Thursday, December 31, 2020

An Education That Emerges From Those Things That Most Affect Us


In 1675, French rationalist philosopher Nicholas Malebranche wrote, "The mind does not pay equal attention to everything it perceives. For it applies itself infinitely more to those things that affect it, that modify it, and that penetrate it, than to those that are present to it but do not affect it."

I don't know if this insight was groundbreaking at the time, but for most of us today it seems self-evident. I know that this is true of my own mind and from what I've read, modern scientists concur. It makes sense that our minds would have evolved like this. Or rather, it's rational to conclude, at least, that our senses have evolved to filter out the "noise" in our environment in order to focus on those things that have the greatest impact on our fitness. In a world of plant life, for instance, we're more likely to notice the ones that provide nutrition or the potential for shelter, but if a tiger prowls onto the scene, the plants fall to the background as our minds suddenly have more pressing matters on which to attend.

We've not evolved beyond this order of things, but since most of us are no longer in environments full of tigers our minds are free to prioritize other things to perceive more precisely (although I expect if a tiger did prowl into our field of vision, we would still take note of it above all else).

We notice the flicker of the fire before the darkness that surrounds it.

We salivate over our favorite food while barely noticing the china no matter how fine.

Jarring sounds draw our attention ahead of general hubbub.

Our friends tend to occupy more of our attention than do the chairs in which they sit.

This isn't to say that our minds can't focus on darkness, dishes, din, or dinette sets, but it's rendered increasingly difficult by the presence of other things that more directly affect it, that modify it, and penetrate it. This is what our minds have evolved to do. As a strategy for survival it has a history as long and successful as humankind. A mind equally attendant upon all things is far more likely to fall prey to tigers than one primed to apply itself to pay attention selectively.

This isn't a new insight about the human mind. We've known it for hundreds if not thousands of years, long before Darwin, yet most of what we call schooling flies in the face of this self-evident wisdom. Children come to us with minds finely honed through millennia to identify those things to which it should most rigorously attend, manifesting in an urge to "play" with those people and things in the quest to more fully understand them. But at school we tell children that they are wrong. That they must sit. That they must be silent. That they must ignore their most vital urges. That they must instead learn to look at and listen to the things that simply do not interest them. Our teachers are then tasked with "making it interesting," a nearly impossible feat in an environment full of flickering flames, friends, and tigers. This isn't to say that these things might not one day be important, but for right now, we are asking children to set aside one of the most fundamental aspects of consciousness, the thing that makes learning a self-motivated activity, and instead look away from the flicker of flames, the sounds that attract us, and the people we love to instead attend to trivia. 

We devote most of our energies to diverting their attention away from those things to which they are naturally attracted, nonsensically insisting on educating against the tide of human evolution. Our minds seek to educate themselves, to think about, manipulate, and understand those things that most affect us. Our senses have evolved to determine our course of study. When we finally free our children to pursue their interests, we will have finally perfected education.

******


I'm excited to introduce my brand new 6-part e-course, The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, in which I pull the curtain back on the magic that comes from treating children like fully formed human beings. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, click here. Thank you!

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, December 30, 2020

They Say There are No Stupid Questions. I Beg to Differ.


They say there's no such thing as a stupid question, but I beg to differ. We hear stupid questions almost every time adults and young children are together. 

For instance, a child is painting at an easel, exploring color, shape, and motion, experimenting with brushes, paper, and paint. There is an adult watching over her shoulder who points and asks, "What color is that?"

This is a stupid question. 

Here's another example: a child is playing with marbles, exploring gravity, motion and momentum. An adult picks up a handful of marbles and asks, "How many marbles do I have?"

The adult already knows the answer. The child probably does as well, in which case, the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies in order to reply to a banality. Or she doesn't know the answer, in which case the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies to play a guessing game.

In a moment, these stupid questions take a child who is engaged in testing her world, which is her proper role, and turns her into a test taker, forced to answer other people's questions rather than pursue the answers to her own.

If it's important that the child know these specific colors and numbers at this specific moment, and it probably isn't, then we should do the reasonable thing and simply tell her,"That's red," or "I have three marbles." If it's not new information, and it probably isn't, she's free to ignore you as she goes about her business of learning. If she didn't know, now she does, in context, as she goes about her business of learning.

This is probably the greatest offense we commit against children in our current educational climate of testing, testing, and more testing. We yank children away from their proper role as self-motivated scientists, testing their world by asking and answering their own questions, and instead force them to become test takers, occupying their brains with our stupid questions.

******

Stupid questions are just one of the ways that well-intended adults, through the words we habitually choose, create a reality for young children in which they are discouraged from, and sometimes even "punished" for, thinking for themselves. In so many ways, both overt and subtle, adults unwittingly tend to shut down critical thinking, replacing it with a reality in which mere reaction and obedience is rewarded. 


If you are keen to dig deeper into this phenomenon and to learn how you as an educator or parent can transform your language in ways that empower real learning, then my new six-part e-course, The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, might be a great way to start your New Year. Early bird pricing ends soon, so don't delay. To learn more and to register, click right here. We need more critical thinkers in the world! Thank you.

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, December 29, 2020

I Know the Secret to Making Your Dreams Come True


I know the secret to making your dreams come true.

In an essay written for New Philosopher magazine (content not available online), Oliver Burkman discusses what's called Littlewood's Law, named for a British mathematician by the name of John Edensor Littlewood:

Let's suppose . . . that you're awake and active in the world -- as opposed to sleeping or resting -- for a mere eight hours a day. Suppose furthermore that a tiny 'event' of some sort occurs at the rate of once per second during those hours: you see someone in the street, you read or hear a sentence, or have a thought, and so on . . . Crunch the numbers on that basis, and it turns out you can expect to experience a one-in-a-million occurrence -- the kind of odds most of us would call miraculous -- roughly every 35 days.

So, simply from a mathematical perspective, each of us experiences a very lucky moment on roughly a monthly basis; unbelievably lucky, astronomically lucky, a miracle. The thing is, we don't get to choose what that specific lucky moment is going to be and because most of us are intent upon chasing a specific kind of luck, which we often label our "goal" or our "dream," we don't recognize those one-in-a-million occurrences.


When I graduated from college, my first employer was so impressed with my ability to write "plans" that my unpaid internship turned into a paid one within months. I had been taught in school to write clear, unequivocal mission statements, followed by goals and objectives, supported by strategies and tactics, all in the service of that original mission statement, the idea being that if we just followed our plan our business dream would come true. Those plans helped us secure business, they helped us get going, but I soon came to realize, first with despair and then with a shrug, that our beautiful plans were almost immediately relegated to the file drawer in light of real events and real people. I realize now that those plans, far from helping us achieve our goal (which in business is always to make money), were really just blinders that pretty much guaranteed failure -- or at least a success far beneath the one postulated in the mission statement. The more seasoned businesspeople around me knew this already, at least in part, which is why my beautiful plans wound up by the wayside as we took the more certain path of making it up as we went along with varying degrees of success.

When I was young, before the pressures of "getting real" were upon me, I dreamt of being a superhero and a saint, of a life of hedonism and of adventure, of building things and tearing things down. I saw myself by turns a spelunker, baseball coach, architect, firefighter, daddy, hobo, titan, jewel thief, politician, archeologist, tinker, tailor, solder, and spy. I imagined myself living a life of ease and great striving, both poor and rich, complicated and simple. I toyed with all of those ideas for myself, each holding special charms, then, as I approached that arbitrary point we call adulthood, I pretended to focus on one of them. I was going to, one day, be the creative director of a Madison Avenue advertising agency. I know, pathetic, right? Even I didn't fully believe in it, although I had a "plan" for making it happen.

I really beat myself up about it, but by the time I had graduated from university, I was certain that I didn't want to be one of those Mad Men, so it was without enthusiasm that I continued to work that damned plan, which landed me with that first employer who was impressed by my ability to write plans: that employer, by a one-in-a-million chance, turned out to be the woman to whom I've now been married for the past 35 years. I don't know if I even recognized it at the time, but my dream had come true: I was and still am the luckiest man alive.


And I don't mean that in the usual sniveling, husbandly way, even though I know how it sounds. I don't care. It's true. I'd always dreamt of finding a true life partner.

One of my thousands of dreams was to follow in my own mother's footsteps, to be a parent and homemaker, something that had seemed an impossibility given the gender of my birth, yet, as luck would have it, I found myself in exactly that role when our daughter was young, just as I'd dreamt.

At some point, in my infinite list of youthful dreams, I'd fantasized about being a teacher and by the unpredictable turnings of fate, via a one-in-a-million long shot, someone asked me at just the right moment, "What are you going to do with your life?" And when I didn't have an answer, she replied, "You should be a preschool teacher." And that's what I did. What incredible luck! My dream came true!

In pre-Covid times I found myself traveling to places around the globe, self-indulgently "suffering" the toils and uncertainty of travel, speaking to audiences of colleagues who seemed to find me both entertaining and informative. This was another of my dreams coming true. I'd often romanticized the life of a traveling minstrel, roaming from town-to-town with nothing but a rucksack and a song. I was living the dream.

For a long time I dreamed of being a writer, and now here I sit, writing every day and people actually read it. My dream is reality.


It's all been pure luck. And please don't try to spoil it by insisting that it was luck made by hard work, diligence, and putting my nose-the-grindstone because despite popular mythology, that has had absolutely nothing to do with it. I've not worked hard: I've been lucky because I have dreamed a million dreams.

And so that's the secret to making your dreams come true. Dream a lot. Dream often. Dream like a child, every day, passionately, then hold onto that dream even as you dream the next one. Because for every new dream you dream, you increase the odds that your monthly allotment of one-in-a-million long shots will be the one for which you've been waiting. 

******


I'm excited to introduce my brand new 6-part e-course, The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, in which I pull the curtain back on the magic that comes from treating children like fully formed human beings. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, click here. Thank you!

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, December 28, 2020

Life Itself



They tell us that our schools will fully re-open sometime during the coming year. This is good news for some of the kids and bad for others. For most, it will be a mixed bag.

Most will be thrilled to be back again amongst their peers, to play together, to touch one another, to wrestle and pretend and bicker and create together. Likewise, most, in the strange, unexpected freedom the pandemic gave them, will have forgotten the cruelties of classroom management, the sitting quietly, the arbitrary rules, the adults in charge of everything from when they are to urinate to what they are to think. It's never pretty to train living things in captivity and they return to us having tasted life itself in all it's savor and bitterness.

One thing I can tell you about all the children is that after what they will have survived they are beyond our curriculum and assessment tools. They have seen, done, and felt things we don't understand; that they don't understand and need to explore. They will have become new humans, shaped by historic events in ways that we can't imagine. They will have vital and important stories to tell, art to create, dances to perform, songs to sing, and monuments to build. They are not broken, but they are changed. As a generation, they have been educated by life itself. Please don't listen to those who insist they've "fallen behind." That's utter BS. It's vicious fear mongering. To love the children in your life means to call out that BS, even if it's coming from your child's teachers, your colleagues, the children's parents, or your superiors. It means to honor the humans they have become. 

Their brains and bodies have not been idle. They have been diligently working on living in the real world, their real world. Of course, they don't fully understand it. None of us does. That's how life has always been, of course, but now, after what will have been more than a year of plague, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to look that reality in the face and live up to the promise of what school can be: a place where children are heard, where they are free to ask, and strive to answer, the real questions presented by life itself. That's what makes it education rather than mere schooling.

I know that some of us adults feel that we are simply enduring right now, waiting for life to begin again, but to project that on the children is a mistake. They have all been engaged in the only study there is: life itself. They have learned what they've needed to learn when they've needed to learn it. They are on track. They have vital and important stories to tell, art to create, dances to perform, songs to sing, and monuments to build. They have feelings to explore, experiences to process, and wisdom to convey. That is what school should be, what it should always have been. The children are not behind, they don't need to be fixed or "caught up." Indeed, their studies place them far beyond our assessments and curriculum. As the great John Dewey wrote, "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." Our only job is to let them live it.

******


I'm excited to introduce my brand new 6-part e-course, The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, in which I pull the curtain back on the magic that comes from treating children like fully formed human beings.. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, click here. Thank you!

Or maybe they would like one of my books . . . They won't arrive until the New Year, but tell them Teacher Tom says it's a great way to extend the holidays! To order Teacher Tom's First Book or Teacher Tom's Second Book, click here.

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, December 24, 2020

This Cursed and Blessed Year



Just before Christmas last year, we discovered that the company from whom we rent a storage locker had lost all of our stuff. The good news is that most of it probably should have been thrown out years ago, but among the things we'll never see again were all of our holiday decorations, including ornaments I'd been collecting since I was a little boy. So, for the first time in our 34 years of marriage, and for the first time in our daughter's 23 years of life, we celebrated against a backdrop that did not include a tree, stockings, or any of the other ritual trapping of our holiday. Fortunately, our Christmas Day tradition also involves gathering with my parents, my siblings, and their children, which went off as usual. In the parlance of Hollywood, Christmas was "saved."

This year, we don't even have that. Indeed, there is nothing "traditional" in our celebration at all: no gathering, no shopping, no decorations, and no gift exchange except what will amount to a symbolic one between the three of us. Tonight, I'm cooking a pared down version of my Thanksgiving supper since we missed that this year as well. Tomorrow, we're relying on the delivery of Chinese food. We'll probably spend the next couple days watching movies and talking over reality shows. The holiday traditions we've built together as a family are asunder leaving us with . . . What?

Of course, a version of this experience is being played out by people around the world this year as we pass through this season for celebrating our respective festivals of lights. The year has been cursed with plague, hatred, and a general breathtaking unhinged-ness. We need a rest. We need a little sanctuary. We need something normal to ground us. That is what our traditions are for, yet these too have been decimated by this horrible, no good, very bad year.

This is not to say that no good has come from this year. It's in the nature of a proper curse to have two sides. "May you live in interesting times" is also a blessing. "May all you dreams come true" is also a curse. I'm not wishing this year away, but today as I contemplate the wreckage these past 365 days have made upon the traditions I hold (held?) dear, I'm dwelling on what we have left.

We have one another. The three of us are together. That sometimes got a bit lost behind the decorations and all the history (baggage?) they brought into the season. There is no stress over gifts or meal preparation or getting from one place to another on time. We are spending our days in loungewear, napping, and telling our family stories. We are walking together and notice things that have changed both over time and suddenly, mourning the losses and anticipating the gains. We don't have our traditions to shelter us this year, but there is sanctuary nonetheless. There is rest. And there is the magnificent normality of our love, stripped of its trappings, made central by the loss of tradition. That is what we are left with. That is really all there was all along. 

Next year, I hope our merrier traditions can return, renewed by this cursed and blessed year.

******


I'm excited to introduce my brand new 6-part e-course, The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, in which I pull the curtain back on the magic that comes from treating children like fully formed human beings.. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, click here. Thank you!

Or maybe they would like one of my books . . . They won't arrive until the New Year, but tell them Teacher Tom says it's a great way to extend the holidays! To order Teacher Tom's First Book or Teacher Tom's Second Book, click here.


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, December 23, 2020

Teacher Tom's Last Minute Gift Ideas


We've been bombarded with "last minute" gift idea promotions since at least mid-November, but now, finally, the last minute is truly upon us. As a public service I offer Teacher Tom's last minute gift ideas for children, most of which won't even require a trip to a mall or an Amazon delivery.

Mesh produce bags.

Things that rot.

A place to leave things to rot . . .

. . . and worms to live there.

Sticks.

An old typewriter.

Concrete.

Dominoes.

Tape.

Sand.

Blocks.

Hammers.

Drills.

Boxes and balls.

Nuts, bolts, wrenches and screwdrivers . . .

. . . rubber bands . . .

. . . and put them all together.

Glue guns.

Cars.

Dolls . . .

. . . who need bandages.

Shipping pallets.

Rocks.

Water, gutters, tubes and shovels.

Paint.

Yarn.

Step ladders . . .

. . . and homemade ladders.

Tree parts.

Ropes.

Buckets.

Plants.

Junk . . .

 . . . and jewels.


And now you have a couple days to put up your feet. Happy holidays!

******


And for the parent or educator in your life, I'm excited to introduce my brand new 6-part e-course, The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, in which I pull the curtain back on the magic that comes from treating children like fully formed human beings.. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, click here. Thank you!

Or maybe they would like one of my books . . . They won't arrive until the New Year, but tell them Teacher Tom says it's a great way to extend the holidays! To order Teacher Tom's First Book or Teacher Tom's Second Book, click here.

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!
Bookmark and Share
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