Friday, January 15, 2021

The Magnificence of Humans


As I rounded the corner, I saw her at the end of the block, a woman on roller blades. She spun like a ballet dancer, then started heading my way, her arms swinging to build momentum. With a snap she turned her back toward me, then raised her right leg into an arabesque, toes pointed sharply, one arm over her head, which was, like her raised leg, parallel to the ground.

The space between us was closing rapidly. I wondered if she was going to barrel into me, but somehow, I knew she wouldn't. She was too much in control of herself for that. Dropping into a sitting position, one leg outstretched, her back still toward me, she seemed, impossibly, to accelerate. She was approaching a terrain of sidewalk gratings that would certainly cause her to fall if she wasn't alert. Did she know they were there? Of course, she did, standing and spinning around all in one motion, her momentum unaffected, she magically tip toed through the hazard, passing by me in a surge of backdraft as she now accelerated.

Stunned into stillness, I turned to watch her pass, thrilling at her speed and grace. Suddenly, she leapt, her head nearly touching an awning extended from the side of the building. Upon landing she segued smoothly (how did it even happen?) into a spin, her back arched, face toward the sky, an expression that spoke of exuberance, strength, confidence, and power.

Then she was gone, around the next corner, a superhero on her way to save the day.

I felt my heart in my chest. It took a moment to uproot myself from the spot where I stood, gawking after her. My whole being wanted to follow, to glide with her, to be a sidekick. What magnificent things the human body can do: what her body can do. Clearly a product of passion, practice, natural talent, and fitness, yet somehow beyond my comprehension. I've seen skaters do these things on TV, of course, but being there, surprised on a downtown sidewalk, I was inspired by the idea of being a superhero myself.

She was there and gone, leaving me in awe of the magnificence of humans. Thank you to this woman and to all of you who inspire me.

******

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Thursday, January 14, 2021

Getting Straight A's


Over the New Year's break, I spent a few days reorganizing our laundry room/storage closet. Among the items in there were boxes of keepsakes, which is why it was a multiple-day project: I found myself considering each item, remembering, and telling myself and my family the stories they evoked. Among the memorabilia I found my very first report card from Meadowfield Elementary School. It was a document that Miss McCutcheon had filled in by hand. I'd received straight A's. 

I'd been proud of that accomplishment, although considering it from the vantage point of some four decades later, the feeling is much more complicated. For instance, as an eight-year-old I'd capably done the calculation, figuring that what Miss McCutcheon was telling me with these high marks was that I was the smartest kid in the class. I knew enough to not voice this aloud, but I thought it. Also, in looking back, I know that those grades also indicate that I must have been a "teacher's pet," which is to say an obedient goody-two-shoes.

I don't recall comparing report cards with any of my classmates. For all I know, Miss McCutcheon gave everyone straight A's. Still, when I considered the landscape, I could more or less suss out the kids who weren't so "smart." They were in reading group "D" (I was in "A") or they struggled when called upon to answer the teacher's questions. It was clearly a kind of competition, a race, and that report card let me know that I was in the lead. It was an attitude toward school that carried right through my university education: my classmates might be my friends, but so long as they were ranking us, they were also my competitors. The only time I really encountered teamwork over competition in school was on sports teams, acting in plays, or singing in the choir. Academics was every person for themself.

The real world set me straight. The smartest kids didn't wind up with the most marbles and if I didn't learn to work with these other people, I was going to get no where. The real world was about gathering around, looking at the other people, and asking the question, "Now what are we going to do?" And the process was mostly one of collaboration, or as Eleanor Duckworth puts it, "the collective creation of knowledge." Being the smartest was immaterial in the real world where our successes or failures were shared responsibilities. No one cared about my straight A's. They cared about my contribution, my teamwork, and whether or not the others wanted to hang out with me day in and day out. After all those years of competing with the people around me, I was thrust into a world in which my rise and fall was incumbent upon and dependent upon my "classmates."

This isn't to say that there isn't competition of all kinds in the world outside of school, but the whole being-graded-on-a-curve, don't-peek-at-your-neighbor's-test-answers, here's-your-gold-star model falls by the wayside as the ability to work well with others, to collaborate, takes precedence. The infuriating part about this is that "the collective creation of knowledge" is how children tend to naturally organize their own learning until we teach them otherwise. When we don't rank and judge them as individuals, when we allow them to solve problems together, when we turn them loose on the playground, most children, most of the time, engage the world with others, not against them, which is much more in keeping with the real world I found beyond my own schooling.

We insist that our schools exist to prepare children for life. Why do we make them so unlike life?

******

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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Does "Parenting" Stand in the Way of Growing?


At the center of every healthy relationship, and many unhealthy relationships for that matter, is unconditional love. We love our children, our parents, our spouses, and our friends, but, of course, we don't love all of them in the same way: there is a kind of love we have for a lover that is distinct from the love we have our parents. In turn, the love we feel for our parents is essentially different than what we feel for our friends. Love stands at the center of the human experience. And contrary to the quid pro quo calculations of economists and behaviorists, it is love (or lack of love), not self-interest, not conditioning, that inspires almost everything we do. 

I love my wife and she loves me. We've been together for nearly 35 years, most of them happy. There have been ups and downs, of course. We have succeeded and failed, both together and separately. When we sit across from one another at the dinner table, we almost always mirror one another in posture, gesture, and expression, so yes indeed, we have shaped one another, but not consciously. Sure, she sometimes tells me that she wishes I'd do this or that differently, but by far the greatest impact she has had on me being the person I am today has to do with love. She has simply loved me enough to care for me, to be with me, to comfort me, and it's that, not some system of conscious instruction, that has been her contribution: her love has created the safe space in which I've had the freedom to grow into me.

This is what love is all about. Psychologists call it "attachment," I suppose because the word "love" is so full of everything, so a part of everything, that it's difficult to pin down in scholarly work, but when people talk about things like "attachment parenting," what I've come to hear is a kind of oxymoron. The "parenting" suggests an agenda beyond the love. As developmental researcher Alison Gopnik points out, the word parenting, a word that did not exist until the early 1960s, is the verb form of one of, if not the most, foundational relationships in the human experience. Up until recently, it seems it was enough to simply be a parent, to love one's child, and to create the safe space in which they had the freedom to grow into themselves. But being a parent today has increasingly taken on the trappings of a vocation in which it is the parent's job to lovingly manufacture their children into a certain kind of adult. If we talk to our children in a certain way, if we give them enough tough love, if we co-sleep with them, if we Tiger Mom them, we are doing the job of parenting with the longterm goal of creating what we call a "well adjusted adult."

There is scant empirical evidence that the minor variations between what parents do makes any difference in what kind of adults children become, yet there is overwhelming of evidence of the power of attachment, or as I prefer to call it love. Love is enough.

As I've read Alison Gopnik's book The Gardener and the Carpenter, I've been reflecting on this societal shift from being a parent as a relationship to parenting as a vocation and can see that this, more than iPads or social media or violent video games or any of the other boogymen we've identified, may be the real driver behind the spike in childhood mental illnesses like anxiety and depression that we are seeing today. Being a parent has always been difficult, just as it can be difficult to be a spouse or child or friend, but the added stress of turning it into the high stakes (and I would argue impossible) job of manufacturing well-adjusted adults is too much.

I've also been thinking about teachers in this context. The verb "teaching" has always been with us, of course, but I'm beginning to wonder about that as well. The longer I've been a teacher, the less actual teaching I've found myself doing, and the more I've discovered that attachment, that love, is enough. I'm at my best, and the children are at their best, when I step back from teaching and instead simply be a teacher with no agenda other than my relationships, which is to say, creating a safe space in which children have the freedom to grow into themselves.

******

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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Education Has Nothing to Do With Right and Wrong Answers


My wife Jennifer and I recently met a man named Leon. I found him to be thoughtful, sophisticated, and witty. Yesterday, I overheard Jennifer describing our new friend to someone else, "He's loud, inappropriate, and wildly hilarious." Surely, she wasn't talking about Leon, but she was. How can two people share an experience, yet come away with such different impressions?

Of course, it happens all the time. We both tasted the horse radish, but only I found it yummy. I experienced the roller coaster as terrifying while you want to ride it again and again. As a toddler, our daughter insisted that a waiter at our regular local restaurant was "a very tall guy" even though he was shorter than either of her parents. Indeed, we can never assume that the meaning we derive from any experience will have the same meaning for someone else.

The problem is that education as we know it in this country starts from the false premise that children can and should all derive the same meaning from the same experiences, and the degree to which they don't is the degree to which they have failed, or in the parlance of today's hyperventilating media, the degree to which they have "fallen behind." Educators are to start with the approved meaning, more commonly called "the right answer," and then to reverse engineer their lessons so as to most efficiently direct their students to that goal. Some of them get there just as the teacher expects, walking away from the experience in agreement with the adult-approved answer. Most, however, derive at least a somewhat different meaning from the experience of the teacher's lesson, but after being told they are wrong, they learn to adjust their answer to satisfy the adult's learning objective. This doesn't mean that they've learned the lesson, only that they've adopted the adult's view of the experience.

And then there are those who cannot set aside their "wrong" answer. The meaning they derive from their experience is so clear to them, so manifestly correct, that they simply can't set it aside the way the adults want them to. We might label those kids with a learning disability, hire them a tutor to help them get beyond their false meaning, or send them home with stacks of worksheets to drill them into finally see the light.

There is a time for "right" and "wrong" answers, of course. For instance, I don't want the engineers designing that new bridge to have alternative ideas about where the decimal point goes in their calculation, but our insistence upon them in school, of all places, stands in the way of learning, which is to say, thinking. As an educator, my goal has always been for children to think for themselves, but that's impossible when I don't remain neutral about the substance of any child's answer. The moment I start to signal to them what I hope they are going to say, I divert them away from thinking about the problem before them and toward guessing what I want them to say. 

If I want children to learn to think for themselves, to be critical thinkers, I'm at my best as an educator when I take the stand of a researcher. I shouldn't care what specific answer the child is considering at any given moment. I simply want to know how they are thinking about a problem, what they are thinking about it, and why, but not with the intention of correcting them. No, when we take the stand of a researcher, the goal is understanding. And the best way to get there is to find ways to encourage the child to talk about their thinking. When the child asks "Why?" our role is to ask, in turn, "What do you think?" and then to really listen, not to judge, but to learn.

Education has nothing to do with right and wrong answers. It is about the thinking. 

The other day I was reminded of a five-year-old who wanted to draw a picture of the concept: "What if one were two?" He sat over his blank paper for nearly an hour, brow furrowed, pencil twisting between his fingers. I listened to him talking through the paradox this concept contained. There was meaning there for him that I will likely never fully understand. At every turn, he bumped into problems, thought about them, turning them this way and that in the hope of figuring out how to answer the question. At the end of the day, his drawing was nothing more than a few faint and crooked lines. Not even his parents would have thought to hang it on the wall, a failure by school standards, but I knew, having done my research, that this boy had thought, and thought hard. It's a pity to realize how many children have been labeled failures, "behind," or even disabled because their thinking was deemed less important than a measly right answer.


******

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Monday, January 11, 2021

Courtesy, Politeness, and Civility


I don't wear a mask because I'm afraid of getting the virus. I'm not even particularly worried about spreading the virus to other people because I'm careful and am tested regularly. No, I wear my mask without complaint because it is the civil thing to do, or as I usually think of it, I'm being polite because I know that some people are afraid. I wear my mask for the same reason I hold doors for people, give up my seat on the bus or say "please" and "thank you." It's courtesy, politeness, civility. It's kindness.

I don't ally myself with those who connect courtesy to the concept of "respect," because that word is too often used as a stand-in for the word "obey." I respect many people, people who have earned my respect, but I don't obey anyone, nor should you and nor should your children (although I'm always ready to agree). No, every act of courtesy is a small act of kindness that says, I see you. I recognize your humanity. It's about, in a small way, placing the needs, or the perceived needs, of another person ahead of your own. Waiting my turn, keeping my voice down in public places, giving way in traffic: I do all of these things at my own expense, not because I'm weak or passive or a sucker, but because they are the polite things to do. I don't expect anything in return for my acts of courtesy, although I know that more often than not, it will be paid forward.

We tend to think of courtesy as a kind of code, and it is, but not like the type found in etiquette manuals with all sorts of arbitrary rights and wrongs. Rather, for me, it is the code from which civil society is written. It says, We are in this together, and every act of civility strengthens our bonds, not to mention, making life just a little more pleasant.

Courtesy, politeness, and civility are not anything we can teach. Children will never learn it through lectures, scolding, punishment, books, or worksheets (yes, there are courtesy worksheets). As with all the most important things, the habit of doing these small kindnesses for friends and strangers alike is learned through experience. If children are treated with courteously by the adults in their lives, when the adults in their lives are civil to them, children, in turn, adopt the habit of considering how their behaviors might impact others, even people who they don't know, and make the small, unilateral self-sacrifices that are the glory of every civil society.

******

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Friday, January 08, 2021

Unstructured Play Outdoors Should Be the Foundation of Childhood


The central purpose of every human community that has ever existed is to care for children. As I wrote previously, the only question is "How?" Generally speaking, modern society has answered that question in a way that gives children a raw deal. While it's certainly true that we're good at keeping them alive by historic standards, the rate of diagnosable childhood mental illnesses is increasing at an alarming rate, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that as many of 20 percent of American children have been diagnosed with behavior problems, anxiety, depression or some other mental disorder.


This should concern us. It should make us step back and seriously examine how we are answering the foundational question of our society. Certainly, if we wanted to, we could do a better job of caring for children. Many individuals, including many of the readers of this blog, have done just that. I know that among the people reading this post there are thousands of homeschoolers and unschoolers, practitioners of attachment parenting and play-based education, people who have elevated caring for children to its proper place in their lives. I know also that there are thousands of others who, for economic reasons, are not yet able to make such dramatic changes their lives, but who are doing everything they can to assure their children the kind of childhood they need and deserve. Sadly, that still leaves tens of millions of children existing almost as a societal afterthought.


We've mostly answered "How?" with schools and day cares, with children spending most of their lives in these institutions, largely indoors, places they have not chosen, doing what they are told, when they are told, being kept physically safe and sufficiently nourished, while being starved in every other way. To develop normally, children must spend a minimum of three hours a day outdoors in unstructured play, with many experts insisting that four to six hours should be the norm. Most American children are not even coming close to the minimum, let alone the ideal. This change alone, three to six hours a day outdoors in unstructured play, would be transformative, yet I would hazard that most of us can't even imagine how to make that happen in our own lives, let alone at the institutions that we've charged with the most essential task of caring for children.


We are desperately in need of a transformation and this, I'm convinced, is where it must begin. Unstructured play outdoors has been the foundation of childhood for most of human history, going back into our hunter-gatherer beginnings, a time when caring for children was manifestly understood to be the reason for everything else. We have lost our way and it's not just children who are suffering. We could change everything if we could only agree to the simple truth that every one of us, not just children, requires four to six hours a day playing outdoors. Imagine who we would become if we made that wish come true. We would, quite simply, become human once again.

******

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Thursday, January 07, 2021

"I Was a Different Person Then"


A two-year-old boy was hitting his classmates, not out of anger or frustration, but seemingly, as a matter of course. If you had a block he wanted, he would hit you, then take it. It was happening multiple times a day and the obvious tactics didn't seem to be working. I asked the child's parent for advice as well as our class' parent educator. We then had a wider discussion that included the entire parent community because as a cooperative school the parents also work in the classroom as assistant teachers. This boy was our primary topic of adult conversation for several days, including an evening meeting. We settled on a unified plan of action, and then, from one day to the next, he stopped hitting the other kids.

This wasn't the first time I'd experienced this phenomenon and it wouldn't be the last. I wasn't the only one who noticed. In fact, it became a joke amongst us that the best way to end a behavioral problem was for the adults to talk it into the ground and by the time we thought we had figured it out, so would the child.

Before Aristotle, Plato, or even Socrates, Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitis wrote, "Change is the only constant in life." He probably stole the line from a teacher. After all, it's our business, this process of human change, which is another way of saying growth or learning. We aren't carpenters building children. We don't fill them like one would empty vessels. We're more like gardeners tending plants: we keep them safe, make sure they get food and water, pull the weeds, add a bit of fertilizer every now and then, and otherwise watch them change day after day after day. When things go awry, we make a study, we check with colleagues and experts, we strive to determine exactly who they are right now and what they need, then we make alterations to the child's environment, but whatever happens, we don't change the child any more than we educate them: they ultimately must change themselves. 

When asked to recount her adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll's Alice famously replied, "I can't go back to yesterday because I was a different person then." This is true for all of us, of course. When we look back over our lives, we see that we are indeed different people than we were back then. We know that this past year, for instance, has transformed us into people we might not even have recognized last January, but this is the case every January, plague or no plague. As adults, day-to-day changes might not be so obvious, but when it comes to young children, the constant of change is apparent with every passing day: each time we see them, they are different people, and try as we might, we can never go back to yesterday. Our greatest glory as educators (friends, spouses, parents, or just generally as human beings) is is when we play the role of midwives, fully recognizing and celebrating the brand new person who stands before us, right now, not yesterday or tomorrow, a human who with each passing moment is being born anew as themselves.

******

Sign up now to take advantage of New Year's pricing for my new 6-part e-course, The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, in which I pull the curtain back on the magic that comes from treating children like fully formed human beings. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, click here. Thank you!

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