Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do (Philosophy And Obedience)

According to the Mayo Clinic staff, no one knows the exact reasons someone grows up to be a sociopath (or more precisely, a person who can be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder), but there are "certain factors that increase the risk of developing or triggering" it, including:

  • Being diagnosed with childhood conduct disorder
  • A family history of antisocial personality disorder or other personality disorders or mental illness
  • Being subject to verbal, physical or sexual abuse during childhood
  • Having an unstable or chaotic family life during childhood
  • Loss of parents through death or traumatic divorce during childhood

This is what medical science seems to know about the causes. Recently, a reader, Ryan, a "parent and therapist with more than 10 years working with adolescents," responded to my post entitled How To Make Adults Who Will Not Be Pushed Around, by asserting that the teaching approach I advocate there, and indeed right across this blog, is as "excellent way to raise a total sociopath and/or a very natural consequence-scarred adult." I can only assume, since it doesn't appear that the other four risk factors apply here, that he is mostly worried that I am advocating for a pedagogical approach that creates instability and chaos.

Let me state for the record that I also worry about children who have an unstable or chaotic family life, and while the word "chaos" is sometimes used by adults to describe our classroom, it is generally modified with the words "controlled" or "on the edge of," which is exactly what I expect at times, but I honestly don't think that this is the kind of joyful, high-spirited, inquisitive chaos that is meant when the Mayo Clinic puts it on their list of risk factors for sociopathy.

So Ryan, and others who are concerned about what we are doing here in our progressive education bubble, I do genuinely thank you for your concern. And to Ryan in particular, I thank you for your willingness and courage to stand up for your beliefs without hiding behind the anonymity the internet makes all too easy. I am going to attempt over the next few days to explain why I teach the way I do and why I feel it is the best approach for educating children in our society, hopefully by way of creating a single document to which I can in the future point people who express concern.

I am not a researcher, nor even an academician, so I've chosen to approach this, at least here in the beginning, as a philosophical exercise. You won't find many references to research to support my assertions, although such exist and can be found elsewhere on this blog. For instance, all the links I've provided here, refer to other writing I've done on these topics, much of which is linked to supporting data.

When I'm done, and it seems like it will take 3-4 days, I will post everything together in one long post for anyone who is interested in taking it all in at once, and to create a place I can send people who are concerned that we are creating sociopaths. We may still disagree, but I hope we will at least have a better understanding of one another as we all do the best we can to help children be better humans than we are.

Hobbes, Locke, and the Experiment of Democracy
This response, this concern about loss of control, of chaos, is one I commonly come across when I find myself outside our little progressive education bubble. What I hear (which I'll admit may well be different that what is intended) are people reacting to what to them is the bizarre-sounding idea that our fellow human beings, and especially our children, are capable, even at very young ages, of self-regulation, self-control, and in fact, self-governance without the firm hand of some sort of strong central authority. This point-of-view, the one the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes defends in his masterwork Leviathan, postulates that without authoritarian control, mankind would revert to "the state of nature," which he viewed as essentially evil -- a condition that would inevitably lead to "war of all against all."

"In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Hobbes was a great and influential philosopher, but this, I think, is the central flaw in his thinking: he assumes, if left to our own devices, if left to our nature, we are all sociopaths, concerned only for ourselves, and that without the strong arm of government or religion or other institutions we are doomed to that "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" life. Later in the 17th century, in part as a direct response to Hobbes, philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Paul Rousseau started with the opposite assumption about human nature, one that I've found borne out in my work with young children: humans are essentially "good," and that the "state of nature" is one of equality and freedom. In Locke's view, the proper role of institutions and the authority vested in them is to preserve that natural law from those that would pervert it, so that humans could "according to reason" strive toward a state of "perfect freedom, equality, and liberty."

The founders of our nation relied heavily on the leading lights of the Age of Enlightenment, especially Locke, when they postulated a nation that would be self-governing. Indeed, it would be impossible to conceive of democracy under anything other than a Lockean world view. They created a document, the US Constitution, that did not regulate the behavior of free humans, but rather limited the scope and authority of government in order to preserve our natural state of equality and freedom. They envisioned a nation of "good," well-educated citizens cooperatively governing themselves.

We can argue about the degree to which we have achieved these goals, but as an educator in our experiment in democracy, this Lockean world is the one for which I attempt to prepare children.

Young children are not fully capable of fending for themselves. We are perhaps born capable of much more than people once assumed, but our species has evolved to require a comparably long period of ex vivo care from our fellow humans and typically this is the responsibility of parents. As babies we must be fed, clothed and sheltered, we must be touched and loved: from the moment we are born other humans are our life-support system. Outside our progressive education bubble, there are those who insist that this condition means that children "owe" their parents obedience, that this is the price of admission to a Hobbesian world that without authoritarian control will inevitably devolve into chaos. This is a patently anti-democratic idea: it is one that assumes that we are all, at bottom, sociopaths.

Our society has collectively, through our Constitution, cast its lot with Locke, and in this view if we are still born needing our fellow humans, and specifically our parents, it does not mean that they are our superiors. Indeed they are more experienced and physically capable, but it doesn't follow that we are subservient to them: we are born in a state of equality and freedom and we need our fellow humans. It is a challenging idea for some, this idea that adults can keep children safe and prepare them for citizenship without authoritarian tools because, quite obviously, the influence of Hobbes is still with us. It's impossible for some to understand how a child can grow into a productive, law-abiding citizen without the constant anticipation of the carrot and fear of the stick.

So, given that the world is fraught with dangers, pitfalls, and seedy back alleys, and given that young children do not have the experience or physical ability to fend for themselves, how do parents and teachers do their jobs of protecting and raising children without resorting to commanding them, without enticing them with rewards, and without threatening them with punishment? I think that's the question those outside our bubble have for us.

We may not be "in charge" of our children, but we do use our superior experience to control their environment. When they are very young we do this by covering electrical outlets, closing doors, removing hazardous objects, and generally providing spaces in which they can freely explore and begin to educate themselves about the world. We do this by being with them, talking with them, making statements of fact about the world: "That is red," "The pillow is soft," "The table is hard." As they start to push those boundaries, rather than scold them for their curiosity, we find ways to expand those boundaries, always striving to set the inner circle in such a way that when they attempt the experiment of stepping beyond it (and they will always attempt to step beyond it, no matter what their age) they will still not be killed or permanently maimed. This is what being child-directed is all about: creating a physical and intellectual space in which children "tell you" when they are ready to expand their experiences; not commanding them, not drilling them, not testing them, but simply narrating, filling their world with facts. "If you fall off that, it will probably hurt," "She's crying because you hit her," "We have to go to the store now to buy food for dinner." Our job, then, is not to "tell" children or "instruct" children, but rather to keep them safe and informed as they explore their world through play, learning as they go everything they need to know, including values and morals.

When we're out in the world, at first we carry them over broken glass, we hold their hands as we cross the street, we pull them away from threatening strangers, because they simply do not have the experience to recognize these manifest dangers. If they are not yet capable of understanding that glass will cut them, that cars will kill them, that the man shouting obscenities at a tree trunk is possibly dangerously unstable, they are also not capable of understanding your commands about them. It is our protecting them from these hazards that are the boundaries we set for them. However, as soon as our children begin to ask questions, to show an interest in the sparkly broken glass, the vroom-vroom of traffic, or the sad spectacle of a mentally ill man living on the streets, that's when they are ready to begin to understand: then we begin to teach, not through obedience, but by again narrating a world of facts and helping them safely explore their world, within the new boundaries we have created.

Some still insist, however, for their own good, exactly because young children are incapable of understanding, we must "train" them to obey our parental commands, to react without question to our words: "Stop!" "Come here!" "Sit there!" much in the way one trains a dog. (I'm sorry that this metaphor offends people, but I stand by its aptness.) If we were preparing our charges for a Hobbesian world, then perhaps they would have a point. If we are preparing children to take jobs in the military or a factory floor or any other institution organized as a pyramid with all the power concentrated at the top, then perhaps we would be doing them a favor.

This, however, is emphatically not the world for which I'm preparing children. The habits of blind obedience, of trained reactions to the commands of others, flies in the face of our democratic experiment: they are a danger both to the child and ultimately to the rest of us who count on our fellow citizens to be equal and free. Obedience is not a democratic value.

In the coming days, I intend to discuss our relationship to rules, rewards and punishments, authority, civil disobedience, natural consequences, mistakes and failures, and leadership, among, I'm sure, other topics, in the context of a democratic education.

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Gleamer said...

The biggest disagreement that I have with your school is that it doesn't go through high school. Students always learn best through freedom, opportunities, and resources. That doesn't stop when they are "kindergarten age". Much love, thanks, and peace to you Teacher Tom.

Meagan said...

"If they are not yet capable of understanding that glass will cut them, that cars will kill them, that the man shouting obscenities at a tree trunk is possibly dangerously unstable, they are also not capable of understanding your commands about them."

This is exactly the sticking point I have with the punishment argument. No matter how harsh a punishment you inflict on a small child, their obedience will always be unreliable. If you rely on obedience, you are putting your child in danger.

My son is almost 15 months and he's recently taken to climbing onto the table (and everything else). I suppose the default response is "NO!" followed by more yelling, or scolding, or a time out, or even spanking. Even if I were willing to do these things, I'm not remotely convinced they would keep him off the table. Instead, I've ordered chair lock/straps, and until then our dining/play room looks like a hurricane came through because I keep all the chairs overturned so he can't climb them. Would he be safer if I yelled at him? I really don't think so. Besides, I'm proud of how confidently he climbs, and how triumphantly he conquers new obstacles daily... why would I want to discourage that?

Teacher Tom said...

We've added a 5's program for the coming year Gleamer. I would love to see us build ourselves into a PreK-12, but it's all about baby steps! Thanks! =)

Anonymous said...

Teacher Tom, I think you are a progressive educator, and there is no single definition of what "progressive" means. It varies. And that confuses people.

What I think you are doing is related to constructivism - and the setup and daily happenings might be better understood if you addressed what constructivism and progressive means - as it relates to your work.

When I first began hanging out with progressive educators, I was alarmed. What I experienced, on the surface, was similar to the person who called your methods comparable to creating a sociopath (a quick, almost flip statement to me, with no real thought or consideration behind it).

It takes more reading and discussion with educated people to make a more informed conclusion.

On my path to understanding progressive education, I remembered reading Ghandi's Experiments in Truth - and then I began reading and talking with educated people - and I am creating an environment that works for my own family.


Luke Jaaniste said...

Hi Tom.

So glad that you're attempting a general outline of your philosophy of being a teacher. I enjoy your posts, and can gleam various ideas from it, but great to have it complimented with some meta-discussion.

Waiting to read all of it...
And just a few basic questions for now:

* is there any other teachers/practitioners where you feel very much an affinity with how they teach?? -- I am thinking of a group of young-childhood teachers I had the privilege to meet via having my daughter hang with them for two years, and there seems like a lot of overlap with your approaches. But that is just one small group in Brisbane.

* The consequence of the Hobbes view makes sense: if we think children are born devoid of the ability to live the way we think they should (follow rules, be civil, conduct industry and commerce etc etc) then we need to actively add to this void - basically to push kids around (we are the experts at living, and you need to learn from us). But I'd like to offer that there is a consequence of the Locke view which sits at the other extreme: children are born (with the capacity to be) perfect, free, equal etc and thus we have to protect them from all corrupting influences (corruptions from where -- part of humanity that have gone wrong? other cultures? certain sub cultures?) and the one thing in this view that children don't have is discernment. Thus, the teachers/adults teach discernment to a child-without-any. Have you ever experienced this view?... what you write about doesn't seem to be this, but I wonder if it ever gets interpreted this way.


Luke Jaaniste said...

To add to what I said: I just read Ryan's comment from your other post (the one you mentioned at top of this post) and I think this idea of 'teach discernment to a child-with-any' is very much the flavour of his comments.

And just to clarify: I want you thoughts Tom on the idea that treating the child as unruly (needing to be controlled, needing rules) or treating the child as good/pure (needing to be protected, needing judgement/discernment) are both extreme positions that place the adult as expert that has something that the child LACKS and thus the child is treated as deficient in a way adults aren't. The child is thus on a path of ACCUMULATING stuff (rules, rule-observing behaviours, discernment, better-choices).

Teacher Tom said...

@Luke . . . You're right. I believe that is the heart of Ryan's concerns. I think I'm going to be getting to what you're asking about when I get to the part about making mistakes and natural consequences. If I don't, let me know.

There are so many teachers with whom I feel an affinity, but generally speaking I find that Reggio, Waldorf, and Montessori teachers tend to come from a place of child-centered education. Teachers in democratic free schools, outdoor schools, and other cooperatives tend to embrace the principles of a play-based curriculum.

Teacher Tom said...

I think you're right, Atlanta. That may have to be a different post, however, but I'll try to work in in somehow. It is true that there is no one definition of progressive education, and there are as many different ways to approach it as there are teachers! The core, however, to me is that progressive education is one that emerges from the children themselves and is (as Alfie Kohn writes) "marinated in community."

Unknown said...

Teacher Tom, I am how Ryan came to read your blog. After posting the link to Facebook he messaged me with his response. I must apologize, I had no idea sharing your perspective on educating young children would cause such a firestorm.

We were introduced to your work by an administrator at my sons school (Montessori) since I was asking lots of questions about how to implement Montessori concepts at home.

Alan said...

Hi Teacher Tom, Upon first reading this post I was stunned by this part, "If we are preparing children to take jobs in the military or a factory floor or any other institution organized as a pyramid with all the power concentrated at the top, then perhaps we would be doing them a favor."

I thought that is exactly the way the world is set up and for what we should be preparing them. I honestly have a hard time thinking of any group of people that is not structured with some heirarchy that puts more power at the top. Even co-ops have board of directors and management. So rather than just comment immediately, I read a few more of your posts and mulled it over some more and I think I have come to understand what you meant.
Are you proposing that your form of teaching is beneficial because it exposes the child to an alternative to the "real" world if only briefly? After the bell rings and or the child goes on to grade school the "real" world will relentlessly teach them how it really works. Though they will still be able to recall how it could work given their time in your class. Is that a correct interpretation?


Teacher Tom said...

Thank you, Alan . . . I want to answer/address your excellent points, but it will have to be a little later as I'm consumed this morning with other matters. Thank you so much for reading!