Wednesday, May 13, 2015

This Is Life Itself

I estimate that over the past four years, we've seeded our outdoor classroom with at least 10,000 florist marbles, or "jewels" as the kids call them. They've come from spring cleanings and garage sales and thrift shops. At any given moment, however, we may, if we really hunt, be able to locate a few dozen, but that's on a good day since so many have found their way under the sand or wood chips or have made their way home in children's pockets.

A couple weeks ago, we had one of our good jewel days as a team of boys, working together, mostly in the sand pit, located a large collection. The team of collaborators started with just a couple kids, but had expanded to a half dozen or so as the project took off. They then, by a process known only to them, decided it was time to clean the jewels. It turned into an elaborate procedure, with everyone talking at once. They set up shop atop the unicycle merry-go-round, an impractical place from my perspective, but it wasn't my project. They found an old mesh produce bag and moved their jewels from the buckets they carried into the bag. The buckets were then rushed up to the cast iron pump for water, which they carefully poured over the bag, retaining the jewels while washing away the sand. An old piece of mesh shelving then turned up, which they propped on the unicycle merry-go-round to use as a sort of draining board, then poured the bag full of jewels onto it.

It was, in other words, a typical preschool project.

As this was happening, another preschool project was in full-swing in the playhouse only a few feet away, as a team of girls were engaged in a cooking game, making soup from wood chips and water, with everyone talking at once and many hands making light work.

Up the hill another group was collaborating on the swing set. Across the sand pit, yet another project team was engaged in some task on the concrete slide. There were others at the workbench.

As the great John Dewey wrote, "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." And life itself, for the most part, is doing projects with other people. At least that's what I've found during my half century on the planet: we get together around a challenge or question, then figure out how to get it done. It's true in business, in the arts, in politics, you name it, and the people who thrive, the one's who "succeed" are those who have had the opportunity to develop the skills and habits of self-motivation, sociability, and working well with others. 

At bottom, this is why standardized education doesn't serve children, why it doesn't serve society: it pretends it is preparation for life, yet one of the worst things you can do in traditional school is collaborate. They call it cheating or plagiarism. They urge children to strive to compete against one another, to outscore their classmates on tests, to bring home the highest grades, to view their fellow citizens as impediments to success rather than as partners. This is preparation for a life of failure, because despite our mythologies about the solitary hero, the John Wayne or John Galt, no one can do it alone. That's why when we give awards to people for their supposed individual achievements, the first thing they do is start thanking all the people who helped them get there, often even saying their award really belongs to others.

A non-standardized education looks like this, like children coming together around their own challenges or questions, then figuring out how to get it done together. We urge children to help one another, to share information, to collaborate, because this is how we learn the traits required to live a successful life. This is life itself.

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1 comment:

Papa Green Bean said...

Another prop for 'free range learning' or play. I'm visiting my neice and nephew in Texas and it is a surreal culture shock. The younger boy in sixth grade said they cancelled outside recess because there was too much fighting. So now they spend the time in the cafeteria. They have eight 45 minute classes with 4 minutes between classes.