Many Schools of Thought

Many Schools of Thought
A Primer on Educational Philosophies
By Emily Puro

Julie Carothers watched her oldest son, now 30, struggle to find his way in school. Whether at the church school, the public school, or the elite prep school he attended at different stages of his education, says Carothers, “I just saw him being lost and uninspired.”
Eager to provide a different experience for her younger children, Carothers, who recently moved from Alaska to Milwaukie, researched numerous educational philosophies before deciding on a Waldorf education. Now in seventh and ninth grades at the Portland Waldorf School in Milwaukie, both children are engaged deeply in their educations. “They want to go to school early and they don’t like to miss it,” says Carothers. “They really love school.”

A Range of Options

Waldorf is among the better known educational philosophies informing local schools’ curricula, but it’s far from the only choice. Options range from long-standing philosophies such as Waldorf and Montessori to somewhat more recent approaches like Reggio Emilia and Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences to ecclectic mixes that are difficult to label. Many schools combine theories and philosophies to create their own approach.
According to Maya Muir, director of admissions at the Portland Waldorf School, the Waldorf philosophy was developed after World War I as a way to deter future generations from engaging in war. “The overall goals are to create children who are citizens of the world and who can think and act independently,” says Muir. In addition to academic basics, the Waldorf curriculum includes world languages, music, art, performance, woodworking, and handwork such as knitting, sewing and basketry. The approach “produces students who have a feeling of competency in the world,” says Muir. “They have this huge range of practical skills which are very grounding, and they allow a range of students to shine.”
Another well-known philosophy is Montessori, developed by Maria Montessori in the early 1900s as an early childhood approach, although it’s since grown to address education through high school. Montessori classrooms emphasize child-led exploration with teachers acting as guides, facilitating the natural process of individual learning. Students achieve mastery at their own pace through hands-on exploration in mixed-age classes that accommodate a range of developmental levels.
A more recent but increasingly popular approach continues to be developed in the schools of Reggio Emilia, a small town in northern Italy. This approach is “based on social constructivism, which is the belief that we all learn by actively engaging with our world and with others,” says Lucy Chaille, director of the Creative Children’s Center in Beaverton. Chaille has visited Reggio Emilia several times to work with their educators and families. “Rather than a method of teaching,” she says, “it’s a philosophy of how people learn.”
The Reggio Emilia approach joins parent, teacher and child in active exploration. Teachers follow the children’s lead in designing project-based curricula incorporating a variety of materials and activities. Everything the children do is documented, shared and reviewed in order to develop increasingly effective and engaging ways to learn.

Learning by Doing

Many popular educational philosophies, including Waldorf, Montessori and Reggio Emilia, focus on experiential learning – learning by doing – with a multi-sensory approach that has been furthered in recent years by Harvard professor Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. According to Gardner, there are eight “intelligences” – linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Each refers to the way an individual acquires knowledge most effectively and demonstrates that knowledge. Most people are strongest in one or two intelligences, but it’s important to build on a student’s weaker areas in addition to targeting his strengths. Many educators believe a multi-sensory approach – one that presents concepts and information using a variety of senses, modalities and/or “intelligences” – leads the greatest number of students to academic, social and emotional success.
Following Gardner’s theory, Vancouver’s Gardner School of Arts and Sciences “integrates as many of the intelligences as possible into any given lesson,” says Heather Rogers, director of admissions and marketing. “That way we reach lots of learning styles and build knowledge at a deep level.” Project-based learning, Rogers adds, is central to Gardner’s approach. It’s also an integral aspect of Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia and many other educational philosophies. In a project-based approach, lessons in every subject area focus on a single theme, giving students an opportunity to explore material from a variety of angles. When sixth graders at the Portland Waldorf School study ancient Greece, for example, the theme is covered in every subject, even P.E. As part of the overall unit, students learn classic Olympiad sports such as javelin, discus and Olympic wrestling then compete with other Waldorf schools in their own version of the Olympic games.

What About Public Schools?

Many parents are surprised to find that public schools often are inspired by a range of approaches and philosophies as well. Like Waldorf, Montessori and Reggio-Emilia, “the shift in public school has been moving from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered instruction,” says Amy Petti, director of instructional improvement for the North Clackamas School District. “In many ways, public school is the cross section of many educational philosophies.”
Pamela Cripe, education director for northeast Portland’s Providence Montessori School, sees many aspects of Montessori education in today’s public schools. Mixed-age classes are not uncommon, she notes, and hands-on materials often are used to teach otherwise abstract concepts. “Another approach you see more and more in public school settings is, while they still do direct teaching, they allow students who complete their work to make (individual) choices from other areas,” she adds.
In addition to the evolving curricula in mainstream public schools, many alternative approaches are offered through public charter schools and focus options. Milwaukie’s Sojourner Elementary, for example, is designed around the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. The Opal School, a Portland Public School (PPS) charter school operating within the Portland Children’s Museum, is inspired by the schools of Reggio Emilia. The Multisensory Learning Academy, a charter school in Portland’s Reynolds School District, offers a multisensory curriculum, and PPS’ Creative Science School follows a constructivist approach. Many other public schools in the area follow progressive educational philosophies, giving parents without the financial means to choose private schools many options for their children’s education.

What Are You Looking For?

Beyond the well known philosophies described above, many local schools – including CLASS Academy, the Goddard School and others – follow their own clearly defined approaches to education. Still others combine aspects of various educational philosophies. So how do you decide which environment will best serve your individual child?
The first step in deciding, or at least narrowing the field, is to determine what you want your child to gain from his or her education. While many schools offer a multi-sensory, project-based approach, for example, some focus on the individual while others focus more on community.
“The social aspect of the classroom, how the classroom works as a whole and how everything is done for the better of the whole class as opposed to educating to the individual child, seemed to work for me,” says southeast Portland mom Gia Davis, who chose Waldorf for her two children, now in kindergarten and second grade. Other parents are drawn to the Montessori approach for its focus on the individual.
Some local schools, while not affiliated with a specific religion, incorporate spiritual values into their curricula. Both Waldorf and Living Wisdom Schools seek to nurture children as intellectual, physical, social, emotional and spiritual beings. “There’s a strong emphasis on having a positive flow of energy both in the classroom and as individuals,” says Susan Dermond, director of Beaverton’s Living Wisdom School. “Our premise is that when you have a positive flow of energy, positive things are attracted to you.”
Community is another aspect to consider, as small private schools often attract families with similar values and philosophies while public schools typically bring together a more diverse group. At Waldorf, for example, “Many of the parents are careful to limit media exposure for their children and the school community really encourages that,” says Carothers. “That’s been wonderful to have a school community that is of like mind in that area.”
“I can go to any major city in the world and stop in the Waldorf community and there will be a like mindedness and a community already on the same page,” agrees Davis. “That’s really appealing to me.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Laura Smoyer appreciates the diversity at the southeast Portland neighborhood school her three boys, ages 6, 8 and 10, attend. “The best thing about having my kids attend public school is mixing with all different people, not just for me but for my children. It’s the best way for us to get to know people not like us.” Rather than diluting her family values, “seeing a wide variety of values and choices helps my kids develop their sense of identity and clarifies our family values,” says Smoyer. “I try to make it clear there is a definite way that we, as a family, do things, but also that it’s not the only or the best way. The diversity of values in public schools helps me do this.”
Once you’ve clarified what you’re looking for in a school, you can narrow the options with an online search. The next step is to visit the schools that interest you.
“You’ll immediately get a sense, the moment you step on campus or through the door, what the community is like,” says Rogers. “You’ll notice what’s on the walls, who’s greeting you, how they present material. Get out and see what feels comfortable. A parent knows their child better than anyone so they’ll know what resonates for their kid.”
Remember, too, that you’re not making a lifelong commitment when you select an elementary school, adds Dermond. “Many different choices in one child’s education might be right,” she says. “Be open to what your child needs at each stage.”

Emily Puro is a Portland freelance writer and mother.

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