Friday, September 25, 2020

To Remind Us to Keep Inventing it for Ourselves


I've never written about the day I became a father. I think about that day and often tell parts of the story, but so far I've not found all of the words to do so, if words are even adequate. What I need to say is too complex to express in my normal way. Maybe it requires a novel. Maybe it requires poetry, sculpture, or painting, or it's possible that the way to say what I need to say hasn't been discovered yet.

Those of us who have spent our lives around young children, are familiar with their creative struggle to express themselves. It's part of the process of learning the language, of course, so the conversational short cuts and "good enough" putty with which we spackle our day-to-day adult conversation is yet to be learned. Children regularly find themselves thinking thoughts or having feelings for the first time and they need to communicate about them. Without being able to make use of the cliches upon which we adults rely, they must invent a way of saying it.

An excited five-year-old once replied to an adult who had off-handedly asked, "How are you?" by replying, "This day has a powerful, huge, even big magic in it!"

A three-year-old described an accidental lever she had made on the playground in the form of a chant: "Push down, go up, push down, go up, push down . . ."

Another preschooler, playing with a wine cork in a tub of water, explained, "It went on the water and didn't go down in the water, but I could push it down. And it went back on the water!"

In each example, you can hear the child grasping for complexity, for depth, for knowledge about themselves and their world, then striving to express the fullness of it, grasping at words, building with them the way they build with blocks. Soon they are going to learn to simply say, "I feel good" or to reduce the complexity into words like "lever" and "float," but right now it's the complexity that matters, because it's not just the angels and devils that live in details. Understanding complexity is all about the details, the fullness of a thing, the process or experience. Later will be the time for more concisely summing up the complexity.


Too often, educators try to skip over the complexity and go straight to the summing up, immediately offering children the simple concise answer. Stripped of complexity, the responses are rendered mostly meaningless even if absolutely correct. In Douglas Adams' novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, they build a computer programed to answer the question, "What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?" After seven million years the computer calculates the answer, which is "Forty-two." It's the right answer, but without the rest of the story, it's useless for anything beyond passing a test.

When children play, we sometimes see it as frivolous and purposeless, and perhaps to that child, in that moment, it is, but we should never make the mistake of thinking it's meaningless. This is why we don't step in to correct the child by telling them that there is "no such thing as magic," or "help them" by showing them what else a lever can do, or which other objects can float on water. When we do, we risk rendering the moment meaningless, or as the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget wrote, "Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself." The complexity is where the action is because that's what interests us about a new thing, the details. When we leave children to decide for themselves which of those details are relevant, where to build their own scaffolding, and whether and when to move on to something else entirely, we free them to learn beyond the surface of right answers into where complexity lives. When humans engage like this, even frivolously and purposelessly, we're inventing for ourselves.

And as we invent, we find we must communicate about it. We're a language-using animal, of course, and schools tend to concentrate on using language to bring our inventions into existence, although sadly, most of what they encourage focuses on using language to "prove" what we know on tests or to practice what we know on worksheets. Even our essays must be graded. It's doubly sad because much of children's learning is literally being constructed by themselves as they strive to express it, be it through words, art, or science. That someone else has listened carefully, understood, and acknowledged that they've understood is a vital part of that process. It's this process that is important, not the outcome.


As we get older, we tend to experience fewer things for the first time, which leads many of us to fill our language with words and phrases that rush us past the complexity. We've got places to be and things to do, after all. We don't have the time to just play, to let ourselves fall into the details and wander around, being frivolous and purposeless. I suppose when you've seen it all before, it's hard to summon the enthusiasm for inventing things, unless, that is, you have young children in your life. If you listen to them, listening not just with your ears, but with your heart, it's impossible to not be inspired. 

When a child answers, "How are you?" with, "This day has a powerful, huge, even big magic in it," you find yourself nodding along, at once understanding something more complex, and therefore more true, than the old shoe of, "I'm fine, and you?" We can't do this ourselves without play. Without play, we lose sight of complexity and stop inventing our world, becoming increasingly efficient, but going nowhere. 

This is something I started to discover on the day I became a father: children are here to remind us to keep inventing life for ourselves.

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I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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