, caring environment in which anyone and everyone could develop successfully, on their own terms. The learning and discovery were simply a natural consequence.

Ten years later, as a sophomore in high school, I was working on a group project and our topic was child abuse. Sans Wikipedia or Google, and having only a small school library to work with, we began asking other adults in our network for advice on where to find good research material. When I asked my mother, she said, “Why don’t you talk to Jeanette Watson (the same Mrs. Watson who had been my Kindergarten teacher)?”

It turns out that, while I had been making my way through one part of the education system, Mrs. Watson had been navigating a different part of it. She had most recently become Texas’ Director Office of Early Childhood Development. “I’m sure she would love to hear from you and be more than happy to help,” she said.

And indeed Mrs. Watson was more than happy to help. In fact, child abuse had been a central emphasis of her work for early childhood development. So she gave me copies of her many speeches on the subject, copies of research articles, and an extensive bibliography (before I knew what a bibliography was). She even gave an audio recording of a presentation she had made.

Needless to say, the group project was a big success. But what I really took away from the experience was a reminder about “old-school” education, about creating and living environments that promote caring and equality for everyone.

The learning and discovery were simply a natural consequence.

So, here’s to you Jeff Duncan Andrade, and to you Mrs. Watson, and to all of the other people taking an old-school approach to learning by creating and living environments that promote caring and equality for everyone.

The learning and discovery you inspire will simply be a natural consequence of the environments you facilitate.

Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEL Library

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