"The Children At Our School Do Real Things"

"The children at our school do real things," says teacher mentor for Teach Rwanda Anitha Mereka at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. She describes the children at the Bright School regularly venturing out into the real world, visiting a local medical clinic or a garage where cars are being repaired. They've been to the dam to witness the fishermen bring in their catch and to the market to explore not just how money works, but also how to bargain, an important skill in Rwanda. "There is no typical day," she says.

Regular Rwandan schools are not like this, says Teach Rwanda founder Jan Brown. She and Anitha describe schools that might be familiar to some of us, places where children are drilled by strict teachers, where test scores are the focus, and where children are not respected. Bright School stands as a model of play-based learning in a place where educators typical wear intimidating lab coats and regularly yell at the children. "When we tell people we train teachers," says Jan, "they assume we are mean."

It's a system of schooling that emerged from colonization with the explicit purpose, as the Teach Rwanda team tell us, of making Rwandans "obedient and stupid." It's a story that is told wherever European colonizers left their. Prior to that, most children learned at home, doing real things, playing with real things, and growing up in the center of their family's lives.

This is part of the reason why Rwanda culture is embedded in every thing they do, from the Kinyarwanda language to traditional dancing, drumming, and dancing. The children play dress up in the brightly colored fabrics they see in the world around them. And they play with the natural materials they find around them, like banana leaves and sisal. "Natural materials are cultural as well," says Jan.

As Anitha and Jan talk about it, it's hard not to think of their work as both restorative and revolutionary. In a nation of shirt, skirt, and jacket uniforms, vestiges of a past that was not the Rwanda's own, those bright fabrics represent the radical idea that "the real world" should stand at the heart of any education worth having.

Children everywhere know this. They are always drawn to the real world over the artificial and abstract "learning environments" in which we often keep them. We have all witnessed the very real phenomenon of our children setting aside the new toys they've received as gifts in favor of the boxes, wrapping paper, and bows they came in. The real world, whether it's the lush rolling hills of Rwanda, the broad flat plains of America's midwest, or the heart of a metropolis; children are motivated to learn through doing real things in the real world.

Both in Rwanda and most of the rest of the world, we've swallowed the idea that learning somehow happens by breaking the real world into such tiny parts that they become abstractions. Instead of allowing children, for instance, to learn about the joy and beauty of patterns from, say, weaving sisal or going to the market, we give them numerals, operators, and rote memorization. There is no evidence that learning is built up like this from tiny abstract parts, while there is plenty of evidence that children learn most readily from life itself. Or as the great John Dewey wrote: "Education is not preparation for life; Education is life itself." 

Viewed from this perspective, it's no wonder that field trip days are the most exciting. We may not think of our schools as places where children learn to be "obedient and stupid," but when we allow ourselves to create educational environments that are cloistered away from the real world, connected only through the abstractions of math, literacy, and uniforms, it often amounts to the same thing. Just as children are motivated by the real world, they are put off by the dull disconnectedness of abstraction. 

My friend John Yiannoudis, director of the Dorothy Snot Preschool in Athens, Greece, calls it "life derived learning." This is what Teach Rwanda is doing. The real world, life itself, stands at the heart of play-based learning.


It's not too late to join Teacher Tom's Play Summit! You've missed Day One, but there are still four to go, including my full interview with Anitha and Jan. And it's free! Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access, which means you can catch up at your own pace. I hope to see you there!

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