Wednesday, May 25, 2022

What Is The Purpose Of Learning?

What if we consider that learning has no purpose?

Of course, from an evolutionary standpoint, our ability to learn makes survival, to some degree, more likely. So in that sense, the "purpose" of learning could be said to be survival, but as any scientist will tell you, that's not how evolution works. The animal doesn't develop a trait, like the capacity to learn, in order to survive long enough to pass its genes along to a future generation. It only appears that way to us because, among the traits that have survived so far, is an urge to identify purpose, cause-and-effect, reason. When we tell ourselves the story of humanity, however, it is us, not evolution, that constructs the notion of some sort of plan at work. The purpose we perceive is of our own invention, and/or, it is at best is a glimpse of a glimpse of the unknowable purpose of a creator.

Either way, it's hard to argue that mere survival is the purpose of learning. The ability to learn, the drive to learn, which is to say curiosity, is among the traits that make us human and if it has a purpose, it is, like all earthly purposes, one of our own creation.

Our schools, being human institutions, can't help but ascribe purpose to learning, be it vocational, devotional, or political. We say that children must learn this or that in order to someday do this or that. We tell the story that without our imposed and completely fabricated purpose, our children will not learn or that they will be left behind. We tell ourselves the story that the purpose of adults is to impose our purpose upon our children, for their own good or for the betterment of society. In effect, we colonize our children's learning, as if it is a manifest destiny. 

Don't get me wrong, finding purpose in life is important. In his book The Path to Purpose, William Damon writes, "Study after study has found a person's sense of life purpose to be closely connected to virtually all dimensions of wellbeing." The problem comes when we presume to impose our own ideas of purpose on others, which is what we tend to do in schools. Purpose, according to Damon and just about everyone else who thinks about these things, must come from within. It must, to truly enhance all dimensions of wellbeing, be constructed from the material of life by each of us. It cannot be handed to us like a lesson unit. It is only through curiosity, the urge to learn, that any of us can ever find purpose.

So, can we say that the purpose of learning is to discover purpose? 

I don't think that's quite it either. 

From where I sit, when children are free to engage their world through their own curiosity, which is to say to learn what they choose, how they choose, and according to a schedule of their own device, they do it for one reason and one reason only: because doing so brings them joy. Learning, approached in the artificial way we do in schools, is, in effect, stripped of joy as we adults, in our hubris, seek to impose our pre-packaged purposes on children. 

If learning is to have purpose, it must be constructed or discovered or invented, joyfully, by those who are doing the learning. Indeed, one might even say that learning is joy. How much better our lives, and learning, would be if we could just leave it at that.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Raising People To Think For Themselves

I recognized them as the nice family from our building, their son, who looks to be approaching 4, was straddling one of those wooden, peddle-less "strider" bikes. He was in the midst of a tantrum, stamping his feet, while emitting a whine-cry of frustration. His father was kneeling beside him. As I passed I heard the dad say, in the gentlest, most loving voice imaginable, "If you keep acting like this you won't be able to ride your bike for a whole hour. And that's a long time."


Last summer summer, I was taking a recreational stroll through Pike Place Public Market, the heart and soul of Seattle. A boy, probably around 8, and his mother were having one of those heatless debates:

Boy (excitedly): "I want to go down that side."

Mom (jovially): "Oh, you don't want to go down that side. Let's go down this side. What do you want to see over there anyway?"

Boy (barely audible): "That side."

By then she had taken his hand and it was over.


Just down at the end my street there was a park where I often walk my dogs. During the warmer months, a length of the sidewalk emits fountains of water, arches under which children in bathing suits run on hot days. Every time I'm there, I hear parents saying to timid children, "Go under it!" "Get in it." "Don't be afraid."


These are all just snippets overheard, out of context, and I don't know anything about the lives that lead up to those moments. We all speak with our loved ones unconsciously at times, maybe most of the time, but particularly in moments of stress or when faced with distractions, when our brains are working on things other than the relationship in which we're presently engaged. It's impossible to always be in the moment, of course, especially as a parent, but oh if we could only really hear ourselves speaking from the perspective of a disengaged passerby, how much we'd learn about ourselves and our relationships. So much more, I think, or at least so much different, than what we know about ourselves when we are steadfastly present and aware of our every word.

I think, for many of us, the idea that the adult is "the boss" is such a deeply rooted concept that we act as if it is an unquestioned truth. And sometimes, I suppose, we are "the boss," like when we need to take charge in urgent moments where safety is concerned. Stop! Don't go in the street! But too often we confuse being responsible for someone with being their superior, and that pre-supposition of command crops up in moments when there's really no point, like a bad habit.

It would never occur to us, for instance, to threaten to punish an adult for expressing an emotion like frustration in a non-violent way. In fact, I'd say stamping your feet and crying is a pretty straight-forward way to feel it, release it, then put it behind you. How much better than the adult-approved method of smiling through gritted teeth. When we threaten punishment for expressing an emotion, I think what we are really saying is, I'm embarrassed by the way you're acting. I fear it reflects poorly on me as a parent. That would be an inappropriate, incomprehensible load to lay on a child, so instead we threaten them even if we don't really mean it, like that father was doing with his frustrated son.

As Lao Tzu puts it, "Let your feelings flourish and get on with your life of doing." Kids are often masters of this, if we can just let them go. Seriously, if someone has to be the boss about emotions, I'm all for playing second fiddle. We don't know more about emotions than children simply by virtue of being adults: in fact, I've learned just about everything I know about emotions from working with kids.

And how about the idea that we get to tell children how they feel or what they really want? "You don't want to go down that side," "Oh, you're not hurt," "You don't really want that." Adding the question, "Do you?" to the end of it doesn't help. Believe me, the boy really did want to go down "that side," it does really hurt, and yes, she genuinely wants that. What we are really saying, is "don't want to go down that side, "I wish that didn't hurt," "I don't want to give you that." What children hear is, I don't believe you, and I'm the grown-up, ergo, I know better. The language of command teaches children to distrust their own understanding, even of their own feelings.

I've written before about the knee-jerk use of directional statements: "Sit here," "Put that away," "Go over there." These too, clearly come from the habit of command. So ingrained is this in many of us that we direct, "Go under it!" when what we mean is, "It looks like it would be fun to go under it." We dictate, "Don't be afraid," when what we mean is, "I know you're afraid."

Perhaps as adults we've come to understand the code, to know that when our loved ones say, "Come here!" they aren't really bossing us, but rather just taking a short cut around saying, "I would like you to come over here," although I suspect most of us still feel a flash of resentment each time someone uses the language of command with us. Children, however, only hear that they are being told what to do, how to feel, and even that they might be punished for what is, after all, their own truth.

I have no expectation that any of us will be able to be utterly free of this mind-set. It's a very powerful one, this idea that adults are the boss, a notion that most people will never question, let alone examine. And even those of us who are fully aware, still, in unguarded moments, often fall into the language habits of command, not just with our children, but with our spouses, friends and colleagues. It's a pervasive thing. If we work on it, however, if we're reflective and conscious, our children won't be as likely to develop the habit as they become adults, not to mention that they will spend more of their childhood in a world in which they are free to think for themselves rather than simply reacting, pro or con, to the commands of adults. It's easier said than done, however, which is why I developed a 6-part e-course The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, which is an extended opportunity to really question and examine the impact of the language we use with the children in our lives and what we can do instead.

We know that what we learn when we're young carries forward into adulthood, and I for one would prefer to live in a world of people who think for themselves.


The language we use creates reality. In this limited registration course we will explore how the way we speak with children creates an environment in which cooperation and peacefulness are the norm, where children take the initiative, solve their own problems, and, most importantly, think for themselves. Registration for this 6-week course ends at midnight tonight! Click here for more information and to register.

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Monday, May 23, 2022

None Of Us Wants To Be Told What To Do

My wife and I have had four dogs over the course of our three and a half decades together. Whenever I have made the mistake of pulling on any of their leashes, they have all pulled in the opposite direction, every time. Believe me, left to their own devices, they always want to go where ever I go. I know this because when there is no leash involved they follow right on my heels, hot breath on the backs of my legs, tripping me up when I turn around unexpectedly, but if they sense I'm compelling them, their instinctive response is to rebel.

I've found this to be true in humans as well. No one likes to be told what to do, even when we know it's for our own good, even when it's something we want to do. Imagine being commanded, "Eat your dessert!" I might still eat that dessert, but there will be a moment of reluctance, of rebellion, even if it's chocolate ice cream. When I do eat it, it's not going to taste as good after being bossed into it. And depending on who says it and how they say it, there's about an equal chance I won't eat that damn ice cream at all.

Rebellion is built into us, and ultimately it is an adaptive trait. We all pull back against the leash because we are designed to act according to the pull of our own instincts and the tug of our own knowledge. Of course, we've all found ourselves in circumstances when we've decided that we must stuff our rebellious urges, but we always grow to despise those dictatorial bosses, teachers, or spouses. If we do well it's usually "in spite" of them. And, of course, we wriggle out of those particular leashes as soon as we possibly can.

We set limits and rules and our children always test them. Even the most patient and progressive among us know, from the inside, that teeth grinding spiral of commands and refusals, until we finally resort to either physical force or the heavy hand of punishment. It leaves everyone feeling angry, resentful, and abused. And if we're not careful, if we're not conscious adults, these smaller spirals become part of a larger whirlpool of ever escalating rule breaking and punishments because every pull on the leash, every punishment, leads to a pull in the opposite direction.

Some of us have decided that this rebellion is a bad thing, at least when it's directed at us, and it must be quashed at all costs. We're the parents or teachers after all. We will not have our authority challenged. If that's your approach, your future will likely be either one of temporary, savorless victories followed by frustration, or a regime that involves punishments of increasingly extreme severity. Every study ever done on the subject of punishment (both parental and societal) winds up concluding that punishments only work under two circumstances:

  1. when the punisher is present; or
  2. when the punishment is debilitating (e.g., so disproportionately severe that one will never again risk it.)

Most of us are unwilling or unable to play the role of ever-present punisher. And I hope that none of us are the type to inflict debilitating punishments on a child.

And rewards, frankly, are just the flip side of the same coin, but instead of teaching children that those with power get to tell them what to do, a fundamentally anti-democratic notion, they learn to kiss up to those in power. Either way, the child is left to react, rather than think for themselves, which should be, in the end, one of the primary objectives of child-rearing.

The alternative is to accept rebellion as a demonstration that our child is healthy and normal, that it is not a sign that they are on their way to a life of crime and ruin, but rather evidence that they think for themself, trust their own instincts, and will not be pushed around. When we accept this, we see that our job is to guide rather than command our children, to help them come to the understanding that behavior has its own rewards and consequences. I've written before about "natural consequences" and they apply here.

A parent taking away a boy's dessert because he hits his sister isn't the natural consequence of hitting. The consequence is that his sister is hurt and the evidence of that is the crying. That's where our attention ought to be. "You've hurt your sister," keeps the focus on the boy's behavior, allowing everyone to explore the consequence and potential remedies. "No dessert for you," turns the boy's attention on the "unfairness" of the parent who is pulling on that damn leash.

Rebelliousness is not a synonym for "anti-social" or "uncivil," it's merely a reaction to the leash. We all want to do the right thing and none of us wants to be told what to do.


If you're interested in learning more about alternatives to commands, punishments, and rewards, please consider registering for my 6-week course The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think. You have until close of business Tuesday to be part of this cohort as we examine how the language we use with children creates reality. In this limited registration course we will explore how the way we speak with children creates an environment in which cooperation and peacefulness are the norm, where children take the initiative, solve their own problems, and, most importantly, think for themselves. Click here for more information and to register.

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, May 20, 2022

When We Speak With Children As People

People often ask me if there is a particular curriculum to which I ascribe. More often than not, when I answer that it is up to the children, I can tell they are frustrated. They think I'm being rhetorical. Certainly, there must be some sort of pre-determined course of study. After all, that's how school worked for most of us. It's what school is.

Of course, maybe I ought not call what I do "school" at all. Maybe I ought not call myself a "teacher." I mean, those terms take people down the wrong path. I could instead call it "a place for children" and label myself "facilitator," but if they already think I'm being opaque, that won't clear things up. 

I most often use the term "play-based curriculum," which at least speaks to people who already know a little something about our field, but I've found that for most folks, that's a lot like saying, "We're a crunchy granola hippy school." They smile -- sometimes warmly, sometimes dismissively -- then move on to another topic. "Self-directed" learning is another descriptive phrase I try out at times, but again, it requires a great deal of explanation.

In other words, there are no short-cuts to explaining what we do to the uninitiated, which is most people.

I think that's because no matter what we say about curriculum or education or learning or school, we are speaking with people who don't see children the way we do. Most of the world views children as perhaps cute and necessary, but otherwise small, incompetent, untamed, undisciplined, and ignorant. They might love children to death, but even the best of us tend to feel that without constant adult guidance and instruction, they will grow up to be entitled brats incapable of fitting into society.

When talking about what we do, it seems to me that this is really the place to start -- with the children themselves, not the "curriculum." Because if more people understood children the way we do, as competent, self-directed, curious and eager to satisfy that curiosity, that they are wired to learn about the world around them, how it works, and how they fit into it, then what we do with them as play-based educators would be so self-evident that it would require no explanation.

As humans, the way we regard one another shows up in the way we speak with them. When we listen to adults engaging with children, we most often hear the language of command, of disbelief, and of doubt, all of which tells us that the adult perceives themself, no matter how kindly their tone, as being superior to the child. When we hear adults scold, cajole, and constantly question, we see adults that see children as needing to be kept on a particular course, one that is best determined by that adult. 

If there is one thing that stands at the center of my approach to children it is this: the way we speak with children creates reality. And the reality most adults create is one that requires "school" and "teaching" and adult-mandated curricula. The problem is that even for those of us who truly view children as fully-formed, competent human beings, we continue to create that more dystopian reality through the way we speak with children.

In my e-course, The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, we take a deep-dive into the language we use with children and how even small changes can result in major changes in how children engage with their world, other children, and the adults in their lives. It is an approach, through language, that respects children, freeing them to satisfy their curiosity, which is the instinct to learn made manifest. It frees children think for themselves, which is ultimately what we want for all children.

When we speak with children as people, as trusted colleagues, rather than mere children, we open a door of epiphany. As I wrote on Wednesday, it will look to the uninitiated like magic, but it is really the application of knowledge for practical purposes, which is the definition of technology. 

Until the revolution comes, we may always find it difficult to explain what it is we do, but we, through the language we use, have the power of shaping a freer, and better reality for the children in our lives. And that is everything for those children.


The language we use creates reality. In this limited registration course we will explore how the way we speak with children creates an environment in which cooperation and peacefulness are the norm, where children take the initiative, solve their own problems, and, most importantly, think for themselves. Click here for more information and to register.

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, May 19, 2022

"Together We're A Genius"

"Together we're a genius." ~dialog from Six Feet Under

When neuroscientists or philosophers talk about "self-awareness," they are, generally speaking, referring to our ability to observe and accurately identify our thoughts, feelings and impulses, and determine whether they are grounded in reality or not. With the possible exception of those few who dedicate their lives to study, discipline, and meditation, most of us, most of the time, go about our business on autopilot, reacting, emoting, and doing. Indeed, the people who study these things tell us that those windows of self-awareness during which we can hold a thought or work our a problem, tends to be open on average for seven seconds.

However, in their book The Dawn of Everything, anthropologist David Graeber and archeologist David Wengrow write:

"(T)he great exception to this is when we're talking to someone else. In conversation, we can hold thoughts and reflect on problems sometimes for hours on end. This is of course why so often, even if we're trying to figure something out by ourselves, we imagine arguing with or explaining it to someone else. Human thought is inherently dialogic . . . Humans are only fully self-conscious when arguing with one another, trying to swap each other's views, or working out a common problem."

This is why, the Davids argue, that ancient philosophers tended to write their works in the form of dialogs (e.g., Plato). Many of our earliest novels were epistolary (e.g., Samuel Richardson), which is to say written in the form of the characters writing letters to one another. And speaking from personal experience, every one of the thousands of posts I've written here have started as internal dialog, one part of myself proposing ideas, while another part tries to poke holes in those ideas. It's the same dynamic that sets science apart from pseudo-science: theories aren't proposed as a way to answer questions, but rather as invitations to other scientists to find flaws in the theory by way of improving or disproving them.

In other words, alone, we are poor thinkers, but together, in dialog, we are geniuses. It's only together, while bouncing thoughts, ideas, and feelings off of one another that we, as a species, are truly capable of the sustained self-awareness required for deep, productive, creative thought. 

We need one another to think. What if this idea were embedded in our schools? This would mean, of course, that our obsession with individual achievement, like grades and test scores, would become secondary to dialog and collaboration. Our schools would be places where sharing your answers with others was not considered "cheating," but rather the highest form of intelligence. They would be places, like the real world, in which collections of humans come together to solve problems, rather than the way we currently do it in schools, which is to compel each child to struggle, alone, in their self-contained silos, places where self-awareness only exists in seven second increments. 

This is why I say that when children are at play, they are learning at full-capacity. Play is where children are in dialog with one another, cooperating, debating, bickering, and thinking. Play is the sustained dialog of childhood. Indeed, I would assert that those who continue to play into adulthood are the people we label as geniuses, not because their individual brains are any better, but because they have learned the secret of self-awareness which is that together that we are geniuses.


So much of the speaking we do with children is not dialog, but rather an adult-imposed reality created from directives and questions, language that tends to close down thinking. If you're interested in learning more about alternatives to commands, questions, punishments, and rewards, please consider registering for my 6-part course The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can ThinkIn this limited registration course we will explore how the way we speak with children creates an environment in which cooperation and peacefulness are the norm, where children take the initiative, solve their own problems, and, most importantly, think for themselves. Click here for more information and to register.

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, May 18, 2022

Leaving A Space In Which Children Can Think

I remember my first exposure to the "technology" of treating children like fully formed human beings -- and I often do think of it as a kind of technology in that it's the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. I'd previously been exposed to this technology via my daughter's preschool teacher, with whom I'd been working as a cooperative classroom parent for many months, but, as technology often does for the uninitiated, it just looked like magic, something Teacher Chris was able to do because she was Teacher Chris.

I was in one of Tom Drummond's classes at North Seattle College and he began to explain the ultimate ineffectiveness of "directive" statements. You know the kind, "Sit over here," "Stand there," "Pick that up," the sorts of adult communications with which most of our childhoods were filled. I had a small epiphany as he explained our assignment to us, which was to simply keep track of the number of directive statements we made during our next classroom day. And even as I had the epiphany that this was a part of Teacher Chris' magic trick, I doubted that it could really work, at least not all time, not for all kids, not for all ages. It was good that our assignment was simply about ourselves, about listening to our words, practicing using this new technology, not being burdened with the complications of having to make judgments about how the children were responding, just focusing on ourselves and the words we were using.

It felt incredibly awkward, then, replacing my directive statements with informative ones. For instance, instead of saying, "Pick up that block," I would try to make the more cumbersome informative statement, "I see a block on the floor and it's clean up time." One of the basic ideas, Tom explained, was that unlike directive statements which tend to shut things down, informative statements create a space in which the kids get to do their own thinking, make their own decisions about their own behavior, instead of merely engaging in the power struggle that inevitably emerges from being bossed around. It made sense to me even while it felt strange and artificial. It was true, I couldn't help but notice, that when I took the time to be informative, children were far less likely to push back rebelliously, and instead take a beat (which, I've learned means they are taking a moment to process the information you've given them) then pick up that block and put it away. 

I discovered, on my own, the truth of Tom's assertion that the ultimate weakness of relying upon directive statements is that, over time, they need to be escalated in intensity. I recall standing in our school's parking lot with a much more experienced parent as she yelled angrily after her kids, "Get your butts over here!" only to have them giggle and scamper away. When she grumbled, "I never thought I'd be the kind of parent who spanked her kids, but I'm almost there," I saw a glimpse of a place I didn't want to go.

And I still had doubts, even as I began to practice with my own preschooler, who soon detected the change in my approach and began to object to it as "teacher talk." I felt a little guilty, like a magician letting the public in on my trick, as I explained to her what I was trying to do. I remember my five-year-old agreeing that it sounded like a good idea. She especially appreciated that I wouldn't be bossing her around, even suggesting she would be happy to help me by pointing out when I slipped up. I thought for sure that I'd ruined everything by letting the cat out of the bag, but if anything, the opposite happened. She became my ally in making "teacher talk" a more natural part of my day-to-day language until I've arrived at a point in my life when parents refer to "Teacher Tom magic." 

And still, despite all the evidence, despite all my ever-increasing expertise in using it, I was suspicious that the technology of treating children as fully formed human beings would stop "working" as they got older and more sophisticated. 

The father of one of my daughter's classmates was a high school teacher, a good one by all accounts; jovial, casual, humorous. I think I would have liked being in his class. As our kids approached middle school he explained his philosophy of dealing with teens to me: "Oh, I'm their best friend until they cross the line, then Bam! I come down like a house of bricks." By this time, I'd become quite confident in the use of my "teacher talk" technology when it came to preschoolers, had seen its effectiveness with my own eyes, had even customized it for my own use, but listening to this guy who everyone admired, I wondered if maybe I was, at least as a parent, going to need to adopt some of this "house of bricks" technique as my own. Well, here I am today, the parent of an adult child, a kid who capably navigated all the regular high school stuff we worry about, and I never felt the need to "come down" like a house of bricks. In fact, just as I did when she was five, I found it much more productive to lay it all out for her as honestly and informatively as possible, revealing my emotions, my dilemma as a parent, my concerns for her safety or her morals or her future or her reputation or whatever. No one makes great decisions all the time, but she's had a lifetime of practice, and most of the time she comes up with perfectly reasonable solutions.

None of this is magic. Like all technology it still works, often even better, when everyone knows how it works. Over the years, I've been working on a framework for shifting the way I speak with the children in my life and the result is a 6-part course, "The Technology of Speaking with Children so They Can Think." If you're interested, limited registration for the course is now open! Click here to learn more.

I've now come to a point at which I have complete trust in the technology of treating children like fully formed human beings. Indeed, it's a technology that works on all fully formed human beings no matter what their age and it starts with the assumption that I can never, whatever your age, command you into doing anything. My primary responsibility is to speak informatively, and to leave a space in which thinking can take place.


The language we use creates reality. In this limited registration course we will explore how the way we speak with children creates an environment in which cooperation and peacefulness are the norm, where children take the initiative, solve their own problems, and, most importantly, think for themselves. Click here for more information and to register.

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, May 17, 2022

"I Do It!"

The boy had shed his jacket onto the floor, leaving it in a heap right in the middle of the room. Under normal circumstances I would have said something like, "Your coat is on the floor; it belongs on a hook," then waited for him to think things through. But this was his first day and he was only two, so I instead picked it up with the intention of hanging it for him.

He rushed at me, screaming something that didn't sound like Nooooooo! but clearly meant it. He snatched his coat from my hands. "I do it!"

I said, "The hooks are over there." It took some doing, but he finally managed it.

Later that morning, he was playing with a small wooden ball that escaped him and rolled under some shelves. I happened to be sitting right there so I automatically reached for the ball, but again he stopped me, "I do it!" And he did.

When he sat down for a snack, the adult who was there tried to help him wash his hands, but he refused. "I do it!" When she tried to serve him carrot sticks and grapes, he put them back on the serving platter one at a time, saying, yet again, "I do it!"

He was firm with us, if a bit fussy, as if he was accustomed to adults putting up a fight. His mother had laughed that he was a "willful" child, rolling her eyes as if to say "Good luck!" Of course, she wasn't talking about his willfulness manifesting as it had so far at school, a boy clearly wanting to do it for himself. She was talking about those times when it resulted in digging in his heels about things like baths or leaving the playground.

But it's the same instinct. As unpleasant and annoying as it might be for us adults, willfulness in a child tells us that they are willing to take responsibility for their own lives. It's the kind of thing that we aren't always good at recognizing in young children. Indeed, our schools and parenting books are full of tips and advice on how to motivate children to do exactly that: take responsibility for themselves, for cleaning their rooms, for learning their lessons, for controlling their emotions. Sadly, we've become so addicted to the behaviorist ideas of rewards and punishments that even the best of us, like a bad habit, resort to them.

"If you get in the car, I'll give you a cookie." "If you don't get in the car, you won't get a cookie." 

The problem is that all the research done on these sorts of external motivators is that they simply don't work (see Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards). Oh sure, if the carrot is sweet enough or the stick painful enough, a child can be made to do almost anything, but if it is to work a second or third or fourth time, it will require increasingly sweet rewards and increasingly painful punishments. Not only that, but the entire process sucks any sense of joy or satisfaction right out of the activity itself until the only reason the child, or anyone, continues behaving in a certain way is to receive the reward or to avoid the punishment. 

This explains why so many kids don't see a problem with cheating. If the goal is a good grade (external motivation), then copying a friend's homework makes sense, while if learning (intrinsic motivation) is the goal, then copying someone else's work is counterproductive. On the flip side, the consequence of getting caught cheating isn't a bad conscience, but rather that the adults in your life will take away something about which you are intrinsically motivated, like recess or hanging out with your friends at the mall.

Study after study has shown that rewards and punishments have a negative effect on self-motivation. Even previously pleasurable things, things we do willingly, can be ruined by the introduction of rewards and punishments. 

Like with many things, our schools have it backwards. They tend to operate under the misguided theory that children need to first be extrinsically motivated, and only then, as time goes by will they develop intrinsic motivation. This is completely unsupported by any science. It is the same method Pavlov used to make his dogs salivate.

At the same time adults, both educators and parents, tend to set ourselves up as the arbiters of what a child should be doing or learning. Had I commanded that two-year-old boy, "Hang up your coat," I'm quite confident that he would have responded "willfully," perhaps reluctantly hanging up his coat because I was an authority figure, but more likely, knowing the boy, he would have refused altogether, whining, sulking, or shrieking.

So what are we to do? Well, first of all, we need to stop bossing kids around so much. Researchers have found that some 80 percent of the sentences adults say to children are commands and no one responds well to being told what to do, no matter what our age. 

Secondly, we can learn to trust a child's intrinsic motivations. This isn't an easy thing in standard schools because, obviously, each child is going to be motivated in different ways, about different things, and on different schedules, while teachers are expected to march all the kids through the same things on the same schedule. If we are going to do what the science tells us, however, we will create interesting and varied environments for children in which they have the freedom to manipulate, explore, discover, and invent, in the company of others or all alone, at their own pace. 

We will drop grading and testing, those carrots and sticks that put so much focus deficits, and replace them with something like Learning Stories, in which educators observe the children, then write the story of what the child is doing and learning. These stories would be written to the children themselves, and their families, creating a record of the child's intrinsically motivated learning journey, a truly useful "permanent record" that is entirely focused on the strengths of each child. Because, as my friend and proponent of Learning Stories Wendy Lee told me, "What we focus on grows."

When would teachers have time to write these Learning Stories? Removing direct instruction, grading, lesson planning, and classroom management from an educator's responsibilities should leave plenty of time to focus on the actual learning.

None of this means a child will no longer be willful. Indeed, it frees all children to be powerfully, happily willful, which is to say, it frees them to take responsibility for their own lives, and that, in the end, is the purpose of all true education. 

"I do it!"


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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