Friday, February 24, 2017

Questioning Authority

If you would be a real seeker of truth, it is necessary that you at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things. ~Rene Descarte

On the first day of school, the day I meet many of our two-year-olds for the first time, I make sure our box of plastic farm animals is handy. As the kids arrive I greet them, then introduce one of the pigs by holding it up and saying, "The pig says, 'Moooo.'"

Most of them laugh, "No, the cow says 'Moo!'" or "The pig says, 'Oink!'" Some squint at me like I'm crazy, often glancing up at their mothers as if to say, You're leaving me with this guy? In fact, I tend to do a lot of this sort of goofing around. I might, for instance, sing the Alphabet Song with the letters in the wrong order, "D, N, Q, P, T, R, A . . ." Or maybe I'll insist that the carrot sticks are candy, or that the book we are about to read was printed upside down, or that I'm listening with my nose. You see, I want children to really listen to me and if I say something that doesn't match up with what they already know to be true I want them to call me on it.

That's right, it's an overt attempt to cause the children in my care to question my authority. I want them to know that not only is it okay, but that I expect it. You see, I want the children I teach to grow up to be citizens who are not only able to identify BS when they detect it, but to speak up about it. As the kids get older and more experienced in correcting Teacher Tom, I might push back, insisting for instance that I've heard pigs say 'Moo' with my own two ears. Sometimes I'll even say things like, "Listen, I'm the grown-up and you're the kid, of course pigs say 'Moo.'" It's deeply gratifying when they refuse to budge from their insistence that I'm wrong, often laughing at it like a joke, but sometimes angrily, letting me know that they aren't having any of it.

Of course, the whole idea of children questioning a teacher's authority is a challenging one for many people, especially those who only know traditional schools, but in a democratic society, authority is not imposed, but rather granted by the consent of the governed. I, like any authority figure, shouldn't be saying anything I can't defend, and when I do, I deserve to be called on it by a thoughtful, educated citizenry. I'm not the boss of these children, but rather an older (and hopefully wiser) colleague who just happens to be sharing this part of their journey with them. When they one day pass on from my company, I hope they do so knowing that it's not only their right, but their obligation, to question those who would set themselves up as authorities . . . And that also includes their own parents.

Maybe it's a radical idea, but without it, I can hardly hope for our democracy.

Several years ago, I had put chunks of ice in our sensory table. As the four and five year olds arrived, children who had been with me since they were two, I said, "Hey! I put ice in the sensory table, but now there's water in there! Who put the water in there!" I did my best to sound frustrated, angry even.

"Teacher Tom, no body put water in there. The ice is melting."


Taking turns contributing what they already know about the world, we then went into a group discussion about the properties of ice as we played with it. As we talked, I pulled out some rock salt, which we sprinkled on the ice, accelerating the melting process. When talk turned to how we could get the ice to melt even faster, we had the idea of heating it up in a pan over a burner. We encircled the pan to watch the ice quickly turn to water, then to steam. What else could we melt? We tried a crayon. We learned that crayons melt, but the paper wrapper doesn't. We tried a candle. We learned that the wax melts, but the wick does not. One of the children wondered about wood. Would it melt? Many of the children thought it might, but others were sure it would burn, so we put one of our blocks in the pan and, sure enough, after a few minutes it began to smoke. We learned that wood does not melt; it burns. Then one of the boys suggested metal.

Now, I knew they had me on that one. I know that metal can be melted, but our little hot plate couldn't generate nearly enough heat. We tossed a paper clip in the pan. It got hot, but didn't melt. That's when I said, "Listen, metal does melt. The problem is that this burner doesn't get hot enough. If we could make it hotter we could turn it into liquid."

There was a moment of silence as the kids processed what I'd said, then as a unified front they pushed back:

"No, Teacher Tom!"

"You're wrong!"

"You're joking!"

All of them doubted me. They weren't prepared to take my word for it. I tried to persuade them, but at the end of the day the kids went home firm in their belief that metal could not be melted. And I went home feeing frustrated. How would I prove it to them? The next day I phoned a steel mill locate in the south end of the city, thinking that a smelter might be just the kind of dramatic evidence the kids needed. Naturally, they laughed at me saying, "We're not letting preschoolers into a smelter." Then I thought maybe I could just find a video of a smelter, but rejected it under the reasoning that I don't want the kids to believe everything they see on the internet either.

And so it remained this way for several weeks until I one day recalled that my wife had grown up in Vienna where they have a New Years tradition that involves melting small lead figurines in spoons over candles. The liquified metal is then tossed into a bowl of water and the new shape of the lead tells your fortune for the coming year. I got in touch with one of my wife's friends who sent me a package of the figurines.

When they arrived, I told the kids, "Today, I'm going to prove to you that metal can be melted." We went outdoors because I was somewhat concerned about the fumes (I've since learned that a candle can't generate enough heat to cause the lead to release toxic fumes). I lit the candle and the children stood in a semi-circle around me as I held a spoon over the flame, staring at that figurine until, finally, it melted into a pool of liquid metal.

It was only then that the kids believed me. These are the kinds of people I want as my partners in the great project of self-governance. 

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