Tuesday, January 31, 2023

This Misunderstanding Of How Humans Learn


"I know!"

"I've got an idea!"

"Teacher Tom, look at this!"

The soundtrack of a play-based preschool is punctuated by expressions of these "eureka moments." Sometimes the children would run up to me in groups, grab my arms to pull me over to what they had collectively discovered or invented or understood, babbling their explanations and theories explaining with their hands and bodies as well as their words.

There is a myth embedded deeply in Western schooling that tells us that learning happens according to some sort of hierarchical progression, but that simply doesn't jibe with what we know about how humans, especially young humans, learn. If we are to really understand anything, we are best served by first experiencing it first-hand in a relaxed, exploratory, wholistic way, not as a series of discrete parts like the way we tend, for instance, to teach mathematics (first comes counting, then adding, then subtracting, then multiplying, etc.). When we break things apart like this, we remove the complex connectivity that stands at the center of life itself. We would never think to teach children about, say, soccer by first showing them a photograph of a ball. We all know, intuitively, that this removes the ball it from the world of physics, sport, teamwork, and play, rendering it meaningless. No, first we play with the ball, according to our current abilities, in context. Only once the child has internalized this thing called a ball and its relationship to the rest of the world, can we expect a child to be inspired by soccer. The fact that we try to teach young children math through arithmetic and ciphering is why so few of us grow up to be inspired by math; indeed, a huge percentage of adults today report some level of math anxiety. 


As the great educator Bev Bos recognized, "If it hasn't been in the hand and the body it can't be in the brain."

This misunderstanding of how humans learn, stands at the center of the Western approach going back at least to the ancient Greeks. It's lead us to believe that inspiration has no place outside of the art studio.

As Aboriginal author and research Tyson Yunkaporta writes in his book Sand Talk

"Inspiration is something that has been relegated to the arts rather than the sciences, although stories of 'eureka moments' in unscientific discovery are still celebrated . . . But creativity is now widely regarded as a vaguely defined skill set falling randomly on individual geniuses. Deep engagement encompassing mind, body, heart, and spirit has been replaced by a dogged ethic of commitment to labor and enthusiastic compliance with discipline imposed by authority. While it may be proven that internal motivation is more productive than external pressure, the uncertain and unsettling sources of this inner power are threatening to hierarchies, so intrinsic control methods of organization are generally ignored in both education and the workplace. Or they are co-opted into "self-management" protocols that involve internalizing our administrators and doing the job of monitoring or managing for them -- an arrangement not unlike the child who always has the voice of an abusive parent in his head."


The boy who crawls around the playground in imitation of a spider; the girl concocting potions in an old coffee can; the children negotiating the rules of the game they are inventing -- this is what deep engagement encompassing mind, body, heart, and spirit looks like. Those eureka moments of "I know!" "I've got an idea!" "Look at this!" is how it sounds. We've all experienced those moments and know that feeling of inspiration, of learning, that emerge from our play, whatever our age. This is what lets us know that we truly understand.

Yes, it is uncertain and often unsettling. It can't be measured or standardized. And that is why our system of schooling is so threatened by children at play.

******

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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Monday, January 30, 2023

"The Opposite Of Play Is Not Work, It's Rote"


The opposite of play is not work, it's rote. ~Dr. Edward Hallowell


The outdoor classroom is one big slope and within that slope there are many ups and downs, reflecting our city which is built on hills. We're forever experimenting with gravity out there, rolling and flowing things downhill or dragging and pushing things up. There are parts of the space that are so steep one needs a running start to get to the top and there is very little flat upon which to rest one's legs.


We have a pair of wagons, which are regularly used on the hills. Once, we made an airplane. 


From my photos, it's easy to see the physics and engineering learning, but those were minor aspects, side-effects, of the bigger, more important project, which was figuring out how to get along with the other people.


There are those who question the "rigor" of a play-based curriculum when, in fact, we're engaged in the most rigorous curriculum known to mankind. There is simply no greater or more important challenge than the one of balancing our own individual desires and needs with those of the other humans with whom we find ourselves. 


A play-based curriculum is rigorous because of it's subject matter, which is the all-important one of getting along with the one another, something children are passionate about. Standard schools, on the other hand, are rigorous simply because adults attempt to teach less interesting things by rote, lecture, and text book, the most difficult way to learn new things because the curiosity and self-motivation are removed meaning that most children find them tedious and frustrating. It's an artificial rigor designed, I guess, to make the adults feel important.


Many people confuse hating school with rigor, saying things like, "It prepares them for life," but those of us who work in a play-based environment spend our days amongst children who love school, who arrive each day eager to tackle the challenges of community, and I would assert that there is no better preparation for life. Make no mistake, it's not pure joy, it's not all laughter. There are tears. There is conflict. There is negotiating and compromise. Children might complain, but they return each day eager to engage, to figure out the things they are most driven to figure out: the most important things of all.


There was so much to learn about flying our airplane together. Would it be safe? Where would everyone sit? How many of us can go at a time? Who gets to steer? Who rides and who "launches?" How do we get it back to the top of the hill? How do we make sure everyone gets a turn?


For the most part, we adults stood back, taking a few pictures, letting the kids work it out. Sure, the first few times they launched themselves down the hill, I jogged just ahead of them, prepared to intervene in the name of safety, but as it turned out on this day, I was unnecessary, even when the airplane crashed.


I'll take the real rigor of play over the artificial rigor of rote any day. And so would the kids.

******

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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Friday, January 27, 2023

"I Know How To Play This Game"


"Wait a minute! I know how to play this game."

The children were standing around a table upon which were the tokens, dice and other parts and pieces from the board games Monopoly and The Game of Life. The night before, I had discovered, in my building's garbage room, that one of my neighbors had thrown out these brand new board games. I assume that it was the young couple from down the hall who had been talking for some time about hosting a game night for their friends. 

And as a preschool teacher, I'm not above a little dumpster diving.

If you're familiar with these particular classic games, you know they aren't designed for preschoolers, but I thought the kids would nevertheless get a kick out of the little houses and cars, the roulette wheel spinner, the stacks of phony money and whatnot. I had set the actual game boards aside, replacing them with a piece of white mat board that a previous group of children had used for an art project.

"I know how to play this," the boy insisted, as if convincing himself. He was taking in the scene, his eyes and hands darting from piece-to-piece, "I know how to play this." 

Of course, he could not possibly know how to play this game because there was nothing to know; there was no game there. It wasn't a game at all, but rather a collection of game pieces. What he was reacting to was the idea of a board game, something he derived from previous experiences with these same, or similar, game pieces. He was making connections between his memories and the present. He was seeing patterns, interpreting them through the filter of experience, and, right there in front of everyone, constructing knowledge. "I know," he said.

Humans are born knowing no visual stories so the world they see is just a bunch of blobs. Likewise, smells and tastes begin as meaningless sensations. Newborns have, however, had the experience of listening to their world in utero, muffled by the womb, and so they are born knowing to attend, for instance, to their mother's voice: they turn their heads toward the familiar sound because a story about that voice has already started to form. 

The human brain is a pattern-recognizing machine, one that cannot abide a story vacuum. So, just as the boy constructed the story of a game from those mixed up pieces, a baby begins, from the moment of birth, even before, constructing the story of mommy, connection, and love.

As adult humans, it's obvious to us that the crow in the tree over our heads is not actually smaller than the crow in the grass near our feet. Indeed, we treat perspective as a scientific and artistic truth, but the ability to perceive that is a story we constructed for ourselves. It's a story we've learned. 

Not all the stories we tell ourselves throughout our lives turn out to be true. The patterns we think we've identified, the connections we've made between things, might turn out to be wrong, or at least not the same as the way other people do it, resulting in a different story. Our conflicts are always disagreements over stories.

By the same token, our greatest achievements emerge from working together to fill the vacuum with a common story. As the boy began to share with the other children about this game he "knew," they began to join in, asking questions, making their own assertions, and even negotiating exactly what this game was all about. The story of the game that emerged was not the one that we adults with our more detailed experience with board games in general, and these board games in particular, would have told. This was a fresh, new story.

So much of what passes for education is adults trying to tell their same, old, tired stories to the children. Stories that may or may not be true. A play-based curriculum is one in which the children are free to do what our brains are designed to do, which is to construct their own learning. This is how our species progresses.

******

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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Thursday, January 26, 2023

This Is Hard Stuff


We didn't have a huge set of big wooden blocks, which was okay because we didn't really have enough space for more and besides, if the kids are going to play with them, they generally needed to find a way to play with them together, which is what our school was all about.

The kids in our 4-5's class had been playing a lot of "super heroes." It was mostly boys, but they hadn't been particularly exclusionary, with several of the girls regularly joining them, often making up their own hero names like "Super Cat" due to the lack of female characters of the type in our popular culture. This in turn inspired some of the boys to make up their own hero names like "Super Dog" and "Falcon," along with their own super powers. And although there had been a few instances of someone declaring, "We already have enough super heroes," in an attempt to close the door behind them, most of the time, the prerequisite for joining the play was to simply declare yourself a super hero, pick a super hero name, and then hang around with them boasting about your great might, creating hideouts, and bickering over nuance.


At one point, however, a break-away group began playing, alternatively, Paw Patrol and Pokemon, which looked to me like essentially the same game with new characters. One day, some boys playing Paw Patrol used all of the big wooden blocks to create their "house," complete with beds and blankets. A girl who was often right in the middle of the super hero play wanted to join them, but when they asked, "Who are you?" she objected to being a Paw Patrol character at all. Indeed, she wanted to play with them and with the blocks they were using, but the rub was that she didn't want to play their game.

After some back and forth during which the Paw Patrol kids tried to find a way for her to be included, they offered her a few of their blocks to play with on her own, then went back to the game.

She arranged her blocks, then sat on them, glaring at the boys. They ignored her. I was sitting nearby watching as her face slowly dissolved from one of anger to tears. An adult tried to console her, but was more or less told to back off. I waited a few minutes, then sat on the floor beside her, saying, "You're crying."

She answered, "I need more blocks." I nodded. She added, "They have all the blocks."

I replied, "They are using most of the blocks and you have a few of the blocks."

"They won't give me any more blocks."

I asked, "Have you asked them for more blocks?"

Wiping at her tears she shook her head, "No."

"They probably don't know you want more blocks."

She called out, "Can I have some more blocks?"

The boys stopped playing briefly, one of them saying, "We're using them!" then another added, "You can have them when we're done," which was our classroom mantra around "sharing."

She went back to crying, looking at me as if to say, See?

I said, "They said you can use them when they're done . . . Earlier I heard them say you could play Paw Patrol with them."

"I don't want to play Paw Patrol. I just want to build."

I sat with her as the boys leapt and laughed and lurched. I pointed out that there was a small building set that wasn't being used in another part of the room, but she rejected that, saying, "I want to build with these blocks."


I nodded, saying, "I guess we'll just have to wait until they're done." That made her cry some more.

This is hard stuff we working on in preschool. And, for the most part, that's pretty much all we do: figure out how to get along with the other people. Most days aren't so hard, but there are moments in every day when things don't go the way we want or expect them to and then, on top of getting along with the other people, there are our own emotions with which we must deal. Academic types call it something like "social-emotional functioning," but I think of it as the work of creating a community.

It's a tragedy that policymakers are pushing more and more "academics" into the early years because it's getting in the way of this very real, very important work the children need to do if they are going to lead satisfying, successful lives. In our ignorant fearfulness about Johnny "falling behind" we are increasingly neglecting what the research tells us about early learning. From a CNN.com story about a study conducted by researchers from Penn State and Duke Universities:

Teachers evaluated the kids based on factors such as whether they listened to others, shared materials, resolved problems with their peers and were helpful. Each student was then given an overall score to rate their positive skills and behavior, with zero representing the lowest level and four for students who demonstrated the highest level of social skill and behavior . . . Researchers then analyzed what happened to the children in young adulthood, taking a look at whether they completed high school and college and held a full-time job, and whether they had any criminal justice, substance abuse or mental problems . . . For every one-point increase in a child's social competency score in kindergarten, they were twice as likely to obtain a college degree and 46% more likely to have a full-time job by age 25 . . . For every one-point decrease in a child's social skill score in kindergarten, he or she had a 67% higher chance of having been arrested in early adulthood, a 52% higher rate of binge drinking and an 82% higher chance of being in or on a waiting list for public housing.

Here is a link to the actual study. And this is far from the only research that has produced these and similar results, just the most recent one.


If our goal is well-adjusted, "successful" citizens, we know what we need to do. In the early years, it isn't about reading or math. It's not about learning to sit in desks or filling out work sheets or queuing up for this or that. If we are really committed to our children, we will recognize that their futures are not dependent upon any of that stuff, but rather this really hard, messy, emotional work we do every day as we play with our fellow citizens.

******

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, January 25, 2023

Lessons From The Garden About Constant Assessment


A group of four and five-year-olds once planted radish seeds in egg carton cups which we put on a sunny window sill. We had discussed how, if we were patient, if we remembered to give them just the right amount of water them every day, they would sprout and grow roots. Each child had their own dozen seedlings for which they assumed responsibility. Most of the kids had at least one sprout by day five. Most of the kids had 7-8 sprouts by day seven. Most of the kids had a dozen visible sprouts by day 10. But there was one boy who didn't have any: all 12 of his seeds had failed to sprout.

This was a mystery. We wondered if maybe his carton hadn't received enough sun. We wondered if maybe he hadn't given them enough water. I finally asked him if he was sure he had planted seeds. He replied, "I know I did. I dig down to look at them every day." Mystery solved.

I've come to believe that a garden should stand at the center of a preschool's playground. The challenge, of course, is actually growing plants in a place where children are free to follow their own curiosity without being constantly corrected and scolded by the adults.

A three-year-old once presented me with a bouquet of tiny white and yellow blossoms which I instantly recognized as our entire crop of strawberries. We once introduced several fists full of worms to a bed that the children promptly dug up because they wanted to watch the worms "eat and poop dirt." We gave up on root vegetables altogether because there was always at least one kid who wanted to check on the progress of our carrots or beets.

Gardens need our attention. They need us to water them when the rain is insufficient. Occasional weeding is useful. They might need the soil augmented with compost. And they need us when threatened by pestilence, trampling feet, or disease. But otherwise, as long as our seeds are planted in a sunny place, they thrive best when we step back and just let them grow. The seeds know what to do: they sprout, leaf, grow, flower, and fruit all on their own. They don't need us to constantly fiddle with them. Indeed, as children who grow up with a garden at the center of their playground soon learn, constant assessment of their progress or attempts to hurry them along will impede, pervert and thwart their efforts to do what comes naturally to them, which is to grow.

This is also true of children.

******

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, January 24, 2023

"Be Yourself"


"Be yourself," writes Oscar Wilde, "everyone else is already taken."

Lao Tzu, the seminal Chinese philosopher, is quoted as saying, "When you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everyone will respect you."

And then there is Taylor Swift: "Just be yourself, there is no one better."

It's advice that we've given one another since the dawn of time. We tell our children to listen to their inner voice, to not be influenced by their peers, to be proud of who they are. Indeed, it's such common, every day wisdom that most of us take it for granted, yet so very few of us actually get to live it. 

For one thing, there are rules and social conventions that forbid certain expressions of self. This is especially true when we're young. When children, who are just trying to let their own light shine, make too much noise or move their bodies too assertively, they are too often chastised. In other words, we teach them that while they should strive to be themselves, they can't do it in school, in church, in a theater, a museum, or, frankly, pretty much in any public space, especially if how you express who you are could possibly offend the sensibilities of others.

As Fran Lebowitz, a woman who has made a career of being herself, says, "Being offended is part of leaving home." And while that is true, most of us would rather not offend our fellow humans, even if that is part of who we are, which is why we learn to temper who we are at times if only out of courtesy.

But the real difficulty in living up to the challenge of being yourself is to first figure out who and what your self actually is. When we are born, before we can even understand the concept of self, I would argue that this is the moment when we are most ourselves, but after that it's about learning. 

As Doris Lessing writes, "We are what we learn."

A child of abuse learns that they are a victim, that they somehow deserve it, and, more often than not, without a lot of therapy, they grow up to abuse others. They are what they learn.

A child of privilege learns that they are superior and that they somehow deserve it. They are what they learn.

A child that is over-protected learns that they are always in danger. A child who is not interested in school work learns that they are stupid. A child who is loved unconditionally learns to love unconditionally. They are what they learn.

Your self isn't something you are, but rather something you learn, and you don't always have a choice about what you learn. This is most obviously true in standard schools where the adults have decided what you will be by choosing what you will learn and then judging who you are according to meat-cleaver measurements like grades and test scores.

No wonder it's so incredibly difficult to "be yourself." When do we ever get the opportunity to learn what that is? If we really want a world in which each of us has come alive, childhood should be about discovering who we are and that means allowing the children themselves, to the degree possible, to choose what it is they will learn. In other words, let them play, because self isn't something to discover, but rather something we create. That's the only way anyone has ever learned to be themself. 

******

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, January 23, 2023

Why We Do Circle Time


The only time during our school day that we expect all the children to convene together is at circle time: 15-30 minutes during which we come together and practice being in a group, raising our voices together, engaging in discussion, making decisions, telling stories. It's hard for some of the children, I know, taking turns talking, listening to the other children, sitting in a way that doesn't block the views of other kids, keeping our hands to ourselves.


There are some play-based educators who treat their circle times as optional, allowing those who chose not to participate to engage in their own pursuits elsewhere. I get that and have toyed with the idea myself, but have never pulled the trigger because I worry that something important about community building, about democracy, will be lost when some opt out. One of the principles of democratic free schools is that the children are free to pursue their own interests. There are not even classes, unless organized by the students themselves, but meeting attendance is mandatory. I have always thought of our circle times as community meetings and without them, without full participation, I worry that something vital about us will never be discovered: children may always opt out of an activity, but I just can't bring myself to give children the opportunity opt out of us.

Of course, I don't command the children to sit on our checker board rug, but I do make my opinion clear: "It's circle time. You have the whole day to play with toys. Now is when we share our time."

When children begin to talk out of turn, I say, "I can't hear everyone at once. If you raise your hand, you'll get a turn for everyone to hear you."

When children stray away from the rug one of our parent-teachers shadows them, softly reminding them, "That's closed," until they come to the books. If they would prefer to quietly flip the pages, that's an option, but one that rarely holds a child's interest, especially when we are getting things done.


I generally start things off by asking, "What do we need to talk about?" then turn it over to them. In my role of moderator or facilitator, it's my job to keep things moving, of course, to keep things engaging, to not get bogged down, to make sure everyone gets a turn, to avoid lecturing, to keep in mind that this is their circle time, all without making it a kind of torture for those who need to think with their entire bodies in motion, which is why there is usually a lot of "up and down" involved in a typical Woodland Park circle time.

By the time most kids are 4, if they've been with us for the first couple years (and most have), they get circle time. Not that they "behave" perfectly, of course, but then again I've rarely been in an adult meeting when there isn't some cutting up, some shouting out, some speaking out of turn, some getting up to go to the bathroom, to get a drink or a bite, to take a call, or to pace the hallway. No, when I say they "get it," I mean that they know what we're doing is an important part of who we are, not necessarily intellectually, but at a deeper level, having internalized both the joy and importance of all of us doing something, anything, together.

Best of all is when you begin to see the children during the rest of the day, when the toys are all "open," when we aren't "expected" to take turns or raise hands, when we aren't on the checker board rug, but rather out there in the wider world of the whole school, they gather around and engage productively together. You see them using the skills we've been practicing at circle time, coming together around something they all care about, or are curious about, taking turns, making space for one another, sometimes even spontaneously raising hands. This is how democracy is supposed to work. This is how community is built.


And this is why we still do circle time. Not because we need children to practice being in meetings, but rather because there are certain skills required to build a democratic community, skills based in fairness and empathy. When they gather round the workbench or art table and organize themselves, especially in large groups, when I can step back and watch them go, these are perhaps my proudest moments as a teacher. That's when it's no longer about my expectations, but rather it's about theirs, which is the point of why we gather around.

******

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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