Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Inventing Us

The opposite of play isn't work, it's rote.  ~Edward Hollowell

This might sound like an odd thing for a teacher to write, but I sometimes get the idea that knowing stuff is the enemy of education. There is little gratification in it for me when I've envisioned how children will do something, then they proceed to do it in just the way I've imagined. Certainly I could claim it as some evidence of experience on my side, but it also makes me worry that it's also evidence of rote on the children's side. 

We haven't had the spinny barrel thingy out for awhile. I taped a few lengths 
of fabric ribbons to it. 

I'll let future teachers worry about teaching the kids to follow instructions if that's what they feel they need them to do. Much better things are happening in our school, it seems, when instructions are minimal and I'm constantly proven wrong in my expectations. Fortunately, when working with young children in a play-based environment, that's more the norm than the exception. 

Our classroom, every day, should be one big experiment, a place where things are not known by either the kids or the teachers, a place where we fiddle and argue and poke and prod our way toward knowledge, and where everything we come to understand is only a part of all the other things we're striving to know.

It should be a place with lots of room for failure, frustration, and conflict. It should be a place with lots of room for wonder, epiphany, and friendship.

When a reporter asked Thomas Edison how it felt to have failed over a thousand times in his quest to invent the lightbulb, he famously answered, "I didn't fail a thousand times. The lightbulb was an invention with a thousand steps."

Except we're not even trying to invent anything here, but simply discover, in the spirit of pure science conducted for the purpose of getting closer to our own truth and nothing more.

Or maybe we are trying to invent something, after all, and if we are, it's not the sort of thing that can be put into words, but rather felt or intuited. I suppose it has something to do with inventing ourselves both as individuals and as a community.

It's something that can only be invented by conducting thousands and thousands of experiments; by taking thousands and thousands of steps.

And even though billions of humans have come before us, if we are playing together, we are discovering and inventing a thing that has never been discovered or invented before: us.

Anyone who tells you they have a system or method or sure-fire technique for educating children isn't talking about education at all. They're talking about standardization and efficiency. They're talking about assembly lines and cookie cutters. Anyone who doesn't start with the idea that it's all an experiment isn't talking about education at all.

They're talking about rote.

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Barbara Zaborowski said...

My thoughts exactly!! Just much better expressed.

Amy A @ Child Central Station said...

Thanks again Teacher Tom. You always seem to have just the right words :).

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Very lovely photos of open ended child's play. Your children are fortunate. I love the spinny barrel thingy.
Your photos and commentary are inspiring, and offer food for thought. Thanks!


Ah yes... right you are Tom! Love to read your reflections!

Jenna Baxter said...

Hey, this is Jenna again from Dr. Strange's EDM310 class. I will have a summary of this blog post along with "Being the Best Parent in the World" available by March 6 on my blog ( I believe you made some very interesting points in this blog post. Too many times teachers want to go right by the rule book and squander any creativity their students have. It is very important that learning be a quest, or as you said an experiment, in which the teacher is continuing to learn with the students.

I also liked how you added the quote by Thomas Edison. Failure is considered such a horrible thing in today's society. We should really be thinking of failure as a time to learn from our mistakes. I also believe that our lives are made up of thousands of steps and we determine which steps we take. I truly enjoyed reading this post and I feel that I am able to take a lot away from it. Thanks for allowing me to follow your blog!

BSK said...

I once heard someone say something along the lines of, "There isn't anything left that hasn't already been done in some form by someone else." I'd like to think this isn't true, but even if it were, my response would be what I assume a 5-year-old would say if presented with an age-appropriate approximation of this statement: "Well... not by me."

People often bristle at the way I design my art area. Outside of a few basics, largely aimed at safety or general care of the space, I let the kids at it. People say, "Why don't you show them what to do with those popsicle sticks? How are they going to figure out how to use the pipe cleaners?" I say, "They already do know what to do and, if they don't, they soon will." Maybe they'll use it the exact same way the kids last year did. Maybe they'll use it in a way I've never seen. Either way, as long as they're using it and it is coming from them, I can't complain. I have to constantly remind my aid that a kid spending 20 minutes constructing something and then throwing it away is not "wasting". Eash...

HeidiSongs said...

Well said, Teacher Tom! A classic post- LOVE IT!
Heidi Butkus

rachelle | tinkerlab said...

What would it take to get you to move to California and teach at my daughter's school? You are so spot-on with this reflection, and I wish for every child to have a teacher like you. I've never heard the Edison quote before, and you can be sure it'll be with me moving forward. I agree with you wholeheartedly that education should be about experimentation. To teach for understanding, teachers should pay attention to the natural curiosities that rouse children to figure out how things work or came to be. It always saddens me when teachers correct or lead children. A better approach, which is one that fosters creative thinking, is to ask children about the ideas the lead to their discoveries and questions. Thank you!! I hope this will inspire preschool teachers everywhere.

Launa Hall said...

Awesome. Thank you.