When schools began to consider how to open after emergency closures due to the pandemic, I remember thinking, “Ah, here is an opportunity to make some real changes in how we educate our children!”

Nothing could stay the same, I figured, so why not step back and take a new look at old assumptions about teaching and learning? I have always valued an opportunity I had to do just that in 1990, when I started teaching a group of young 5-year-olds in a new program at my school. Given carte blanche to do what I felt was right for the children (as long as they were “ready” for Kindergarten the next year,) I took a step back from all I had been told by others and assumed to be true, and re-examined every assumption. Why did we walk in a straight line to P.E. across campus? Why did Kindergarten require a letter of the week? Why were “subjects” separated from each other, even in early childhood? Why could children not copy from each other? And so on. From there, I started to put together a program that put children at the center of teaching and learning. Coincidentally (or maybe providentially) I encountered the Reggio Emilia philosophy that same year; Reggio supported my pedagogical and philosophical shift, but I am not sure that would have happened if I had not first looked at the familiar—assumptions about children, teaching, and learning—with a new eye.

Unfortunately, as the world has begun to cope with pandemic reality, I have watched schools reopen virtually and/or in person after teachers put hours and hours of work and effort into creating ways to ensure environments were safe for… exactly what they used to do. The world is spinning off its axis, and our response is to do more of what we have always done. I saw Kindergarten classrooms with centers removed and nothing but individual desks six feet apart in barren spaces. I heard teachers preparing to teach virtually reaffirm that their job is to impart information via distance software.

I understand, of course, that protocols around health and safety have to take priority. But I also think that this is an opportunity to step back and recognize how inappropriate to the times—and to children—many of our paradigms are. It is time to reimagine education, to put aside the assumptions that formed what has been education since the 19th century in our country, designed to serve an industrial nation without digital information accessible to all, with entirely different assets and problems. It is time to imagine what kind of education might serve our children and our society now. Consider:

  • Information is no longer finite. There is no way to know all there is to know. Who is to say what is vital to know? That is pretty arbitrary. Is it not more important to 1) have the curiosity to question, 2) have the motivation to engage in inquiry, 3) practice engaging in research, and 4) be able to think critically about the information you discover in your research? Of course, content is a necessary context for the development of positive dispositions toward learning, for engaging in inquiry, for understanding the world, and for acquisition of communication skills. But should “collecting content” be the end goal? High stakes testing notwithstanding, perhaps not.
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  • If our planet is to survive, people are going to have to take care of the natural world proactively. They are more likely to do that if they have a relationship with nature. Developing that relationship is the work of all of childhood, beginning in infancy. I believe a large part of children’s education should be in and engaged with the outdoors. In addition, one of the values we support should be that of advocacy: expose children to the world and its many conditions, and when their hearts engage, as they will, encourage children to do something meaningful. Tell them stories of others whose advocacy made a difference. Help them find their voice. Help them make a difference.
  • Think about why we ask children to study what they study. For example, reading and writing are about communicating. From the beginning, literacy should be embedded in communication for real purposes. Though you may have mini-lessons in word study or punctuation, for example, the bulk of your writing time at school should have children writing—their own thoughts, their own words. Pre-primary children can draw, dictate stories, and come to understand what writers know and do by learning to write their own stories. Every concept in literacy can be taught through actual reading and writing; they are the reason you are teaching those concepts.

If you step back and ask yourselves (together with colleagues) why it is important that children study something and dig down, it may help you understand why this notion of research and critical thinking can be meaningful to children. The division of subjects (even in preschool!) is arbitrary, having come from the minds of adults. If you step back for a broader view, as I am inviting you to do, you may see that subject delineations really do not make much real-world sense. If children are engaging in research in authentic ways, the lines that mark “subject matter” blur and fade.

Children need communication/literacy competence (reading, writing, speaking) no matter what they are studying, because they need the ideas of others to bounce off of, and because they need to make their own ideas known. They need to be able to think about quantity and geometry as problems arise naturally in their research. In my experience, literacy and mathematics instruction outside of children’s research is not enough. It is through deep investigation that children 1) appreciate the purpose of such knowledge; 2) develop far deeper understanding than out-of-context instruction can offer; and, 3) get to use what they know in a way that furthers their understanding better than half an hour of instruction in “reading group” can ever offer.

Perhaps it is time to flip our image of academic learning on its head. Rather than assigning the bulk of school time to instruction in discrete subjects, with project work relegated to relatively small chunks of time, why not consider research and investigation primary? Word study and math instruction would not need to dominate the day’s schedule if they were considered a response to—and in service to—children’s research. My own teacher research over many years supported this with 5-year-olds, in the beginning by accident. Because they were in a pre-primary setting, academic proficiency was not required by the school. Yet, because the children’s research was primary, because they needed to draw/write and to “speak math” to do their research, and because the emphasis was on intellectual engagement and they developed awake minds, their academic growth was remarkable—and joyful!

These are just a few examples of how we might turn “schooling” as we have known it into education for the present and the future. Real change requires many minds thinking together. In my mind now is the time. This has been a crazy and challenging few years. “Crazy and challenging” invite innovation. Let’s seize this opportunity, put aside our old assumptions, and reimagine what education can be.

Author Pam Oken-Wright

Pam Oken-Wright, M.Ed., is a pedagogical consultant and author who worked with young children as a teacher-researcher for 37 years. She has studied the Reggio Emilia philosophy since 1990 and enjoys supporting educators on their journeys exploring this most joyful (and complex!) way of teaching and learning.

Oken-Wright has traveled internationally to consult and give workshops and keynotes. She is the author of "Mommy, They're Taking Away My Imagination: Educating Your Young Child at Home" and has authored many chapters and articles. Her most recent work is published in her blog, "The Voices of Children: Lessons Learned While Listening" at pokenwright.com.
Oken-Wright lives with her husband and three dogs in Richmond, Virginia.

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