“I believe that every teacher should realize the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth” (John Dewey , 1897).
Education is indeed, as Dewey notes, a profession of service. Educators are both entrusted and charged with the duty of guiding the social, emotional and cognitive development of the next generation. While we may quibble over precisely what “proper” social order and “right” social growth entail from a moral, ethical and cultural standpoint, for better or worse, there is no denying the impact that education has on children. Yet, schools are more than just placeholders for children before the real work of life begins. Indeed, both Dewey (1897) and Wolfe (1998) speak to the need for education to be grounded in the present, “School should be less about preparation for life and more like life itself” (Wolfe, 1998, p. 169). Moreover, we are encouraged to consider the individual as a the predominant factor in the educative process. In My Pedagogic Creed, Dewey (1897) believes that “The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education”.
There is no doubt that attending to the innate curiosity and individualistic knowledge of children is paramount. But what to do in the case of children whose instincts and powers have been stunted through neglect, emotional and/or physical trauma? In their report and policy agenda on traumatized children Cole, OBrein, Gadd, Ristuccia & Gregory (2005) remind us that “Our fundamental assumptions about ourselves and about the world around us are the lens through which we view and evaluate events and relationships. They provide the conceptual framework that helps us make meaning of our experiences and enables us to function effectively” (p. 15). This meaning-making is a crucial component of developing a sense of self in what can be a chaotic world, yet Cole et al. (2005) identify the crushing impact that trauma can have on children “..a child’s self- perception and worldview can get carried into the classroom, where it can interfere with the ability to process information and maintain control over behaviors and emotions” (pp. 2-3). Moreover, “…violence at home can help create negative expectations and assumptions. Such children may have a diminished sense of self- worth and feel incapable of having a positive impact on the outside world” (p. 15). Yet, despite the dramatic effect that trauma can have on learner’s cognitive, social and emotional development through a warped sense of self and others, child-development psychologists Masten and Coatsworth have identified a few key factors that can influence even a traumatized child’s ability to become a competent learner:
- a strong parent-child relationship, or, when such a relationship is not available, a surrogate caregiving figure who serves a mentoring role;
- good cognitive skills, which predict academic success and lead to rule-abiding behavior; and
- the ability to self-regulate attention, emotions, and behaviors.
(Cole et al., 2005, p. 43).
While I may not be able to gain “…insight into the psychological structure and activities of the individual” as Dewey (1897) recommends for all my students, I can structure the learning environment in a way that supports all learners through mentorship, cognitive and self-regulatory development whether traumatized or not. Wolfe (1998) tells us that there are three levels of learning: concrete experience, symbolic or representation, and abstract; each builds upon the other. By definition, abstract thought is not tangible, it is important that learners have some sort of anchor within a concrete experience to aid in their exploration of conceptual thinking. One means to ground the abstract in reality is to follow the lead of constructivist learning theory. We know through the writing of Dell’Olio & Donk (2007) that
“Learning experiences based on a constructivist theory often challenge students’ ideas about the world. Instead of collecting new information to add to their existing schemas, constructivist learning experiences challenge students’ previously held knowledge and beliefs…students will encounter new knowledge and must rearrange their schema by accommodating what has been discovered through their inquiries. Their schemas will rearrange as their thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes change” (pp. 348-349).
Perhaps engaging all students, but especially traumatized students in authentic problem solving will encourage the “proper” and “right” social growth and cognitive growth that Dewey felt was the calling of every teacher. By engaging in an authentic problem that must be solved, students gain a new perspective as they work towards a solution; this is a tangible, concrete experience that can help to “rearrange their existing schema”; a schema based in fear, withdrawal and isolation to one that is inclusive and meaningful. Wolfe (2005) tells us that “Authentic problem solving has been shown to immeasurably enhance students’ motivation, sense of efficacy, and self-esteem” (p. 171). Developing the ability to take another’s perspective, engage in problem solving and analysis while engaging in the curriculum, are all skills that are typically stunted in learners that have experienced severe trauma, according to Cole et al., (2005).
Though I do not believe that any of my grade 5 students were necessarily traumatized learners, I can provide an example of authentic problem-based learning that my Grade 5 students engaged in when I was teaching in Mongolia. This is a link to October 1 Assembly presentation slideshow detailing some of the two-year work that my first class of grade 5 students engaged in. I believe this is a good example of how I have met the Curriculum and Instruction STandard 2 Evidence of a classroom environment that empowers student learning through the provision of challenging learning opportunities.
I’ll begin with some background. In Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, only one third of the population is hooked into the hot water and electrical supply; the rest of the population lives in makeshift housing, typically round felt Gers (we know them by the Russian name, Yurt). In the past few years, there has been a great influx of people from the countryside due to a natural disaster known as a Zud. The Zud that happened when I was living in Mongolia was a condition of extreme cold during the winter (we’re talking -30 for months), followed by drought. Mongolians are the last horse culture and outside of the few cities, live a traditional nomadic herding life (camels, sheep, cows, goats) so when a Zud strikes, their livestock is wipe out. A large influx of people from the countryside, whom have lost everything, migrated to Ulaanbaatar in hopes of finding work. Like most migratory stories, it is the poor that pour into the cities, and it is the poor that are left to fend for themselves; ignorant to city life, uneducated and unemployed. Early in the year, we took a field trip to one of the Ger Districts to look at the impact of migration on the city. After spending a half-day with a community organizer learning about the typical living situation present in the Ger District, my students were inspired to do something. They raised money to support a community-based project and had enough left-over to fund a full-ride college scholarship for an aspiring Mongolian opera singer; two years in a row. My students had conducted field research, identified need, asked how they could help, devised a plan to raise money, petitioned the PTA for matching funds during a presentation of various community-service options identified, then raised money again (when in Grade 6) to continue their support of their college student. A definite bonus was when he was able to attend the school’s Tsaagan Tsar (Lunar New Year) celebration assembly to sing Mongolian opera for the entire school. It was an amazing experience to watch a group of ten year olds go through a process that literally changed the course of numerous peoples’ lives.
“School should be less about preparation for life and more like life itself”
(Wolfe, 1998, p. 169)
It seems that everywhere I go, in every school that I teach, students want to help others but don’t necessarily know how to go about making a difference. Perhaps the most impactful experiences for me, as an educator, has been in facilitating my students interaction with authentic learning experiences as they go out into their community to do the work of engaging in selfless service. While I doubt they’ll remember long division with any real joy, I can take solace in knowing that I have helped to make some abstract conceptual ideas (caring, inquiry, altruism) perhaps a little bit less murky. As an international educator in private schools, my students are not of a demographic that typically experiences extreme neglect or abuse; they are not traumatized. Nevertheless, they too gain valuable insight into themselves as learners and humans; this is where I can feel the tangible benefits of my profession. It is indeed, a calling worthy of dignity.
Cole, Susan F., O’Brien, Jessica Greenwald, Gadd, M. Geron, Ristuccia, Joel, Wallace, D. Luray, & Gregory, Michael. 2005. Helping Traumatized Children Learn: supportive school environments for children traumatized by family violence. A Report and Policy Agenda. Massachusetts Advocates for Children: Boston, MA.
Dewey, J. (1897) My Pedagogic Creed. The School Journal. Retrieved from https://bbwebprod.spu.edu/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_tab_group_id=_2_1&url=%2Fwebapps%2Fblackboard%2Fexecute%2Flauncher%3Ftype%3DCourse&id%3D_63636_1&url%3D
Jensen, Eric. 1998. Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Wolfe, P. (2010). Brain Matters (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.