Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Learning To Weave A Tapestry Of Reality

Karntakuringu Jakurrpa


Typically sighted people have a blind spots that we don't often think about. We tend to be aware of the large one that is behind our heads at any given moment, but we rarely think about the tiny one that exists directly in front of us, between the separate fields of vision of our two eyes. We don't notice it because our minds create what "should" be there, making it appear like a seamless visual reality.

Our minds do this about a lot of things we sense from our environments, be it sight, sound, scent, touch, or taste. We fill in the blanks based upon experience and the clues around us.

This is something that babies must learn to do. When we are born, we sense the world as a miasma of sensory input that our more educated minds would find hallucinatory. This is probably the closest we ever get to fully experiencing reality as it actually is. In his book, The Case Against Reality, cognitive psychologist David Hoffman argues that what we perceive as reality is almost certainly not the world as it is. Molecular biologist, biophysicist and neuroscientist Francis Crick wrote that "(O)ne has to distinguish between the thing-in-itself . . . which is essentially unknowable, and the 'idea-of-the-thing,' which is what our brains construct . . . The idea-of-the-sun does not exist prior to its construction -- but the sun-in-itself did!" Cognitive psychology Steven Pinkler writes, "Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness."

In other words, we spend our lives, processing our perceptions in what we call our minds (which is not the same as saying our brains) in order to create the reality we experience on a day-to-day basis. It's not surprising, therefore, that we find ourself disagreeing about so much, even things that seem self-evident. The miracle, however, is that we agree upon so much. Most of us would agree, for instance, that the object outside my window is a tree. What it is in reality is unknowable, but somehow we've come an agreement that this unknowable thing is, in fact, a tree.

Spinner dolphins, like bats, use echolocation (sonar) to perceive the world. When they are hunting together in schools, they use their clicking sounds to coordinate with one another. Maybe they are using those clicks the way we do language, but it's more likely that they are using one another's echoes to create a kind of collective perception of their wider surroundings. They are still not perceiving their prey-in-itself, but rather they are constructing a communal idea-of-their-prey, one that better supports their efforts to feed themselves.

Likewise, we humans construct a collective reality from the input of our collective senses. It's a matter of life-and-death. We tend to think that this process is a language-based one, and certainly the development of language has accelerated (and forever transformed) this process, but Homo sapiens have been working together as a species to create this agreed upon reality since long before there was such a thing as language. This incredible, collaborative process of creation is mind-blowing in its implications. Indeed, it is such a complex thing that scientists are only just now beginning to comprehend the merest shadow of the outline of how it works. And ultimately, it is almost certainly unknowable.

Yet it is the work of every baby ever born. It is the work of all of us, every day, in every moment, and in every interaction. We do it whether or not we are conscious of it. We do it together, knitting our blind spots into a seamless reality, a reality based upon agreements that we likewise make whether or not we are conscious of it. Not only must each of us learn to do this incredibly complex and necessary thing, but we do it without instruction or the application of external motivations. Learning to do this is what we are born to do and it is the work of a lifetime. It is the ultimate example of the primacy of self-directed learning.

When we come together in our preschools and our communities, this is the most important thing we will ever learn. It is life-and-death. It is nothing more or less than learning to weave a tapestry of reality.

******

"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, November 29, 2022

We're Probably Wrong


My earliest memories of television were of watching our family's black and white Zenith set. I remember the day dad climbed onto the roof of the house to install the antennae which allowed us to receive two broadcast channels with relative clarity and one, very fuzzy, UHF channel. We didn't have a lot rules around TV viewing, mainly because it wasn't all that attractive to us kids. Most of what was on during the day were news shows and soap operas, boring stuff that filled up all that time between the worthwhile programming like BatmanThe Brady Bunch, and The Wonderful World of Disney.

Television was my introduction to the concept of schedules. In a world without video, not to mention on-demand programming, if we were going to catch our shows we needed to understand such things as days of the week and how to read an analog clock. It was a big deal, it changed me. I diligently saved up my pennies to purchase a wristwatch, which I needed if I was going to live in the television age. We neighborhood kids would plan our play around the television schedule, disappearing indoors to watch the latest episode of Batman, for instance, then reconvening in our capes (made from our fathers' old dress shirts) to reenact and connect over what we had just seen. Mom called it the "boob tube" and promptly fell asleep whenever she watched it. Adults warned us we were ruining our eyes, our ears, our brains, but television was here to stay and we knew it.

Many of us have now grown up to express those same concerns about the kids of today who are too absorbed in their screens. We've been particularly traumatized by the pandemic, which made even school a screen-based activity. Gallons of virtual ink have been spilled on the tragedy of it all. Those poor kids, we fret, they're having their brains re-wired and their young parents don't know any better. If only they would read books! 

Of course, two hundred years ago our parental counterparts were expressing similar worries about the reading of novels. The common wisdom was that young women in particular were destroying their brains, becoming incapable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy, and dirtying their hands with library books. And long before that, people like Socrates and Chaucer were concerned that literacy itself was robbing our youth of the ability think and feel, making them into lazy oafs and even liars. In other words, it's in the nature of adults to fear that the latest technological advance will destroy us all. So, if we are to be intellectually honest, we must be wary of our knee-jerk reactions. Oh sure, this time, we might be right. Maybe the digital age really will turn our children square-eyed and mushy-brained. 

But, history tells us that we're probably wrong. Or at least, not entirely right.

"I don't think online education is going anywhere," says Caitlyn McCain, artist, educator, creator of the New York City Children's Theatre's "Creative Clubhouse Stories," and presenter at the most recent Teacher Tom's Play Summit. For one thing it's incredibly efficient. "As a student, there's a great convenience to being able to learn online and then, as an educator, I'm like, 'There's a great convenience of being able to educate online.'" But it's more than just convenience that makes Caitlyn so certain that digital space is here to stay. For her it's about accessibility. "It goes a lot further than what I do in a physical room . . . I have students in California, and I would have never reached those young people. Or, even in New York, I mean, we're so separate that I have kids in the Bronx who would probably not get down to Manhattan for a class."

It's natural for those of us with decades of experience with young children to worry, and we no doubt make some good points, but I also have no doubt that Caitlyn, a digital native like the children we teach, is right. The pandemic merely accelerated something that was inevitable. I've heard stories from educators and parents who have been pleasantly surprised at how well the children adjusted during the pandemic. Caitlyn's stories of children who not only love their online time, but who actually connect with her through the screen is a testament to children's adaptability and Caitlyn's skills as an educator and actor. Will this become the norm for education? Of course not, but like television, novels, and literacy itself, it's not up to us, but the "natives" who will ultimately determine its place in our world.

As we've returned to our classrooms, we do so as changed people as will the children, but what hasn't changed, and what will never change, is that most children, most of the time, will take change in stride, adopting it and adapting it. I can't imagine what online learning will look like in the coming years, let alone the coming decades and centuries, but I do know, as Caitlyn says, it's here to stay. And children will continue to surprise us because the two things that won't go away is their instinct to learn and connect through any all media available to them. It's part of the glory of humans. 

******

"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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Monday, November 28, 2022

Lack Of Imagination Is The Real Crisis In Our Democracy


"The imagination," writes George Orwell, "like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity."

When I look around all all our problems, our disagreements, our complaints and concerns, what I see is a lack of imagination. We're born with it, so where did it go? NASA's scientists find that 98 percent of five-year-olds test as creative geniuses. But somewhere along the line, we lose it. NASA's same test finds that only 2 percent of adults have this trait. We know that when monkeys are kept in cages, their brains stop producing new cells, while when they are allowed the freedom of their natural habitat, their brains continue to grow. This is likely true of humans as well.

Standard schools, for many children, serve as cages and as Orwell points out, imagination does not breed in captivity. Even when we set aside the aspects of schooling that mirror the lack of freedoms found in prisons (e.g., restrictions on movement and choice), we find that even the freest of schools tend to offer an ever narrowing view of education, one that increasingly focuses on literacy and mathematics at the expense of everything else. The curricula that school districts purchase from for-profit education companies are intentionally designed to limit what children are to think about so that they can later "test" them to prove, not what the children have learned, but the dubious effectiveness of their curricula so that school districts will continue paying them. This results, in my view, in a gross infringement on the most fundamental freedom of all: the freedom to think for ourselves.

This is specifically what Orwell is writing about, when he uses the word "captivity." When those in authority can control what we think about, there is no need for locks and bars in order for us to live as if we are imprisoned. The first thing that dies in this kind of environment is curiosity, which I think explains the difference between the results of young children and adults in NASA's tests. When we spend the better part of two decades, during our formative years, learning that curiosity will only get us into trouble, we stop using it. Curiosity, not learning to read at four or scoring well on an arbitrary math test, is what drives imagination.


Creativity is for the gifted few: the rest of us are compelled to live in environments constructed by the gifted few, listen to the gifted few's music, use the gifted few's inventions and art, and read the poems, fantasies and plays by the gifted few. This is what our education and culture conditions us to believe, and this is a culturally induced and perpetuated lie.

This is the natural consequence of a society kept in captivity where creativity does not breed. Instead, we raise our children to rely upon "the gifted few": the teachers, the curriculum-makers, and then, when they are done, their employers. It's a kind of learned dependency that fills the void left when curiosity and imagination are systematically removed from our experience. When one is a captive, there is no choice but to rely upon our jailers.

This lack of curiosity and imagination is the real crisis in our democracy. As we face such immense challenges as climate change, war, poverty, pandemic, and bigotry, we're going to need all the curiosity and imagination we can get and it's simply not going to breed in captivity. The solutions may, if we're lucky, come from one of the gifted few, but I like our prospects much better if we can set ourselves free to become the gifted many.

And that will only happen when we set children, the actual gifted many, free to grow and learn in their natural habitat, which is a place where they are free to play and direct their own learning within the context of a community. This is where curiosity and imagination breed.

******

"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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Friday, November 25, 2022

Topping One Another Up Before Heading Off Into Our Separate Lives


After reading a story, then singing our final song, the children would come forward to hug me, not one at a time, but all together, and there we were, a massive scrum of bodies, wrapping one another up in our arms.

From my first year teaching, this was the way the two-year-olds said goodbye to me at the end of the day. I never asked for it or encouraged it in any way other than, I suppose, to be open to it. It started on the first day of class each year because there was always one child who genuinely felt the urge to hug me, to receive a hug from me. Then others saw it, thought it was a good idea, and came for their hug as well. 

I said the children's names as they approached, "Here's my Sarah hug, my Nora hug, my Alex hug . . ."

Mister Rogers wrote, "I believe that appreciation is a holy thing." We are saying goodbye to one another, of course, but we're also saying thank you, expressing our gratitude, showing our appreciation, not in payment for any particular favor, but simply for the time we've had together. It would always start spontaneously, then, as the year progressed, became a sort of ritual, each child making it their own. Some would rush to be first, others would wait for the crowd to thin. Some didn't want to let go. Some came back for a second and third and fourth hug. A few didn't want to hug, preferring a high five or simply eye contact. Some were moved to start hugging their classmates.

It's a beautiful way to end our time together, almost as if we're all topping one another up before heading off into our separate lives.

******

"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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Thursday, November 24, 2022

Minds Full Of Drunken Monkeys


Author and poet Diane Ackerman writes:

"(I)t probably doesn't matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply, are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, and enjoy nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly."

We live in a time of plague, and I don't mean Covid. The virus is called productivity and the disease it causes is an all-consuming sense of guilt or anxiousness whenever we take more than a few moments to remind ourselves that we're alive. Our busy, buzzing minds insist upon reminding us of the tasks undone and challenges ahead, making us perpetually feel as if we're just barely keeping up. It even visits us in our dreams, if we're ever able to go there amidst the tossing and turning. 

Some 2500 years ago, Buddha described our minds as being full of drunken monkeys and the loudest of all is fear, so it's clear that this plague isn't new. And it's a real pity because we've worked so hard over the centuries to protect ourselves from fear. It's unlikely, for instance, that anyone reading this will be eaten by a wild animal. You're probably not going to die in a war or from starvation. Present day challenges notwithstanding, our ability to protect ourselves through medicine has never been better. Yet still the monkeys shriek at us as if it's all a matter of life and death when really it's just about the relentless claims that productivity makes on our every waking moment. The monkey fear that we might fall behind.

Behind what? It's a question we ask about our children and their education. I hear the voices of "experts," echoing through our policymakers, warning us that the kids are really going to have a lot of work to do to catch up. Too many children, even young ones, are hearing the monkey's shriek. Never before have so many children, even young ones, experienced the levels of depression and anxiety we're seeing today. To have experts intentionally stoke the fear-of-falling-behind in parents so that they may, in turn, infect their children is outrageous.

No matter how hard we scramble to keep up, we will always leave things undone and that guilt and anxiety will, in the end, have amounted to a narrowing of what it means to be alive. As we sit down for Thanksgiving, I'm grateful for the young children in my life. They are our best teachers. They are not yet infected with the virus of productivity. Gloriously, they try too hard, are awkward, and prone to caring too deeply. They are driven by their excessive curiosity and that opens them to the totality of experience that comes from enjoying a nonstop expense of the senses in the only human project that matters: to know life intimately and lovingly.

******

"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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Wednesday, November 23, 2022

"It's Hard Not To Curl Up In A Ball In The Dark And Be On My iPad All Day"


The democratic education movement, or "free school" movement, grew out of the theories of psychologist, philosopher and education reformer John Dewey. The basic concept is to run a school based upon the democratic ideals of citizen government, universal suffrage, free speech, and the free marketplace of ideas. Free schools have no curricula other than democracy, no rules not made by the students themselves, no classes except those created by the students, and teachers whose votes carry no more weight than that of a 5-year-old.

The two most famous of these schools are the Summerhill School in England which was founded in 1921 and the Sudbury Valley School founded in the US in 1968. These kinds of schools in the US, in fact, are most frequently referred to as "Sudbury schools."

Play-based preschool, at least as I've always conceived of it, and to the degree possible considering that some of our citizens are pre-verbal, is one of these kinds of schools. At its heart, the Sudbury model is what play-based learning looks like for older humans.

A while ago, I was scrolling through one of the social media accounts for one of these schools, one that enrolls children between the ages of 5 and 18, when I came across this quote regarding one of their adolescent students: "When we asked her what challenges her at school, she said . . . 'It's hard not to curl up in a ball in the dark and be on my iPad all day. But I know that I don't have that much time to be a kid . . . So I should own it -- so I act or I draw."

It struck me because, even as a middle aged man, I fully identified. I know that many, if not most, adults in our modern world struggle with the lure of social media, gaming, or binge watching. I wouldn't want to go back to a world without computers, tablets, and smartphones if only because they make my current lifestyle possible, but at the same time I often find myself thinking something along the lines of "I don't have that much time to be a human . . . " 

What this girl is dealing with may not look like the classic "three Rs" education, but it's a genuine, nearly universal real world challenge. And that, according to John Dewey himself, is the essence of a true education:

"Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself."

Even before personal computers were ubiquitous, even in a world where the internet was the stuff of science fiction, it was still a struggle, because at the end of the day, what this girl is talking about is the oft neglected challenges of dealing with freedom. We all value it, we want it for ourselves and for others, but the greatest difficulty of no one telling us what to do is always self-motivation. Even without the wonders of the computer age, it was hard not to curl up all day with television, cassette recordings, and snacking. 

Standard schools handle this challenge by simply rendering children largely unfree. For a good thirteen years, most of us were told where to be, when to be there, and even what to think about. We had to have permission to eat, to sleep, to talk, to use the bathroom. This is a preparation for something, but certainly not a life of freedom.

We can argue all day about how free our world is, but there is no question that life itself, at least in my country, is vastly more free than anything we experienced in school. Is it any wonder that so many of us struggle with self-motivation? We don't get to practice it until we're nearly full-grown, which means that we are likely missing the natural window to really learn it.

Honestly, I don't know if there is a natural window to learn about self-motivation or not. But we do know that the things we learn when we are young, we tend to carry forward into adulthood, so it makes sense that after a childhood of external motivation, we feel cast adrift when suddenly confronted with a world that requires self-motivation. It also makes sense to me that if we want education to truly prepare children for life, it behooves us to let them actually live it.

******

"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, November 22, 2022

"Whoever Gets It Gets It"


A few years ago, I was explaining to some of our school's families how "sharing" works at Woodland Park: if a kid is using something that another kid wants to use, we coach the kids to say, "I want that when you're finished" or, in the true language of childhood, "Next!" We don't compel the first child to relinquish their plaything either right away or according to a timer, but rather permit them to continue using it until they've finished, however long that takes, albeit with the information that there are other children awaiting a turn.

In my description, I was particularly enthusiastic over the power of calling "Next!" which is how we did it when I was a boy growing up on a suburban cul-de-sac. I don't recall being taught to call "Next!" It's one of those things I always knew, imitated, I'm sure, from the older children I played with in whatever backyard we found ourselves that day. If the swings were occupied, "Next!" was as close to a sacred agreement as one can have. If anyone tried to jump your claim, you'd say, "Hey, I called it!" and they had to step aside. Indeed, it wouldn't have occurred to any of us to talk about sharing in this context. It was all about who called it first, just as we would shout "Shotgun!" when we were older to claim the front passenger seat in the car.

One of the parents stopped me to say, "But these children are too young and innocent for "Next!" They don't have the kind of experiences you had growing up." She wasn't arguing against the concept, just the short-cut, which she felt lacked the courteousness she wished for her child. And indeed, "Next!" isn't particularly polite, I suppose. It's a word from "the street," so to speak, where children played unsupervised, and in all honesty, most preschoolers today are being raised in their parlors where their street instincts get blunted by constant supervision, so her point was valid.

That said, I liked to think of our schoolyard as a vacant lot. Adults were supervising, of course, but my expectation was that we all stepped back and trust the children to create a community of their own, one that may not always fit our adult notions of niceness, but that functions for them nevertheless. As preschoolers, the older ones are about the age I was when mom first started sending me "outside," closing the door behind me, leaving me in a world of neighborhood children to figure things out. It wasn't always peachy, of course, but most of the time we solved our dilemmas of limited resources by calling "Next!" or "Shotgun!" or "Me first!" and if we started "innocent," it didn't last long.

Shortly after this conversation with parents, a single tennis ball appeared on the playground. I don't know how it got there, but for several weeks it became one of the most sought after items. There was in particular a group of our three and four-year-olds for whom that ball became a sort of grail, with some of them forgoing their jackets in the rush to get outside and find that ball each day. In the beginning, whoever got the ball would then walk around clutching it as the others danced about, pleading and bargaining for a turn. There was quite a bit of unproductive arguing at first, especially since the person with the ball wasn't particularly inclined to relent.


Of course, the great truth about balls is they're really no fun if you just hold them. At some point they must be thrown or rolled or bounced, and once that happened, all bets were off, which meant that, at intervals, we had a mad dash of bumping bodies chasing after the ball, followed by several minutes of negotiating over who was "next" before another free-for-all that did not necessarily produce results that matched the outcome of those negotiations, instead tending to favor the fleet of foot and sharp of elbow. There was anger and tears and even the threat of hitting. It was not easy to stay out of it to be honest and it did occur to me to just get a few more tennis balls out of the shed, but I managed to stay back in the hope that they would work it out for themselves.

And I was rewarded, although only after things devolved into a back-and-forth of angry pushing. As I moved near to nip the violence in the bud, I heard the boy with the ball shout, "Hey, no pushing!"

"But it's my turn!"

"No, it's not! I got it!"

"But it's my turn!"

Then, before I could do anything, he had his moment of genius, "It's no body's turn! Whoever gets it gets it!"

A friend agreed, "Yeah, whoever gets it gets it!" There were several more echoes of agreement, including from the boy who had only moments before insisted it was his turn. "Whoever gets it gets it!"

With that, the ball was hurled over their heads toward an empty part of the playground and the scrum was on, children shouting, "Whoever gets it gets it!" as they jostled one another, their argument ended with an agreement that would not pass muster in a parlor, but was just perfect for the vacant lot playground.

******

"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

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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