Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do (Mistakes)

In this series entitled "Why I Teach The Way I Do," I've now written about what I think it means to be a citizen in our society and our proper relationship to the institutions we've created to help us manage how we are to live together as equal and free people. In doing so, I've written about the role of obediencerules and their "enforcement," fairnessmoralitywhat I believe children should actually be learning in school, and the role of civil disobedience.

Today I write about mistakes.

I've written a great deal so far in this series of posts about how we attempt to infuse democratic principles into our preschool classroom in the interest of beginning to prepare young children, through their education, for the rights and responsibilities of self-governance. Very often, however, when those who live outside our progressive education bubble hear about our practices, their response is to envision a sort of chaotic mob rule, in which children are allowed to run wild. They warn of devastating consequences, of children who will grow into criminals or sociopaths, and that what we are doing will lead to a sort of tyranny of the children in which Hobbesian brutishness rules the day.

These are, of course, very similar to the arguments that have always been made against democracy, and by some accounts (but by no means all) these fears did come to pass to some extent when the ancient Athenians attempted to govern themselves through direct democracy, a form in which there is a danger that the will of the majority will trample the rights of a minority. Our founders were, of course, aware of this potential for "tyranny of the majority" and so when choosing what form of government to embody in our Constitution, they went with a republic in which representatives are elected democratically. In other words, instead of government directly controlled by the people, it is indirectly controlled: what dictionaries at the time defined as a "representative democracy." Encyclopedias have been written, and will continue to be written, discussing the nuances of the republic vs. democracy debate, one that I'd rather not engage in here, except to say that however you define our form of government, we are, together, attempting to self-govern with democracy as the centerpiece, and that, as it has been from the onset, is a grand experiment.

Similarly, our little cooperative preschool democracy is an experiment, one not bound by a Constitution, but rather by the presence of loving adults. This is not, as some fear, an exercise in laissez fair parenting/teaching, but rather a laboratory in which we provide the space, tools and autonomy in which children experiment with what it means to live among one another as equal and free citizens.


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

Traditional education is largely concerned with "correct answers," and is therefore structured so as to guide children as efficiently as possible to them, which is why so much of it is based upon the practices of direct instruction and rote practice, in which the teacher's role is primarily to tell children what they are to know and then to drill them until they are able to "prove it" on a test. This approach starts with the assumption that the teacher is a kind of dispenser of knowledge and that everything else along the way -- friendships, staring out the window, chewing gum, being silly -- is a distraction that must be controlled by rules, if not threats and force. Certainly, teachers in this model attempt to be gentle and understanding, even loving, but no matter how sing-song, a command to "Sit down," is still a command, and in the beeline path of direct instruction, anything that stands in the way must be knocked down.

Progressive education, on the other hand, is largely about making mistakes, thousands of mistakes, and is therefore structured so as to allow children to discover "correct answers" on their own through a process of their own choosing. In fact, progressive education does not even pretend to know what a child should learn except in the most general sense, assuming that the innate curiosities of children will lead them, through the instinct to play, to the discoveries that will come to form his unique education. It is through these processes, and the mistakes and struggles encountered, that he learns to be creative, flexible, and resilient. She is motivated by virtue of the fact that he is following her own passions. And he learns to work with others because he is a member of this community of equal and free citizens each pursuing his own grand experiments.

So yes, it does sometimes appear chaotic as we shape our own community through our mistakes, and, as I discussed in the second post in this series, our own rules which are more often than not the direct results of the lessons learned through these mistakes: rules that are intended not to simply clear a path for direct instruction, but rather to protect the rights of individuals and minorities as we each seek to clear our own path of self-directed learning. It may appear chaotic, as indeed democracy often appears chaotic, but it is a far cry from running wild or mob rule.

Many worry about our reliance upon the teaching power of "natural consequences," insisting that we must protect children from at least some of their mistakes. And, of course, this is true. Of course, when it comes to choices that threaten to cause grave injury, the adults in the room must step in, but not as an authority issuing commands. Rather we take a role that is more akin to a safety device, as an active part in the boundaries I discussed in the fourth post in this series. We say, "I can't let you do that," because it is our job, in just the way an electrical outlet cover's job is to prevent inexperienced children from inserting a paper clip, until they are developmentally capable of asking, "Why?" and comprehending our answer.

But beyond matters of safety, do young children always make accurate choices? Informed choices? Choices absent of cognitive error? Of course not. And indeed no human does: every one of us fails every day. Mistakes are a central tenant of the human condition. Mistakes are necessary because making them is how we learn almost everything worth knowing. A parent's or teacher's job is not to "save" young children from making mistakes, but rather to create environments in which mistakes can be made without an undue risk of maiming or death -- this is where our adult experience comes into play. Our job, in my view, is not to command children "for their own good," but rather to provide them with the facts and honestly held opinions that help guide them in making their own decisions, which still may or may not be "good decisions," but are after all their own decisions, choices from which they reap the natural consequences and rewards.

Outside our bubble, there are those who insist that it's possible to command children to not make mistakes and that when those mistakes are made "loving" punishments must be imposed. This can, in fact, "work" if the goal is to have children learn to obey a certain set of rules: or at least it appears to work as long as the authority imposing those rules and doling our those punishments remains present. (Or, as law enforcement professionals know, if the punishment is so debilitating that the one being punished is "broken," which I hope no one would do to a child.)

We cannot prevent children from making mistakes, we can only, at best, push those mistakes off into the future.  No one has ever succeeded in preventing one human in a free society from doing what she really wants to do. Ever. I've known families who have successfully prevented their children from watching television for years, only to find that the moment they are in a televised environment, they immediately over-indulge. I've watched families who have successfully prevented their children from eating refined sugar for years, only to watch them engorge themselves the moment they are confronted with an unsupervised candy jar. I've known families who have successfully prevented their adolescents from drinking alcohol only to have them head off to college and years of binge drinking.

When we use authoritarian methods, even when excused by our superior "experience," to secure the obedience of others, be they adults or children, we rob them of the instructive power of mistakes, forbidding them the most important thing of all: practice in making good decisions.

Experience is the name we give our mistakes. ~Oscar Wilde

It's true that our school is sometimes a chaotic place, but it never becomes the sort of brutish place that those outside the bubble fear. From these many voices, from these many pursuits of happiness, from this environment of mistakes and natural consequences, our classroom becomes a place in which we learn that we must be willing and able to make agreements (which always involves compromise), it becomes a place in which codes of fairness and morality always emerge, and it is a place in which we learn to be creative, flexible, resilient and motivated because that is what naturally fills the void left when the authoritarian methods of direct instruction are removed.

This is the true experiment of democracy, the one in which we all engage every day as we do about our lives as equal and free citizens.

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1 comment:

Luke Jaaniste said...

Hey Tom

I like this a lot:
"progressive education does not even pretend to know what a child should learn except in the most general sense, assuming that the innate curiosities of children will lead them, through the instinct to play, to the discoveries that will come to form his unique education."

I understand what a 'mistake' is to mainstream education -- it's not living up to the frameworks, standards, models and so on that exist because educators think the DO know what a child should learn.

But what is a 'mistake' for you and your community. I mean, if there is no endpoint of learning or standard model of development or specified curriculum, what exists such that we'd define something as a mistake, failure or not-hitting-the-mark... would it be in general not-being-democratic since democratic-living seems like the big deal for you? (in which case, there is breaking of rules, yet civil disobedience is good....?)

What I didn't get from this post was any examples of the sorts of mistakes that are made at your pre-school (by kids and/or adults).