Thursday, October 27, 2011

Mixing Metaphors

A drinking glass holds water, but only if you hold it the right way. Tip it too much one way or another and you lose control of it as it spills onto the floor. A bucket also holds water in much the same way, but if I take it by the handle and swing it with enough velocity, the centrifugal force created will hold the water in place. I know that a sponge can hold water too, at least until I squeeze it. Same goes for paper towels. If I put water in a bottle and screw the lid on tightly I can make the water swirl and wave without losing a drop. I can direct the flow of water, at least for a time, by building channels and understanding that it moves according to gravity. I don't even try any more to make it flow up hill. I can't hold water in my hand for long unless I freeze it, and even then it eventually leaks through my fingers. I can turn it into steam with heat and use its energy to drive machinery. I can add salt to it so that things float more buoyantly on its surface.

Every adult human knows these things about controlling water. It's the stuff of universal knowledge. Water behaves the same everywhere, throughout history, without variance. We can make reliable predictions about water, including that water will always ultimately defy our efforts to control it, leaking out, evaporating, or changing course as it follows the much larger arc of mother nature's purposes. But as far as human time is concerned, we can "own" water and make it do our bidding.

From the wider perspective, of course, it's water that controls us. We've evolved as animals, at least in part, according to its demands. It does this by being utterly unchangeable; a condition of life that we must accept. Water has nothing more to learn. Water has always existed in its final, perfected state.

We living beings, however, have always been and always will be in progress, our perfected state anticipated by religion perhaps, but it always takes death to achieve it. Philosophers and poets often compare this progressive feature of humanity to the flow of a river, and while that metaphor may reveal important things about ourselves, we are really nothing at all like water. For one thing we're nearly impossible to predict and control. That's because it's in our nature to learn, and to do that we must play, a process that is defined in part by its unpredictability.

My female "clone" Janet Lansbury (she said it first, and I agree, especially now that I'm a famous cover model too) yesterday pointed out a recent article from Scientific American that discusses how, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, preschools are increasingly trying to control children's learning through more lectures, flash cards, and tests, teaching them tricks to impress their parents, and putting these same children at much higher risk for long-term mental health problems:

Perhaps most disturbing is the potential for the early exposure to academics to physiologically damage developing brains. Although the brain continues to change throughout life in response to learning, young children undergo a number of sensitive periods critical to healthy development; learning to speak a language and responding to social cues are two such domains. Appropriate experiences can hone neural pathways that will help the child during life; by the same token, stressful experiences can change the brain's architecture to make children significantly more susceptible to problems later in life, including depression, anxiety disorders -- even cardiovascular disease and diabetes . . . asking children to handle material that their brain is not yet equipped for can cause frustration. Perceiving a lack of control is a major trigger of toxic stress, which can damage the hippocampus, a brain area crucial to learning and memory.

Despite this, preschools are increasingly ditching their play-based curriculums in favor of this kind of toxic direct instruction.

"Scientists are baffled," says Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley. "The more serious science we do, the more it comes out that very young children are not designed to do focused, goal-directed behavior . . . but are to a phenomenal degree very sophisticated about learning from the things and the people around them."

I'm not particularly baffled. The more I read about these corporate education "reform" efforts, the more I come to understand that this is about inexperienced people and their craving for control. Lurking in there is the crazy idea that if we treat education like a predicable, mechanistic system of some sort, we'll be able to manufacture brilliant little minds, all filled up with the names of the countries in Asia or the various species of whales. That if we just put them in the right containers, direct them into the proper channels, or boil them at just the right temperature, we'll have a generation of little knowledge machines ready to set loose on the world. In this vision, teachers need only be technicians, or perhaps mere factory workers, trained to adjust the dials and read the gauges.

This, of course, is like trying to make water flow uphill, with the added sickening bonus that you risk damaging their brains. I think it's because these otherwise intelligent people have so little experience with the process of education that they don't understand the basic principles of how young children actually learn. They don't have the experience to know that the method and the order in which children learn things, the process of learning, is far more important than any trivia you try to cram into their heads. They are trying to push this water up hill because they've not played with it enough to understand that it's simply not in water's nature to flow up hill. In this way, they are showing themselves to be very poorly educated, at least on the topic of education.

It's as if these people are working from the perfected template of a theoretical child, one that they can predict and control the way they might water, a concept they've developed after spending a few hours observing children through one-way glass. Classroom teachers, those of us who have spent years and decades immersed in children's learning, know that they come to us ready to learn everything they need to know, in fact learning it already, usually in spite of us. Experienced teachers know that they spend most of their days racing to just keep up with their charge's natural inclinations and curiosities that carry them in directions often entirely unpredictable and uncontrollable. Much of what I do after making sure they don't kill themselves or one another is to get out of the way. That's much of what teaching is.

Yesterday, I turned a table upside down, put a giant spider in the center, then tied the ends of several balls of string to the legs. I got lucky, actually. I made a prediction about how they would play with this, having set up similar things before. I predicted that the round table combined with the toy spider, especially right here with Halloween approaching, would make them think of an orb spider's web. In the past, this kind of play has gone places I'd not predicted, once consuming our entire outdoor classroom. It was a ton of fun, but ultimately turned our space into one big tripping hazard. When it was circle time, adults had to literally untangle some of the kids who had become inextricably stuck in our web. That in mind, our only instruction this time was to keep the string within the circumference of the table.

So there you have it, education "reformers," free of charge, a genuine predictable outcome that took me ten years to finally learn to anticipate. It didn't teach them anything about the nations of Asia or the species of whales in the ocean, but the children did spend a lot of time talking, sharing space, strategizing, taking turns, and generally "just playing," learning from the things and people around them as they are "designed" to do. 

These results are valid until the next time we set up this toy with an entirely different set of children, who may or may not take it where this group did. And guess what? No risk of brain damage.

Update: In the comments, my friend Floor Pie correctly "blames" certain parents for the demand for lectures, flash cards and testing, which, in fairness, is where the Scientific American article places it as well. I'm the one who brought the education "reformers" into this, seeing it as all part of the same phenomenon.

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Floor Pie said...

I just said this on your FB page, but I'll say it here, too. I don't blame ed reform for trendy "academic" preschools. I blame the consumers. Parents want flash cards and pedantics. I've worked at NSCC's table at several preschool fairs and that's what they're asking for. Just like parents are the ones asking for full-day public kindergarten, so much that it's become the default.

Maybe ed reform is riding that wave a little, but I see ed reform as a separate issue.

rachel said...

A great thought provoking article. I don't think in the UK we are quite as focused on the academic but early education is still far too target driven.
I love your spider web idea, I'll try it with my kids tomorrow.
Fab blog by the way, I'm glad I discovered it.

Aunt Annie said...

And to all that I say, you must have a licence to drive a car, but anyone at all can have a baby- regardless of their lack of understanding of how to steer it in a useful direction.

Anonymous said...

I would guess some parents want full-day kindergarten because childcare is expensive. It's pretty understandable, IMO.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

I would hope for the day when those responsible for funding and administering early childhood education would be those who have had experience actually working for at least 10 years on the floor.

I also believe that parents want the best for their children, and turn to the more commercialized, or mainstream ideas of flashcards, and memorization, and cramming children's brains with facts, because they don't really understand about ECE. As professionals in the field, we can help parents by explaining when possible, and providing orientations. I know I sometimes have parents asking me when I'll teach ABC's, or how to write our names (at 2 1/2 years old) and I explain how I believe children learn through play. I work in a cooperative daycare, and our parents are sometimes able to observe how we work, and then they seem to understand.

But this is harder to influence on a more societal level - how do we influence those responsible for administration I wonder?

I love your activity here with the spider and web! And the process by which you've come to present it to your children


Melissa Taylor said...

The S.American article didn't surprise me either - being in the same field as you. But it did make me so sad. It's baffling that parents are still believing the lies of businesses who are trying to make money, not promote brain health for kids. I highly recommend Jane Healy's book, Different Learners, about this same topic - how schools are creating learning disabilities with inappropriate practices. Have you read it?

Thanks, Tom, you're such a thoughtful educator.

:) Melissa @imaginationsoup

CARRIE said...

Reports cards came out recently and a whole slew of moms I know with early elementary children were seriously worried about whether there children received "O" (outstanding) as opposed to "S" (satisfactory or grade-level appropriate.)

Having been a teacher, I recognize how subjective grades are and how little they actually explain about any given child's understanding or ability.

I see these parents, stewing over "O," as the ones who support and even push the strict "formal" learning, rather than understanding that learning and especially a LOVE of learning is what ensures a person's success and drive throughout life.

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