Tuesday, November 11, 2014

I Felt It Up And Down My Spine

One of the fundamental characteristics of very young children is that they are anchored in the here and now, largely unburdened by the grown-up plagues of guilt and worry, those emotions that connect us through shame and anxiety to the past and future, constantly dragging us backward and forward in time, leaving us precious little communion with the present. It's one of the gifts young children give to the adults who live and work with them, opening direct access for us to the world of right now, and where they often serve as our guides to living in the present. As a preschool teacher, I often, through playing with the children, experience time as having stood still. I'm shocked to look at the clock to find that an hour has passed in a single breath and then I'm even more shocked when I reflect upon at how much rich life transpired when there was no time at all.

It's an exceedingly valuable present they give us seeing that "Now," as Jake LaLanne liked to say, "is the moment you've been waiting for."

Now is the perfect place in which to engage in a little philosophy as we flow along with children from one thing to the next, playing, encountering people and other challenges, exploring, discovering, inventing, and otherwise testing the world in which we find ourselves, engaging in the highest form of research. That's what we find in the center of now, a light-hearted, yet rigorous investigation not of this or that, but rather of all of it.

When my daughter was three-years-old, strapped into her car seat as we drove a familiar route, she was complaining about something that struck me as unworthy of complaint if only because nothing could be done about it and I fell back on a parenting shortcut, "You know, Josephine, nothing is perfect." It effectively quieted her and we drove for several minutes as she stared blankly out the window. Then, after several minutes, as if speaking to herself, I heard her say, "Nothing is perfect except everything," an epigramic insight so simple and pure I felt it up and down my spine.

Anyone who regularly plays with young children has experienced these "from the mouths of babes" moments, when a child discovers a great philosophical, intellectual, or spiritual truth. We delude ourselves if we believe that these weighty matters are exclusively the domain of our experienced, well-seasoned brains. Indeed, it is often these very characteristics of the adult brain that deny us access: it's one of the things of which we must let go if we're to join children in the present.

The most common mistake educators make, I think, especially when it comes to philosophy, is the hubris of thinking that we somehow know better than our young charges. Yes, it's true that we've likely stored more trivia in our heads, and by virtue of our experience are better equipped to draw lessons from the past or anticipate the future, but that doesn't mean we automatically know better, just that we know differently. Young children tend to be at least our equals, and often our superiors, when it comes to this moment, which, after all, is all we as humans ever have, and, at least in this regard, I would argue that they are the ones who know better.

Researchers estimate that between 75 and 80 percent of the sentences spoken to young children by adults are commands of some kind, what are often referred to as "directive statements," like "Sit down," "Come here," "Pick that up," "Go to bed." It's a world in which grown-ups know best and where children are continually presented with the simple choice of either obedience or rebellion, what many parents and teachers will recognize as the bookends of much of their relationships with kids. There is precious little room in there for actual thinking.

When I was doing my coursework one of my instructors, Tom Drummond, asked us to divide all of the sentences we speak with young children into four categories: directive statements, questions, social statements (those niceties like "Good morning"), and informative statements. The assignment was to put four pieces of masking tape on the backs of our hands, then spend a classroom day categorizing every sentence we spoke to children with tally marks on the appropriate piece of tape. It was an eye-opening exercise even if only because it caused us to actually think about everything we were saying. When we came back together we found that despite having spent weeks talking about the limitations of "directive statements," we still, in aggregate, recorded that 75 to 80 percent of the sentences we had spoken were some version of a command, although many of us had tried to mitigate that by appending them with the word "please," as in, "Sit down . . . please."

I was rather proud to find that I had managed to avoid such an extensive use of directive statements, but had rather erred on the side of peppering children with questions. Upon closer examination it turned out that I tended to ask children questions, then when an answer wasn't immediately forthcoming, tried to "help" them by rephrasing the question and asking again, then again, then again. Tom pointed out that what I had been doing by rephrasing my questions over and over, thinking I was simply asking the same question with increasing clarity, was, to the child's ear, asking a different question each time, requiring children re-starting the thinking process over and over. But even more importantly, I simply wasn't giving children enough time to respond. The rule of thumb for early childhood educators is that we should expect to wait a minimum of 12-15 seconds for a typical child to respond to our questions, which is far more "dead air" than most of us can tolerate.

Teachers asking children questions is so embedded in our traditional ideas of schooling, that most of us don't even think about it, but the longer I've taught, the more wary I've become of questions, if only because I've found that most of the questions we ask young children are of the incredibly stupid variety. A child, for instance, is standing at an easel, brush in hand, exploring color, shape, texture, and motion, and all too often adults feel compelled to step in, point at the paper, and ask, "What color is that?" That's a stupid question. Either the child doesn't know what color it is, and our question has yanked her out of her moment of discovery in order to start guessing, or, more likely, she does know what color it is and we've yanked her out of her moment of discovery, turning her from her proper role as a tester of the world into that of a compliant test taker.

If we really want to make sure a child knows they are painting with red, for instance, then much more effective is to forego intrusive testing questions and instead point at the paper and make the informational statement, "That's red." If she didn't know her colors, you have provided her with information, in context, in the present, where children learn best. And if she already knows her colors, there is no mandate that she must stop in the midst of her moment to address such a stupid question.

When I forget myself, I still have a tendency to play the sorts of question games I engaged in as a student. And it's a fun game for some kids, just like some of us adults enjoy taking tests, but for most, this kind of ad hoc grilling adds an entirely unnecessary level of stress, not to mention the fact that it rips an engaged child right out of her own process of scientific testing, turning her from tester into test subject. Instead of following her own inquiry, she's the focus of someone else's. For these reasons I try to use questions judiciously, limiting myself to questions to which I genuinely don't know the answer and which only that child can answer. And then, once asked, I leave a whole lot of silence, the hardest part, in order to give that child who is so anchored in the present, ample time to do justice to my question.

The bottom line is that the more we can focus on making informative statements, statements of fact, the more room we leave for children to do their own thinking rather than obey, rebel, or simply jump though the hoops of our testing questions. And thinking for oneself is arguably the purpose of education.

"I wonder if the blocks will fall down again."

I made this statement the other day as a group of kids were repeatedly attempting to build a block tower to the ceiling. They paused in what they were doing.

"I think they will because they get too high."

"Somebody keeps bumping them."

"The ones on top get too heavy."

I often think I'm at my best as a teacher when I'm saying the least, and especially when I'm only saying certain, well considered things. Instead of pondering aloud, for instance, I could have asked a direct question like, "Why do the blocks keep falling down?" a question to which I already know the "right" answer

"What color is this?"

"What letter do you see?"

"How many marbles are in the bowl?"

Stupid questions, all. It's usually best to say nothing, and the longer I've been teaching, the more my mantra has become, "Shut up, Teacher Tom," but when I do decide to verbally interject myself into the children's play, I really like the "I wonder . . ." construct. For one, it's not a question demanding an answer: children can choose to respond to it or not. Those who enjoy the give-and-take of Q&A will hear it as a question anyway, while those less inclined to perform on my cue can take it or leave it. 

But more importantly, I think, is the space that "I wonder . . ." leaves for children to take up the wondering on their own. 

Particularly satisfying is when I remember to make more philosophical, open-ended statements. 

"I wonder why squid live in the water."

"I wonder what will happen if I knock over that building."

"I wonder if I could climb onto the roof of our school."

Sometimes it sparks remarkable conversations, speculations about nature, social dynamics, physics, and physicality. Sometimes not. The underlying point I think is not the specific things we say after the words "I wonder . . ." but rather the role-modeling of the inquiry itself. When we make these statements aloud, children hear us engaging the world as life-long learners, as critical thinkers, as philosophers, as people who still don't have all the answers. It reveals us in our proper role in this world that is far more often gray than black or white: it teaches the habit of taking a stance in life not as a mere test taker, but rather as a tester, which is what lies at the heart of a true education.

As a play-based educator, I am always curious about what children think about play, and one of my favorite "I wonder" statements is, "I wonder what play is." Typically, children, rooted in the moment, will respond with an anecdote about what they are currently doing. "Play is when I throw a ball in the air," or "Play is when I'm running fast," or "I'm playing right now." One day, however, I found a boy all alone, meditatively kneading a huge ball of play dough. It seemed like a perfect moment for an "I wonder" statement.

I took a chair near him, not making eye contact, positioning myself shoulder-to-shoulder, stared off into space and mused, "I wonder what play is."

He didn't respond right away, nor did he respond after 15 seconds. It wasn't a question demanding an answer, so after a minute or so I assumed he was too busy with his own thoughts to respond. My own mind began to wander and after a couple more minutes I had lost touch with the moment and was instead thinking about what else I could be doing. As I stood to leave, he stopped me, saying, "Teacher Tom, play is what I do when everybody stops telling me what to do."

He had put everything I've written in this post into a single, perfect, sentence. I felt it up and down my spine.

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1 comment:

Kristi Fiske Photography said...

This is a wonderful post and much needed for me at this time in my own teaching with my preschool classroom. I love it and am striving to move more towards this direction myself. Thank you for your insight! It's always refreshing to read your posts. Thanks so much for sharing.