Monday, October 19, 2020

"Radical Empathy"

In Rutger Bregman's book Humankind, he writes about an experiment in which psychologists told volunteers a sad story about a 10-year-old girl who was suffering from a deadly disease. She is, according to the story, on a waiting list for a life-saving treatment, but time is of the essence. The volunteers are told that they can move her up on the list, but they are instructed to be objective in their decision. Most people, understanding that all the children on the list were in dire straits, opted to not give this specific girl an advantage over the others.  A second group of volunteers, however,  was given the same set up, but this time they were asked to imagine how this specific girl must be feeling, to dwell on her pain, suffering, and fear. In this case, the majority chose to allow her to jump the line.

As Bregman points out, this is, at best a shaky moral choice. After all, giving this girl, who the second group of volunteers now "know" through their empathy, an advantage, they are in fact disadvantaging all the other kids, violating the principles of what most of us would consider even-handed fairness. Those other children have stories as well, but because the volunteers spent time empathizing with this one specific girl, they favored her. Bregman sees this as an example of how empathy can blind us:

(Empathy) is something we feel for people who are close to us; for people we can smell, hear and touch. For family and friends, for fans of our favorite band, and maybe for the homeless guy on our own street corner. For cute puppies we can cuddle and pet, even as we eat animals mistreated on factory farms out of sight. And for people we see on TV -- mostly those the camera zooms in on, while sad music sweeps in the background . . . If anything, empathy makes us less forgiving, because the more we identify with victims, the more we generalise about our enemies. The bright spotlight we shine on our chosen few makes us blind to the perspective of our adversaries, because everybody else falls outside our view. 
The truth, Bregman concludes is that "empathy and xenophobia go hand in hand."

This is an upsetting concept for me, one that flies in the face of one of my principles of being an important adult in the life of young children. I've tended to view empathy as a pure good, the one human trait that I can count on to make the world a better place. I've seen the beautiful results of empathy time and again in the classroom as children embrace and help one another out of motivations that can only be called empathetic. But I can see Bregman's point. Empathy tends to cause us to focus on individuals to the exclusion of others, to cause us to do good for the girl on the waiting list, elevating her above the others we don't know who are on the list and who are equally deserving.

Not only that, but even if we are capable of feeling empathy for humanity at large, which I think we can all admit is more difficult than it is for individuals, it is emotionally exhausting. 


Go ahead and try it: imagine yourself in the shoes of one other person. Now imagine yourself in the shoes of a hundred other people. And a million How about seven billion? . . . We simply can't do it. 

In other words, empathy is not only blinding, but also not sustainable. 

Isabel Wilkerson, in her book Caste, is likewise suspicious of empathy. She writes, "Empathy is commonly viewed as putting yourself in someone else's shoes and imagining how you would feel." This, of course, is the basis for what we know as "The Golden Rule": Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (or some such phrasing). "That could be seen as a start," writes Wilkerson, "but that is little more than role-playing, and it is not enough in the ruptured world we live in." 

I've written about The Gold Rule before. It could, in fact, be considered an essentially selfish approach to helping others, one that considers what we would want, rather than on what another person would want. For instance, as a middle-aged, white, male, what I would want or need is likely to differ wildly from what a young, black, female would want or need in any given circumstance. If I'm to help her, I must learn to step not into her shoes, but outside of myself. Empathy is not an end unto itself, but rather a starting point. Wilkerson calls us to what she calls "radical empathy," which she defines as "putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another's experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel."

As George Bernard Shaw more flippantly put it, "Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may be different." 

Bregman suggests that The Golden Rule be replaced with what he calls "The Platinum Rule," which a group of four and five-year-olds I once taught discovered on their own, phrasing it as "Don't do anything to anybody unless you ask them." Or as Wilkerson phrases it, "to educate oneself and to listen." As Bregman writes, "The Platinum Rule calls not for empathy, but compassion." The ultimate weakness of empathy is that it calls for us to feel with others when what is needed, if we are going to do good for others is to feel for them. Instead of empathetically sharing their pain and suffering, which tends to incapacitate and exhaust us, we should strive to call up our feelings of "warmth, concern and care," which has the opposite effect: rather than tiring us, it energizes.

Empathy is perhaps the crowning instinct of the human animal. I don't know whether or not it sets us apart from other species because I've known some dogs and cats well enough to know they experience at least something like it. But empathy can't be an end in itself. I've known too many people who are perpetually exhausted from their habit of jumping into what they perceive to be the "shoes" of others, who just need to "take a break" or "think happy thoughts." I've been there myself, but compassion, I'm finding, allows me to not just drown in the river alongside my fellow human, but rather gives me a rock upon which to stand as I reach out my hand. As Wilkerson writes, "Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it." And it's only from this place, that we can be of service.


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. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Friday, October 16, 2020

"The School of Mankind"

I reckon it would be best if we didn't put so much energy into worrying about our children's futures. It would be best for both us and our kids if we could more often just be here in the present with them, wondering at who they are right now, appreciating the unique human they already are, helping and loving them right now. That would be best, but human parents have never been very good at it. Sometimes we dream big dreams for them, imagining our child, their best qualities flourishing, as a masterful something or other, admired, inspired, passionate, and supremely comfortable in their own skin. But there are times when we fear their worst qualities and fret that they will grow to be spoiled, disrespectful, and lazy, prone to messy bedrooms, selfishness, depression or worse.

Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn by no other. ~Edmund Burke

These thoughts enter our heads because we are the adults, cursed with the disease of believing we have any control over the future. Maybe, we think, if we just lecture our children enough, take them to church often enough, give them enough chores to do, and reward and punish them appropriately we can somehow stave off the bad future and encourage the good. But that isn't the way it works.

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. ~James Baldwin

Most of what children learn about being a human being in this world, they learn from the people they most love, but not because they have been drilled, scolded, or otherwise indoctrinated, but rather because they follow their example. If we want children to be kind, we must be kind. If we want them to be tidy, we must be tidy. If we want them to be respectful, then we must be respectful, especially toward them. Indeed, the more we focus on ourselves, on being the person we want ourselves to be, the better we "teach" the most important life lessons. Our children will not learn to pursue their passions unless the loving adults in their lives set that example for them. They will not learn to be unselfish if we live with a tight fist. They will not learn to manage their emotions, if their role models haven't figured it out for themselves.

Teach by doing whenever you can, and only fall back upon words when doing it is out of the question. ~Jean-Jacques Rousseau

That's asking a lot of adults, I know, but if we are going to ask it of our children, we must also ask it of ourselves. And we must also know that we will fail in our role modeling and fail often, but in that too we are role models. Children do not expect their parents to be perfect, but they are always making a careful study of what we do when we make mistakes. Do we give up? Do we blame others? Do we rant and rave? Do we cry and mope? Or are we able to apologize, forgive ourselves, and get back up to try again? The approach we take is very likely the approach our children will, in turn, grow to embrace as their own.

Teaching is painful, continual, and difficult work to be done by kindness, by watching, and by praise, but above all by example. ~John Ruskin

Of course, we all know examples of children, perhaps even ourselves, who have overcome poor role modeling. Perhaps we eat more healthily than our own parents, or make more time for our own kids, or avoid committing felonies. But even then, we can see that it was the examples set, more than the lessons "taught," that informed the future.

No one can predict the future and only fools take their attempts to do so seriously. When we are hopeful about the future we are, as my wife and I like to say, just "spending Yugoslavian dollars." When we worry we are, at best, wasting valuable emotional bandwidth that would be better applied to right now. The only future we can predict with any certainty is the next 10 minutes and, I've found, it's generally not too hard to be the best me, the person I most want to be, for the next 10 minutes. When we can do that, 10 minutes at a time, we are being the teacher, the parent, our child most needs. And it is from those 10 minute building blocks that the future emerges.

A master can tell you what he expects of you. A teacher, though, awakens your own expectations. ~Patricia Neal

It's not our job to "teach" our children anything, but rather to love them and to strive to live according to our own expectations, not in the past or future, but right now. The future, as it always does, will take care of itself.


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. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Pygmalion Effect

Auguste Rodin


He lifts up both his hands to feel the work,
and wonders if it can be ivory,
because it seems to him more truly flesh. --
his mind refusing to conceive of it
as ivory, he kisses it and feels
his kisses are returned. And speaking love,
caresses it with loving hands that seem
to make an impress, on the parts they touch,
so real that he fears he then may bruise
her by his eager pressing.
                                 ~Ovid, Metamorphosis

Throughout most of my academic life I was a good student in the most common usage of that term: I managed pretty good grades. I did receive a few clinkers here and there, but for the most part I was a solid A-B student. During my sophomore year in high school, mom convinced me to take a typing class, because, she reasoned, it would help me when I had papers to write for college. Fair enough, I thought, but on our first day of class, the teacher, a seasoned typing teacher, told us, "If you're a boy, the best grade you can expect is a C. Your fingers are just too big and clumsy."

Well this was news. I'd never been told anything other than "the sky's the limit." Recalling this today as a middle class white man, I can see how much that was a function of simply being a white male, but at the time I treated it as a novel experienced. There were no particular expectations on me and I lived up to them, not only receiving and C, but doing the quality of work and giving an effort that barely deserved a C. 

This is a very obvious example of a very well-researched phenomenon called the Pygmalion Effect, named for the mythological sculptor who loved his statue so much that the gods brought it to life. In Harvard researcher Robert Rosenthal's famous experiment, he discovered that if he randomly labeled some lab rats "bright" and others "dull," his graduates students would consistently turn that into a self-fulfilling prophecy when it came to running a maze. Even though there was actually nothing special to distinguish the two groups of rats, the "bright" ones actually performed as if they were brighter, twice as well as the "dull" rats, while the "dull" rats, in turn, performed as if they were dull. This phenomenon has been shown to be true for humans as well, especially when it comes to teachers who both consciously and unconsciously cause their students to fulfill their predetermined expectations.

A few days ago, I wrote about the power inherent in our position as educators. Well, this is one of the greatest powers we wield: the ability to create these kinds of self-fulfilling prophecies, even if we don't issue grades to the children in our care. Our expectations of them tend to become the reality. If we think all boys are rowdy, then they probably will be. If we think all the girls will be catty, that's what you'll tend to see. And if we believe, even at a subconscious level, that an arbitrary trait like skin color is a natural limitation to what a person is capable of doing, then we will limit them. This is why our reflective practice is so important. If we don't take the time every day to think deeply about what we are doing, what we believe, the challenges we are facing, the successes we have had, the individuals in our care, then we risk using our power to impede rather than to, as I hope is our goal, support every child to achieve their highest potential.

I was not inherently smarter than my classmates any more than I was an inherently "average" typist. The adults in my life expected me to be smart and so, by the measures they used to judge that, I showed them what they expected to see. On the other hand, just one adult thought that I might turn out to just be average and to this day I struggle with my touch typing: a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. And even with this clear hindsight, I still I don't work on my typing speed today because part of being average was learning to not care if I was anything more.

Children deserve adults who strive to identify their prejudices and to then set them aside, an act that can be easier said than done, but like with anything else, we get better at it with practice. It requires a commitment to honesty, sometimes painful honesty, and a desire to change. If we aren't willing or able to bring that to our self-evaluation, then we create the kinds of self-fulfilling prophesies that stunt and even ruin lives.

This power we have as educators is not our power. It belongs to the children. When we return it to them, we empower them to take their own future in their own hands and, as the mythological Pygmalion did, bring it to life.


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. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Everybody Helping Everybody

We were playing with our classroom "catapults," crude ping pong ball shooting devices that are not really catapults at all, but act like them with the help of rubber bands, which I built in my garage one summer. They are always extremely popular play items and because I'd only made six of them, they are always short in supply with occasional conflicts erupting as the kids figure out how to share them. At the beginning of the morning, I'd supplied a couple dozen balls, but the available supply had now dwindled to a handful, the rest having been "lost" under the classroom furniture.

"Teacher Tom, all the balls are gone," announced on boy who was carrying a catapult possessively not wanting to give it up.

"Not all of them," I answered, "But there were a lot more earlier."

"They're all under there," he said, pointing at the gap between some cabinetry and the floor.

I nodded.

"We have to get them out."

I agreed.

"I tried to reach them, but they're too far. You try it, Teacher Tom. Your arms are longer." I fell to my belly only to find that the girth of my forearms above the wrists prevented me from reaching them.

By now we had attracted a cluster of four and five-year-olds, several of whom were on their bellies making their own attempts to fetch the balls, but without success. Then someone had an idea. They used a broom handle to reach the ball and after a few attempts managed to pull it out from under. This set off a flurry of children seeking broom handle-like tools then falling to their bellies. Soon, we had retrieved all of the balls, seemingly good news, except in the case of several children who burst into tears, one after another. It seems that in the rush and crush of helpers, they had not had the opportunity to retrieve even one lost ball. I tried consoling them with the assurance that more balls were certain to roll under the shelving, but, as one boy pointed out with a wail, "I don't have a broom!"

I looked up to find that we were surrounded by a veritable work crew of preschoolers all bearing long narrow ball retrieving tools, some fashioned from brooms, but others from blocks, costume wands, a fly swatter, and anything else that fit the description. The room had been stripped of long narrow things, the catapults abandoned, and the kids were now waiting around for balls to roll underneath the cabinets. The big problem, however, was that no one was now playing with the catapults, items that had been much in demand only moments before. So we all stood around for a time, some ready to help, some crying, and all waiting for balls to get lost.

I can imagine that it would have struck someone who didn't have experience working with young children as a bizarre situation. A cool game had been completely upended by the desire to be helpful, but for those of us who've been doing this for awhile, it made perfect sense. Whenever there's real work to be done, there are always kids eager to pitch in. Oh sure, they shirk and hide and avoid when something is assigned to them as a chore, and they often fight work that is not "real," like worksheets or the other exercises in rote learning that show up in traditional classrooms, but when genuine help is needed, they tend to reveal themselves as Batman. This isn't just my observation. Researchers like Felix Warneken have found that children as young as 14 months old will pitch in to help, unprompted, even giving up fun activities like playing in a ball pit (or playing with catapults), in order to do so. In this TedX presentation, Dr. Warneken describes a series of experiments that he used to establish that this sort of altruism as inherent in humans:

For several minutes we stood there waiting to help, but without the opportunity, until finally, a boy had the idea of helping by handing his broom to one of the kids who were crying. This set off a kind of domino effect of tools being turned over to children who didn't have one. When one opportunity to help had ended, they found another. We then continued to mill around like this for a couple minutes until a girl said, "I know!" She raced to the abandoned catapults and began launching balls towards the furniture with the intent of "losing" them in the gap and that then became our game of the morning, everybody helping everybody.


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. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Goal Ought to Be to Stop Patronizing the Children

When Jos de Blok, founder and CEO of the successful Dutch home healthcare company Buurtzorg was asked, "How do you motivate your (10,000) employees," he replied, "I don't. Seems patronizing."

This is the "leader" of an organization that has been voted Employer of the Year in the Netherlands five times. In contrast to the leading management theories that almost always come down to some combination of carrots and sticks, de Blok's company has no management, no bureaucracy, no HR department, and runs on the principles of "trust and self-organization." What de Blok has discovered is that "By doing nothing and doing less, you get better results."  

The other day, a colleague who teaches in a public school confessed that she had accidentally purchased "incentive snacks" and other prizes for her students, forgetting for a moment that they were still engaged in online learning due to the pandemic. Then she wondered how she was going to motivate the kids in this new era of remote education when she was not there to physically hand them their rewards. She's not alone in this. Our educational system has long been fueled by the notion that one of a teacher's main jobs is to motivate children to learn. Of course there are always grades, but if you spend any time in forums where teachers discuss their challenges, the subject of "motivation" is a big one, especially when it comes to middle and high school students. It's a bedrock concept in both business and education that employees and students can only be motivated, or can be motivated to higher achievement, by rewards and punishments.

The funny thing is, when you ask one of these teachers what motivates them, they rarely say "money" or any of the other external incentives tied to their employment. Indeed, if money were their primary motivation, most teachers can find more of that in another profession. No, teachers, by and large, are moved by a higher calling, as are the nurses who Jos de Blok employs. Most people feel this way about themselves. Of course, more money is always welcome, but most of us consider ourselves to be self-motivated, we just tend to think that those other, lazy, people need the carrots and sticks. Psychologists call this phenomenon extrinsic incentive bias

As a preschool educator, I've only worked with self-motivated students. Of course, I've also never worked in a place in which a bureaucracy was forcing me to implement the kind of curriculum most school teachers are expected to "teach." In a play-based model, we trust children's curiosity (e.g., their natural instincts to learn) and allow them to self-organize how to go about it (e.g., play). We don't patronize them with committee approved "learning objectives," tests, standardized assessments, or other hierarchical nonsense, but rather free the children to ask and answer their own questions in ways that work best for them, just as de Blok frees his nurses to care for their patients without the soul sucking rigamarole that characterizes the carrot and stick model. In fact, most research shows that these artificial efforts to "motivate" actually do the opposite: they kill motivation, which then leads to a kind of vicious cycle, which all too often results in abandoning carrots in favor of sticks like demotions and failing grades.

The problem in education are these damned curricula that are passed down from on high, like those dehumanizing policies that come out of human resources departments, foisted upon our youngest citizens because too many adults have extrinsic incentive bias against them. They don't trust children and so they patronize them by dictating their course of study complete with detailed assembly line-like instructions on not just what the must learn, but how and by when they should manufacture this pre-fab "learning." Is it any wonder that children, especially after years of the bureaucracy, become demoralized? Of course, the traditional take, as it is in business, is to assume this is a result of laziness so we go out and purchase more "incentive snacks," but the goal ought to be to just stop patronizing them.

What de Blok has discovered is that people are happiest, empowered, and most productive when they are trusted and free to self-organize, which is exactly what self-directed, or play-based, learning is all about. As de Blok says, "I've never met a nurse who didn't want to do her work as best as possible." I can say the same thing about the young children I've known, which is why I've never felt the need to patronize them.


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. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, October 12, 2020

"Democracy Must Be Born Anew . . . And Education is Its Midwife"

Prior to the pandemic, the parent of a former student brought my attention to a letter sent to her by the Seattle Public Schools. The opening paragraph read:

This spring, your child will take the online Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts. Students in grade 5 will also take the online Washington Comprehensive Assessment of Science (WCAS). This is the fifth year our state will administer the Smarter Balanced tests and the second year for the WCAS. The results from these tests will give a more accurate picture of whether students are on track to be ready for college or career.

These are elementary school children. The proper career aspiration for a young child is princess or cowboy.

I know I've always taught in a bubble, one where we based our practices on evidence. And the evidence is overwhelmingly clear: children learn best through self-directed learning, or what we in the business of actual education call play. We know that these kinds of high stakes standardized tests, being linked as they are to funding, pay, and promotions, have forced schools to dramatically narrow their educational offerings in pursuit of high test scores. We know that the primary thing to be learned from them is the socio-economic status to the children being tested. We know that this kind of testing is making schools into grim, stress-filled places that contribute significantly to the decline in the mental well-being of many children, and teaching all of them the lesson that learning is a difficult, joyless pursuit, one to be avoided whenever possible. And we know that giant corporations are raking in billions in profits in their test score coal mines. This is what the evidence tells us and what is continuing to happen even as schooling in America has been dramatically disrupted this year and perhaps beyond.

Yes, there are individual teachers who work wonders "within the cracks," but anyone who has read here (or indeed, just paid attention) knows that public education, as an institution, has lost its way and it's not just our children who are paying the price.

The drive to standardize education has accelerated over the past generation, lead largely by billionaires who made their billions not by inventing something new, but rather by standardizing the process of manufacturing, sales, and distribution in the name of efficiency. It works well when it comes to software or electronics or toilet paper, but human beings cannot be standardized, unless, of course, your only goal is to manufacture college and career ready machine parts. Bill Gates (Microsoft) once, nauseatingly, compared our children to electrical plugs, saying that once we can plug them all into the same outlets we will "unleash powerful market forces" on them.

As the late Sir Ken Robinson wrote: "Standardization broke education."

If the focus of public schools is simply to get them college and career ready then I'd say it's time to scrape the whole idea of publicly-funded education altogether and let the corporations train their own damn workers. No, contrary to the assertion by Seattle Public Schools (and every other public school system with which I'm familiar), the purpose of education is to assure that the next generation is up to the challenge of self-governance, which must stand at the heart of any democratic society, and the skills required to be a contributing citizen are in many ways the exact opposite of those required to be college or career ready: critical thinking; questioning authority; standing up for values, beliefs, and ideas; contributing in ways far beyond mere service to the economy. None of these skills go over particularly well in the workforce, but they are essential if we are going to ever have a functioning democracy. We do not need standardized people. We need citizens who are free to achieve their own highest potential, or what is more patriotically referred to as "the pursuit of happiness."

Seattle Public Schools forbids its teachers from telling parents this, but we have the right to have our children opt out of these tests and I urge every parent, everywhere to do so, especially if your child is one who tends to score well on them. This is the first step in wresting control of public education from the hands of the billionaires who will standardize our children in the quest of profit and efficiency. It's time to reclaim our schools in the name of democracy and self-governance. As the great John Dewey wrote: "Democracy must be born anew with each generation, and education is its midwife." Opt out: it's the patriotic thing to do.


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. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Friday, October 09, 2020

"It's Not Fair"

In my early years as a teacher, I had an idea for teaching four and five-year-olds about fairness. I filled a small treasure box with a collection of plastic cut gems, the kind one often finds be-sparkling princess jewelry. I told the children that the gems were "special" and asked them to not touch as I showed the box around. I could see it appealed to the kids and many of them struggled with their self-control as the open box was passed under their noses. 
I then said, "I'm going to give one gem to every girl."

My idea was that the boys would object, which would then lead to a discussion about fairness. I was operating under the well-established (at the time) idea that young children are essentially selfish and selfless concepts like fairness were learned behavior. I felt pretty clever.

As I began doling out the gems one at a time to the girls, I noted the concerned looks on the faces of the boys, just as I was hoping, but then something unexpected happened. One of the girls refused her gem, saying, "That's not fair. The boys should get gems too." Then one of the girls who already had a gem in her fist handed it back to me saying, "Yeah, it's not fair. I don't want mine either." I even tried to plow forward with my little exercise, but the girls, as one, refused. Even more surprisingly, the boys sat silently until finally one of them said, softly, as if still not so sure, "It's not fair."

Not only had they blown up my plan, they had both rebelled and shamed me for even thinking of it. I thought, These are extraordinary kids, and later told the story to their parents so they could feel good about how well they had taught their essentially selfish preschoolers about fairness. Certainly, I thought, this had been an exception to the rule, so the following school year, I tried it again, this time starting with the boys under the notion that maybe what had happened had something to do with gender. Same results. So I tried it again the next year, this time, ditching gender as my dividing line, and going with stripes v. non-stripes. Again they wouldn't let me finish.

I finally, after several years of trying, had no choice but to recognize that the "selfish" theory of young children, at least when it came to this distribution of gems, was false. Not only did the kids instantly identify my project as unfair, they preferred I keep the gems to myself if I wasn't going to distribute them fairly. 

I now know that what I had witnessed is what psychologists, economists, and anthropologists call "inequality aversion." It seems that we are not born to be selfish suns around whom the universe revolves, but rather are genetically disposed to seek fairness whenever possible. Humans are born to share. Our species is inclined to help one another, not vie against one another. In fact, selfishness, contrary to theories of "survival of the fittest" (a term that Charles Darwin himself reportedly came to regret), is a learned behavior, one that we, in spite of ourselves, teach to our children.

Even before learning about inequality aversion, I had given up on any attempt to teach fairness, and today I view my attempts as incredibly patronizing and even a little cruel. I've discovered that if I let the children alone, fairness seemed to emerge time and again, perhaps not in the tit-for-tat way that my adult mind has come to understand it, but rather in the ad hoc, situational way that children naturally organize themselves, a fairness based upon the agreements they make among themselves. Children, it's clear, have more to teach us about fairness than the other way around.


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. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Thursday, October 08, 2020

The Freedom to Be That Change

Most of us want to raise children who are ethical and caring. Indeed, when surveyed 96 percent of us say that this is a "very important, if not essential" parenting goal. I've not seen the numbers for teachers, but I would assume that a super majority of us feel likewise. If nothing else, we want the future to be populated with adults of character and we believe it begins with us, the adults responsible for the rearing and education of children.

Unfortunately, a full 80 percent of youth surveyed say that they are more concerned with "achievement" or "happiness" than with caring for others. Not only that, but eight in 10 also say that their parents and teachers feel the same way. And to put the cherry on this ugly cake, teachers, by the same percentage, perceive that the parents of their students value achievement over moral character. In other words, we are, as parents and educators, quite consistently sending our children a message we don't want to be sending.

Ironically, most research also shows that lack of caring for others leads to humans being less successful and less happy.

We are living in a time in which one in five children are suffering from a diagnosable mental illness. Our schools have become increasingly academic, where our children are being judged, daily, by their ability to pass tests and otherwise regurgitate facts on command, while their "free time" is being gobbled up by homework and resume-building extracurriculars. Our policymakers increasingly emphasize the economic importance of schooling, while ignoring the fundamental role education plays in building the character traits necessary to productively and cooperatively participate in the democratic process of self-governance. Despite our stated intentions, we are raising a generation of children who feel disconnected from their fellow citizens, who are pitted against one another at younger and younger ages, and who are urged to "race to the top," a metaphor that naturally places one's fellow humans a step below. 

I'm not the only one who has pointed this out, of course, and there are countless attempts underway to "teach" empathy, compassion, and caring. The Atlantic article to which I've linked here, quotes experts saying that parents and teachers ought to redouble their efforts to "give their children opportunities" to be helpful and caring, one even going so far as to encourage "repetition," the hallmark of the sort of rote learning that characterizes so much of our "achievement" focused educational systems, as if it is just another subject to be included in a pre-packaged curriculum.

We don't need any more curricula. We don't need any more subjects to be graded or judged by adults. Trying to "teach" caring for others is doomed to failure. I mean, think how most children feel about the "subjects" we already teach. Do we really think that we should teach caring the way we teach math or English?

The way children learn to care for others is through example and practice. If we truly want our children to help others, then we must role model it. They must see that we genuinely do prioritize caring over achievement because right now they clearly perceive we are just giving it lip service. 

Secondly, we must set children free to actually practice being helpful and caring which means we must stop pitting them against one another like combatants in some sort of reality TV program and leave them free to engage with the world as human beings rather than cogs in an achievement machine. Human beings are born to connect with one another through helping one another. Children as young as 14 months consistently demonstrate the drive to help others without the expectation of anything in return. Over the course of the past two decades, I've watched young children, through their play with one another, discovering the joy and intrinsic rewards that comes from caring deeply for one another, cooperating, and finding the joy of being not better than others, but rather a contributing member of a community.

Caring for others is not not something that can be "taught." It must be experienced. It must be discovered. If we really want our children to be ethical, empathetic, compassionate, and caring, we must step back from "teaching" and "parenting" and instead be the change we want in the world, while providing our children the freedom to be that change as well.


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. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Teaching Children to Be Incompetent

In 1973, I was 11-years-old, living with my family in a suburb of Athens, Greece. My brother was 9 and our sister was not even four. We lived a couple of miles from the American Club, a place that ex-pats from English speaking countries congregated. We primarily frequented it to use the swimming pool, movie theater, and book store. Us boys were pretty much free to go there whenever we wanted and we thought nothing of hopping on our bikes to, say, check out the latest comic book offerings. Our little sister, we all thought without ever even saying it, was too young for such solo excursions.

One day as we played in our garden, she asserted that she knew how to get to the American Club all by herself. My brother and I, not always being the gentlest of older siblings, doubted her, but when she persisted, we challenged her to back up her boasting and lead us there, which she proceeded to do. This was not a direct course, it was rather one that required many twists and turns, and covered, like I said, a couple miles. We boys began by teasing her, but as she competently led our expedition farther and farther, our mockery turned to respect. She guided us all that way without one false turn.

I share this story as an example of how we regularly underestimate the capabilities of young children to understand and navigate the world. Indeed, that is one of the reasons we create what John Holt called the “walled off garden of childhood,” a place where we keep our children to protect them from the outside world: a place where we round the corners and pad the edges, where toys replace the actual stuff of life, where things are dumbed down and kept simple, where we seek to protect their precious innocence from the “harsh reality outside.” When children are given the chance, they time and again prove themselves more than competent even as we bustle about in their wake as their keepers, cautioning them to not touch things, or to stand back, or to be careful, oblivious to the fact that, more often than not, they are already not touching things, standing back, and being careful, all on their own, prior to our busybody expressions of doubt about their competence.

A couple years ago we took a group of four and five year olds to an art gallery in Seattle, a place that touts itself as a place for such field trips. Prior to going in, they asked the children to avoid running, yelling, or touching the artwork, all of which are the sort of standard issue admonishments one finds on signs for adults before entering such places — nothing wrong with that.  But then, the security team took it upon themselves to shadow us, following us from place to place, forever leaping in whenever one of the children got “too close” to a painting or sculpture. They had not warned us about getting close to things. Indeed, the adults around the gallery were often standing with their noses mere inches from the canvasses as they made their studies, but any time one of the children came within even a few feet of a piece, a member of the security detail was right on top of them. Whenever a child, in their excitement, walked briskly, they were warned not to run, again, something the adults in the place were permitted to do without so much as a peep. And we were followed everywhere we went by a staccato of shushing, anytime anyone of them expressed delight in something they saw or thought or felt about the artwork, while adults were allowed to crack their jokes and express themselves unmolested.

The children took it in stride. After all, they were all accustomed to being treated this way because this is how we adults tend to behave toward children when they stray outside the walls of their garden. But we adults, in contrast, found ourselves becoming increasingly anxious, on edge, stressed out by the stress of the security team. We, as adults, were absolutely not comfortable being treated as if we were incompetent, and it finally became too much for us so we took the children outside for a snack and didn’t return.

When we treat children, or anyone for that matter, as incompetent we teach them incompetence, yet the belief in their incompetence is so ingrained, that most of us take it as normal that children are not yet ready to function outside of their garden without our constant, stress-inducing vigilance. Yet time and again, when I’ve had faith in children, when I’ve held them  as competent, far more often than not they show me that they are.


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. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Tuesday, October 06, 2020

The Proper and Moral Use of Power

Anthropologists tell us that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not big fans of show-offs, nor did they take well to being bossed around. For 99 percent of our time on the planet, individuals who attempted to place themselves above others, who behaved arrogantly, who hoarded resources, or who attempted to exert control over others, were ridiculed, shamed, and if that didn't humble them, they were ousted from the band, left to fend for themselves in the big bad world. You see, these early humans knew about the dangers of placing undue power or resources into the hands of any one individual.

Today, of course, the opposite is true. In almost every area of life, we elevate the show-offs, believe that their claim to greater wealth than the rest of us is earned, and permit petty dictatorships to flourish from governments and board rooms to the ranks of shopping mall cops and, yes, even classrooms. When we cringe at the excesses of the powerful, we're revealing our hunter-gatherer heritage. When we protest, rebel, and even riot, we are following an urge as old as humanity. When we rail at the unfairness, the cruelty, and the crime of it all, we are "remembering" what we were meant to be and, whether we know it or not, we are mourning the fact that we've lost the thread and have handed the worst of us, the shameless and heartless, power over the best of us.

When I make these assertions, there are always those who will object. Certainly, the powerful aren't all bad. Some of them have their hearts in the right place. And maybe that's true. There are always exceptions that prove rules, but the scientific research is all on the side of the 19th-century British historian Lord Acton who wrote, "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Despite the apologists who insist that power merely gives opportunity for the already corrupt to reveal themselves, studies and experiments consistently show that even those given temporary or arbitrary power over others behave in ways that would have not been tolerated throughout the majority of history. It's not your imagination, people who drive BMW brand automobiles are ruder. Even in small workgroups where a single individual is randomly designated the leader, that person, despite having only seconds before been one of the gang, will take more cookies, eat more sloppily, and even be more likely to chew with their mouths open. In fact, those with power appear to develop what doctors call "acquired sociopathy," a condition that typically emerges after a blow to the head that damages the brain. In other words, people in power act like someone with brain damage: they are more likely to be impulsive, to cheat, to be shameless, and to dismiss those over whom they have power. And most concerning is that they tend to demonstrate a decreased ability to empathize with others.

As educators, we are in positions in which we are vested with a great deal of power. We might not feel like powerful people in the big picture, but while we are in the classroom, there is little to stop us from commanding and controlling the children. Indeed, administrators, parents, and society at large expect us  to run mini-dictatorships, albeit relatively benign ones, in which the children behave and order is kept.  And too many teachers take this on without question, assuming their power and wielding it under the flag of "classroom management." 

As a play-based educator, I've never been interested in possessing power. I am not "in charge" of these humans for whom I'm responsible, but am rather an equal. As an adult, I have experiences and, perhaps, even wisdom, that mean that I must, under certain circumstances, take the lead, but I must reject power if I'm to do my job properly. Play-based education assumes a community of equals much more in keeping with the hunter-gatherer societies in which our brains evolved to thrive. This requires equality, humbleness, and empathy, traits that are nearly impossible for a person in power. I take this seriously. I think about it every day. I am not the boss of these children, nor am I their servant. I am a member of their community.

When power falls to me or, as is sometimes the case due to my misunderstood role as educator, it is foisted upon me, it is my responsibility to give it away to the children as quickly and completely as I can. The only proper and moral use of power is to use it to empower others. This is the wisdom our forebears had. It strikes me that losing this wisdom was humanity's true fall from grace and that remembering it is the key to redemption. 


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. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, October 05, 2020

Where Our Focus Ought to Be Right Now . . . And Always

Most of us take it for granted that human beings are smarter than other animals. After all, we have by far the largest brains compared to our body size of any other species, comprising, on average, two percent of our body weight. But when scientists in Germany used a series of thirty-eight tests designed to compare our innate intelligence with animals we assume are pretty smart, such as orangutans and chimpanzees, on things like spatial awareness, calculation, and causality, we performed about the same. This doesn't surprise me, actually. Having lived with a series of dogs over the course of the past three decades, I'm convinced there are times that they've pitied me as a sweet little puddin' head, lovable, but not that bright, especially when it comes to things like being aware of a rabbit hiding in the shrubbery or understanding what they want or need when they could not be communicating more clearly. 

The only area of intelligence in which the researchers found that humans surpass our ape cousins is when it comes to social learning: the ability to learn from others. As Rutger Bregman writes in his book Humankind:

Human beings, it turns out, are ultra social learning machines. We're born to learn, to bond and to play. Maybe it's not so strange, then, that blushing is the only human expression that's uniquely human. blushing, after all, is quintessentially social -- it's people showing they care what others think, which fosters trust and enables cooperation. 

That we need one another in order to take advantage of our great big brains, shouldn't surprise any early childhood educators. 

Other research, and most significantly, the Perry School Project, the longest running study of the impact of high quality preschool on the lives of children, finds that far more important than anything that can be measured by standardized testing, the traits most linked to children going on to live "successful" lives are the development of traits like "self-motivation, the ability to work well with others, and sociability." And the key thing that makes a preschool "high quality" is programs that foster trust and enable cooperation.

Too much of what passes for education today, is about the individual, about shoehorning various kinds of trivia into their brains, then patting ourselves on the back when they can regurgitate it on a test. This is why so many non-educators seem to be shrugging their shoulders about the impact of physical distancing and remote "learning": they can still continue to shoehorn so what's all the fuss? Weren't kids supposed to be sitting at their own desks, eyes forward, lips zipped anyway? I've even heard some technophilic types insisting that now is an opportunity to really figure out what kinds of shoehorning works "best" without the data being "tainted" by the distractions of social interactions.  

But without one another, without being able to see other people blush, without the ability to look into one another's eyes, without the information embedded in our subtle smiles, flared nostrils, or tensed muscles, we learn no better than apes. Screens are very limited in what they can convey. They make trust and cooperation far more difficult. The same for physical distancing. No wonder we're all so tired right now. We're working overtime to gather the social information we need in order to learn at full capacity.

Whether we know it or not, this is why "school" isn't working very well right now. We tend to think of our schools as places for shoehorning the old reading, writing, and 'rithmatic into their little heads, but its real value (beyond the economic value of child care) has always been the opportunity for children simply be together, to learn from one another, to practice being sociable, to cooperate, to develop the habits of working with others, to play, and to grow the trust necessary for their brains to develop to their highest potential. This is where or focus ought to be right now . . . and always.


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. 

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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