Why Aren't the Children Singing?
David D. Thornburg, Ph.D., Director
The Thornburg Center
Several years ago I was attending a meeting at a California school
district. The Superintendent walked into our meeting and said, "I've
just visited every school in the district. Why aren't the children
singing? Why aren't they dancing?"
And then she walked out of the room.
My reaction was immediate and long-lasting. This Superintendent had a
clear grasp of the big picture. She understood the importance of
schools as places that nurture and support natural ways of learning.
She demonstrated an understanding of the importance of pedagogical
models that support multiple learning modalities.
What impressed me most, though, was her true dedication to the needs
of the children in her district. She had my respect and total
I had reason to think of this encounter during my recent trip to
Brazil in May, 1996. Prior to giving a series of speeches at a
international conference on technology in education, I visited a
public elementary school in São Paulo that I'd visited five or
six years before.
This elementary school, like many public schools in Brazil, had an
80% dropout rate. The students are from poor families - too poor for
their parents to send them to the elite private schools favored by
middle and upper class Brazilians.
During my first visit to the school, I was impressed by the desire to
improve the quality of education for these youngsters, especially
since a quality education would provide the best chance for them to
escape their economic plight. A large barbecue area provided beef and
beans for all the students, along with fresh juice. This (for many of
the students) would be their only true meal each day. A dental office
and nurse at the school took care of the basic health needs of these
A computer lab in the back of the building provided access to Logo -
still a popular tool for student use in Brazil. The computer lab was
brightly decorated with student art, and the children clearly enjoyed
having the chance to express their creativity while developing the
logical thinking skills needed to create Logo programs. The students
were free to move around, to interact with their peers, and to work
with rich colors and sounds.
The rest of the classrooms stood in stark contrast to the Logo lab.
Their walls were devoid of student art, and the instruction was based
on pedagogical models similar to those brought into the country by
the colonial Portuguese in the 1500's.
As an outsider, I found this most tragic. Brazil is the most sensual
country I have ever visited. The colors of the country are bright and
vivid. The sounds are incredible. The people move with grace.
Movement is so essential to this culture that Brazilian Portuguese is
as much a gestural language as it is one based on sounds.
This street scene in Salvador shows the typical colors found on
houses in this country. These bright colors are reflected in
Brazilian artwork, and especially in the colorful plants that grow
And yet, colors and sounds and movement were absent from every room
of this school except the computer lab. It is as if this school was
completely disconnected from the Brazilian culture.
On seeing this school, I could see why the dropout rate was so high.
It was as if almost nothing in this school related to Brazilians.
During that first visit, I talked with the teachers about how
enthusiastic the students were in the computer lab, and how passive
and disinterested they seemed in their classrooms. The teachers saw
that this had little to do with the computers, and a lot to do with
the structure of the activities. The classroom was teacher-centered,
and the lab was student-centered. As our conversation deepened, the
teachers saw that they could use the computer lab to support the
overall curriculum, and not treat technology as a separate topic.
With warm memories of my first visit in my mind, I looked forward to
seeing this school again. I thought the intervening years might have
given the teachers enough time to change their methodologies in ways
that would entice more students to stay in school.
I was not prepared for what I saw during my second visit.
The health care facility was still in place, but the large barbecue
was gone (although the students were still fed). The computer lab had
been stripped of all student art, and the student-centered computer
activities had been replaced by a lab of computers running a
regimented top-down curriculum.
I wandered through the gray halls into the gray classrooms in a
vain attempt to see some indication that young people spent any time
here. No colors, no art, no music, no graceful movement was to be
The bleak walls reflect the colors of the classroom - stark
I ended up in the only classroom equipped with a VCR. I saw the lone
TV set and VCR in a prison cell - complete with bars through which
the students could watch the programs being shown.
As I brought out my camera to take a picture of this "security"
system, I let out an audible sigh. A colleague from France asked,
"Not enough light?"
"No," I said, "not enough vision."
In the span of a few short years, I had seen a school with promise
revert to the past in ways that had tragic consequences for its
students. I asked the principal what the dropout rate was today. Her
answer was the same as before: 80%.
And I asked, "Why aren't the children singing? Why aren't they
Copyright, ©, 1996, Thornburg Center. Send Center
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