Friday, September 23, 2022

What I Learned When I Declined The Urge To Blather


Two freshly-minted three-year-olds were playing on the floor, not together, but near one another. I was lying amidst them, fiddling with whatever came to hand. The boy picked up a toy that was meant to be a tiny version of the actual cast iron hand pump we have on our playground. After a moment, the boy said, perhaps to me, "Hey, it's a pump!"

The girl responded, "I want it."

That's what we had been encouraging kids to do all year, ask for things they want rather than just snatching them. The boy continued playing with the toy pump without saying a word. I briefly considered saying, "When you're finished with that, she wants it," but let the urge pass. The boy silently played with the toy for 30 seconds longer, then unceremoniously handed it to her. I was going to say something about that, some words of acknowledgement or even praise, but again thought better of it.

A five-year-old once told me, unprompted, as if it was something he'd given a lot of thought, "I don't like doing things people tell me to do. I like thinking of them myself and then doing them." Of course, that's how we all feel, right through our lives.

Adults say entirely too much to children, most of it either commands, which no one likes, or blather, to which no one listens. For whatever reason, we seem to feel that children are not listening simply because they don't respond to things like well-trained dogs. When the boy hadn't instantly acknowledged the girl's statement that she wanted the toy by replying, "I'm using it" or "You can use it when I'm done" or by simply handing it over, I was sorely tempted to say something, to amplify or translate or suggest. It was almost as if that silent space left after "I want it" was there for me to fill with blather.

And I know that whatever I said would have been blather because by remaining silent, I discovered that not only had the boy been listening, but it had prompted him to think. In that space of silence, he considered the information she had provided him, thought of what to do himself, and did it. He needed no reward from me, no pat on the back or "Good job," no benevolent overlord wielding carrots, sticks, commands, or blather.

It was apparent that these kids understood that this is how free and equal humans are meant to live together: thinking of things themselves and doing them, and that is its own reward.

******

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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Thursday, September 22, 2022

Children Learning from Children



I feel that it's important for us, as early childhood educators, to stay abreast of the latest research in our profession (all of which supports a play-based approach) as well as some of the other areas of cognitive and neuroscience (all of which supports a play-based approach).

Here is some densely worded support for play-based learning from one of the world's top neuroscientists, Antonio Damasio:

Usually the brain is assumed to be a passive recording medium, like film . . . This is pure fiction . . . The organism (the body and its brain) interacts with objects, and the brain reacts to the interaction. Rather than making a record of an entity's structure, the brain actually records the multiple consequences of the organism's interactions with the entity. What we memorize of our encounter with a given object is not just its visual structure as mapped in optical images of the retina. The following are also needed: first, the sensorimotor patterns associated with viewing the object (such as eye and neck movements or whole-body movements, if applicable); second, the sensorimotor pattern associated with touching and manipulating the object (if applicable); third, the sensorimotor pattern resulting from the evocation of previous acquired memories pertinent to the object; fourth, the sensorimotor patterns related to the triggering of emotions and feelings relative to the object . . . What we refer to as the memory of an object is the composite memory of the sensory and motor activities related to the interaction between the organism and the object during a certain period of time.

All that sensorimotor stuff is what we in the preschool world call play.

Or as Damasio writes, "The fact that we perceive by engagement, rather than passive receptivity, is the secret of the "Proustian effect" . . . the reason why we often recall contexts rather than just isolated things." And speaking of Proust, I also think it's important that we all read Proust because he has come as close as humanly possible, in fiction, to showing us how the human mind really works.

I also think we should all know at least a little something about those who came before us, like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia system of early childhood education.

One of the things I find most useful from Malaguzzi's work, for instance, is the concept that every child has three teachers: adults, the environment, and other children. There is a tendency for us to focus on adult teachers, but the truth is that when children are allowed to play, the environment and other children have far more influence than the heavy hand of the adult. They are far more likely to accommodate all that sensorimotor stuff.

The photo at the top of this post is from 1963. I'm the bigger child holding the book, apparently reading to my newborn baby brother. I'm not actually reading, of course. That ability wouldn't come until I was closer to six or seven, which is when the developmental window for reading tends, on average, to open. But I had already learned about reading from an adult, my mother, and now I was, in turn teaching my brother everything I knew about reading. According to mom, I continued "reading" to him until well after I was actually reading. When my brother entered first grade, his adult teacher found that he was already well beyond his classmates. I'm not saying it was all due to my child-to-child teaching, but our family likes to think so.

When I reflect on my own childhood, I can honestly say that I learned at least as much from other children as I did from adults.

I've done my reading, I've taken classes and workshops, and I try to expose myself to a wide variety of people. I learn a lot from other adults and the environments in which I find myself, but I've often said that most of what I've learned about the world, and most of what I've written about here on the blog for the past 13 years, I've learned from children. I emphasize most. Malaguzzi was writing and thinking about children, but I'm convinced that the world would be a better place if more adults turned to children as their teachers.

******

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.

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, September 21, 2022

Judging Others Is A Sucker's Game



Judging by their behavior, we can say that plants are intelligent. They turn toward the sun because they need the light. They absorb necessary nutrients from the soil. They communicate with one another, share resources, and can even learn through experience. These are all behaviors we've come to associate with intelligence, although when it comes right down to it, we can never know what goes on inside their . . . Well, they don't have brains, so unless we're missing something (and it's quite possible we are), they don't have the sort of centrally organized system of intelligence that humans seem to have. This would mean that plants likely don't have minds either, that undeniable, yet elusive aspect of our own experience that enables us to be aware of the world and our experiences, to think, and to feel.

So, while we can see from their behavior that plants are probably intelligent, it is unlikely that the plants themselves know they are intelligent.

I would understand if you're still dubious, many, if not most, scientists are dubious. But that is always the challenge of thinking about the internal life of others, be they plants or animals: we are always on the outside and we can only understand what they show us through their behavior, which includes everything from the turning of a flower head toward the sun, clenching sphnicter muscles in fear, or the hearing the words our fellow humans might use to communicate about their internal states. 

In other words, when it comes to understanding the intelligence, thinking, or feelings of others, we are always guessing about what is going on inside someone else. I'm not saying that we can't come close or that we can't at least guess correctly about some aspect of the internal state of others, but the truth is that we struggle to even be certain about own own intelligence, thinking, and feelings, so who are we to judge?

But that's exactly what we do: judge others. When we do, we have no choice but to do so through the filter of our own minds. We can't actually see what a child sees, for instance, because what is taken in by their eyes and processed by their brain and mind is a completely internal process, one to which we have no direct access. What we do instead when we judge them is see with our own eyes that a child is looking toward a certain object, then process that through our own brain and mind, assuming that the child's process is similar to our own. It's from our own internal process, not the child's, that we form our judgements, which are, by definition, largely inaccurate.

If it sounds like I'm saying that judging others is a suckers game, then you get my point.

Despite the impossibility of ever accurately knowing what is going on inside another person, as educators, we are nevertheless often charged with sitting in judgement of children. We are expected to grade, test, or otherwise assess their intelligence and knowledge. At best, however, we can shed light on but the tiniest sliver of what their own minds know about themselves and the world around them. In many ways, the entirety of  standard schooling is a massive attempt to judge the unjudgeable. Most curricula are created as a way to control the scope of what we are to judge, narrowing the infiniteness of what there is to know and think down to something we can easily measure. We make it into a competition so that we can determine the winners and losers under the illusion that this will make our judgements more definite. No matter how careful we are, our judgements become easy labels that we hang on children, and that, too often, become their limitations.

The hubris to think that we can know what another person learns, is the greatest flaw in how we attempt to do education. Learning is a personal, internal process, one that involves an ongoing dialog between the outside world, our nervous system (including the brain and its product, the mind), and the rest of our bodies. We might provide hints and suggestions through our behaviors (including our words) but that is the merest tip of the proverbial iceberg. It's only when we release others from the dictates of our judgements that we create the space in which they are free to learn at full capacity.

None of us can learn on behalf of another, but we have never failed to learn alongside one another, which is, in my view, the proper stance of an educator toward a child.

******

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.

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, September 20, 2022

What Happens When Children Know They Have Permission To Play


"I'm gonna try this."


"You're gonna get hurt."



"I can't get on. Everybody hold it."



"Was that funny?"


"My turn."


"I want a turn."



"You can go after me."



"I'm next."


"Okay, so guys, after me it's you, then it's you."


"Then I'm after you."


"We each get four turns."


"I'm gonna try the wagon."


"Somebody, help me. I'm stuck."


"I'll push you."


"Settle down."


"After my turn, it's your turn."


"I never had a turn."


"Get in a line. We're in a line."


"Let's go together!"


"Don't push."


"Wait! I'm going to get something. Everybody wait."


"While you're gone, we're gonna go."


"Are you okay?"


"Will you help me?"


******

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.

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, September 19, 2022

The Problem With "Hard Work," "Grit," and "Rigor"


I'm currently reading neuroscientist Antonio Damasio's book Self Come to Mind and came across this fascinating observation: "(S)mart brains are . . . extremely lazy. Anytime they can do less instead of more, they will, a minimalist philosophy they follow religiously."

I might quibble that the word "lazy" is the wrong one here, perhaps "efficient" is a better one, but his point is one I've heard before in other contexts. My wife, for instance, during her days as a corporate executive, once said that she preferred employees who seemed "smart, but lazy" because they were motivated to get the work done in the most efficient way possible.


According to Damasio, human brains have evolved this way because cognitive processes can consume a great deal of both time and energy, and our evolutionary survival as a species depends on conserving both.

Our public dialog about education has in recent decades become increasingly infested with talk of such things as "grit" and "rigor." The idea is that if only we can press children's noses more firmly against the grindstone, they will somehow learn the lessons of industriousness and "hard work" which, as our pop culture myths have it, will lead to success. This is "common knowledge."

The truth, however, is that there is little real evidence that hard work and planning increase one's odds of success any more than, say, natural talent or sheer good luck.

"Work" is one thing, but "hard work" or "grit" or "rigor" is quite another. The inclusion of the modifier "hard" suggests that this is something we would rather not be doing. By its very nature, "hard work" doesn't pay off now, the only moment any of us truly possess, but rather at some point in the non-existent future. In other words, hard work calls for us to sacrifice our certain joys and pleasures on the alter of some future payoff. And as the Yiddish proverb cautions us, "Man plans and God laughs."


No, despite proclamations of the victors, my experience has been that hard work does not inevitably lead to success. Far from it. Plenty of people, most people in fact, work very hard indeed, and success still eludes them. I'm thinking of those single mothers working three minimum wage jobs, but who still can't pull their family out of poverty. I'm thinking of all those minor league baseball players who work their tails off, but never make it to the big leagues. I'm thinking of the 95 percent of small businesses that fail within five years. Cold-hearted critics will say, "Ah, but if only they had worked harder." Or worse, "If only they had worked smarter," which is a dig at their poor planning. But the evidence seems clear to me that hard work and planning are hardly guarantees of success: most of us will still fail in the hard work and planning paradigm, no matter how heavily we mortgage our present to pay for the future.

There are those who will insist that hard work is its own reward. A life doing the things I'd rather not be doing at the expense of things that could bring me joy or satisfaction right now? Sound like flimflammery to me. There a those who warn us "If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there," but that's a recipe for arriving at a destination only to find you've missed out on the beauty along the way.


Throughout my career as an early childhood educator, a career I never planned for, but rather fell into, I've lived among humans who haven't yet bought into the ethos of hard work, rigor, or grit. Oh sure, they apply themselves in ways that might look a lot like the proverbial hard work, but because it is entirely self-selected, because it is done in service to the moment rather than some distant goal or objective, we know it as play. Hard play if you will. And unlike hard work, which must come at an evolutionary cost, hard play is genuinely its own reward. It's how we learn about ourselves, our passions, and what makes us come alive. Hard work is inflexible. The dictate to keep your head down and focus on the prize causes us to ignore the flowers, to set our relationships aside, and to live for an imagined future. Hard play, on the other hand, is infinitely flexible. It ensures that we will stop and smell the flowers, to treasure our relationships, and keeps us anchored in the only thing any of us really have -- Now!

Too often, we adults look at children engaged in hard play, and assume it is our responsibility to impose hard work upon them "for their own good," but we would be much better, I think, to step back and learn from them . . . for our own good. These are the humans who are living authentically. They might not always be happy, but they are successful. They teach us that the real secret to success is hard play.

In our society, the "successful" will always claim, in hindsight, that their secret is hard work and planning, but that is an insult to the vast majority who work hard and plan, yet still find themselves coming up short. 

What I have learned from children is that hard play and flexibility may or may not lead to riches or glory, but it will always leads to success. Evolution has designed us for exactly this.

******

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.

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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