Publication Date: 2006-08-02
August 2, 2006
San Francisco Chronicle
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot articulates what the Standardistos deny, that children learn by messing around and making discoveries. They learn it in language, in math, and in science. When you try to shortcut this reality with scripts, you damage children. Learning is about breaking rules, not memorizing them.
We live in a time when the currents of educational discourse, educational practice and public policy have grown increasingly constrained, narrow, reductionistic and outcome-based. The Exploratorium in San Francisco epitomizes one colorful counterpoint to the monotonous chorus of voices that predominate today in the field of education.
It is an extraordinary learning environment, a place I have always admired for its appreciation of -- even reverence for -- the curiosity within each of us that inspires new learning. I visited the Exploratorium first as a parent 22 years ago, when my daughter, Tolani, was 3. We spent a long afternoon playing, experimenting, questioning, gathering data, guessing, interpreting, hypothesizing and playing some more, feeling the exquisite pleasures of surprise and discovery, enjoying letting our imaginations lead us, animated by the ways in which we could each, from our own developmental vantage point, be seduced into taking risks and trying new things in this amazing environment. We could each be creators of our own experience, shapers of our own learning. I remember feeling exhausted after our visit, a wonderful weariness that only comes after intense and meaningful engagement.
That year, 1984, Tolani and I returned several times, sometimes to revisit the exhibits we knew well and relish the pleasures of familiarity and repetition, other times to branch out and explore spaces that were new. Each visit was an adventure, joyous and compelling.
My most recent visit to the Exploratorium was in my capacity as the chair of the MacArthur Foundation Board. In the spring of 2004, the board came to the Exploratorium to hear about work that we had funded on exploring the field of digital learning and understanding its effects. We spent several heady hours hearing about the promising questions, areas of research and possible unintended consequences of digital media on youth learning and development, a discourse which was speculative and discerning, imaginative and rigorous, empirical and playful. Filled with curiosity and lively insights, our grown-up discussions that day two years ago echoed with the adventurous mother-daughter visits of two decades before.
From my perspective -- as a mother, a philanthropist and a professor of education -- the Exploratorium is a unique and important alternative-learning environment. Perhaps its place in the broader educational ecology is more important today than ever before. In this period of accountability, high-stakes tests, standards and standardization -- which threaten to take all of the oxygen and edge out of education -- the Exploratorium stands as a beacon of light, a brave counterpoint, a public challenge to the prevailing norms and values. It is a place, a rare oasis, where rules are broken and boundaries are crossed in the pursuit of learning: a place where art and science, empiricism and aesthetics blend together organically; a place where theory and practice, research and advocacy are bridged; a place that is interdisciplinary and intergenerational by design, appealing to people of all ages, recognizing that learning is lifelong, nonlinear and non-end-state-oriented; that learning is both highly individualistic and collaborative; that the educational journey must not be wholly preoccupied with, and defined by, measurable outcomes, quantitative assessments, or the hierarchies of status, access and opportunity that flow from those indices. Rather, it must be a journey shaped by curiosity and imagination, discipline and rigor, experimentation, improvisation and analysis.
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, the Emily Hargroves Fisher professor of education at Harvard University, is also chair of the board of the MacArthur Foundation. She studies the organization, structure and cultural contexts of schools.