Blue Blastoff

Ashley Thorne

My high school senior trip to New York City included Broadway shows, an elevator ride to the top of the Empire State Building, a trip to Harlem for authentic New York pizza, and front row seats at a performance by the Blue Man Group. When my class arrived at Astor Place Theater for the latter, we discovered we were in the “poncho section.” We braced for water guns. 

But the Blue Men surpassed our expectations. With eyes bulging from their bald blue heads, they pounded on huge drums, splashed neon paint everywhere, included audience members in wordless comedy, and sprayed the first few rows with, not water, but banana bread batter. After the show we dined at a fancy restaurant with bits of banana in our hair. 

Today, two- through six-year-olds are going to school in a permanent poncho section. When the three men who formed the original Blue Man Group began having children, they were dissatisfied with the education options they saw. So they started their own pre-K and kindergarten school, the Blue School, in lower Manhattan. 

Is it a training ground for the next generation of Blue Men? Is it a trade school where children learn to make messes? 

The Blue School is in fact a private (and pricey) school that renounces traditional methods of teaching. There, children dance on disco-esque light-up floors, use glow-in-the-dark paint, play in a dirt “earth box,” practice yoga, and resolve conflicts on the “peace bench.” They post their daily emotions on the feelings grid. The BlueSchool is child-centered, therapeutic, self-esteem pedagogy at its finest.  

The educational model includes a core curriculum: language arts, science, fine arts, technology & media literacy, social studies, lively arts, math, and physical arts & fitness—and values: creativity & expression; family & community connection; playfulness, exuberance & fun; self-awareness & well-being; global and environmental exploration; and multiple perspectives and differentiated learning experiences. “Our model,” the website says, “emerged out of a desire to achieve a new kind of balance between academic rigor and academic enchantment” (emphasis in the original).  

Enchantment...we’ve heard the term before in reference to avant-garde pedagogy, in Peggy Barlett’s Current Anthropology article, “Reason and Reenchantment in Cultural Change: Sustainability in Higher Education.” NAS President Peter Wood wrote about it in “Enchanting Sustainability.” Barlett tries to combine reason and anti-reason the same way that the Blue School tries to combine rigor and anti-rigor. 

The founders, however, prioritize fun and creativity. In a video on the school’s website, they say that the Blue School aims to prevent students from becoming serious and stressed out by pressure from their education. Matt Goldman says, “It’s a place where...you have such a zest for learning, a love of life, all the way through, not having it educated out of you.” Chris Wink puts it in a metaphor: 

The traditional model of education is that children are freight cars and the school is a grain silo and it’s just going to fill each kid up and then move ‘em down the track. We’re interested in creating a launch pad where kids are the rockets and we’re just there trying to find the fuse. 

Goldman is also quoted in an article in American Way magazine saying:

There was a sense when I was going to school in the ’60s that you could actually learn all of American history, but we can’t just teach kids facts anymore...The amount of information on this planet is doubling every two or three years. The best thing you can do is teach kids how to learn on their own about the things they want to learn. 

We can’t teach kids facts anymore? The Blue School’s mission is to “cultivate creative, joyful, and compassionate inquirers who use courageous and innovative thinking to build a harmonious and sustainable world.” I suppose the school doesn’t teach the facts about sustainability (NAS does), even though its leaders “believe that global citizens in the 21st century have an unprecedented responsibility to be actively engaged in the effort to protect the environment” (see NAS on global citizenship). At BlueSchool, “Children explore the concepts of conservation and sustainability and have opportunities to make choices that positively impact our program's ‘ecological footprint.’” Sounds like they don’t have opportunities to make choices that negatively affect the footprint... 

But in any case, the directors are proud of what the school is doing, and they want to inspire the creation of many other similar programs. Following the open source movement, Blue School hopes to become an “open-source entity, one whose genetic code can be accessed and incorporated by public schools, charter schools, and anyone else,” according to the American Way. Yet the school is less than open when it comes to admissions, and Goldman admits that perhaps Blue School is just another elite program for a privileged few New York families: “Sadly, we’ve become the thing we were rebelling against, with 200 kids for 15 open spaces.” 

NAS’s esteemed board member Candace de Russy wrote about the Blue School earlier this year. Her article in the American Thinker traces the school’s philosophy back to Loris Malaguzzi who pioneered the progressive education movement in Reggio Emilia, Italy after World War II. De Russy wrote: 

Malaguzzi placed special emphasis on children as active, indeed powerful, agents of their own development. The "resourceful child" he envisaged, explains psychologist Carolyn Pope Edwards (quoting Carlina Rinaldi), "generates changes in the systems in which he or she is involved and becomes a ‘producer of culture, values, and rights.'"  

[...]

At root, Edwards writes, this approach is based on "an explicit idealism" or a "turn away from violence, toward peace and reconstruction" as well as social constructivism, a psychological theory which holds that humans construct knowledge and meaning from their experiences, and which is frequently tied to pedagogical practices that emphasize "active learning," or learning by doing. 

The Blue School seems to think it has started something new (“We need families who believe a new approach to education is within our grasp”), but de Russy highlights prominent critics who have exposed the follies of the sixty-five-year-old Reggio approach. De Russy concludes by wondering whether progressive schools cripple students when they have to face the real world:  

But they have about them an aura of unreality that leads one to ask, with added urgency in today's global climate of financial and political insecurity: Will the children in their charge, formed as they are by directing their own learning, be able to attend to anything that is "uncreative" and "unexciting"? Can they produce goods, manage money? Above all, will they be able to keep their families and the nation safe? 

Indeed, if students are rockets (to humor Chris Wink’s metaphor), are they ready to launch if they have no fuel? They may love learning, but if they don’t know any “facts,” how will “enchantment” teach them the important ideas that undergird civilization? How will “global citizenship” help them understand national citizenship? And how will constructivism lead them to pursue the truth?  

The Blue School is ready to send children blasting off into the world with minimal preparation in a burst of fun and laughter. While this model may be good enough for very young children, the Blue School aims to add a new grade every year up to fifth grade. By fifth grade, classes will have moved beyond the feelings grid and on to vacuous and politicized subjects like ethno-mathematics and sustainability literacy. Suddenly getting filled with grain and moving down the track doesn’t sound so bad. 

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