Friday, September 06, 2013

Wouldn't That Be Something?

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. ~Internet quote most often attributed to William Butler Yeats

One of the features of being a teacher in a cooperative school is that the parent-owners of the school, the people with whom I work every day in the classroom, are responsible for evaluating me. My first year, I didn't exactly receive glowing reviews for all aspects of my work, but when it came to interacting with the children a handful complemented me along the lines of, "You treat kids like they're regular people," or "You don't talk down to them."

I liked reading that, but at the same time found it rather confusing. I mean, how else should I be treating them? I've since figured out, I think, what those kinds of comments mean. I still receive them, mostly from the parents of our two-year-olds and other families enrolled in our school for the first time. The rest of the families, those who have been part of our community for two or more years, don't see this as particularly remarkable, because, by then, we're all doing it: treating them like regular people.

If there is a bedrock principle in how I approach teaching young children, this is it: that they are already fully formed human beings, not empty pails, not incomplete adults. And as such, I try to treat them that way.

This is why I don't attempt to command obedience from children, just as I don't seek obedience from the adults in my life. In fact, obedient adults frighten me.

So if we don't want, or even expect, obedient adults, why do we go out of our way to teach our children obedience? I'm more interested in children behaving in certain ways because they understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. People with the capacity for blind obedience are both dangerous and in danger, easy victims for those who would manipulate them. I want my child to know that she always has a choice; that choice is the space that's there to contain her conscience.

This is why I strive to speak informatively with children and why I, specifically, avoid what I call the language of command, directive statements like "Pick up that block," "Stand beside me," and "Stop acting like that." I sometimes call this "bossing kids around," a habit quite easy to fall into, but one that assumes a subordinate child. When speaking with a fully formed human, we might instead make informative statements like, "The block goes on that shelf," "I want you to stand beside me," and "You're acting like you're mad about something."

And finally, it is this practice of treating children like fully formed humans that leads me to eschew both punishments and rewards, the two-sides of the coin of external motivation, the currency of obedience. Oh sure, they work, but not the way we tend to think. Yes, a bigger, stronger adult can force certain behaviors through the threat of punishment, but since the motivation is extrinsic it tends to only work as long as the punisher remains present, and ultimately, only really teaches obedience to those with power. Yes, we can motivate certain behavior through the promise of a reward, but what that really teaches children is to suck up to those with power. The goal is for children, all people, in fact, is for behavior to be intrinsically motivated and you simply can't teach that through punishments and rewards.

And you know what? After 15 years of being in preschool classrooms almost every day, I really feel like I've gotten the hang of treating children like fully formed humans: not expecting obedience, speaking respectfully and informatively with them, and helping them discover their intrinsic motivations. In fact, it's become a kind of second nature to treat children this way, just as it has for many of those parent-teachers who work with me in the classroom over the course of years.

Now, I need to learn to consistently do these things with adults in my life. Wouldn't that be something? Oh well, I needed something to do with the next 15 years anyway.

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Joe Valley said...

Amen Brother.

Annicles said...

I teach 6-9 year olds and also do not have rewards and punishments in my classroom. I stick to natural consequences and clear guidelines that, like you, the children write each year and they agree to. We keep them simple and they apply to everyone, child and adult alike. It amazes me that every year I have to include new children who have been in mainstream for a bit and they have a reputation for behavioural problems and I just never see them. I certainly do not have reward and punishment displays, ladders for names to go up and down or the threat of punishments and yet, somehow, these small but growing people manage to learn how to behave and respond in appropriate ways. And if they struggle then the first course of action must be a conversation. It is also amazing to me how many times this clears up what is not obvious to them and helps them find their own way to behaving in a way that is positive for them and the community.

Kerry said...

This is an interesting topic, Tom. I think I'm a more directive teacher than you are, although I don't believe in either punishments or rewards, but I do let children know what I expect.

It isn't that I want obedient adults as an ultimate goal, for sure. Yet, I felt with my daughter and feel with my students, that sometimes following clear and respectful expectations as a small child translates to following one's own directives, to self-control and self-discipline, later on. I don't think this is coming across clearly, I will have to think it through more. A fascinating topic for discussion, though--and the best review comment I ever got, was "Teacher Kerry speaks 4-year-old!"

Anonymous said...

I am a newly graduated Primary teacher in Australia. I too try to treat each of my students as a whole person and I don't believe in rewards or punishment (although I'm not too good at doing this effectively) and want to intrinsically motivate my students/kids. Do you have any suggestions on how to do this? I try to keep the lessons interesting for them however I was wondering if there is more I can be doing.

I'm not currently teaching due to being pregnant (and due in 7 weeks) but I also have a 2 year old daughter I am keen to apply all of this to.