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 support.

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 students.

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 everywhere here.

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 found anywhere.

The bleak walls reflect the colors of the classroom - stark gray.

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 dancing?"

Copyright, ©, 1996, Thornburg Center. Send Center e-mail to: TCPD2020@aol.com