On Alcott and Education

IV. A Philosophy of Learning

What will keep universities in business will be the creation of effective learning environments. As the number of students grew in universities, we adopted a business model that emphasized a product rather than the process of education. We lost sight of the many great teachers and researchers who have shown value in having students participate in 'authentic tasks': Pestalozzi, Alcott, Bruner, Piaget, Resnick, and others. A look at Alcott's theories will show their similarity to those of current-day constructivists.

Bronson Alcott, a genuinely creative thinker and teacher, began his teaching career at the age of 24 in 1823. Later, he became the master of one of the outstanding schools in Boston and the first to use a conversational method of teaching American children. On the first day of class, Mr. Alcott asked each student what idea he or she had of the purpose of coming to school?

To learn; was the first answer. To learn what? By pursuing this question, all the common exercises of school were brought up by the children themselves; and various subjects of art, science, and philosophy. Still Mr. Alcott intimated that his was not all; and at last some one said "to behave well," and in pursuing this expression into its meanings, they at last decided that they came to learn to feel rightly, to think rightly, and to act rightly. A boy of seven years old suggested, and all agreed, that the most important of these three, was right action. (Peabody, 1969, p. 2)

The aim of education, he declared, was ìthe production and original exercise of thought [not the learning of facts and the production of right or wrong answers] (McCuskey, 1940, p. 32) .

Conversation was no mere question-and-answer-session for Alcott. It was a mood, an atmosphere; it was a work of art as surely as were paintings or symphonies. Alcott especially liked the analogy to a symphony. He believed that the ideal conversation developed a single theme and presented it in a variety of ways, providing the greatest scope and freedom for the genius of the participants. Each of the participants would contribute his or her ideas about the theme, thus presenting differing expressions of the theme like the various instruments in an orchestra. All would blend together in beautiful harmony as the session progressed.( Dahlstrand, 1945, p. 216)

In Bronson Alcott's mind, learning was insufficient as were schools; "only life alone, life like a torch who, if they [the students] did not find life in the schoolroom, were eagerly seeking at every shop and fireside." For Alcott, All New England and the West formed an open college, admitting old and young alike, and he could foresee newspapers and magazines superseding primers, text books, and professors (McCuskey, 1940, p. 151).

All these influences Alcott would bring into the schoolroom. He wanted to illustrate the work with the new art of photography, and he wanted a newspaper or magazine suited to boys and girls. He thought the magazine should have in it something of sports, of biography, science and discoveries, accounts of libraries, museums, and the theater, as well as politics and government. (McCuskey, 1940, p. 151)

His theory was that of the "true teacher," who ìdoes not play the cook and spread the tables, but whets the curiosity to leap straightway forth upon the mountains and bring home the game which he has started and given the scent of. (Dahlstrand, 1945, p. 216)

Alcott was considered a progressive in his day, but his methods amplify many of the same themes as the constructivists of today: building and reconstructing knowledge out of experiences in the world, being engaged in personally meaningful activities and projects, emphasizing discovery rather than the teaching of facts, and recognizing diversity, that learners can make connections with knowledge in many different ways. He sought depth rather than breadth producing multiple views on the subject.

See also Alcott's Maxims on Education
Excerpted from Changing Educational Paradigms by Carol B. Macknight

Carol B. Macknight
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