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. 

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