Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Myth Of Bootstraps

Sixteen years ago my wife and I considered ourselves the kind of people who would have a wine cellar. We were motivated in no small part by the fact that we'd just purchased a home with your classic cool, dark basement, ignoring the fact that I don't drink wine and she sticks almost exclusively to a few brands of chardonnay. Since there were already shelves built into the space, I ran out and purchased a classic Ikea do-it-yourself "system," which we filled, over years, with bottles of wine people gave us as gifts and that we would likely never drink.

Fortunately, I work in a profession in which nothing need ever go to waste, so when we moved out of that house, the wine rack parts found their way to the preschool where they now serves as a building set.

The system is simple: hexagonal prisms that are about a foot long with each end drilled with four holes into which wooden pegs fit. They can be inserted by hand, but we like to use rubber mallets at the work bench. 

They're an imperfect system, especially when using the mallets. If you hit too hard, your entire structure might collapse like a house of cards. The same goes for if you don't brace the whole thing against the work bench, which makes it a perfect thing for tinkering around, especially with an adult there to lend a hand. This can be a frustrating system to work with, I know, I've cobbled them together before and repaired them frequently over the years. Few preschool-aged children are able to manage it without an adult hand here or there. In fact, I've come to realize that it's the kind of challenge that is almost rigged for young children to fail unless they have a helping hand.

Alfie Kohn has an excellent piece up over at Huffington Post about the myth that children today are too coddled and that they "benefit from plenty of bracing experiences with frustration and failure." 

Research certainly doesn't support the idea that failure or disappointment is constructive in itself. A "BGUTI" (better get used to it) rationale -- the assumption that children are best prepared for unpleasant experiences that may come later by being exposed to a lot of unpleasantness while they're young -- makes no sense from a psychological perspective. We may want kids to rebound from failure, but that doesn't mean it's usually going to happen -- or that the experience of failure makes that desired outcome more likely . . . In fact, studies find that when kids fail, they tend to construct an image of themselves as incompetent and even helpless, which leads to more failure. (They also come to prefer easier tasks and lose interest in whatever they're doing.)

When children come to our workbench, indeed when they freely chose to approach any activity in our school, the emphasis is on "tinkering," not success or failure, not reward (good grade) or punishment (bad grade), not product but process. When a child is challenged by the process of fitting two pieces together, the adult's role isn't to keep their "eye on the prize," but rather to "notice" or narrate the process in which the child is engaging. The goal of struggle is not to overcome, but to gather data:

Jerome Bruner said this: We want students to "experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information."

Most children get to a point when working with this impromptu building set when they need help to do what they want, an extra hand to hold something, a few words of strategic counsel. This isn't, of course, an invitation for the adult to take over, nor a sign of having been coddled, but rather a natural human response to a situation that is too many or too much for them. When a child asks for help with this building set, it is a request to provide support for their exploration. Often the request for help is very clear and specific, "Will you hold this for me?" an acknowledgment that she knows exactly what she thinks she needs to get to where she wants to go. Other times it's less clear, perhaps a groan of frustration or an "I can't do it!" In this case, we engage in a discussion about the nature of the challenge, my "help" coming in the form of helping the child simply formulate his request for help. Often that alone allows a child to see his way through to a solution. Sometimes I find I need to make suggestions (e.g., "If someone held that part, you might be able to do it.") or simply make statements of fact (e.g., "If you hit right here, the peg will go in the hole.")  

I have no formula to tell adults when and how to provide help. It always comes down to the child and the situation. Sometimes, as my friend and parent educator Janet Lansbury suggests, it's totally appropriate to say, "I won't help you, but I won't let you get hurt," but learning how to ask for help, learning to know when to ask for help, is as vital to "success" (however you define it) as anything else one needs to learn.

Part of what Kohn is writing about in his piece is what I call "The Myth of Boot Straps." It's a common theme that runs throughout public debate these days, one that implies that everyone can just pull themselves up by their own boot straps if only they apply themselves, stick to it, work harder. It's part of the mythology of the "self made man"; that it's a sign of weakness to ask for help.

What people have forgotten in this neo-Calvinist ideology is that "to pull one's self up by one's bootstraps" is a metaphor for an impossible task. It's an absurdity. Everyone needs help. If you're stuck in the mud, no amount of pulling at your own bootstraps is going to get you out. Learning when and how to ask for help is a vital life skill, because mythology aside, no one does it on his own.

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JoAnn Jordan said...

I think music can provide many opportunities to "experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information." Being part of a creative process is important.

Elise Tompkins said...

This kind of task/play is an interesting contrast to the attitudes prevalent in today's schools. If this building system were an assignment, kids would succeed or fail, be graded, and move on. Attempts to work cooperatively or to seek strategic counsel would be deemed cheating. I'd love to see openness to a more discovery-based way of learning throughout the school years. Just read a piece about somewhat older kids that reminds me of this post. It describes kids trying to build a treehouse and how unsolicited adult help changed the process. and both are linked, in my mind, to the information in the Paradigms of Knowing site Your posts always show me how to apply these things with young children. Thank you!

Oh, and now I want a DIY wine rack for the kids at my home daycare....

The Many Thoughts of a Reader said...

The bootstraps commentary really hits home to me.

Clyde Gaw said...

Great essay on the absurdity of top down rigor. Thanks Teacher Tom!