Friday, August 31, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do (Morality)

I'm still working on this damn multi-part extravaganza I'm calling "Why I Teach The Way I Do." Here are Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part FiveAll along I've been suggesting that if you're going to read these posts, you might want to try reading them in order, but I no longer think that: you can probably read them all willy nilly if you're so inclined. 

I really thought by now I'd be getting ready to put a bow on it, but here I am six posts in and I've barely addressed the notes I took before I began, so you will excuse me if I start breaking this up a little with a few more "fun" posts about children and the stuff we're getting up to at school. 

As I mentioned yesterday, a big part of writing this has become about discovering my own most deeply held ideas and beliefs about teaching, about our society, and about what I wish for the children who pass my way at Woodland Park. I hope it's not too terribly dull to readers, but now that I'm on this path I intend to continue sitting down each day and trying to write my way through to the next post. I ended the last by opening a door I'd not intended to open in this series, but it's one I now think has a part in this discussion: morality.


I've got values but I don't know how or why.  ~Pete Townsend (The Who)

As a man who recently hit the half-century mark, I just missed the cultural phenomenon of tattoos. A tiny number of my college classmates had them (I'm particularly thinking of one boy who had barbed wire tattooed along one side of his jaw, dooming him, we all felt to a life of either punk rock or crime). It was my considered opinion at the time that this would be a passing fad, but I stand here 30 years later, seeing a world in which it appears that tattooing is something I do have to concern myself with as my own child stands on the threshold of adulthood.

I've never had any particular judgement about tattoos on others, but they weren't for me, not as a fashion statement, nor especially as a way to declare my undying this or that, because with each passing year I discovered that there are precious few things I'd felt so deeply about as a young man, so few things I'd want engraved in my flesh, that I could still honestly advertise them today without shame. As a boy, the only tattoos I'd ever seen were on former military men, usually hearts with the word "Mom" in the center. I can perhaps imagine still being proud of that one, but I know my mother would not, to say nothing of how my wife would feel.

One of the most valuable pieces of wisdom passed on to me by my mother, usually stated when I was playing the role of junior jurist, catching her in inconsistencies, was: "All wise people change their minds." To this day, I hold that ability, that ability to, after much thought and experience, change one's mind, as the pinnacle of wisdom. It takes great courage and humility to admit, finally, that one has been wrong, especially on important matters. But if we are to be wise, if we are to value reason, we do it.

Ah, but what of morals? Certainly there are some moral values that are absolute: black and white, good and bad, unchangeable truths about how humans ought to conduct themselves.

Often when someone from outside our progressive education bubble critiques my approach to early childhood education it is on moral grounds. Most often it is on the topic of obedience (which I addressed in Part One), their argument being something along the lines that obedience to God is one of the foundations of their religious beliefs and that learning it begins with obedience to parents, and perhaps teachers and other moral authorities in a child's life. But others have gone further, insisting that education must begin with the teaching of moral codes such as the Biblical "Ten Commandments." And I'm here to say as clearly as I can, these people are right: morality is absolute and must underpin everything we as individuals do.

We are all moral beings, each of us. You needn't tell me of your morals, however, because I can discover them on my own simply by observing how you live. And each of us, every day, even when we are doing things for which we will later be ashamed, even when we are doing things that we condemn in others as immoral, are behaving according to our own, personal moral code. It's all well and good to point to a holy book and to feel yourself a sinner for not obeying its commands, or to spout them proudly as statements of aspiration, but every day, in every action, we are all obeying the commands of what we believe to be true about our behavior in relationship to others.

I, like you, live each day according to my moral code. It's a morality in which some tenants have remained with me throughout my life, whereas others continue to evolve on a nearly daily basis. I rarely speak of the specifics of my own morality, but on this day, at this moment, I act according to it, and if you want to discover it, judge me not by what I say, but rather but what I do, and I will do the same for you.

As self-evidently equal and free humans, according to "natural law" as postulated by John Locke and the other Enlightenment thinkers, the philosophical forefathers of our nation, we are each a morality unto ourselves, whatever the priests, rabbis, imans or pastors say about it. None of us are pure in our fealty to any external morality. We may aspire to it, but we will always fail because the highest morality, the one to which we actually adhere, always comes from within.

So here we are, a society of equal and free individuals, each unique in our idea of morality, knit together by this document called the Constitution, and from this we've set ourselves the task of creating a society. Holy cow! We can't even arrive at a consensus on such manifestly true moral values as, "Thou shalt not kill," to which we've carved out dozens of legal exceptions, such as in the cases of war, capital punishment, self-defense; hell, we can't even agree upon what killing means, take abortion or living wills as examples.

The answer, if our experiment in democracy is to be successful, is that we are always charged with creating a new morality, a public one, informed by, but ultimately separate from the moral codes by which we individually live our lives. It is a morality that is not an unchangeable tattoo, but rather one that is the best we can do at this particular moment. There was a time, for instance, that the best we could do was to agree that, first in all, then in only one half of our nation, human beings could own slaves. There was a time that the best we could do was allow only half (less than half in fact) of us to vote. We now live in a time when people of a certain sexual orientation can be cast out of their jobs and their marriages broken because of it, but slowly, through our democratic process, one that is much larger than mere voting, we are coming to realizing that we, as a society, can be better. Our public morals are evolving.

It's a morality that must be situational, fluid, and changeable because that is the way of progress. It is a morality that does not require individuals to step down from their own personal moral values, but rather to acknowledge that we're equal and free and all in this together, and that compromise is the only way forward.

Our Constitution assumes that, as Locke put it, we should self-govern "according to reason" and strive toward a state of "perfect freedom, equality, and liberty," and it is therefore from a place of reason, not morality, that we must start. 

Why not start with morality? Simply because when a man begins debate with moral arguments, it is, by definition, over. No argument can trump a moral one. Compromise is not possible. When a man, for instance, says, "God says so," even if we do not believe in that man's god, for all practical purposes he has "won" the argument because no human can back down from his own morality, nor should he. And there will always be those who enter the public sphere with the fire and brimstone of moral certainty, but simply by virtue of this approach, his arguments must be set aside because there is no progress to be made there, because compromise must stand at the heart of self-governance in a pluralistic society.

This is not a problem we face in preschool. Young children never hold such strong moral convictions, although this is not to say that they have no morality whatsoever. As I mentioned before, I have no interest in what another man tells me about his morals, because I can discover them through his behavior. This is true also of the children with whom I work. Perhaps it is because we are a secular school, or more precisely, a pluralistic school, but I've never met a child who spoke of right and wrong or good and bad, except when experimenting with ideas through dramatic play. I have, however, taught many children who have clearly discovered moral values like compassion, non-violence, and fairness. These are the children, even very young ones, who will not hit or push no matter how provoked. These are the children who run to the side of a crying friend and take his hand. These are the children who, unprompted, give half of what they have to the child who has nothing.

There are some, such as another Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau, who would assert that young children are born with these values, but I'm inclined to believe, along with Locke, that they have discovered them through their experiments with the world; their reason has lead them to these behaviors that betray what they have so far learned to be true. That, because man is essentially "good," so long as our "institutions" (in this case parents and teachers) preserve natural law, this is where reason will take us. And this is why I must reject the approach to morality that the ideas of Thomas Hobbes would dictate, one in which parents and teachers must impose morality because the "state of nature" is essentially "evil," and that without such authoritarian control life would be, in his most famous words, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

It's my view, therefore, that creating a public morality must be very like the creation of our individual morality. This practice of discovering morality through the application of reason, of the scientific method rather than authoritarianism or mysticism, building public morality upon the progress made by those who have come before us, is essential to civic life.

You may, of course, choose to tattoo yourself with your own morality, committing yourself to engraving it in your flesh, then clinging to it no matter what your reason later shows you. That is the right of an equal and free human. But when it comes to collective morality, we mustn't, because to be able to change one's mind is where wisdom lies, and to have tattooed ourselves with the morality of the past would certainly have us today hanging our heads in shame. 

So I come around to ending where I ended yesterday: it is through the process of debate, conflict and reason that our collective morality must emerge. It is the place we end rather than begin.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do (Fairness)

I'm working on a series of posts I've entitled "Why I Teach The Way I Do," hoping to ultimately pull them altogether into one comprehensive piece. I started it as an exercise in convincing and informing others, but I'm finding, as I do with most of the things I write here, it's becoming a reflective process that's forcing me to really think about the things we do at our school and why we do them that way.

These posts probably make more sense in order, so here are the links to them so far: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four. Today I write about justice.


The Arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends toward Justice. ~Martin Luther King Jr.

At the heart of justice lies the idea of fairness, not that every outcome goes our way, but rather than the process by which we go about settling our conflicts reflects the essential democratic idea that all men are created equal. In many respects the story of our nation is the story of progressively discovering essential unfairness, debating it, persuading a majority, then finally deciding as a society that it's time for justice. It's a long story that arcs through the American Revolution, emancipation, women's suffrage, the labor movement, and civil rights. If it seems like we are today no closer to it than we were two centuries ago, it must be remembered that fairness isn't a destination where we will all one day sit together in perfect brotherhood, but rather a direction we've set for ourselves by adopting our Constitution and all its amendments.

Young children are deeply interested in the idea of fairness, especially as they begin to gain experience in the world of school where resources and space are limited, and it becomes essential that we discover methods by which to share. From the first day the 2-year-olds arrive at our school, they begin the journey toward an understanding of fairness if they've not already begun with the advent of a sibling and the necessity of sharing mom and dad. They arrive to find only 3 painting easels, for instance, 6 surfaces on which to paint. At first they tend to paint willy nilly. There is always at least one child bent on making her mark on each blank sheet of paper. There are others who crowd around a single canvas, their brushes swirling together. I intentionally put the easels closer together than necessary so that they must bump, jostle, and otherwise interact in this shared space. At the end of the day, it's usually impossible to know which individual made which painting, although often a diligent parent will keep a running list of names on the corner of the paper, indicating everyone who was involved. This may not appear "fair" to the adult eye, especially as one child repeatedly paints over the work of the others, but until the others object, until the others begin to feel that an injustice has been done, we have come to at least a temporary agreement about what is fair.

It's a challenge for us, but the adults strive to not impose our own ideas of fairness on the children, but inevitably certain "tools" emerge, such as the idea that rules must apply to everyone, turn-taking, one-man-one-vote, and the complicated rule "you can't say you can't play." I'm not going to pretend that these ideas come solely from the children's experiences with one another in the classroom, because so imbedded are these ideas in our culture that, of course, the children are influenced by experiences from elsewhere, but what I am saying is that it is a testament to the power of these fundamental tools of fairness that once they are introduced, once they are understood by the children, they are readily adopted and quickly become the norm.

Remembering to apply these and other tools of justice, however, is difficult in the heat of the moment, no matter what our age, which is why we hope to have impartial judges and juries of our peers.

Not only do the adults play the role of executive in our preschool democracy, as I discussed yesterday, but we also often have to play judge, frequently all in one fell swoop.

More often than not I walk into a situation that is already at full boil, one in which two or more children are emotional, often engaged in tussling or crying or shouting. I won't go into the details of how I work to calm the situation (because I've already done so here), but once we're able to talk, I start by trying to take on the role of arbitrator rather than a judge with the authority to make decisions, attempting to impartially listen to both sides of the story. In the beginning, I don't care so much about the rule of law, but rather, can these two (or three or four) equal and free individuals work out a solution, an agreement, to everyone's satisfaction. This means that the worst thing I can do is go in with my own idea about how this should fall out: the goal is fairness in the eyes of those most directly affected.

The first step is to give everyone a chance to be heard and that means not just the "combatants," but also any other citizen who has something to say, because, after all, the things that happen in our school are everyone's business. I start by asking something like, "What happened?" or "Why are you mad?" I listen, then paraphrase as concisely as I can, making sure that the other children involved understand what has been said. Then I listen to the story from the next perspective, again paraphrasing. Sometimes I then paraphrase the stories jointly, "You both say you had the block first."

Then I wait. This waiting is an important part in the arbitration process.

Sometimes after that moment of silence a child will repeat his statement or rephrase it or expand upon it. Sometimes one of the children will propose a solution, such as, "We should take turns and I'm first." Sometimes one child will "give up" her claim, perhaps out of an understanding that she was, in fact, in the wrong, or perhaps because it's not a battle worth fighting, both nobel positions. Sometimes one or both children will appeal to me to settle for them in some manner, at a loss for what to do. In my role as arbitrator, I simply repeat the challenge as it has been presented to me from both sides, then add, "We need a solution."

This process typically draws a crowd, which I think of as the proverbial "jury of peers." Often, especially if we find ourselves truly at loggerheads, these onlookers begin to offer their "evidence" (e.g., "Johnny had it first.") or ideas for a solution (e.g., "They should take turns.").

Throughout this, my job is to repeat or paraphrase (in the interest of clarity) what the children are saying and wait.

It is in this waiting, hanging out with our questions, conflicts, statements, and evidence, that we really begin to experience what fairness and justice are all about.

I know there are some that would have us, as adults, inject morality into this process, but I strive to avoid that, sticking as strictly as possible to the case at hand, and perhaps, if necessary appealing to our rules. It is through this process of coming to understand one another through our conflicts that our collective morality emerges. It's the place we end rather than begin.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do ("Enforcing" Rules)

You join the blog today as I'm in the midst of writing a series of posts I'm calling "Why I Teach The Way I Do," with the hope of later drawing them all together into one comprehensive piece. The first post in which I discuss philosophy and obedience is here. The second in which I detail the hows and whys of our preschool legislative process is here. Yesterday's post was a bit of a step back as I attempted to explicitly answer the promise made in the title to this exercise. Today, I've written about the role of the executive function, which is largely (although as you'll see, not exclusively) the role of adults, or more specifically, how we serve and protect our equal and free citizenry by enforcing the rules we have made together.

The Executive

When he was 2-years-old, Henry did not respect any rules whatsoever. Of course, this was the year before we'd introduced our legislative process to the children, so it's possible that he simply objected to having no say in things, but it's more likely that he didn't care to share the space, the toys, and the adults with the other kids. It's a big step to move from your family, where you're the only child to be considered, into a world full of children. One day he declared, "I'm going to break the whole school." Thankfully, he didn't follow through, but it looked like he meant it.

Two years later, having made peace with whatever it was that caused him such frustration, I spied Henry patrolling the room, holding his hands atop his head, palms forward while rapidly opening and closing his fingers. He occasionally stopped to talk to a friend, but then moments later was again circling the room. When next he came near me, I said, "You have your hands on top of your head."

"I'm flashing them."

"By opening and closing your fingers."

"I'm a policeman."

That made sense. "And your hands are the flashing lights on your car."

"I'm reminding people when they break the rules." Just then his friend Colin jogged past and Henry was on him in a flash. "Running inside is against the rules." Colin continued on his way, walking.

I was reminded of this earlier this summer when I was riding my bike with a friend Dan in downtown Seattle. He's something of a scofflaw and was riding without a helmet because, as he puts it, "I don't need to be protected from myself." He was at least willing to stop with me at a red light, but the team of four SPD bike cops coming up behind us didn't, racing through the steady red as if it wasn't there. Dan yelled, "Hey, you ran the red light!"

One of the cops shouted back over his shoulder, "And you're not wearing a helmet!" Just a couple of citizens reminding one another of the rules.

The next time I caught up with Dan, he'd bought a new helmet, explaining, "I want to be a good example for the kids," although I knew the real reason: he'd been reminded. This is the way it usually works in our classroom, and if we had a truly educated citizenry, it's likely this is how it would work for most people, most of the time, in our wider society. As you can see, I'm a Lockean to the depths of my soul.

If there is one part of democracy where we fail the most dramatically in being equal and free, it is in the exercise of the executive function. It's my opinion that on a federal level we've ceded far too much power to the Executive branch and the President in particular, tipping our entire government out of balance. Ideally, the three branches are equal with the Legislative being "the first amongst equals," by virtue of it being the first one detailed in the Constitution. This imbalance, however, has tended to filter down through all levels of government, although many governors and most mayors are far more effectively counter-balanced by legislatures and city councils than is the President. Still, in many cities, my own Seattle being one of them, if you need any evidence that power has shifted too far toward the executive function, just look at the increased militarization of our police forces and the "widespread and routine use of excessive force," to quote a recent Department of Justice report on the SPD.

We attempt to employ a more properly balanced approach in the preschool, although it can't be forgotten that there are practical reasons why everyone is not fully enfranchised from birth, the primary one being that we expect a certain level of experience and education in order to responsibly engage in democracy. Very young children cannot be expected to have the discretion and judgement to make every decision for themselves. While it's true that when making decisions as a legislative body I've found we can rely on the children to collectively make good decisions, this is not always true of individual children who simply don't have the experience or the developmental aptitude to operate in the world without some level of external executive function: providing this, when absolutely necessary, is the role of parents and teachers.

This is where we adults come in, not as superiors, but rather in the role that Henry provided for Colin: to serve and protect. Just as a traffic cop has the job of sometimes telling me to stop, not because he is my boss, but because he has been hired by we the people to do a necessary job, and I trust that he is doing it in the name of service and protection, so too do the adults in our little practice democracy. In preschool that means that sometimes the adults simply have to say, "I can't let you do that," either because there is a rule being violated or because someone's safety in in jeopardy. (I prefer this particular phraseology because it has the virtue of being a true statement as opposed to a command like "Stop!")

Every now and then, even in our classroom practice of democracy, a child will persist in breaking one of our rules, even after being reminded several times that "You and your friends agreed . . ." In these cases, especially if the behavior is hurting or frightening the other children, I'll assume my role as a representative of the executive branch, saying, "You'll have to play in a different place until you're ready to remember the rules." Sometimes I need to take a hand or shoulder and guide him to another place, but most of the time, the child will simply move on to something else, engaging in an activity that makes it easier to remember the rule. It is entirely up to the child to determine when and if he'll return to the scene of his "crime." In 10 years, I've never had to take executive measures beyond this, even with children who decide they can return 30 seconds later.

I don't know what I'd do if a child pushed it further. Probably, I'd sit him down and attempt to engage him in a conversation, one in which I pointed out facts, my opinions and concerns included. I wouldn't lecture him on right and wrong, but I would attempt to work things around to the brilliant logic of the "Golden Rule," and how his friends expect him to abide by his agreement to not hit or push or take or whatever it was he persists in doing. Whatever I did, it would not involve evoking consequences beyond the natural ones that emerge from the behavior: "Your friends are afraid you will hurt them," "The other kids don't want you to play with them," "Suzy is crying because you took her doll."  And if it came right down to it, I would say, "I can't let you hurt the other people," which is a simple statement of fact that I would, reluctantly, back up with my greater physical strength if absolutely necessary.

Just as the bike cop did with my friend Dan, or as the Dutch do with their very loosely enforced ban on marijuana, I also fulfill my executive role with discretion, the way citizens should when dealing with fellow equal and free citizens, whatever our "jobs." It is a simple truth that all laws are not created equal. While we are fairly rigorous with things like "No hitting," because safety is at stake, rules like "No making a mess," or "No guns," are often enforced much more loosely. This is how we treat one another, with discretion and respect, when we are free and equal: most of the time it is enough that we remind one another.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do (Learning To Be Equal And Free)

This is the third post in a series I'm calling "Why I Teach The Way I Do." In the first post is here, and the second here. They probably make more sense if read in order.

It was pointed out to me by a reader, Luke, yesterday that I've only implied so far the answer promised by the title and that's an omission I ought to rectify before going any further. It is my view, one I share with our nation's founders, that a well-educated citizenry is the foundation of a democracy.  The longer I've been a teacher, however, the more aware I become that our standard educational model, the one that emerged largely from the factory model of the Industrial Revolution, a model that supposes we need only fill those empty vessels with letters and numbers and dates, moving them along from grade to grade, is not up to the standards required for self-governance.

I believe we've lost sight of the promise of our nation. I cannot recall ever hearing an elected official speak of education in anything other than economic terms, and I have never heard one connect it to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I rarely hear of our presidents or legislators spoken of as "representatives," but rather as "leaders." Voters stay away from polling places in droves, apathetic, let alone engaging in the day-to-day processes of democracy, not caring or perhaps not knowing how. Or worse, not feeling that they can or should have any impact on the civic life of our nation. We distrust and vilify government, painting it as a "them vs. us" conflict, and when I dare to point out that "them is us" I'm scornfully asked, "Where have you been hiding?"

The average citizen has withdrawn from the process of self-governance, leaving behind a vacuum that has been filled by political parties, corporate lobbyists, and radical partisans, who have taken us so far away from the promise of self-governance, that many of us, if not most, feel helpless in the face of it, withdrawing and wishing pox on the whole lot of them, castigating political discourse as base and impolite.

I teach the way I do, because, I suppose, I'm an idealist. I do believe in the promise of day-to-day, retail self-government: the kind of government that is made up of friends and neighbors capable and willing to discuss the issues of the day over their back fences, in their churches, and while waiting in line as the supermarket. The kind of government in which we the people are capable and willing to listen, to debate, and to think for ourselves. I'm the kind of idealist who believes that schools should be preparing children to engage with one another as equal and free humans who are fully enfranchised.

I teach the way I do because I want the children who pass my way to have the opportunity, at least during their time with me, to practice what it means to be equal and free. In part, I write about it here because I hope that others will be inspired to do the same. We are a young nation and our experiment in democracy is only just getting under way. If we are to succeed, it won't be because some hero swoops in to save us, but rather because we decide we must do it together, day-to-day, thinking critically, speaking honestly, listening passionately, and acting as if we are, indeed, equal and free.

So that said, I will continue tomorrow where I left off yesterday.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do (Rules)

This is the second post in a series I'm calling "Why I Teach The Way I Do." In yesterday's post, I began with a very brief description of the competing ideas of the two most influential 17th century philosophers, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, followed by a discussion of the role of obedience in a democratic society. Today I've written about our relationship to rules.

My motivation for writing this is that on a regular basis, some bit of my writing makes its way out into the wider world beyond our little progressive education bubble and I will in turn be challenged by well-intended folks who are genuinely concerned, and even shocked and angered, by what they perceive as a questionable, if not outright dangerous, approach to early childhood education. I can and have explained/defended our ideas over the past 3 years, publishing well over 1000 posts here, but it's been a rather scatter-gun approach, making it hard to simply suggest this link or that to my "critics," leaving me to either ignore them or exhaust myself re-creating the wheel in a comment or whole new post.

When I'm finished writing, which may be several days from now, I intend to eliminate all this introductory fluff from each post and edit everything together into what I hope will be one long, comprehensive piece to which I can point people looking for assurances that we are, in fact, working in the best interests not just of children, but society as a whole. In the meantime, this is part two and would probably make more sense if read on the heels of part one.

(As an aside, as I sat down this morning to write this latest installment in the tradition of Charles Dickens who wrote most of his novels in serial fashion, I'm struck by what a genius he really was. As a blogger, I have the luxury of going back to edit what I published yesterday, even to the point of entirely rewriting, as new thoughts or insights strike me. Should a reader, as many did yesterday, suggest ideas, ask questions, or point out omissions, I can simply go back with a "fix." Dickens had no such luxury; once the type was set it was out of his hands. I'm simply in awe of his ability to write enormous, cohesive, compelling, and undeniably great novels in serial form. His was a special kind of genius.)


"The Dude abides."   ~The Dude, The Big Lebowski

Our summer program typically includes many children who've never been enrolled in our school before. A few summers back, one of these children was eating his snack with Charlie, who had been with us for two years already. The new boy suggested that they do something when they were done eating, to which Charlie replied, "That's against the rules." The boy asked, "What happens if we break the rules?" Charlie thought for a moment, then replied, "We don't break the rules."

In a democracy, citizens are responsible for making our own rules about how we as equal and free individuals will live together: this is, at bottom, what democracy is all about.  Ours is not a direct democracy, but rather a democratically elected republic, which is why we elect representatives who, in turn, are expected to carry our best interests into the legislative process. In preschool, however, we practice a kind of direct democracy where we, as citizens do in a democracy, make all of our own rules. Most certainly, the purpose of a public education in a democracy, one paid for by all of us, is to educate citizens, and there is nothing more fundamentally democratic than taking part in the legislative process: perhaps more than voting, this is how we most effectively express ourselves publicly as individuals and as a community.  Our founders, most notably Thomas Jefferson, wrote extensively about the importance of an educated populace if democracy was going to thrive.

Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.

By the time children leave our school, I want them to be equipped with vast experience in the legislative aspects of self-governance. I won't get into the details here of how we go about making our own rules (I've already done that here), but the reason Charlie didn't have an answer for his new friend was that the only "consequence" we've ever had to impose for breaking a rule is to simply remind the rule breaker that he's broken a rule: "You and your friends agreed . . ." Charlie was factually wrong when he said, "We don't break rules," but he was spot on in spirit.

Our rules, as are all rules, are statements of aspiration, not statements of fact: "No hitting," "No taking things," "No screaming in someone's face," all of which are broken more or less every day. That does not make the rules flawed. That does not make the children bad. And it certainly doesn't mean that they deserve punishment because they've failed in this instance to obey. I would no more punish a child for failing to abide by a rule than I would for failing to add 2 + 2 correctly or remember the words to "Itsy Bitsy Spider." Failure is simply evidence that children are practicing how to live in a world of rule-aspirations to which we have all agreed. Following rules, in fact, is lifelong learning. After all, how many adults can say we've mastered living according to the rules we've agreed upon through our democratic process? How many of us can say that we've not jaywalked or sped or failed to turn in money found on the sidewalk? I would say it is a percentage approaching 0. How can any one of us cast that first stone at a child?

Nevertheless, what of rules and obedience? Even if we do it imperfectly, certainly the ideal is that we strive to obey the rules, even in a democracy. I know this will strike some as an exercise in semantical hair-splitting, but I believe there is a real difference between obedience to rules imposed by an authority and "rules" that come about democratically.

In a Hobbesian world, where humans are presumed to be essentially "evil," the purpose of rules imposed by institutional authority is to prevent what would be an inevitable slide into a life that is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." As followers of Locke, however, we in a democracy assume the essential goodness of mankind. The purpose of rules, therefore, is to preserve "natural law" so that reason can prevail, allowing us to express our natural selves, and together strive toward a state of "perfect freedom, equality, and liberty." This, ideally, is the power of rules in a democracy.

As I say to the children when pointing at the list of democratically arrived at rules that hangs on our wall, "You and your friends agreed: no hitting." I do not simply say, "No hitting," because that is the language of force, of command, of authority. These are not my rules, but theirs, arrived at by universal consensus in our case, and agreement among equal and free citizens in a democracy is sacred. Those outside our progressive education bubble hear bits and pieces of this and are concerned that we advocate for complete laissez fair, creating a frightening, dangerous Lord of the Flies dystopia, but nothing could be further from the truth. It's true that we are not imposing rules and sanctions from on high; we are rather providing children the tools to practice making and sticking to agreements among themselves, the true skill of citizenship. In a democracy, rules can just as easily be called agreements.

Living according to our agreements is not something any preschooler has mastered by the time she's walked out into the world, but I certainly want her to expect it from the world, and to perhaps even assert it, even in places where it doesn't already exist. Is this subversive? Only if we don't really value democracy as we say we do.

As the great storyteller and poet Utah Phillips wrote, "I will not obey," but "I was always willing to agree." Or in words of The Dude, "The Dude abides." That is the stance of equal and free men. And it is this that the children in our school are practicing.

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do (Philosophy And Obedience)

According to the Mayo Clinic staff, no one knows the exact reasons someone grows up to be a sociopath (or more precisely, a person who can be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder), but there are "certain factors that increase the risk of developing or triggering" it, including:

  • Being diagnosed with childhood conduct disorder
  • A family history of antisocial personality disorder or other personality disorders or mental illness
  • Being subject to verbal, physical or sexual abuse during childhood
  • Having an unstable or chaotic family life during childhood
  • Loss of parents through death or traumatic divorce during childhood

This is what medical science seems to know about the causes. Recently, a reader, Ryan, a "parent and therapist with more than 10 years working with adolescents," responded to my post entitled How To Make Adults Who Will Not Be Pushed Around, by asserting that the teaching approach I advocate there, and indeed right across this blog, is as "excellent way to raise a total sociopath and/or a very natural consequence-scarred adult." I can only assume, since it doesn't appear that the other four risk factors apply here, that he is mostly worried that I am advocating for a pedagogical approach that creates instability and chaos.

Let me state for the record that I also worry about children who have an unstable or chaotic family life, and while the word "chaos" is sometimes used by adults to describe our classroom, it is generally modified with the words "controlled" or "on the edge of," which is exactly what I expect at times, but I honestly don't think that this is the kind of joyful, high-spirited, inquisitive chaos that is meant when the Mayo Clinic puts it on their list of risk factors for sociopathy.

So Ryan, and others who are concerned about what we are doing here in our progressive education bubble, I do genuinely thank you for your concern. And to Ryan in particular, I thank you for your willingness and courage to stand up for your beliefs without hiding behind the anonymity the internet makes all too easy. I am going to attempt over the next few days to explain why I teach the way I do and why I feel it is the best approach for educating children in our society, hopefully by way of creating a single document to which I can in the future point people who express concern.

I am not a researcher, nor even an academician, so I've chosen to approach this, at least here in the beginning, as a philosophical exercise. You won't find many references to research to support my assertions, although such exist and can be found elsewhere on this blog. For instance, all the links I've provided here, refer to other writing I've done on these topics, much of which is linked to supporting data.

When I'm done, and it seems like it will take 3-4 days, I will post everything together in one long post for anyone who is interested in taking it all in at once, and to create a place I can send people who are concerned that we are creating sociopaths. We may still disagree, but I hope we will at least have a better understanding of one another as we all do the best we can to help children be better humans than we are.

Hobbes, Locke, and the Experiment of Democracy
This response, this concern about loss of control, of chaos, is one I commonly come across when I find myself outside our little progressive education bubble. What I hear (which I'll admit may well be different that what is intended) are people reacting to what to them is the bizarre-sounding idea that our fellow human beings, and especially our children, are capable, even at very young ages, of self-regulation, self-control, and in fact, self-governance without the firm hand of some sort of strong central authority. This point-of-view, the one the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes defends in his masterwork Leviathan, postulates that without authoritarian control, mankind would revert to "the state of nature," which he viewed as essentially evil -- a condition that would inevitably lead to "war of all against all."

"In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Hobbes was a great and influential philosopher, but this, I think, is the central flaw in his thinking: he assumes, if left to our own devices, if left to our nature, we are all sociopaths, concerned only for ourselves, and that without the strong arm of government or religion or other institutions we are doomed to that "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" life. Later in the 17th century, in part as a direct response to Hobbes, philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Paul Rousseau started with the opposite assumption about human nature, one that I've found borne out in my work with young children: humans are essentially "good," and that the "state of nature" is one of equality and freedom. In Locke's view, the proper role of institutions and the authority vested in them is to preserve that natural law from those that would pervert it, so that humans could "according to reason" strive toward a state of "perfect freedom, equality, and liberty."

The founders of our nation relied heavily on the leading lights of the Age of Enlightenment, especially Locke, when they postulated a nation that would be self-governing. Indeed, it would be impossible to conceive of democracy under anything other than a Lockean world view. They created a document, the US Constitution, that did not regulate the behavior of free humans, but rather limited the scope and authority of government in order to preserve our natural state of equality and freedom. They envisioned a nation of "good," well-educated citizens cooperatively governing themselves.

We can argue about the degree to which we have achieved these goals, but as an educator in our experiment in democracy, this Lockean world is the one for which I attempt to prepare children.

Young children are not fully capable of fending for themselves. We are perhaps born capable of much more than people once assumed, but our species has evolved to require a comparably long period of ex vivo care from our fellow humans and typically this is the responsibility of parents. As babies we must be fed, clothed and sheltered, we must be touched and loved: from the moment we are born other humans are our life-support system. Outside our progressive education bubble, there are those who insist that this condition means that children "owe" their parents obedience, that this is the price of admission to a Hobbesian world that without authoritarian control will inevitably devolve into chaos. This is a patently anti-democratic idea: it is one that assumes that we are all, at bottom, sociopaths.

Our society has collectively, through our Constitution, cast its lot with Locke, and in this view if we are still born needing our fellow humans, and specifically our parents, it does not mean that they are our superiors. Indeed they are more experienced and physically capable, but it doesn't follow that we are subservient to them: we are born in a state of equality and freedom and we need our fellow humans. It is a challenging idea for some, this idea that adults can keep children safe and prepare them for citizenship without authoritarian tools because, quite obviously, the influence of Hobbes is still with us. It's impossible for some to understand how a child can grow into a productive, law-abiding citizen without the constant anticipation of the carrot and fear of the stick.

So, given that the world is fraught with dangers, pitfalls, and seedy back alleys, and given that young children do not have the experience or physical ability to fend for themselves, how do parents and teachers do their jobs of protecting and raising children without resorting to commanding them, without enticing them with rewards, and without threatening them with punishment? I think that's the question those outside our bubble have for us.

We may not be "in charge" of our children, but we do use our superior experience to control their environment. When they are very young we do this by covering electrical outlets, closing doors, removing hazardous objects, and generally providing spaces in which they can freely explore and begin to educate themselves about the world. We do this by being with them, talking with them, making statements of fact about the world: "That is red," "The pillow is soft," "The table is hard." As they start to push those boundaries, rather than scold them for their curiosity, we find ways to expand those boundaries, always striving to set the inner circle in such a way that when they attempt the experiment of stepping beyond it (and they will always attempt to step beyond it, no matter what their age) they will still not be killed or permanently maimed. This is what being child-directed is all about: creating a physical and intellectual space in which children "tell you" when they are ready to expand their experiences; not commanding them, not drilling them, not testing them, but simply narrating, filling their world with facts. "If you fall off that, it will probably hurt," "She's crying because you hit her," "We have to go to the store now to buy food for dinner." Our job, then, is not to "tell" children or "instruct" children, but rather to keep them safe and informed as they explore their world through play, learning as they go everything they need to know, including values and morals.

When we're out in the world, at first we carry them over broken glass, we hold their hands as we cross the street, we pull them away from threatening strangers, because they simply do not have the experience to recognize these manifest dangers. If they are not yet capable of understanding that glass will cut them, that cars will kill them, that the man shouting obscenities at a tree trunk is possibly dangerously unstable, they are also not capable of understanding your commands about them. It is our protecting them from these hazards that are the boundaries we set for them. However, as soon as our children begin to ask questions, to show an interest in the sparkly broken glass, the vroom-vroom of traffic, or the sad spectacle of a mentally ill man living on the streets, that's when they are ready to begin to understand: then we begin to teach, not through obedience, but by again narrating a world of facts and helping them safely explore their world, within the new boundaries we have created.

Some still insist, however, for their own good, exactly because young children are incapable of understanding, we must "train" them to obey our parental commands, to react without question to our words: "Stop!" "Come here!" "Sit there!" much in the way one trains a dog. (I'm sorry that this metaphor offends people, but I stand by its aptness.) If we were preparing our charges for a Hobbesian world, then perhaps they would have a point. If we are preparing children to take jobs in the military or a factory floor or any other institution organized as a pyramid with all the power concentrated at the top, then perhaps we would be doing them a favor.

This, however, is emphatically not the world for which I'm preparing children. The habits of blind obedience, of trained reactions to the commands of others, flies in the face of our democratic experiment: they are a danger both to the child and ultimately to the rest of us who count on our fellow citizens to be equal and free. Obedience is not a democratic value.

In the coming days, I intend to discuss our relationship to rules, rewards and punishments, authority, civil disobedience, natural consequences, mistakes and failures, and leadership, among, I'm sure, other topics, in the context of a democratic education.

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Saturday, August 25, 2012

My Teachers Are Much Deeper Than I

I am learning how to be a teacher, a process that has taken 50 years, and will likely take 50 more, but one that I've only consciously been pursuing for the past decade.

Much of what I've learned has come from observing and imitating others. 

Every day, the children who come to play with me, who come to be observed and imitated, show me how to interact with the world. One of the lessons I am finally learning is how to properly interact with the ground. 

As an adult, I tend to think of it as a thing upon which to walk, or perhaps to kneel as I get down to be eye-to-eye with them, but I'm learning from the children that this is really only a superficial understanding of the ground.

I've been sitting on our dusty ground a lot this summer, just as I sat on our damp or muddy ground during the school year, feeling the moisture soak through to my skin. Last week I sat cross-legged with a boy who was just hanging over the seat of a swing, what I call "tummy swinging," dangling his fingers in the wood chips below, studying, studying, studying the ground. Sometimes he merely hung, barely moving, using his toes to steer himself a little closer to this mote or that. Sometimes he used his feet to launch his body forward, letting gravity pull him back, then forth, and back in ever smaller arcs until he was just hanging again, all the while keeping his eyes on the ground, meditating upon it, breathing in the dust he was kicking up, occasionally picking up handfuls and tossing them in front of him as he swung.

A ways off I noticed two other children lying on the ground, on their bellies in the dust, almost wallowing in it. I joined them as well, imitating the voice-less way they wiggled their bodies on the ground, just breathing and smiling and studying things so up-close that I had to remove my glasses to really see what I was looking at.

There is a lot I still need to learn about the ground. My teachers are much deeper than I, but they're gentle and loving and are letting me learn at my own pace.

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Friday, August 24, 2012

The Dramatic Story Of Why We Needed A New Volcano

A few weeks ago, we were erupting our newest volcano, the third we've manufactured on my watch. (If you're interested, I've written posts on all 3 -- here, here, and here. The second link is probably the best tutorial, although the third one shows an even more child-centered approach).

After going through the whole process of adding baking soda, vinegar, orange paint (for a realistic color) and dish soap (to create a foamy, less explosive eruption) a couple of times, we decided to try the experiment of stopping up the vent with a wine bottle cork. We've tried this before, but have never succeeded it getting it to "blast off." This time, however, I really went to town with extra baking soda and vinegar, foregoing the dish soap and paint. As you would expect, the eruption began instantly and I hurried to jam the cork into the top, telling everyone to back up a few steps because, "If it does blow everyone nearby is probably going to get wet."

Then we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

All the while we chatted about what we thought was going on inside the volcano. Some of us bravely stepped closer to report that tiny bubbles were emerging from around the cork. I thought that might mean the seal wasn't tight enough, but the kids took it as evidence that she was about to blow.

There were a lot of other things going on in the outdoor classroom, but most of the kids were gathered around, anticipating. In fact, the anticipation became too much for a couple of the younger children who began to cry. Parent-teachers picked them up with the idea of carrying them away, I think, but that never happened as, it seemed, no one wanted to miss the moment.

I lead us in a count-down, starting with 20. Nothing. I lead us in another countdown. Still nothing.

Then suddenly, just as the kids were starting to lose their focus, just as I was about to pull the cork out so we could at least witness the pop and spray of the built-up pressure being released, just as I figured this was going to be yet another dud . . . Pow!

No one saw where that cork went. Everyone within about a 10 foot radius had orange freckles. The cedar branches 8-feet over our heads rained vinegary droplets down upon us. There was a moment of stunned silence, then cheering and laughter. "Do it again!"

The second time, we saw the cork come down over by the concrete slide, some 25-feet away.

So we tried it a third time, but since we were at the end of our day and parents were arriving to pick up their kids, we carefully carried the corked volcano up to the top of the hill where we hold our closing circle, the idea being that it would blast off as we were reading our story. This time nothing happened. As the kids began to clear out, one of them wandered over by the volcano and pushed the cork all the way into the bottle, releasing what little pressure that had built up and, sadly, permanently crippling the volcano. (I've learned from experience that once there are chunky things in there, the volcano will never again erupt as wonderfully as before.)

The next time we got together we went right work building a new volcano, a three day process. We pretty much followed the regular procedure, starting with a 2-liter soda bottle, creating a masking tape frame, then laying down a couple layers of paper mache. Instead of painting it, however, as we've done in the past, we decided to make it even more "realistic" by covering it in a thick layer of a dough we made in our sensory table using flour, coffee grounds, salt and water. We also added some sticks, wood chips, rocks, and a plastic frog. Then we set it in the sun to "bake" for a day.

I think it looks awesome, although it weighs a ton! It erupts just fine and the orange lava looks dramatic against its mud flanks. And yes, it does shoot corks!

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Reward For Our Hard Work

Among the thousands of loose parts in our outdoor classroom are a few of these small tins in that originally held candy. One in particular has been of interest lately: an Altoids container that I spray painted silver several years ago when I was making end-of-the-year gifts for the children.

It was a pretty cool gift, I thought. Inside I'd put florist marbles to which I'd glued magnets, the idea being that the kids could use them to decorate the box as they saw fit, then store them inside when they were done. Many parents later told me their kids had discovered the entire box, with the magnets inside, could be stuck to the fridge door which is where their children kept and played with them. This box was a leftover from that project and has one way or another wound up outdoors, no one but me any longer knowing its origin.

What makes this box of particular interest, what makes it a loose part among the thousands that allows it to float to the surface in the first place is that there's something inside. I know it's not those old florist marble magnets because when we shake the box it makes a rattling sound. What makes it repeatedly float to the surface is that the lid is stuck shut.

On a regular basis children will bring it to me with the idea that I'll open it for them after they've discovered their own hands aren't strong enough. I will not open it for them, but I will talk with them about it. I will sit down on the ground and noodle the challenge through with them, talking about what might be inside, which for all I know could be a few common pebbles, but in our discussion become treasures with value beyond imagination, magic things that can make us fly, or seeds we can plant that will grow into banana trees.

These girls are wearing a pair of our fabric "toys" (Poppys) we received awhile back from Fafu Toys. They told me they were monks. When I asked what that meant, they said it meant that they had to be quiet. When I pointed out that they weren't being particularly quiet, one of them answered as if I were being particularly dense, "It's just pretend, Teacher Tom."

We've tried throwing it against a wall. We've tried dropping it from a high place. But mostly we've taken turns putting our thumbs up under the rim and straining with all our might. Every now and then someone will have the idea of using something as a lever. They have the idea of how the physics will work, but not the word "pry," which I share with them as we hunt for something that will work for the purpose. We've broken dozens of sticks in the effort.

Yesterday, Henry suggested a screwdriver. It was unclear to me whether he meant it to be used as a pry bar or if he had the idea of somehow unscrewing the lid. So yesterday we went at it with a screwdriver, the children taking turns poking at the box with it. If you're at all familiar with Altoids boxes, you'll know that they are hinged with small "flanges" that are cut from the bottom of the box and curled through small holes in the lid. At one point Marit had a breakthrough, "Look!" She'd managed to pry one of these hinges open, leaving a small rectangular hole.

We took turns peering into the hole to see if we could suss out what was inside. A few of us thought we saw "something," but no one was able to confidently say what it was. The hole, however, was exactly the right size for inserting the screwdriver, which we took turns doing.

As has happened now for months, we finally gave up on the box, dropping it here or there to be picked up on some other day and struggled and speculated over, a conversation piece that brings us together, a challenge that requires all of us. But before we did, 2-year-old Theo, who had only been involved as an observer, raced over to us with another box he'd found, this one a Fisherman's Friend tin. He barged into our circle shaking the box he'd brought us as if to show us that his too had something inside. Then he opened it to reveal a collection of florist marbles he'd collected. He beamed as we each took one, a reward, I guess, for our hard work.

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