By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributor
Gregg Behr and Ryan Rydzewski have written a new book about the art of the learning sciences and what we can still learn from Pittsburgh’s greatest gift to the world, Fred Rogers. “When You Wonder, You’re Learning: Mister Rogers’ Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Adults” (Hachette Books) will be released next week. With a moving forward by Fred’s widow Joanne Rogers (who died this past January), the book is an exploration of how educators are finding ways to navigate 21st century technology while incorporating respect, safety and a sense of play into teaching our kids. Behr and Rydzewski bring inquisitiveness and warmth to the endeavor of analyzing the science of learning and the lessons of Mr. Rogers.
What follows is what happens when three adults, all of whom were deeply affected by Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, sit down via Zoom to discuss a book about his teaching model. (Answers have been edited for length.)
How did you come to write this book about education and Fred Rogers?
Ryan Rydzewski: Gregg and I are Pittsburgh, Western Pennsylvania kids. We had nostalgic feelings. We thought of Mr. Rogers like a lot of people thought of Mr. Rogers — a nice guy in a sweater, a guy who made you feel good. Once we started digging into how he put Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood together, it became clear just how far ahead of his time he really was. Rogers was a scientist, a brilliant scholar, a brilliant child development expert. He worked with a team of psychologists and pediatricians and teachers and counselors, all of whom helped him create the Neighborhood from what was then cutting-edge learning science.
Even now, so much of what scientists are saying about learning and development reflects what Fred Rogers was doing 50 years ago. Much of this modern work, this complex brain imaging, comes down to things like curiosity, listening, and giving kids time to play and rest and relax and feel safe. And to making kids feel loved and capable of loving. If you talk to some of the top learning scientists, the things they’re saying now read like a script from the Neighborhood.
Gregg Behr: We recognized that there were educators in classrooms, designers at museums, librarians in our region, who were all thinking about how kids were developing now — that kids were clearly developing their identities differently, seeking affirmation differently, consuming and producing information differently. There are people here who, like Fred Rogers, are grounded in child development theory and practice and who have begun to tinker with new technologies and new devices and new settings and new approaches — in the way that Rogers did.
Ryan: We wanted to translate the science behind the program. Rogers was so good that it was not immediately apparent what his methodology was. When you decipher that, then you can go look at what educators in Pittsburgh are doing — the similarities are remarkable and fun to watch.
What are the scientists telling you? What is changing about how kids are learning?
Gregg: We know from the learning sciences over the last couple decades, not just during the pandemic, that kids are fundamentally developing their identities differently. It’s happening through on-line means, through peer groups in different ways. They’re seeking affirmation differently. For the three of us, it probably came in our household, and through the teacher-student relationships. Those things can still happen, but affirmation is also happening with strangers in social media and internet settings in totally different ways.
What Fred did was radical — it was radical to look at television in the 1960’s and say, ‘what is this thing that is attractive to kids and how do I make it constructive and good?’ Our aha moment was seeing Fred as a scientist and that led us to wanting to tell the story about his work which is relevant today. As Joanne Rogers wrote in the forward, essentially he left the blueprint.
Ryan: There was a study at the University of Washington (discussed in chapter 6) with two groups of kids. One group’s parents and teachers got extra help building strong relationships; the other group was the control group. 30 years later, this group of kids whose parents and teachers had extra help, they outperformed their peers on everything. They were happier, they were more likely to be involved in their community, they were healthier physically, they made more money, they were overall just more fulfilled with life.
The scientists boil this down to this beautifully simple statement: be present with your kids. The most important thing is for you to give kids your presence. That means playing with them, asking them what they need, what they want. It means letting them have these big deep feelings that may seem irrational to adults. A big theme of the Neighborhood is that everything that’s mentionable is manageable. All feelings are valid — even if we don’t agree with those feelings.
We were all part of the TV generation and there was a fear that we were going to grow up to be a mess because we were watching TV. Now there is another massive shift to on-line consumption. What I’m asking is — does this feel scary, just because it’s new and new things are often scary? Or is this actually scary? Because the internet is a little bit scary.
Gregg: As a parent, yeah, there’s anxiety and fear. Some of that is healthy, about keeping our kids safe. At the same time, there is something about it that is new — but these can be attractive and, not only attractive, but also developmentally appropriate and useful tools when used with the right blueprint and framework. It doesn’t matter if it’s the printing press, the television or a smartphone. All these things have been scary and have reason to be scary, but can be used constructively and productively. That’s what Fred shows in a radical way.
Ryan: Fred himself had that reaction to television — he was horrified by what he saw, not by the tool itself. He was prescient in realizing it was going to be a permanent part of society, so he thought, how do we take this tool and find ways to use it in ways that are attractive and good.
Some of the educators that we profiled in the book are doing that today — folks at Steeltown are teaching kids to use this technology to make documentaries. At the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, they’re teaching digital arts, teaching kids to use these tools that, admittedly, are scary and can be a gateway to some horrible content. But they are teaching kids to use them in ways that are attractive and good and helping kids help their peers do the same.
I’ve always thought that Fred Rogers was at this intersection of art and science. He did so much and made it look so simple. How did you unpack all the things he was doing?
Ryan: The first thing I think of is how Fred used science and art to inform one another. With both the scripts and the songs he wrote, Fred based all of that on scientific principles. He used to agonize over what his songs were going to say. They were all grounded in making children feel safe, making children feel loved, making sure their feelings are validated. His art is informed by science. I don’t want to say the art masks the science, but the art makes the science attractive. The art is the whole reason we remember Mr. Rogers, but the science is what made it effective.
Gregg: I have a different answer. I suppose like each of us, Fred reflected the people with whom he surrounded himself. He was made lucky by being in Pittsburgh at a time when you had folks like Margaret McFarland, his mentor who was a child development specialist at Pitt, but also Erik Erikson and Benjamin Spock. These are giants of child development theory of the 20th century. And they were all here in Pittsburgh. He also surrounded himself with artists — the puppeteers, the opera singers, the jazz musicians. He’s a reflection of all of that and you see that in the science of his work.
He incorporated musicians into his show. Jazz legend Joe Negri was a regular. Francois Clemmons is an opera singer and he played Officer Clemmons on the show. Clemmons wrote about the iconic moment when he came over and he and Fred soaked their feet together in a baby pool — a Black man and a white man. That was a radical moment. It also shows the respect Rogers had for children’s minds – that they recognize difficult and complicated things. How are teachers doing that now?
Gregg: Just as Fred did on the show, the best among them bring the actual world into their classrooms. I think we forget the way he brought issues of racism, war, assassination, right into the Neighborhood. Educators are doing this through serious project-based learning, through opportunities with portfolio work in classrooms; they are bringing in exhibition-like work and helping students to develop portfolios and inviting them to bring their passions and interests. Whether in the classroom or the Boys & Girls Club or the Carnegie Library, they’re finding brilliant and beautiful ways to do that.
This is a personal moment, but you can imagine how working on this project has transformed me as a person. I have two young daughters — 9 and 7. Just two weeks ago, I’m sitting flipping through basketball games, and my older daughter is half-Asian. She said, Daddy, am I going to be shot? I can’t say how I would have handled that if I hadn’t been part of this book, but it feels like all the lessons of Fred Rogers came home right then.
I thought, how do I address this very squarely for her? How do I acknowledge her question? I can’t pretend that anti-Asian hatred doesn’t exist, but also, what can I say that will give her safety and comfort, because that’s so critical in this moment. And how do I convey to her in a world that might suggest that she’s not loved, that she is loved.
I’m hopeful through a book like this, whether we’re in a classroom dealing with the January 6th insurrection, or we’re dealing with a personal moment like I described – parents and teachers will find lessons from Fred’s work that are concrete and applicable here in 2021.
Thank you for sharing that. It kind of teared me up.
Ryan: This feels underwhelming after what Gregg just said, but there’s a great quote by Mary Rawson who was an actress who was on the Neighborhood. She wrote that the key to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was that violence and war, hatred and intolerance, aren’t excluded from the canvas, but they’re not allowed to destroy the picture. Rogers didn’t shield kids from the horrors of the world, but he did give them a safe space in which to discuss them, and they were allowed to have strong feelings, to be scared.
Mr. Rogers really valued curiosity and understood how important curiosity was to learning, for kids and older folks, too.
Ryan: He trusted kids to be curious and gave them space to indulge that curiosity in a way that I don’t think we often do. I don’t know that we always make time for that. Often we tell kids what they need to learn, we tell them how they need to learn it, we tell them when they need to learn it by, and how they need to show us that they learned it.
It’s a lot of rules.
Ryan: Letting kids ask the questions and then letting our job be — how do we connect what motivates an individual child with the things that we want them to learn. The best educators do this. That’s the most powerful driver of learning there is — that drive to discover the unknown.
Gregg: Hedda Sharapan, who worked with Fred for the duration of the Neighborhood, gives this simple and great example. She went into a classroom and the teacher had what she called an Askit Basket. Kids had questions and whether or not the teacher knew the answer, she wrote that question down and would say, ‘let’s put it in the Askit Basket and then we’ll explore the answer together later.’ The power of acknowledging even the wildest questions kids have. It’s such a simple thing.
Ryan: Another thing Rogers said was a thing that he learned from his mentor Margaret McFarland — that attitudes are caught, not taught. He talked about that in the context of curiosity, that it’s important for kids to see that adults are curious, too.
Gregg: Let kids notice the things that bring you joy and that you wonder about. The whole idea — whether it’s my old skateboard, or a guitar — let kids see the things that bring us joy.
You both mentioned how learning in a safe environment, how that can carry us throughout a lifetime. Can you talk about that more?
Gregg: This is where we draw upon the longitudinal research. This isn’t our original study. WE tried to make a lot of scientific research plainly understood through the course of the book. The impact that this type of learning has and our expectations of what can be achieved 10, 20, 30 years later in terms of a creativity quotient, in terms of intellectual production and patents and books written and things like that, but also happiness and community engagement. This is why this is so important: it’s not just that it feels good, it also makes sense. Decades of longitudinal research bear out why this is the right strategy for education and learning.
Ryan: I would just add to that — there are a couple of studies in the book in which we talk about childhood trauma. Trauma is widespread and I don’t need to tell you that. So many kids grow up with adverse childhood experiences (ACES) and the more of these you accrue in childhood, the more, I don’t like this term, but the more at risk you might be considered to be. That said, ACEs, even if you have a lot of them, don’t determine outcomes. There are several studies that discuss the counter-effects positive relationships have on ACE. The more positive relationships you have, the more you are exposed to routines that make you feel comfortable, the more that you feel you belong to a certain community, the more resilient you become, the more you can bounce back from whatever happened in childhood. It’s those positive experiences, those positive relationships with adults, that set kids up for life-long success. And the more accessible learning is to you, the more you enjoy it as an adult, the more likely you are to become a life-long learner.
Mrs. Rogers, Joanne Rogers, wrote a really beautiful introduction to your book.
Gregg: I had the great privilege of meeting Fred, but I got to know Joanne differently and personally and through charitable organizations in the community. The luck and joy of life was the chance to meet Joanne and get to know her. We solicited her input when we started this. She was an amazing champion for the two of us from the beginning, she saw the potential of it. What a gift that is now.
Ryan: It’s such a privilege. She was very much her own person, an incredible musician, a community advocate, but much of her work, later in life, was stewarding Fred’s legacy. The fact that she trusted us with that, and not only trusted us, but was enthusiastic about what we were doing — it was a blessing and it gave us some encouragement during some difficult moments. Writing a book is hard, often frustrating, but knowing that we had her backing was a gift.
Is there anything you want to add?
Gregg: We started writing this three years ago and three years ago, we could never have imagined a global pandemic and the racial division and the civic division that we have. We’re hopeful that if people choose to read this book, they’ll find a sense of refueling. Because we are moving to a post-pandemic world and there is a surprising person to whom to turn as we look to the future and it’s someone whose work started 50 years ago.