Tuesday, May 17, 2022

"I Do It!"

The boy had shed his jacket onto the floor, leaving it in a heap right in the middle of the room. Under normal circumstances I would have said something like, "Your coat is on the floor; it belongs on a hook," then waited for him to think things through. But this was his first day and he was only two, so I instead picked it up with the intention of hanging it for him.

He rushed at me, screaming something that didn't sound like Nooooooo! but clearly meant it. He snatched his coat from my hands. "I do it!"

I said, "The hooks are over there." It took some doing, but he finally managed it.

Later that morning, he was playing with a small wooden ball that escaped him and rolled under some shelves. I happened to be sitting right there so I automatically reached for the ball, but again he stopped me, "I do it!" And he did.

When he sat down for a snack, the adult who was there tried to help him wash his hands, but he refused. "I do it!" When she tried to serve him carrot sticks and grapes, he put them back on the serving platter one at a time, saying, yet again, "I do it!"

He was firm with us, if a bit fussy, as if he was accustomed to adults putting up a fight. His mother had laughed that he was a "willful" child, rolling her eyes as if to say "Good luck!" Of course, she wasn't talking about his willfulness manifesting as it had so far at school, a boy clearly wanting to do it for himself. She was talking about those times when it resulted in digging in his heels about things like baths or leaving the playground.

But it's the same instinct. As unpleasant and annoying as it might be for us adults, willfulness in a child tells us that they are willing to take responsibility for their own lives. It's the kind of thing that we aren't always good at recognizing in young children. Indeed, our schools and parenting books are full of tips and advice on how to motivate children to do exactly that: take responsibility for themselves, for cleaning their rooms, for learning their lessons, for controlling their emotions. Sadly, we've become so addicted to the behaviorist ideas of rewards and punishments that even the best of us, like a bad habit, resort to them.

"If you get in the car, I'll give you a cookie." "If you don't get in the car, you won't get a cookie." 

The problem is that all the research done on these sorts of external motivators is that they simply don't work (see Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards). Oh sure, if the carrot is sweet enough or the stick painful enough, a child can be made to do almost anything, but if it is to work a second or third or fourth time, it will require increasingly sweet rewards and increasingly painful punishments. Not only that, but the entire process sucks any sense of joy or satisfaction right out of the activity itself until the only reason the child, or anyone, continues behaving in a certain way is to receive the reward or to avoid the punishment. 

This explains why so many kids don't see a problem with cheating. If the goal is a good grade (external motivation), then copying a friend's homework makes sense, while if learning (intrinsic motivation) is the goal, then copying someone else's work is counterproductive. On the flip side, the consequence of getting caught cheating isn't a bad conscience, but rather that the adults in your life will take away something about which you are intrinsically motivated, like recess or hanging out with your friends at the mall.

Study after study has shown that rewards and punishments have a negative effect on self-motivation. Even previously pleasurable things, things we do willingly, can be ruined by the introduction of rewards and punishments. 

Like with many things, our schools have it backwards. They tend to operate under the misguided theory that children need to first be extrinsically motivated, and only then, as time goes by will they develop intrinsic motivation. This is completely unsupported by any science. It is the same method Pavlov used to make his dogs salivate.

At the same time adults, both educators and parents, tend to set ourselves up as the arbiters of what a child should be doing or learning. Had I commanded that two-year-old boy, "Hang up your coat," I'm quite confident that he would have responded "willfully," perhaps reluctantly hanging up his coat because I was an authority figure, but more likely, knowing the boy, he would have refused altogether, whining, sulking, or shrieking.

So what are we to do? Well, first of all, we need to stop bossing kids around so much. Researchers have found that some 80 percent of the sentences adults say to children are commands and no one responds well to being told what to do, no matter what our age. 

Secondly, we can learn to trust a child's intrinsic motivations. This isn't an easy thing in standard schools because, obviously, each child is going to be motivated in different ways, about different things, and on different schedules, while teachers are expected to march all the kids through the same things on the same schedule. If we are going to do what the science tells us, however, we will create interesting and varied environments for children in which they have the freedom to manipulate, explore, discover, and invent, in the company of others or all alone, at their own pace. 

We will drop grading and testing, those carrots and sticks that put so much focus deficits, and replace them with something like Learning Stories, in which educators observe the children, then write the story of what the child is doing and learning. These stories would be written to the children themselves, and their families, creating a record of the child's intrinsically motivated learning journey, a truly useful "permanent record" that is entirely focused on the strengths of each child. Because, as my friend and proponent of Learning Stories Wendy Lee told me, "What we focus on grows."

When would teachers have time to write these Learning Stories? Removing direct instruction, grading, lesson planning, and classroom management from an educator's responsibilities should leave plenty of time to focus on the actual learning.

None of this means a child will no longer be willful. Indeed, it frees all children to be powerfully, happily willful, which is to say, it frees them to take responsibility for their own lives, and that, in the end, is the purpose of all true education. 

"I do it!"


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, May 16, 2022

Fear And Loathing

Do you ever sit down and do a little math just for fun? 

I'm not talking about math with a purpose in mind, like figuring out a tip, but rather math just for the joy of calculating. I've asked early childhood educators this question for years and in a room of 100, there are never more than one or two who raise their hands. I suppose the percentage would go up in a roomful of mathematicians, but I think it's safe to assume that preschool teachers are probably fairly representative of the non-professional mathematics community, give or take a few percentage points.

Surveys of Americans find that math is the most disliked academic subject, with a good forty percent going so far as to say they "hate" math. Over ninety percent of us report some level of math anxiety. I'm not talking about mathematics proficiency here, just our attitudes about math.

We aren't born this way. As a preschool teacher I observe children engaged in mathematics play, which is to say, math for pleasure, at every turn. I'm not teaching them math, mind you, but every day, in every corner of our space, children are sorting, organizing, sequencing, and patterning. It might not look like math to those of us who have learned to fear and loath it, but that's because we were taught that math was all about solving equations rather than, as it is for real mathematicians, trying to understand real problems.

If we taught art the way we teach math -- drilling children on horizontal lines for a semester before moving on to vertical lines, then curved lines, then broken lines, until one day, years later, when they are in graduate school, we let them paint an actual painting -- we wouldn't be surprised if they grew to hate art. It's not an accident that when I ask for a show of hands of educators who have recently sat down and made art for fun, it's always well over half. I can't even find studies that ask Americans if we have art anxiety.

"The more convenient a method of instruction is for a teacher, the less convenient for the pupils. The only right way to teach is that which is satisfactory for the pupils." ~Leo Tolstoy

This is a problem right across standard education, but math teaching is where it's most pronounced. For reasons of convenience, we too often separate learning from purpose. But increasingly, it's not just math. When we break down, say, literacy into phonics, sight words, and diagramed sentences, we strip reading and writing of its purpose which is convenient for the teacher, especially if the goal is grading, ranking, test scores, and marching kids through a standardized curriculum, but a disaster if the goal is actually reading for pleasure and understanding.

Humans are driven by the desire to enjoy and understand. From the moment we open our eyes on the world, we strive, for fun, to make sense of it all, but since we are each born as one-of-a-kind creative geniuses, we will naturally choose our own methods and our own timelines. That is the beauty of humankind. This, however, simply isn't convenient for teachers who are charged with moving large groups of young people through pre-determined material on a pre-determined schedule without letting anyone "fall behind." 

This method of separating learning from purpose isn't supported by any science, except, perhaps, when it comes to crowd control, which again, is about convenience. If children can be made to sit silently facing forward, if they can be made to listen instead of do, if they can be made to attend to the broken up parts of their world instead of engaging in the joyful process of understanding, then what they will mostly learn is fear and loathing. That is always the lesson of convenience.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Friday, May 13, 2022

How Not to Cheat Children . . . Or Anyone

In1971, the now defunct magazine Landscape Architecture published an article by an architect named Simon Nicholson entitled "The Theory of Loose Parts: How Not to Cheat Children." Nicholson, of course, didn't invent loose parts, those have been around for as long as there have been children, but he is credited with proposing the radical theory, which he states as follows:

In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.

This, in itself, may not seem terribly radical, and left to stand alone like this, it's not, but as Nicholson framed it in his article, it's an idea that challenges our educational system and culture writ large. He writes:

Creativity is for the gifted few: the rest of us are compelled to live in environments constructed by the gifted few, listen to the gifted few's music, use the gifted few's inventions and art, and read the poems, fantasies and plays by the gifted few. This is what our education and culture conditions us to believe, and this is a culturally induced and perpetuated lie.

Nicholson was not writing about pinecones, thread spools, and other doo dads presented in tidy little baskets, nor was he writing about spare tires, planks of wood, and shipping pallets. He was writing about autonomy, about hierarchy, and, at bottom, about democracy. His big idea was that we are at our most inventive and creative when we're allowed to construct, manipulate, and otherwise play with our environments, yet modern society tends to leave the design of our world to professionals, or, in his words, "the gifted few."

This is, in fact, what happens in our traditional schools. Instead of allowing learning to be constructed by the learner, we instead march children through standardized curricula, measured by standardized tests, thereby cheating the children. We've stripped the process of inventiveness, creativity, and discovery, then wonder why the kids aren't motivated.

Nicholson was writing about schools and education, but he was also writing about our larger society in which we tend to do the same thing with museums, libraries, parks, and other public spaces, turning the most important (and fun) part over to the gifted few, compelling the rest of us to live in the world as they've created it.

When applied to our wider world, we see how the theory of loose parts ought to be intertwined, inextricably, with our notions of democracy and self-governance. When we recognize that this isn't a theory about stuff, but rather any "number and kind of variables," we see that Nicholson was also writing about the building blocks of community. When governance is left up to the gifted few -- policy makers, bureaucrats, and politicians -- we are cheated of the most important (and fun) part. Self-governance is all about creativity and inventiveness. It is about moving the loose parts around, configuring them to suit us for a time, then, because they are loose parts, re-configuring them when our needs and desires change. Democracy itself, if it is to work, must be included in the theory of loose parts.

It's our responsibility, I think, both as educators and citizens, to set out each day with the intent of dispelling the lie of the chosen few, of constructing our environments from the variables at hand, and to never allow our children or ourselves, or anyone for that matter, to be cheated of the fun part.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, May 12, 2022

A Method Of Learning, Not Teaching

Pedagogy is generally defined as a method of teaching. I've often discussed what I and others like me do in our classrooms as a "play-based pedagogy," although to be honest there's never been a lot of teaching involved. The children are learning, of course, they are learning at full capacity, they are learning the way the brain is designed to learn, they are learning through the method of asking and answering their own questions in their own way at their own time. But at the end of the day, this pedagogy, if it can even be called that, is a method of learning not teaching, and anything we do teach is almost accidental, through role modeling for instance, or sporadic, most often done at the specific request of the one doing the learning.

Play-based educator Nick Terrones, director of the Daybreak Star Preschool in Seattle writes in his book A Can of Worms: Fearless Conversations With Toddlers about a girl who asked him if a worm had a penis, a direct question to which he owed her a direct and honest answer.

Kisha Reid, founder and director of Discovery Early Childhood Learning Center, recently told me about a ballet class she taught in the midst of her play-based program because the children themselves, and especially one girl with a passion for dance, insisted upon it.

I once brought in a stack of my old comic books at the children's request because they wanted me, in my role as a Marvel universe elder, to help them settle an argument over the "real" colors of The Hulk (originally gray, but the printers couldn't get a consistent shade, so they switched to green), Ironman (also originally gray, then all yellow, before finally settling on the yellow-red combination for which he's now known), and Spiderman (blue and red, although he started off with little spider web winglets under his arms).

These are exceptions that prove the rule. 

I played a lot of baseball in my youth and the longer I played, the more I came to understand that the common trait of all good players is the capacity to "be ready." You might go an entire game without a ball coming your way, but you still had to be ready on every single pitch, just in case. As a batter, you spent most of your time not swinging your bat, but being ready to swing your bat. As a fielder, you might spend an entire game without a ball hit your way, but you have to stay ready for the ball for all nine innings. I often think of this in the context of play-based learning: I want to have my head in the game so I'm ready to go when I'm needed, so I can keep children safe, and so I can respond when needed in ways that best supports their play. But entire days go by without a ball coming my way. 

When I think of my own pedagogy, I get a bit embarrassed, because it seems like a kind of highfalutin word for what I do. 

Art therapist and author of the book The Good Enough Studio, talks about the importance of "permission" in her work. I struggle with the word permission because I shouldn't be a position to grant or not grant permission to anyone for anything, even children, but in a world that tends to distrust our youngest citizens, I must admit, in all honesty, that granting permission is exactly what a play-based program is all about: a place, maybe the only place in the world, where children know they have permission to follow their own curiosity.

Permission means that I must release any notions I have of controlling children, which is to say that my relationships with them cannot be hierarchical. This too is a challenge in our very hierarchical world, and especially when it comes to being an adult working with children. Daily, I have to remind myself that I am not in charge of these young people, but I am responsible for them. Perhaps more importantly, I'm responsible to them in the way one is responsible to any person with whom you have a relationship.

When I think of my own pedagogy, I see it as being entirely grounded in my ideas about how to treat other autonomous humans. In everything I do, I must consider it in the context of relationship and responsibility and resist the temptations of control and hierarchy. It is a pedagogy in which best practice means the conscious creation of healthy, caring, even loving relationships. Indeed, that is what the children demand of us. From the moment we are born we are connection-seekers. What else is curiosity other than the drive to enter into relationship with people, places, and things? And curiosity is the business of a play-based pedagogy, even if there is very little teaching involved.

Most pedagogies can only be fully understood as a theoretical concepts, but our pedagogy, the one embraced by educators like Kisha, Nick, Nona and thousands of others around the world -- the one of being ready, of responsibility, of permission, of relationship -- doesn't live in ivory towers. It is a pedagogy of learning, not teaching, of dirty hands, of tears and joy, of beating hearts, and of curious minds.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, May 11, 2022

State-Of-The-Art STEM Learning

(Note: I hate that I need to write this post, just as I hated writing my post about how children learn to read through play. Play is a pure good and should not need to be defended, but I also know we live in a real world where  policy-makers still consider play a mere relief from serious work rather than a core aspect of the real work of being human. I hope, at least, that those of you who do need to defend play will find this useful.)

My wife was the CEO of a software company. Earlier in her career she was an automotive executive and has held senior positions in several technology-based businesses. She is, as she realized to her delight not long ago, one of those much sought for rarities: a woman with a successful STEM career. That said, she studied languages at university. That's right, languages, not science, technology, engineering or math, yet here she is today a woman capable of running a technology company.

One-to-one correspondence

Science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM as they are collectively called in the contemporary lexicon, has become an emphasis for our schools both public and private. The idea is that those legendary "jobs of tomorrow" will require STEM skills and so we are feverishly "educating" our children to be prepared for their future roles in the economy. Setting aside the hubris embodied in the assumption that anyone can predict what jobs our preschoolers will grow up to hold, science, technology, engineering and math are important aspects of what it means to be human and fully worthy of exploration whether or not one is going to one day require specific employment skills.

These boys are swinging while simultaneously trying to avoid being hit by the swinging tire, a game that involves science, technology, engineering, and math, among other things.

Science, after all, is the grown-up word for play. As N.V. Scarfe wrote while discussing Einstein, "The highest form of research is essentially play." I know a number of scientists and whenever they are discussing their work, they describe it as play: "I was playing with the data and guess what I discovered," or, "I played with the variables and you won't believe what I found." Conversely, the highest form of play is essentially science as children ask and answer their own questions with both rigor and joy without the soul-sucking artifice of rote.

Working on math skills at the art easel.

Technology, which is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, is how children typically extend their play, building upon their discoveries to further explore their world.

Engineering is the process by which children create their technologies, be they dams intended to hold back flowing water or springboards designed for jumping into it.

Exploring a circle

And math is something humans have to be taught to hate because, after all, it is the process of learning increasingly complex and wonderful ways to do things that give us great pleasure as human animals: patterning, classifying, and sequencing. When we boil it down, that's the entirety of math, which is ultimately the foundation of analytical thinking.

Constructive play forms the foundation of engineering knowledge. In this case, she is also exploring set theory, including the  horses in one set while relegating the other types of animals to another.

The tragedy of STEM education in the early years, however, is that too many practitioners have concluded that we must engage in extraordinary measures to teach it, that without lectures, worksheets, and drill-and-kill testing it simply won't happen, which is, in the lexicon of a generation long before mine, pure hogwash.

This two-year-old is exploring the technology of a lever or a balance scale, striving to find a balance point.

STEM education is not a complicated thing, children are already doing it when we leave them alone to pursue their own interests in a lovely, varied, and stimulating environment. We can, however, destroy their love of science, technology, engineering and math by turning it into the sort of rote learning that involves authoritarian adults dictating what, how, and by when particular knowledge is to be acquired or skills learned. A good STEM education, at least in the early years, is a play-based one; one that takes advantage of a child's natural curiosity; that gives free rein to their boundless capacity for inventiveness; and that understands that vocational training is a tiny part of what an education should be about.

These hydraulic engineers spend their days working together to manage the flow of water.

When we step back and really observe children in their "natural habitat," which is while playing, we can see the STEM learning, although it takes some practice because it's intertwined with the other important things they're working on like social-emotional skills, literacy, and the capacity for working with others, which is, at bottom, the most important "job" skill of all. Indeed, while we are only guessing at what STEM skills our preschoolers are going to need in the future, we do know that getting along with our fellow humans is the real secret to future employment, not to mention happiness.

What happens when I stick this in there?

When my wife was a preschooler, no one envisioned computers on every desktop, let alone on every laptop. The internet hadn't even made an appearance in science fiction novels. And we all carried dimes in our pockets just in case we needed to make a call on a public phone. Yet she has been the CEO of a software company by way of the automotive industry by way of the jobs that her study of languages made available to her when she stepped into the workforce. The problem with predicting what specific job skills our children will need in the future is that we can only guess, because it's not us, but the children themselves who will invent those jobs, just as my wife has invented her own STEM career.

That said, when we allow children to explore their world through play, we see that they are already scientists, technologist, engineers, and mathematicians. We don't create them, but rather allow the time and space in which those natural drives can flourish, and that's how we ultimately insure that our children not only have the narrow skills that may or may not be necessary for those jobs of tomorrow, but also for the broader purpose of living a good life.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Alone, Outdoors, In The Dark

It was a warm dusk, the darker stage of twilight. I'd left the streetlights to walk secretly with my dog Stella on the fairways of a golf course not far from my home. The stars were more visible from out on those clipped lawns. I was alone, outdoors, in the dark, unseen, a shadow amongst shadows, letting Stella's nose and ears guide us.

We weren't the only animals out there. Something the size of a raccoon raced along ahead of us for a time, exciting Stella. There were a few rabbits out as well -- I could just make out their white tales a they raced away from us -- along with, overhead, the inevitable, silent, sudden darkness of hunting owls. I was hoping that our relative clumsiness was warning the bunnies into hiding, although then I regretted that the owls would go hungry. 

Stella, rendered colorless against the grass, found something stinky to perfume herself with, goose poop or a dead insect. Her roly-poly writhing was conveyed to me through the leash. 

A breeze rustled the trees and in the impending night it sounded momentous, putting any traffic sounds into the distance. These moments thrill me. I recall them from childhood: being all alone, outdoors, in the dark, relying upon every sense other than sight. Even inhaling the air was something special. As Stella rolled, I stood tall to fill my lungs, releasing it slowly.

Faintly, I thought I heard a whisper from across the fairway grass. A ghost was my first giddy thought. Stella and I walked slowly in the direction from which the whisper had come, her nose against the ground. It had probably been my imagination; being alone, outdoors, in the dark is a canvas for imagination, for creative real life works of mystery, magic, and horror. That's part of the thrill.

I felt Stella stop. I knew her head was up, alert, and then I saw it too, animated shadows on the green just beyond the relative paleness of a sand trap. My heart leapt even as I, like Stella, was drawn toward the unknown. We were at least as hidden by darkness as whoever it was; something about the movements let me know that there was a human there, or possibly humans. In the last of the light, I could see, against the sky, the banner that marked the location of the hole waving wildly. Then I made out a child, two children, their hands grasping the flagstick. At the same time they saw me.

I was close enough now to recognize the boy and girl, a brother and sister, 10 and 5, who have been staying with their grandmother, my neighbor. I greeted them and they me, before returning to the game they were playing with the flag. Then after whispering to one another, they lit out, running pell mell in the dark along the long fairway, seeking once more to enter the spell of playing alone, outdoors, in the dark.

As they receded into the dusk, the darker stage of twilight, I knew that childhood was still alive, at least for these children, at least this evening, alone, outdoors, in the dark.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, May 09, 2022

Recognizing Gods Not Authorized

In 399 BC, Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy and arguably the most famous teacher in history was put to death by Athenian authorities for being "an evil-doer and curious person, searching into things under the earth and above the heaven; and making the worse appear the better cause, and teaching all this to others." He was likewise accused of corrupting youth and of recognizing gods not authorized by the state.

It's hard to not hear echoes of these accusations in the vilification being heaped on today's educators, many of whom have been threatened with death. While surveys consistently find that more than 80 percent of parents express support for the teachers they know (i.e., the ones teaching their own children), there is an increasingly loud hue and cry coming from those who believe that we are corrupting youth by allowing them to see that the world is far more vast and varied than their "authorized gods" would have it. It's a view that declares there is but one true perspective and that to consider any perspective other than the orthodox one is to stray into evil-doing.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about Socrates as a philosopher and teacher was his consistent assertion that despite his reputation as the wisest man in Athens he himself knew nothing. His wisdom did not consist of certainty, but rather in questioning, which is to say to look at all things, even the most sacred, from all sides, and to know that there was always another perspective he had not considered. This is what frightened the authorities of Athens and this is what frightens people about teachers today.

Throughout my educational life, I've been cautioned about the Western centering of "dead white men," a notion that Socrates, the original dead, white man, would have whole-heartedly endorsed. The Socratic Method (as practiced by Socrates) is a process of constant questioning in which there is no final, correct answer, but rather more questions. It's a process that seeks to forever approach truth even if it must be acknowledged that complete truth will always elude us. And it means that a truly wise person is one who will question the authorized gods. They don't have to reject the status quo, but if it can't be questioned, then we have a problem.

This, at least, is my goal as an early childhood educator. I happily confess to knowing nothing, or at least nothing that I need or want the children to know. What I want instead is to give children the space and autonomy to ask and answer their own questions, in their own way, and on their own schedule, and when that answer is no longer useful or relevant, I want them to know that the way forward is to seek out new perspectives.

This was always going to be the problem with self-governance. There will always be those who are afraid to question the authorized gods. It's become common to assert, in exasperation, that we've never lived in more divided times, but this is simply not true: there have always those who have stood athwart history yelling stop, while the rest of us have questions that cannot be answered within the status quo. This has been true of Western civilization since there has been Western civilization. 

Famously, Socrates himself was suspicious of the phonetic alphabet. "The discovery of the alphabet," he said, "will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written character and not remember of themselves . . . You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing." We know he said this because his student, Plato, was writing it down. Indeed, everything we know about Socrates comes through the written word. In other words, even the namesake of the Socratic Method could find himself standing with the authorized gods when confronted with something new.

Of course, this doesn't mean the Socrates was wrong. It's hard to imagine our world without literacy of the phonetic alphabet, but perhaps, as a species, we would be better off if we relied more on our memories than on the written word, which itself has become a kind of orthodoxy that boxes us into a mere 26 letters and a few marks of punctuation. Indeed, to question the value of literacy today, especially as a teacher, might not get you killed, but it will get you fired. By the same token, teachers who dare to entertain questions about the impact of race and gender on society and individuals are being accused of corrupting youth, labeled as "evil-doers," and threatened with termination or worse.

If you are expecting to arrive at this point in my little essay and find me advocating for some sort of balance, you will be dissatisfied. There is no balance here when it comes to our schools. From where I sit, if schools are not places of questioning, then they have no valid purpose. If they are not about the exploration of questions, they are mere factories for the manufacture of unquestioned adherence to the authorized gods, which will, in the end, destroy any chance we have at self-governance.

"(T)he life that is unexamined is not worth living," says Socrates in defense of himself. That examination begins with the idea that we know nothing and must therefore be free to question all things, not to create new authorized gods, but rather to prove, yet again, how little we know.


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"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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