Clearing the Air (John, Jay & Scott)
In the first of several “behind the scenes” episodes, John, Jay and Scott discuss the history and motivation behind the Garden of Children documentary series and Path to Learning podcast. With all the talk about Froebel (and Scott’s involvement in making/selling Froebel Gifts) this session addresses questions about the end goal for the projects.
Jay Irwin: I think there’s a lot of movement already happening. I think there’s a lot of people doing amazing work to make things better. I think we fit into the plan by kind of hopefully becoming a unifying factor to a lot of the people who are already doing the good work. I hope everybody on my block can know the story, you know, and I think that’s our underlying motivations.
John Pottenger: Welcome to the Path to Learning podcast, where three ordinary guys explore the world of education.
Jay: What’s working. What’s broken.
Scott Bultman: And what we can do to best advocate for children.
John: I’m John Pottenger.
Scott: I’m Scott Bultman.
Jay: And I’m Jay Irwin, and you’re listening to Path to Learning.
John: So what would you say the goal of today is what are we talking about?
Jay: I know some people are kind of wondering what our politics are or lack of politics are, and I think we just want to clear the air on that.
John: Some people have said, ‘What’s your motivation, are you trying to promote, you know a certain type of education or a certain type of teaching— are you for charter schools or are you against private schools or something?’ And that’s not— so we’re trying to in this episode share a little bit of our journey. We’re not trying to ‘bring Froebel back.’ We’re not trying to you know, there are principles that we’re trying to bring back, but maybe you could tell us Scott, a little bit of your story that you kind of tried that and you even tried to make a school and realized there’s more to this. That’s not going to work.
Scott: Uncle Goose toys, my family business was approached to make Froebel® blocks. We knew immediately when we saw them that there was no market for them. We were absolutely a hundred percent correct, and we got into doing it thinking that we would probably only need to make a hundred sets a year which … surprise, surprise … for the last 23 years we’ve only really sold about a hundred sets a year, but what I discovered in doing it was a lot of very interesting information, and that’s really ultimately what I’m trying to share with the documentary is what I’ve learned. Now, I’ve learned that in Asia, Froebel is a four to five hundred million dollar a year industry.
Jay: Wow, so why wouldn’t you want to do what they’re doing in Asia?
Scott: Well, I certainly like the money that they’re making, but the problem is that Froebel didn’t intend there to be activity books. He didn’t make anything printed to give the child and even though we looked at that model it — what it will do is it will actually do the opposite; it will give people the impression that it’s just another type of method, you know canned curriculum that people can buy, and that’s really what’s wrong with education today. So it will be doubly worse. It would be a short ride of a business, and it would also work against you know, the idea of bringing back Froebel.
Jay: I think it’s interesting like the natural— at least the natural journey that I’ve observed and that I have experienced is you start to get a hold of some of the magic that’s in the Froebel story. One of the earliest things that you want to do is you want to create a school. Or you want to have a way to get a hold of it physically, you want to make it available for people today. You want to see that magic physically. So tell us a little bit about— you really lived that journey out.
Scott: Well, yeah, I mean I—
Jay: What was that like for you?
Scott: I had young children at the time, and they were in a really wonderful Montessori School here in Grand Rapids. We had great teachers— it was not for any other reason than I went to Mississauga, Ontario. I saw what they were doing there and brought other people along with me, and they got excited about it too, and—
John: Should we clarify what Mississauga is in case people are jumping in cold?
Scott: So Mississauga Ontario was at one point the home of the Froebel school, it was started back in the 70s by Dr. Barbara Corbett. It existed for 40-some odd years before closing three-four years ago.
John: And the important part was that it was one of the last remaining and that’s because— there are several Froebel schools, but it was really like one of the last in Northern America. That’s kind of the key thing to point out, right?
Scott: Well, yeah, I mean for most schools disappeared about a hundred years ago, but Barbara Corbett and her colleagues brought it back in Canada. And what would happen is every time I would bring somebody to the school within usually about 30 minutes they would say we have to build a school like this in Grand Rapids, we have to. And so I’m like, okay. Well, I guess that’s my next step is I’ll do that. So we got a 501(c)(3) created, and we set about trying to build a school, and you know, the school business is not a great business. You don’t build a school most people that built schools generally do it because they have children, and they want to build a better school for their children. So if you look around especially in California, all of these really wonderful schools were founded by very wealthy entrepreneurs or, actors —
John: Mark Zuckerberg and the like.
Scott: Exactly. And so that’s generally what happens; wealthy people in Grand Rapids created the Montessori school that my children went to. It was the school for doctors and lawyers and engineers and —
John: Which is ironic because that’s how the Froebel schools technically started.
Scott: Absolutely, but what’s ironic is that Montessori was tasked with developing a methodology for at-risk children, special needs children, and the ironic thing is today it’s upper-middle-class affluent children that are being taught the activities of daily living right? So— but it’s a child-centered play-based methodology, and that’s really what people who observe it recognized that that’s what they want for their children, and it would be wonderful if every child could get a Montessori education. But our story not only articulates what Montessori’s original goals were but also why she was stiff-armed when she came to America, you know around 1910, 1911 what the environment was at the time that rejected her wholesale and send her packing back for Italy and she was done with North America. She never really wanted to deal with us again. It was only in the 1960s when the parochial schools were looking for a compatible Early Childhood method that they really resurrected— and in Grand Rapids here, it was the nuns, it was the Catholic nuns that established Montessori education. And what was fascinating to me was not long after they got it going the Grand Rapids Public Schools really signed on wholeheartedly and Grand Rapids has public school Montessori from infant through high school. It’s really a fortunate thing for us.
John: One of the few in the country that has a public Montessori.
Scott: But the school thing didn’t go so well because (a) I don’t like begging for money. I’m not a non-profit kind of guy, but (b) they just didn’t get it. They didn’t get it, they’re well-meaning. And I guess that’s really the point of this podcast episode today is, I just can’t understand how somebody who was involved in early childhood education doesn’t know who started the field that they’re in. It’s like a physicist not knowing who Einstein is, or knowing that Einstein existed but have no idea what he stood for, what he did.
John: You think it’s because people get you know, once you are entrenched in a certain style of education, you kind of become a cheerleader in a rally, you rally around that? So if you know if you’re a Montessori – Montessorian, is that a word? – you know, like that’s the kind of hill that you put your flagpole into and you try to …
Scott: I don’t believe that it’s close-mindedness in any way I think in a lot of ways, it’s because this information is not easily accessible. And so that’s where I saw my mission, my mission was “Oh, well you don’t know what you don’t know.” That was how naive I was. So let me kind of give you a couple of quick anecdotes of things that we’ve talked a little bit about. I’ve got way too many of them. So I got a call about the AMS. Montessori National Conference, they wanted me – me! – to come and give a talk, and I don’t have a degree in early childhood education. I don’t have a Ph.D. I was really kind of perplexed by it, but they offered to pay for me to come out there. So I went out to Anaheim and gave a talk and explain kind of what I just shared a little bit about what I knew about Montessori and how she was received a century ago, and people came up to me after the talk. And that’s where you really know whether or not people heard you or not is when they come up to you. They’re very excited, and they want to share something and people came up, and they said, “You know, we always knew she must have gotten these ideas from somewhere. We knew that they didn’t just sort of spring out of nowhere,” and that’s true of Froebel too. I mean, he would have been the first to tell you who his influences were, so I said, “You’re right. You’re right. She did get a lot from Froebel and it’s very clear.” She was one of the first to admit that, but that’s sort of been hidden from Montessori. You will find in the E.M. Standing biography of Montessori in the first 10 pages or so, E.M. Standing talks a little bit about it, and then they just sort of move on is though well, you know, whatever. And then another person came up to me and she said, “You know, we wondered why Montessori was rejected. We thought it was because she was a woman and it’s pretty clear now that it’s not.” And like, of course not because Early Childhood in this country was established by women. And she wasn’t rejected because she was a woman, she was rejected by women, the women who were Froebelian and the women who weren’t having anything more that was anywhere remotely like Froebel and so she was rejected, but not because she was a woman. I’m sure it didn’t help in the early 20th Century. I’m sure the fact that she was Catholic didn’t help, but it wasn’t the reason, the reason was they weren’t having anything more like Froebel. And that was it.
So that was kind of an interesting comment. And then John Derrig came up to me – this was when I met John – he said, ‘You know, she got a lot from Froebel and she was the first to admit it’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, well, how do you know this?’ And he said ‘Well, I studied Montessori in Italy. I studied with the people that she directly trained’ and he said, “I have her published speeches that she gave in Italian where she talked about Froebel. I have those, and if you’re interested, you know, I’d love for you to take a look at them.” And so when I did visit him at his home, I got a chance to see that, so that information is out there. It’s just that it doesn’t seem necessary to anybody who’s practicing Montessori to know, like what why would it matter what happened before Montessori? And so this is why I think we need to tell the story because there are some things, not the least of which is why she was rejected, what was standing in the way of these ideas taking hold in the United States? Because – and this is my point – those same things are still around preventing us from adopting better early childhood education. So if we’re not going to learn that lesson from a century ago, we’re not going to be able to make our situation today any better.
John: I love that.
Jay: Yeah, that’s the perfect transition back to the story. So I remember the day that you popped my bubble of “We’re not bringing Froebel back,” and I was just angry. I was like, come on, what are you talking about, we’re not bringing this back? Like you spend all this time getting me up to speed on this amazing stuff, and you’re saying “No, no, no, we’re not doing that.” I was just frustrated. So what is it that we are trying to do?
Scott: Well again, we’re trying to tell the story because I get that question a lot once I started making the materials, there were really several questions that I would get; one was “How do I use them?” And the next question was, “Why did it go away?” Well, I knew that I knew why it went away, and then the third question which is Jay’s question, which is “Why is it not coming back?” and I can answer that one too because it’s the same reason— it’s the same reason why it went away. Nothing has changed in a century. We have had some amazing developments in science. We’ve pretty much proven everything that Froebel said 200 years ago. Piaget did it, but we haven’t overcome the societal barriers that are keeping us from getting there. So …
John: I think that the reason that we’re doing this goes beyond just telling the story too, I think that the story is a huge cornerstone piece to what we hope to be a movement. A grassroots movement by educating parents about how learning works and how it should look, and what is the role of testing, and what happens if your kid gets a bad grade? Does it mean they’re not a good student? Well, probably not if you knew how testing worked and what testing is actually testing for you wouldn’t be so worried about, you know, your kids’ intelligence level, so to speak, so I think that really what we’re trying to do is through the story that we’re trying to tell we’re trying to create a movement and an awareness in parents – and maybe Jay you can talk about this a little bit too – but we’re trying to really start something bigger. Jay, maybe just kind of jump in with your thoughts on that.
Jay: I don’t want to be so bold to think that we’re the ones who are starting a movement. I think there’s a lot of movement already happening. I think there’s a lot of people doing amazing work and I think there’s been a lot of people who have been doing amazing work to make things better for kids. I think where we see where we can fit in is, first of all, we’re outsiders, so we can come with a totally different perspective, approach it from a different perspective and we have a totally different set of abilities in the fact that we can we know how to tell a story. So I think we fit into the plan by kind of hopefully becoming a unifying factor to a lot of the people who are already doing the good work and be able to give a kind of a common language that the people who are not in this world can get their minds around, understand, and then we can have a — if we can have a common language, a common understanding to talk about the problem. I think we’ll be able to have a much more effective problem-solving time. So I think that’s where we fit in, is we just hope to put a big spotlight – as we were charged by Julie Wilson – put a big spotlight on the things that are going right, understand where we’ve come from and how we got to where we are and the more people who can have that common experience of understanding, I think the bigger the impact we’ll be able to have.
John: And a huge part of that Scott is like what you’re saying is — you know why it’s not coming back, why it didn’t come back, why Montessori was rejected. It’s the same reasons. And so our story is going to address all of those things, but the end goal is hopefully that we can – like I really liked how you said that Jay – we’re partnering with, hopefully coming alongside of, the thousands of people who are doing amazing work. We’ve been to their schools, you know, so we’ve seen and met a lot of those people. So I love the way you phrase that.
Scott: So, quality education never went away. It’s always been accessible to the wealthy, but we have ‘wandered in the valley’ so to speak for about a century, and there’s a lot of good people doing a lot of good work, don’t get me wrong. But again, I’ve been sitting for 23-24 years observing what’s been going on, and you’re right, there’s a lot of great people out there working, but they don’t know the story — I think the story of the history of kindergarten can really fire off an amazing change in education. And so who’s been supporting us by and large? It’s been professors of education who want to use this material in the classrooms when they’re training teachers for that very reason. They want them to be aware of it. But it’s not about replacing what’s already there, you know, it’s not an either-or situation. But my position, where I’ve been, has allowed an incredible perspective worldwide for me to travel around and for me to see what’s going on and to talk with people that I wouldn’t normally have otherwise come in contact with that all have pieces of the story to share.
John: Well, the podcast is a great format to explore another branch of the story. Every episode is a new branch, whether it’s a nature or testing or you know, tensegrity or whatever it is. But it’s not a visual, you know, the visuals that we can capture seeing kids in a classroom is a completely different and very powerful way of getting the message to the masses, which is what we’re trying to do through the documentary.
Scott: Well, so here’s a thing. We have a page on our website, which I don’t think most people can find, but what we’ve done is to put a list of 25 documentaries that have come out in the last decade on roughly the same subject. I mean, there’s probably been a hundred documentaries on education, probably most people have never heard of, and again, I’m not in the documentary business any more than I’m in the school business. I don’t want to be in that business. It’s not really that great of a business. So when we went out to Hollywood when we had our discussions with people, you remember how they responded to us. They’re like well, you know, you’re not going to make much money on this documentary, but on your next one you’ll probably make a little more and on the next one, you know, it’s a process of learning, and you’ll get your connections, and it’s like “No, I’m not in the documentary business. I have a story to tell.” It’s an important story. It’s not a story that I wrote, that I have a personal investment in, that I really want to tell about this hero’s journey and this thing about whatever; it’s that this is the history of our country that nobody seems to know and I simply want to know how do I get this story in front of people? I know that this is important. I know why it’s important. And so that’s why I say – I don’t want to burst the bubble – but I’ve just seen that school in Mississauga fold, right? Like right now, when I went out to California to be on the panel about Early Childhood STEM, I was … pretty sarcastic. I feel a little bad about it, but I raised my hand, and I said, “How many of you out there are really excited about online preschool?” knowing full well that these were the true believers and they weren’t gonna, they all kind of booed everything and I said, “But you know it’s coming.” And of course now with the pandemic – here we are – right this is their shot to establish online preschool. So … I hate to be the guy that does that, I really don’t want to, I want to share the positives of where we came from and what’s possible after Froebel failed completely then died, women that he worked with took that method to this country, and they established the greatest early childhood education that the planet has ever known and I would like people to know that, know those women, what they did and to know why it was plowed under and forgotten for a century.
John: Plus, the relevance of the need for this change now is more than ever, Scott, you talked about it and Jay, you know, like we are seeing colleges close. We are seeing, you know, especially with the pandemic, you know, we’re seeing artificial intelligence take over jobs. We’re seeing, you know, a lot of the stuff that you used to be able to do you go to school for you don’t need to go to school for it anymore. So we’re needing a different type of learning environment, a different type of adult, I guess, not child, you know, we’re raising a different generation for a different set of skills and our system more than ever needs something different than what it has, and ironically, the child-based, project-based, play-based methods that Froebel pioneered are exactly what we need. So that’s a huge reason too that we’re doing the documentary, is not just to tell the story but because it’s super relevant today.
Scott: Yeah. I really like the last trailer that we did for the conference, what we call the Bucky trailer, where we show that all this stuff is still being used – just not with young children – it’s being used at MIT, and its graduate architecture program. So there’s value there, but that material used to be provided to three-, four- and five-year-olds, but now you have to actually get into MIT and get into that course before you’re given it; essentially, modern design, the Bauhaus, everything that people at the D school at Stanford for instance or at IDEO claim to be interested in was also the source of Montessori education: Waldorf, Reggio, so isn’t it interesting that those two separate fields share one common ancestor and wouldn’t you be interested in learning more about it? And it’s difficult because you know, the Bucky trailer really seems like a commercial for Froebel, you know, we’re doing Froebel 101. I have a Froebel conference; I must be promoting Froebel. All I talk about is Froebel. It seems like from when you listen to me, Froebel must be the founder of anything; he invented this he invented that, you know, and I know how that’s perceived. What I’m saying is I think we need to get down to what makes this particular story so important. It’s not just another story— it has to do with why education ended up the way it is and why it’s not going to change anytime soon until we address— you know, there’s a there’s a thing where they talk about you have sort of a hidden filter, everybody is sort of viewing the world through this … a construct that you have you, build your own personality your ego, and then you see the world through it.
John: I think I’m going to go back to something I said earlier, too, though. I do think that once you’ve learned a system, let’s say you find, you’ve seen some Waldorf documentaries or trailers for documentaries and the conviction through which those people speak about Waldorf – and same for Montessori, I think we watched a Montessori, a little trailer – the admiration and the conviction for those systems is so strong that I don’t think that there’s even the effort to think about looking for something else because they feel like they’ve landed on it. And so we’re just trying to say we’re trying to rally around those people and say that those are absolutely good things. But let’s take one little step back and let’s look at where it came from and why we— not every public school has those today you have to pay money to go to it.
Scott: Well, yeah, so let’s look at Grand Rapids here. So we have what four, five Montessori schools, now, after 40, 50 years? Four or five in a city of roughly a million people (metro area). We have one Reggio program. We have no Waldorf programs. So I think any one of those would be sufficient. The problem is what’s holding them back is what put Froebel away permanently a century ago. Early childhood education is what made America the powerhouse. When we introduced spatial literacy to children in the 1870s during the beginnings of the boom of the Industrial Revolution, it allowed America to create a workforce that was the envy of the world. It wasn’t the raw materials that we had in this country. It was the entrepreneurial spirit, the willingness to adopt this kind of education.
Jay: So, if we have the chance to tell the story, and we can get it out to the masses, how do you see that changing? What do you see the impact being?
Scott: Well, I just think people need to understand the forces that are limiting us. It’s not that we don’t know how to teach, we do know, and we know that we know, and the good teachers are fighting that battle every day. What they don’t understand is why people are not listening, and that’s kind of where I come along, and I say “Well, they’re not going to listen because the ear is not listening. You’re not speaking to the listening ear.” They’re looking for something radically different, and so what we have to do with our story is to really shift people’s perspective. I’ve talked to a lot of people about Froebel’s knowledge 200 years ago, and they simply don’t want to believe that somebody from that long ago knew what we knew today. And obviously, he didn’t have the scientific evidence, but he observed children, he observed them for decades, you know people that are willing to look at it will see that that’s what he did, but I had a call one day out of the blue – was a day just like this – and I picked up the phone, and it was “This is Dr. Eugene Galanter. Here’s my AmEx card. I want everything that you have on Froebel, shipped to my California address.” I said ‘Well, Dr. Galanter, this is the kind of call I live for you know, what is your AmEx number’ and I wrote it down and I said “Well if you’re interested in Froebel you should really come to our conference, we’re having a Froebel conference in Ann Arbor this year.” This was 2013, and he said “I want to give the keynote address,” and I said “Well, I don’t have a budget to fly you,” like, “No, I’ll pay I’ll to be there, but I want to give the keynote address” and he at this time, he was a consultant for NWEA, which is one of the companies that produce standardized testing. So I was immediately kind of suspect of well, wait a minute now, I don’t think NWEA really wants you at my conference. So he came and what he effectively said in his keynote address is “If I would have known about Froebel 50 years ago, I could have saved myself a tremendous amount of time because this guy obviously knew what I know now, after all this work.” Now, Eugene Galanter is one of the founders of cognitive psychology, he was professor emeritus of Columbia University, he wasn’t a flake and yet here he was in a room of 50 people talking to them about Froebel about his knowledge of how Froebel perceived spatial reasoning, you know and going through some pretty high-level stuff. And again, I didn’t dream this guy up, I didn’t go looking for things to support my ideas. I was just sitting there minding my own business when somebody out of the blue calls me up and says, “I just discovered this guy. I wish I would have discovered him 50 years ago.”
John: Yeah. Yeah. I can answer the question Jay that you asked for me is that that I didn’t know how learning could look I didn’t know that education could be something that centers around my interests or my skill set. It was like, oh, you’re weak in math. You need to do more math. Well, maybe I should be doing something more along, you know something that I’m interested and then in math will come alongside it automatically, you know, so I think that for me, my hope is that if we make this documentary, that parents will have an understanding of what to look for in their children’s education; are they, you know, they’re not going to be looking maybe at report cards to see if their child is learning, they might be looking at other things. They may be making better decisions, more informed decisions on whether they should medicate their child or not. There’re so many facets like that. They might be less likely to be angry at a teacher and come alongside the teacher because they have an understanding of what they’re doing, the magic that teachers do. After the pandemic and having two kids and trying to homeschool them, I have such a newfound respect for teachers so much— my gosh, those people are heroes. So I hope that you know, there’s a level of understanding from a parent perspective. But then I also think – and I’m probably speaking to some of the things you might say too, Jay, – but you know we also hope to encourage and inspire teachers and maybe for them to stand up if they see something that is wrong and to maybe even have a common language with the parents. Like this is a test score that your child has but doesn’t reflect your child, and here’s why, and maybe a trust-building can be there that maybe isn’t there now? So I do think that the story, like Scott says, is going to give context, but I think that the waves of the effects of that story go well beyond just knowledge and understanding. Jay, do you want to throw in your two cents as we kind of bring it to a close?
Jay: I mean, I think that all sums it up this whole big thing. It’s all of that. You know, it’s this amazing piece of history that’s forgotten, and the implications go all the way down to the very practical levels that you’re talking about John. So I think it’s all that, it’s amazing. I hope everybody on my block can know the story, you know, and I think that’s our underlying motivation. So if you had questions about what our motivation is, I hope you know better now.
Scott: Well, let’s hope because I think that that’s really the key. They look at the fact that we’re releasing these episodes and they’re saying “Well, what’s the point? What are you trying to do? Okay, you’re trying to improve education; so is everybody else, right? You have some information, we have some information,” and what I’m saying to them is that yes, absolutely, we definitely want parents to be better educated and have an idea of what their choices are. But what I’m saying is we have fewer choices now, a hundred years later, than we had in the 1920s. So that’s the thing as I appreciate the enthusiasm for all this stuff. I’ve just seen too many schools closed— and you know what’s going to happen during the pandemic, we’re going to lose a lot of businesses. So I’ve watched through the history. There was a tremendous depression in the 1890s. We lost a lot of Froebel kindergartens right, they were entrepreneurial, they were businesses, they were women-owned. We lost a lot of them. We lost a lot of them in the 1920s and 1930s. You know, so what I’m saying is, if you go back far enough and you watch this stuff, you can really learn an awful lot about what works and doesn’t work. And so all I’m saying is, I think if people are truly interested in revolutionizing education and our species depends on it, do we really want to wait another two or three thousand years and address this again with some other guys doing a podcast? Or can we just get right down to it, and let’s get this story out there so that we can, you know, take the next step because we’re poised right now to take that step. So …
Jay: Yeah, we’ll keep trying.
John: If people want to join what we’re doing, they can check us out on our website, which is https://gardenofchildren.org and if you guys are listening and maybe we’ve lit a fire in you somehow, I’m not really sure, but if you do want to kind of partner with us to help cover some of the costs to producing the podcast and ultimately funding the story this documentary, you can join us at https://patreon.com/PathToLearning … so we’d love any support you can give us— and if you don’t want to do that, even just joining us in social media is a huge, huge help, just hearing your voice and what you’re looking for in your comments is what inspires everything we do.
Scott: Thanks for joining us.
John: See you soon.
Scott mentions a few of the mentors in his journey, including Montessori teacher John Derrig of Tarzana, CA, Dr. Barbara Corbett and Finella Scholtz of the Froebel School in Mississauga, and Dr. Eugene Gallanter, emeritus professor of Psychology at Columbia University.
Also, here’s a link to the clickable list of other education documentaries mentioned in the podcast: https://gardenofchildren.org/docs.html and a link to a shaky hand-held video of Scott’s first visit to the Froebel School in Mississauga (with Norman Brosterman) back in 1998.