Monday, August 27, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do (Rules)

This is the second post in a series I'm calling "Why I Teach The Way I Do." In yesterday's post, I began with a very brief description of the competing ideas of the two most influential 17th century philosophers, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, followed by a discussion of the role of obedience in a democratic society. Today I've written about our relationship to rules.

My motivation for writing this is that on a regular basis, some bit of my writing makes its way out into the wider world beyond our little progressive education bubble and I will in turn be challenged by well-intended folks who are genuinely concerned, and even shocked and angered, by what they perceive as a questionable, if not outright dangerous, approach to early childhood education. I can and have explained/defended our ideas over the past 3 years, publishing well over 1000 posts here, but it's been a rather scatter-gun approach, making it hard to simply suggest this link or that to my "critics," leaving me to either ignore them or exhaust myself re-creating the wheel in a comment or whole new post.

When I'm finished writing, which may be several days from now, I intend to eliminate all this introductory fluff from each post and edit everything together into what I hope will be one long, comprehensive piece to which I can point people looking for assurances that we are, in fact, working in the best interests not just of children, but society as a whole. In the meantime, this is part two and would probably make more sense if read on the heels of part one.

(As an aside, as I sat down this morning to write this latest installment in the tradition of Charles Dickens who wrote most of his novels in serial fashion, I'm struck by what a genius he really was. As a blogger, I have the luxury of going back to edit what I published yesterday, even to the point of entirely rewriting, as new thoughts or insights strike me. Should a reader, as many did yesterday, suggest ideas, ask questions, or point out omissions, I can simply go back with a "fix." Dickens had no such luxury; once the type was set it was out of his hands. I'm simply in awe of his ability to write enormous, cohesive, compelling, and undeniably great novels in serial form. His was a special kind of genius.)


"The Dude abides."   ~The Dude, The Big Lebowski

Our summer program typically includes many children who've never been enrolled in our school before. A few summers back, one of these children was eating his snack with Charlie, who had been with us for two years already. The new boy suggested that they do something when they were done eating, to which Charlie replied, "That's against the rules." The boy asked, "What happens if we break the rules?" Charlie thought for a moment, then replied, "We don't break the rules."

In a democracy, citizens are responsible for making our own rules about how we as equal and free individuals will live together: this is, at bottom, what democracy is all about.  Ours is not a direct democracy, but rather a democratically elected republic, which is why we elect representatives who, in turn, are expected to carry our best interests into the legislative process. In preschool, however, we practice a kind of direct democracy where we, as citizens do in a democracy, make all of our own rules. Most certainly, the purpose of a public education in a democracy, one paid for by all of us, is to educate citizens, and there is nothing more fundamentally democratic than taking part in the legislative process: perhaps more than voting, this is how we most effectively express ourselves publicly as individuals and as a community.  Our founders, most notably Thomas Jefferson, wrote extensively about the importance of an educated populace if democracy was going to thrive.

Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.

By the time children leave our school, I want them to be equipped with vast experience in the legislative aspects of self-governance. I won't get into the details here of how we go about making our own rules (I've already done that here), but the reason Charlie didn't have an answer for his new friend was that the only "consequence" we've ever had to impose for breaking a rule is to simply remind the rule breaker that he's broken a rule: "You and your friends agreed . . ." Charlie was factually wrong when he said, "We don't break rules," but he was spot on in spirit.

Our rules, as are all rules, are statements of aspiration, not statements of fact: "No hitting," "No taking things," "No screaming in someone's face," all of which are broken more or less every day. That does not make the rules flawed. That does not make the children bad. And it certainly doesn't mean that they deserve punishment because they've failed in this instance to obey. I would no more punish a child for failing to abide by a rule than I would for failing to add 2 + 2 correctly or remember the words to "Itsy Bitsy Spider." Failure is simply evidence that children are practicing how to live in a world of rule-aspirations to which we have all agreed. Following rules, in fact, is lifelong learning. After all, how many adults can say we've mastered living according to the rules we've agreed upon through our democratic process? How many of us can say that we've not jaywalked or sped or failed to turn in money found on the sidewalk? I would say it is a percentage approaching 0. How can any one of us cast that first stone at a child?

Nevertheless, what of rules and obedience? Even if we do it imperfectly, certainly the ideal is that we strive to obey the rules, even in a democracy. I know this will strike some as an exercise in semantical hair-splitting, but I believe there is a real difference between obedience to rules imposed by an authority and "rules" that come about democratically.

In a Hobbesian world, where humans are presumed to be essentially "evil," the purpose of rules imposed by institutional authority is to prevent what would be an inevitable slide into a life that is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." As followers of Locke, however, we in a democracy assume the essential goodness of mankind. The purpose of rules, therefore, is to preserve "natural law" so that reason can prevail, allowing us to express our natural selves, and together strive toward a state of "perfect freedom, equality, and liberty." This, ideally, is the power of rules in a democracy.

As I say to the children when pointing at the list of democratically arrived at rules that hangs on our wall, "You and your friends agreed: no hitting." I do not simply say, "No hitting," because that is the language of force, of command, of authority. These are not my rules, but theirs, arrived at by universal consensus in our case, and agreement among equal and free citizens in a democracy is sacred. Those outside our progressive education bubble hear bits and pieces of this and are concerned that we advocate for complete laissez fair, creating a frightening, dangerous Lord of the Flies dystopia, but nothing could be further from the truth. It's true that we are not imposing rules and sanctions from on high; we are rather providing children the tools to practice making and sticking to agreements among themselves, the true skill of citizenship. In a democracy, rules can just as easily be called agreements.

Living according to our agreements is not something any preschooler has mastered by the time she's walked out into the world, but I certainly want her to expect it from the world, and to perhaps even assert it, even in places where it doesn't already exist. Is this subversive? Only if we don't really value democracy as we say we do.

As the great storyteller and poet Utah Phillips wrote, "I will not obey," but "I was always willing to agree." Or in words of The Dude, "The Dude abides." That is the stance of equal and free men. And it is this that the children in our school are practicing.

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wendyroo said...

Reading this series of posts, I have very mixed feelings. On one hand, I do believe that people are generally good and I want my children to make good choices because they know it is the right thing to do, not because someone told them to.

However, I have a very hard time implementing those ideas where the rubber meets the road.

I have a 1 year old and a 3 year old. The other day the 1 year old needed to go to the doctor for his well baby check and the 3 year old didn't want to go. Screaming tantrum on the floor didn't want to go. To be fair, I didn't want to go either, but as an adult I understand more about health and responsibility and appointments and respect for other people's time than he did. Eventually, after 30 minutes of informative statements, I hauled his crying, thrashing body to the car, held him down while I strapped him in and off we went.

I can't lead my life at the whim of my preschooler. The rest of the family has rights and responsibilities of which he has no conception. Some days if feels like he spends the whole day unhappy and screaming because I treat him so badly - only offering him healthy foods, making him brush his teeth, forcing him outside for a few minutes of fresh air, dragging him along because his brother needs to go to the doctor. I can explain the importance of those things until my throat is raw, but developmentally he is still so short sighted and self centered that he doesn't care if his teeth rot or his brother is sick.

I think it is easy to get a kid to agree to a no hitting rule. He values not being hit, so it seems like a good rule. But what about stuff that he doesn't value and yet really is important. Sometimes I feel like I have to pull rank - I've been on this earth a lot longer than he has and sometimes a rule is a rule even if he doesn't agree to it.

Teacher Tom said...

In your example Wendy, the only thing I would have done differently, is only spent 2 minutes on informative statements. You have a job to do and part of that involves taking your baby to the doctor. You can sympathize with your 3-year-old, sharing that you also don't want to go, but no amount of tantrum is going to stop you from doing your job. You are not pulling rank, merely doing what you must do.

Meagan said...

At what age do you start the rule making thing? I would think some of the younger kids wouldn't yet have the necessary language to participate in the conversation? Any thoughts on how to include a child in rule making as a parent rather than a teacher?

I'm curious where the "no hitting" rule comes from... Do preschoolers almost universally agree on that rule (assuming they do) because it's already been taught as part of a moral code, or would they come up with it on their own? My guess is that most kids would NOT come up with that rule if it hadn't already been repeated to them from the earliest age of understanding... but that almost any healthy kid would AGREE with that rule if put to a vote, whether it's something they'd been told before or not.

Meagan said...

Nevermind, I went to the post and see you start it in your 3-5 class. I suppose most kids would have enough experience being hit by then to suggest it as a rule even if it never had been imposed on them before.

I would still love your thoughts on including children in rule making as a parent though.

wendyroo said...

"but no amount of tantrum is going to stop you from doing your job."

I certainly agree with that.

"You are not pulling rank, merely doing what you must do."

But this seems a little sketchier. How can that not be considered pulling rank. I say we are going to the doctor and he says we are staying home and playing (some would argue that playing is his job) so I use my superior strength to force him to go along with my agenda.

According to your rational, to the best of my understanding, if a police officer did that to me (hauled me off to jail against my will) it would be okay because I democratically voted for our system of law and order and therefore agreed with my friends that police officers should have that power.

But my son never voted me into power, he was not on any committee that agreed to take the baby to the doctor. He had no choice in the matter. He got overruled pure and simple because I am the mom and he is the child - to me that seems like pulling rank.

Teacher Tom said...

Wendy, please do not understand me to be saying that preschoolers are ready to be fully enfranchised. As a society, we've determined that this happens at 18. As Jefferson and others point out, democracy requires education in order to function. Our job is to get them ready for their age of enfranchisement.

A 3-year-old must rely upon your experience, your presumedly better judgement, and your education for many years. A tantrum is not the same as being able to debate a point. You can look at it as pulling rank if you'd like, but you are simply doing your job as a parent. Part of that is to see the big picture and to balance the needs of a much larger system than your child is capable of understanding. When you say, "It's time to go to the doctor," he has every right to object, but this is not an appropriate time and place to practice legislative skills.

In our preschool we are giving children the opportunity to practice a democratic legislative process. We do not let them chose the start and end times of school, to set tuition, to decide whether or not to come to school. They do not have the ability or experience yet to reasonably make these kinds of decisions. Within the classroom, they do have the knowledge and wisdom to make decisions about how they want to treat one another.

Kerry said...

"How many of us can say that we've not jaywalked or sped or failed to turn in money found on the sidewalk? I would say it is a percentage approaching 100."

Your meaning is clear, but in the interests of editing for the future big post, I think you really mean " is a percentage approaching 0."

What do you do, when/if your class wants to change a rule? "Yes, we agreed...but now we don't. We want a different rule." Or, does that never happen?


Teacher Tom said...

Of course you're right, Kerry. I switched that sentence back and forth so many times . . . Thank you!

Occasionally, a child or two will want to change a rule. For instance, there was a boy who had second thoughts about name-calling, whose story I told in this post:

Because we don't operate on the principles of "majority rules," but rather upon consensus, it requires ALL of the other kids to agree before a rule can be changed. This is a very high bar! Every now and then the children will agree to a rule -- such as "No breathing," or "No throwing anything" -- that quickly becomes untenable and are quickly and universally repealed. (These are both actual examples.)

Luke Jaaniste said...

Hi Tom.

I like the term 'agreement' because it suggests a process (of agreeing), some people (who come to agree) and not just the product (the stated agreement itself). I also think we could think about how agreeing/agreement-processes happen in so many ways without it necessarily produces an overt stated agreement in language. Agreements find agreeable ways of living together, and I think that describe baies and mothers learning to breast-feed together, which happens (or can) immediately from birth: baby and mum are finding a way of living together to works for both of them. And this agreement of flesh, posture, milk, digestion and so on does change as the bodies of baby and mum change. New agreements are reached. When teeth appear, the agreement is not to bite the nipple! When indigestion turns up, the agreement is on a different feeding posture to help keep things down. When mum is tired and lies down to feed, the agreement is a different position than when sitting or standing. So to answer Meagan, I think we get involved in agreement-making from year dot. And then as we come into language and explicit conceptualisation so would our agreement-making come into this form as well.

What I haven't got a clear sense of yet is why *your* approach to rules/agreements is the one you use. Ie, why do you teach the way you do? I'm guessing your answer might be: human beings are creatures of x,y,z traits ("basically good, wanting freedom and equality"?) and the best way to achieve a,b,c (freedom, equality, ...) is going to need rules/agreements (why?) and the best sort of process from rules/agreements are d,e,f (because?). I think it's implicit in your post but not yet overt...


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