Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Least I Can Do

If you leave a hot cup of coffee on the table it will eventually cool until it is the same temperature as the surrounding room. As long as the room and that cup of coffee are left alone, the coffee will never spontaneously re-heat. It's the second law of thermodynamics at work:

(A)lso known as the law of increasing entropy or the "arrow of time." Hot things cool down, gas diffuses through air, eggs scramble but never spontaneously unscramble; in short, energy tends to disperse or spread out as time progresses . . . as particles in a system move around and interact, they will, through sheer chance, tend to adopt configurations in which the energy is spread out. Eventually, the system arrives at a state of maximum entropy called "thermodynamic equilibrium," in which energy is uniformly distributed.

This is one of the bedrock concepts in physics and I've been thinking about it lately having recently read, and re-read, this Quanta Magazine article on the work of MIT physicist Jeremy England, who has derived a mathematical formula based upon the second law of thermodynamics that explains the age old question of why life exists. And while it's a new theory that's yet to be put through the rigors of review and debate, I'm convinced he's correct, not because I'm a scientist or a mathematician capable of proving his theory, but because I'm a regular guy who has long assumed that given the infinite nature of existence, life is not just inevitable put irrepressibly abundant in our universe. There is no way that we are all alone and now there is math to prove it.

As I understand it, the basic idea is that life is simply more efficient at dispersing energy than non-life, therefore whenever clumps of atoms are surrounded by a "bath" like an atmosphere or ocean life will emerge.

Another aspect of England's formula is that it seems to suggest that "replication," the fundamental characteristic that defines life, is also a likely outcome. It just makes sense because if you can replicate yourself you can disperse even more energy, which is what the arrow of time is all about.

I've just returned from the Play Empowers Pep Rally in Maryland, where a couple hundred early childhood educators got together and did not talk about literacy. We did not talk about math. We did not talk about preparing children for kindergarten or taking tests or college or careers. No, we talked about children, we talked about childhood, and mostly we talked about play. Not long ago I came back from the Play Iceland conference where early childhood educators from Europe and North America talked about children, childhood, and mostly about play. I've attended conferences in Australia and Canada and Greece where we talked about children, childhood, and mostly about play.

There is a lot of energy out there, all around the world, about play. We are thoughtful, passionate, loving professionals, people who are not driven by money, fame or power, but genuinely driven by a sense of urgency and even outrage at what is happening to childhood, not just in the US, but around the world. As Dan Hodgins said at our pep rally, "I'm worried." As he also said, "Let's try to not put a lot of energy into what we can't do."

Michael Leeman of the Roseville Community Preschool, who I met for the first time over the weekend, played this joke on me.

Our play-based schools are evidence-based state-of-the-art schools. This is a truth that cannot be spoken about the rote-based, top-down learning that is increasingly coming to dominate "traditional" schools, schools that function based more on habit and the pursuit of a greasy buck than anything else. As I listen to my colleagues tell me about the lengths to which they often must go to meet "standards" while still giving children a chance to play, I'm inspired by their commitment and strength. Good god, it must be hard to have to constantly justify something so manifestly good and necessary as play.

The "bath" in which they exist is so cold and there are not always other hot atoms with which to clump.

It's an imperfect metaphor, I know, but each time we get together like this, we re-heat and re-energize ourselves. It doesn't happen spontaneously, we need one another: we need these pep rallies, these places where we remind ourselves that we are not alone and that those of us who no longer dwell in a cold bath must do our part to inspire and support those who are doing the truly difficult work of holding up the banner of childhood and play in places where childhood and play still must be defended. If they can do that, certainly it's incumbent on me to disperse my energy in their direction, because they are the leaders right now, the vanguard, the folks who are making play happen within the cracks and crevices despite, not because of, the official curricula of their schools.

During our final session of the conference we spent our time sharing what we had learned and what we can do as we disperse back into the the world. Voices shouted, quivered, and quaked, just as they did at the end of the Play Iceland conference, just as they do at the end of every place I've been where play and childhood have been discussed. We declare to one another, This is what I'm going to do! then take that energy back to our colder baths in which we disperse it, raising the average temperature each time we do.

Probably the most personally gratifying part of this and every conference are the individuals who come to me with stories from their cold baths, telling of their victories within the cracks, their successes in gaining an extra hour of playground time for the kids, of getting rid of worksheets, of putting limits on homework, or even of convincing a single skeptical parent that her child is better served by time spent learning to get along, rather than ciphering out yet another developmentally inappropriate math equation. And then they thank me, which is both satisfying and embarrassing, given that they are the ones on the front lines, the heroes. People ask me how I can write here each day: honestly, it really is the least I can do.

Equally gratifying are those who have, with the help of others (it always takes others), managed to heat up their baths until their equilibrium is one in which play thrives, in which the children they teach are enjoying genuine childhood. They also thank me, sometimes saying that they ask themselves in moments of doubt, "What would Teacher Tom do?" I do the same thing every day, calling out to my mentors and inspirations, "What would Teacher Chris do?" "What would Tom Drummond do?" "What would Bev Bos do?" "What would Mister Rogers do?" This is how we replicate ourselves, this is how we become more efficient in dispersing our energy. And the most beautiful part is that these "replications" are never mere carbon copies, but rather unique clumps of atoms, life perfectly adapted for the bath in which they exist and thrive.

Since I've now stretched this law of increasing entropy metaphor to it's breaking point, I might as well keep going . . . This morning as I write this post, my slowly cooling cup of hot coffee at my side, part of my mind is already dreading the day ahead. I leave for Nanjing, China, a place I've never been. This sort of travel back and forth across time zones is grueling and there are few things I find more stressful than airports and security lines and making connections in strange airports. But there are some energized atoms out there who have asked me to come clump with them and it is the least I can do.

Play is our sun. There, now the metaphor is completely broken. That's the destiny of everything with which we truly play.

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Rania Fowler said...

Thank you Teacher Tom for this. I so very much wanted to attend the PEP Rally. I keep on heating up the bath in public ed in my neck of the woods - baby steps!

Michael Leeman said...

Thanks for the incredible piece of writing, Tom, and for making yourself available for communal clumping at the PeP Rally.

Your piece reminds me of conversations I have had with friends as we played around with Hiesenberg’s Uncertainty Principle as it relates to observing children at play. There is a limit to what can be known simultaneously about certain physical properties of a particle, or in our case a young child. I have used it to justify why I do not let specialists interact with the children in our preschool while they are at play. They can observe the child in motion but their interference ends there as too much (heating?) is lost in the effort to uncover more about the physical properties of the child. The screwed up facial expressions of the OTs and other therapists I’ve shared this with convinces me the old adage “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is valid. Safe travels, Tom.

Cathy Condi said...

The pep rally was very ispirational to me as well. It was nice to see so many people on the same page as me wanting more play and less worrying about sitting at a table for structured learning. That will come soon enough. Looking forward to the next rally. Keisha did a great job putting this together. It was nice to personally meet teacher Tom as well...

Marina Gijzen said...

We are looking forward to having you energize and clump with us in Nanjing Teacher Tom!

Garima said...


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