Thursday, November 28, 2013

"Improving Their Work Slowly Over Long Periods"

Like a lot of five-year-olds, he's been tagging everything with his name, forming the letters with care, ordering them left-to-right, leaving his mark pretty much wherever he has a chance. This is my fourth year teaching him: he's always been a perfect fit for our school, a kid who needs to move his body, who learns best not by watching or listening, but by doing. From the moment I met him, he's had something in his hands, fiddling with it, testing it, bouncing it off of things. As a two-year-old, he was fascinated with our classroom hamster wheel, which he played with in every way imaginable, trying to fit it into places where it belonged and where it did not, spinning it, turning it over and rolling it, dismantling it, and sometimes going so far as to hide it so he could find it the following day in order to continue his experiments.

Even when it comes to social skills, he's always been a hands on learner. Most of his interactions involve some sort of physical contact, like a friendly bump, a shove, actions that are often misinterpreted by others. He will sometimes take a friend's face in his hands, his palms cupping their cheeks as he smiles at them, just to show them how much he likes them. Some children object to this, not understanding, but the ones who "get it," and there are plenty, find in him a pal for the ages.

These days, he spends his mornings in a public school kindergarten and his afternoons with us at Woodland Park. He's not a fan of the worksheets or the long stretches of sitting indoors, and when they recently inflicted the cruelty of an academic standardized test upon him, he was ranked near the very bottom, bringing his mother to me in tears. And this is a mom who knows better, who knows that some perfectly normal kids have brains developmentally ready to read at two, while many others don't get there until seven, eight, or even later. Much of the rest of the civilized world doesn't even try to start teaching children to read until they're seven. What he hell does it mean: a reading test for five-year-olds? Only someone with no knowledge of child development, or a complete jerk, would use such a tool as anything more than, perhaps, a research benchmark. But to share the results with parents, along with rankings? What is that about? Is it supposed to be some sort of motivation? Only a sociopath would think this is a good idea: I suppose the same ones who punish kids who have trouble sitting still in their chairs by taking away recess time.

This is the great crime of the standardized, assembly line curricula found in most of our public schools. It simply cannot make allowances for children who aren't ready to learn something when they "ought to," according to arbitrary timelines, ranking them, slapping labels on them, driving them with threats and punishments, causing inappropriate anxiety for both the child and his parents.

Based on his academic performance, Winston Churchill's father was convinced that he would never be able to earn his own living. Likewise, Walter Scott's father found his early attempts at poetry so humiliating that he discouraged him because he feared it would reflect poorly on the family. Einstein and Darwin were such poor students that their teachers felt they would amount to nothing. Louis Pasteur's teacher called him "the least promising boy in the class." 

This isn't a race, folks. I've taught many children who were, say, precocious readers, puzzlers, or artists, kids upon whom adults glibly slap the label of "genius." In fact, in every class I've ever taught, there are one or two children like this. They're delightful to teach, a joy, but their early years accomplishments are no better indicators of their future successes than the less notable accomplishments of their peers. Some of our great geniuses showed themselves early, of course, like Mozart, Orson Welles, or Picasso. We are impressed by such greatness at such a young age, but often fail to recognize that the rest of their careers, while still worthy, never approach the genius of their youthful work.

And then there are "dull" children like Churchill, Scott, Einstein, Darwin, and Pasteur, people who needed time for their genius to ripen.

Several years ago, University of Chicago economist David Galenson took a look at this phenomenon, especially as regards creativity. He argues that there are really two methods of genius at work here. Prodigies, like those kids who are sounding out words as two-year-olds, tend to approach their "work" with a clear idea of what they want, then set about doing it. "Late bloomer" genius, however, is of the sort that comes from the experimental approach characterized by a kid who, say, spends hours and days horsing around with a hamster wheel. "Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental," according to Galenson. From his book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses

The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trail and error. Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over others, so experimental painters rarely make specific preparatory sketches or plans for a painting. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods.

Of course, most children, are not destined to become geniuses of either sort, but Galenson's work is to me a clear illustration of the broad range of what can be considered developmentally "normal," something that is confirmed by every expert in the fields of eduction and brain science. We know this, teachers should know this, as should administrators, school boards, and education policy-makers, yet they are increasingly throwing their lot with the crazy idea that education is a competition with winners and losers and rankings.

Last week, this boy who ranks near the bottom according to a standardized test, spent a half hour on our "concrete slide" with a piece of chalk, sliding down while dragging the chalk behind him, trailing lines on the concrete surface. As he slid, he studied the chalk in his hand, the colors, and the shape of the lines he was making. When another child dumped a bucket of water down the slope, he discovered that he could create more intensely colorful lines with wet chalk. He slid again and again and again, sometimes joined by other kids, sometimes all on his own, gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trail and error, each time down leading to the next, and none generally privileged over others. It was a process of searching, a process in which learning was a more important goal than passing a stupid test.

This is education and it's not a race that will necessarily be won by those first out of the gate. Education, like life, is a long game, one with a finish line so far away it's hardly worth worrying about.

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Anonymous said...

Those of us who know kids and understand that education is not a race are too few. We are the dedicated advocates of play and the child's right to learn in the way that best suits him/her. After a long, hard day of promoting play based learning for 4 year olds in a headstart program, I came home from work to spend some time continuing my crusade by reading some of my favourite resources. This Blog is one of those resources and this post on this day brought me to tears. Tom, your message is so important but I fear that you are preaching to the choir as they say and I wonder, am always wondering, WHY society does not understand despite the fact that we, as you say, know better. How long must we put up with these detrimental approaches to education? How many children must attend schools that do not value them? When will it STOP?

-Frustrated with the lack of progress

Teacher Tom said...

@Anonymous . . . I know how you feel, but if we don't keep advocating, it will never happen. I know that we're at least a thorn in the side of the ed reformers. In some places we have at least managed to slow things down.

I plan to just keep doing what I do, much of which is indeed preaching to the choir, but as someone on the TV show West Wing once said, "Preaching to the choir is how you get them to sing."

Diane Streicher @ Diane Again said...

Of course, professional educators who believe in the value of student-led learning (or whatever label might be used to describe this natural process of exploration) must continue to advocate on our students' behalf and push back against the longstanding and on-going attempts to quantify education. If our culture would learn to unlock the gifts of each individual student, rather than force each one to run a maze, just imagine the powerful ways in which the world might be different.

But as you point out, it will take time - lots of time - for the institution of public education to adapt. And that is why innovative homeschooling is such a vital part of this rebirth. Parents like me, who are not content to let the existing bureaucracy shape our children's one and only childhood, who are willing to gamble our genetic future on a qualitative rather than quantitative approach to education, matter in this equation. Our students grow up to become people who think differently, work differently and solve problems differently than their traditionally educated peers...and the world takes note.

Before public education can change, the world must understand that there are viable alternatives to the status quo. And that is why the future of all children benefits from the active and forward-thinking leadership of homeschoolers.

Anonymous said...

I truly appreciate your website. A breath of fresh air in a sick, sick world. Wish there were more of you.

Gypsy said...

I just loved this post. I love them all of course. But for some reason there was a big hallelujah in this one for me. Thank-you!

Anonymous said...

Oh, Teacher Tom, you marvellous fellow. What a gift this post is to us all, but particularly this boy's mother, and all of us with slow-starters.