Where Education Happens

The expression “student-centered education” seems redundant to me. I don’t see how education could be anything but student-centered.

The educational process doesn’t take place inside a teacher who leads a class. Much less does it take place inside the books or the information that a class is using. It takes place inside students. Whether I am working with an individual or a group, I can only define my success as a teacher in terms of the progress they make. And their progress is something they do, not something I do for them.

And this simple point has implications that can lead a long way. In the classroom, it means letting students’ questions and opinions serve as the starting point of inquiry. And in working with groups, it means being guided by the groups’ process of shared discovery.

My most recent trip to the Matènwa Community Learning Center offered an interesting example. (See: http://www.matenwa.org.) The school has a growing reputation for providing non-violent, active-learning-based education. It is increasingly being asked to host small groups of teachers from schools in other parts of Haiti, who spend a week or several weeks watching and apprenticing with its staff.

When the school has visitors while I am there, they are always encouraged to participate in the work we do together, and this time was no different. There were about ten teachers from Answouj, a small coastal city northeast of Gonayiv. The Matènwa teachers and I had planned to spend two two-hour meetings discussing a short essay by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, called “Education for Peace: Is it Possible?” The visitors joined us.

The essay was chosen for study by the Learning Center’s Haitian Principal, Abner Sauveur, whose original motivation for founding a school was very much tied to his dream of providing a non-violent alternative to traditional Haitian education. He found it in a book of essays by Piaget that I had lent him with a view to following up the very successful workshop on the psychology of learning that he, his teachers, and I led for other Lagonav teachers this past summer. (See: Lekol Nomal Matenwa.) Its title appealed to him before he even read it.

It’s a short piece that Piaget wrote between the 20th century’s two great European wars. He was watching from his home in Switzerland as nationalism and conflicting ideologies were growing throughout the so-called “developed” world. In the context, the question that gave the essay its title must have had a ring of despair.

The thrust of the answer that Piaget offers is against fluffy moralizing. He writes that education for peace cannot succeed as a sermon. It means, rather, designing classrooms in which children develop the skill of getting along with others. He argues that children need to learn to recognize the real interests other children have that oppose their own.

The Matènwa teachers were excited by the piece, because they saw in it a confirmation of things they already knew. And not only knew, but were implementing in all aspects of their work. They recognized that Piaget was calling for practices like small-group work among students and student/teacher dialogue, which already are the cornerstones of much that the Matènwa teachers do. So, for them, it was an encouraging piece to read.

What was more interesting than how they reacted, however, was how their guests did. These guests had just arrived in Matènwa. They hadn’t yet seen very much. Or, rather, they hadn’t yet looked very deeply. They were experienced teachers. Several of them had risen to become principals. But they were experienced at running the text-centered and teacher-centered classes that are traditional in Haiti and in a lot of other places as well. And what was worse: They were accustomed to being in such classes. So when we sat down to discuss the essay as a group, some of the results were predictable.

They sorted themselves into two subgroups. Two of them spoke directly to me, at great length, about the importance of speaking in class about peace issues. They spoke of making peace a part of the morality they preach to their students, of raising their students’ consciousness regarding the issue. The other teachers from Answouj sat in silence.

This demonstrated poor skills on two levels: poor reading skills and a poor sense of dialogue. On one hand, the speakers showed that they misunderstood the text. What they were reacting to was the words of the title. They knew that we were to talk about education for peace. But they hadn’t really followed the little that Piaget tried to say about the subject. They failed to notice that the strategy they were proposing for raising it – preaching sermons – was directly contrary to what he was arguing for.

On the other hand, their rush to speak directly, and a great length, to the person present who most appeared to them to be an authority figure, ignoring their fellow participants in order to hear what I, their discussion leader, had to say, showed that they weren’t thinking in terms of collaboration. They weren’t thinking in terms of real dialogue. They weren’t thinking in terms of understanding the diverse perspectives in the room.

Under the circumstances, I was faced with a choice. I could simply explain to them my reasons for thinking they had misunderstood the text and why, therefore, the approach they were proposing seemed to me likely to be counterproductive. But doing so would have risked reinforcing two misunderstandings. First, it would have confirmed in practice the habit I was hoping to help them overcome. It would position me as the authority in the room, the one who provides the right answers. Second, it would have confirmed that what we were meeting to talk about was Piaget’s ideas, that the class was appropriately centered on the text, rather than on their thoughts about classroom teaching.

So instead of trying to refute their particular interpretations, I pushed the group away from interpreting by asking them to talk about things they were already doing in the classroom that they felt could contribute towards peace. The teachers from Matènwa spoke up quickly. One talked about Reflection Circles, another about Open Space. These are pervasive practices at the school. They also spoke of the importance place they gave to dialogue in managing behavior issues that arise and of the use of small-group work in most of their classes. They had, in other words, lots of experience to share, and most of them were good at sharing it.

As the Matènwa teachers spoke about specific experiences, those of the Answouj teachers who had been silent began to speak up. Whereas they had been shy about speaking about a short, difficult text in French in front of professional colleagues they scarcely knew, they were interested to hear the teachers talk about the very practices they had been observing in the days since they arrived from Answouj. They asked questions, and compared the Matènwa practices to their own more traditional way of doing things. They could see that, insofar as the goal of an education is peace, they could learn a lot from the teachers of Matènwa.

I could have told them that, but it wouldn’t have meant very much. Letting it emerge in a dialogue that pushed them to compare their own experience with new observations gave the discovery a power it could not otherwise have had.