Penya giggled when I asked him whether he knew his right hand from his left. He’s my six-year-old neighbor. He graduated in the spring from a three-year pre-school program, and is ready to start first grade in the fall. Madanm Mèt, who is his aunt, laughed and said that the question was beneath him.
In a sense she was right. When I asked him to show me his right hand, he had no trouble doing so. But he was standing directly opposite me, and when I asked him to point to my right hand, he immediately indicated my left.
It was just what Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget said he would do. In the book I had been studying with a group in Dabòn, Piaget claims that young children are egocentric. He means it literally. They view themselves, he says, as the center of everything, and are unable to see things from a perspective other than their own. By asking Penya to identify my right hand, I was reproducing one of the examples that Piaget cites to make his case.
The discussion group was organized by a group called “Rasin Lespwa.” The name means “Roots of Hope.” Rasin Lespwa is a cultural organization that has been advancing education and cultural life in Dabòn for almost fifteen years. They run a small library – the only one anywhere near Dabòn – and arrange various kinds of seminars, lectures, concerts, contests, cultural exchanges, and other events.
This was the third consecutive year they have invited me to lead a two-week short course during the summer vacation. The first year, we read Descartes’ Discourse on the Method. Last year, we read Paulo Freire’s Education as the Practice of Freedom. This year, we chose a collection of essays by Piaget called On Pedagogy. We spent two weeks talking about various aspects of his approach to the psychology of learning. The largest number of participants were primary school teachers. The most active, however, were a high school teacher, a librarian, and a couple of recent high school grads.
For most of the first week, and into the beginning of the second, we were working hard to understand, at least in outline, Piaget’s view of how a child’s intellect grows. He is very much convinced of at least two things: First, that knowledge is something each of us creates in ourselves. It’s not, in other words, something that a teacher can simply transmit to a passive student, but must be constructed by an active learner. Second, that clarity, sophistication, and rigor of thought only develop as we interact within a group. In other words, our intellectual development and our social development go hand-in-hand, so that it is, in his view, tremendously important that schools be built around collaboration rather than individual achievement.
It was towards that middle of the second week that this second point really hit home. The group came to the realization that Piaget was not just saying that group collaboration was an interesting classroom technique that a teacher might employ to help students learn more effectively, but that he was really insisting that students could only grow as thinkers to the degree that they worked together with one another. In effect, they began to see that, if Piaget is right, they are not really teaching their students anything at all.
This was easy for the recent graduates to accept. They even liked it. They were excited by the chance it offered them to bemoan the education they had been subjected to, to criticize the teachers they had had and the schools they had attended. It was an easy pill for the high school teacher to swallow as well. For a number of years he had been carefully choosing the schools he worked in, selecting only those in which the classes would be small so that he could run them in the ways he wanted to run them. He was already emphasizing teamwork among his students.
But when the enthusiasm for Piaget’s argument had gathered real momentum, something surprising happened: Two of the primary school teachers, who were sitting next to each other, started laughing. At first they made efforts to cover up their laughter. But they couldn’t, and soon enough their laughter was perfectly clear.
We asked them what they were laughing about, and though they didn’t want to say so clearly, it became evident that they were laughing at the rest of us. We just didn’t get it. How in the world were they supposed to use student-centered education or teamwork in the classes they actually were teaching. They both worked, they explained, for a school supported by a Christain mission, where the cost of the education is very much subsidized. Parents pay almost nothing to send their children, and the kids get free school uniforms and free hot lunches to boot. As a consequence, there is an enormous and insistent demand from parents for the school to accept their kids. Maximum class size is supposed to be 35, but that maximum is largely ignored, and classes can have 40 or 50 or more. Try to imagine working with a class of 60-70 first-graders. We need not even get into the inadequacies of the classroom spaces they are assigned.
Our group had failed to consider the perspective of someone actually working in a Haitian schoolroom, so our insistence that education in Haiti take a new shape, though we believed it to be based on compelling arguments, failed to account for the reality that these teachers face every day. And it wasn’t just that I, as a foreigner, was guilty of this. The high school grads had been much worse than I had been, beginning many of their comments with phrases like “I hope the teachers who are here will . . .”
The teachers themselves would be willing to try new approaches, but not until someone can help them imagine just how to move forward. The two weeks we had spent reading together had been useful. Reading a book together, and talking about what its author said, helped all of us develop an initial picture of the kind of classroom we would like to see. At the same time, such a conversation can at best serve as a beginning for change. Actually changing the way classrooms work will take more time and energy. We’ll need to talk through specific strategies that enable teachers to imagine how they are to implement the classroom that we all hope for. And implementation is certain to be hard: Continued dialague through the whole process will be necessary if real changes are to take root. The follow-up of our seminar is in the group’s hands. We have scheduled a meeting for the end of September to discuss our plans.
In the meantime, I want to say one more thing about Piaget. The question I asked Penya is only one of the simple questions that Piaget suggests to make his point. I had already asked Penya the other one. I asked him whether he has brothers. He told me he has two, Christopher and Breny. I then asked him how many brothers Christopher has, and he said one. Then he thought for a minute and corrected himself. Christopher has two, he said, Breny and himself. At six years old, Penya was doing what Piaget says is first done at eight or nine. He was looking at the question of brotherhood from his brother’s perspective.
Now, Penya is a very bright child, and the ages Piaget gives are only averages, so I wasn’t really surprised. But I decided to try another experiment. I asked Givens, my godson, whether he has a brother. He told me that he does, Cedrick. I then asked him whether Cedrick has a brother. Givens smiled, hid his face in my lap, and said “Givens.”
Givens is not yet three, so I had to wonder whether there was something wrong with Piaget’s view. Is the perspective that he speaks from limited by the time and place of his experiments and by the population of children he interviewed?
It’s a little hard to imagine that he’s entirely mistaken. So much of what he describes seems right on. But he himself strongly emphasizes the role that our social life plays in developing our intellectual capacities. Maybe the great difference between Givens’ life and the lives of the children of Geneva lead them to develop in very different ways as well. Just how different would be hard to say, but it would be a very appropriate matter for further investigation.