Tuesday, May 24, 2016

I'm Not Sure That's Teaching

I said, "I'm going to teach you how to eat your snack."

"Teacher Tom, we already know how to eat our snack."

"How did you learn that? I don't remember teaching it to you."

"We just know, Teacher Tom."

"But, I'm the teacher. What am I going to teach you?"

"You can teach us new songs, okay?"

"Good, how about I teach you the Frozen song?" Then tunelessly, "Frozen, frozen, frozen all the daaaaaay!"

"That's not it!"

"No, that is it. I'm the grown-up and you're the kid. I know."

"You're wrong, Teacher Tom. It goes like this . . ." She then proceeded to tunelessly sing a few lines from the movie's theme song, a couple of her friends joining in less expertly, following her lead.

I think a lot about what I do in my capacity as a teacher here at the Woodland Park Cooperative School. I certainly don't do what most folks think of as teaching, which would be coming up with some knowledge that I think the kids should know, then somehow inserting it into their brains. Mostly what I do is goof around with kids like this, stepping in when safety is in question, responding to their requests, and keeping track of the schedule. 

I'm not sure that's teaching. And by the same token, if I'm not teaching, is what we have here even a school? Probably not in the sense that the wider society perceives it, yet we call ourselves a school and I call what I do teaching, I think, because there's not really another name for what we do, at least not in America. In New Zealand, they call their play-based, cooperative preschools "Playcentres," which, I think, is a more descriptive word for what we do, and the UK has a profession called "play worker," which seems a lot more like what I spend my days doing. But words are meant to communicate and "playcentre" and "play worker" are meaningless terms where I'm from, so for the time being we're going with "school" and "teacher."

I find myself feeling increasingly alienated from what the rest of the world calls "school." Indeed, if we didn't need there to be a safe, inexpensive place for our children to spend their days while mom and dad go to work, I wonder if we would even need schools. Woodland Park serves a community of families that don't need us to serve as day care. They either are getting by on one income, are self-employed, or have otherwise cobbled together work schedules with the flexibility to allow them to spend their days with their kids. If everyone had this luxury, would they still send their children off to those institutions we call schools?

I reckon most would because we've largely bought into the idea of school as a good thing. I mean, we all went to them and we have memories of having learned some useful things, although it's hard for us to recall most of what they tried to teach us. Speaking for myself, I can only come up with a short list of lessons learned from pubic schooling that serve me today, hardly a great return on the 12 years I invested there (kindergarten was not part of the public schools when I was young). Most of my education happened in an extracurricular manner, on the evenings and weekends and lunch breaks and between classes, when I spent time with my friends outside of the classrooms.

I've been reflecting quite a bit these last few days on an essay entitled On the Wildness of Children written by Carol Black. She begins with a quote from Ellwood P. Cubberley, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education, writing in 1898:

Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials -- children -- are shaped and fashioned into products . . . The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of 20th century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifics laid down.

This, essentially, is the model of public schooling we have followed ever since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and it is based upon the idea that children, indeed, all humans are essentially evil and that it was incumbent upon society to create institutions with the goal of elevating humans above our base "natural state." And we've been doing this for the past seven generations: none of us know any differently.

I urge you to take the time to read this long, well-written and well-argued piece in which she asserts that humans have evolved to learn best through "wildness," and that we do our species a great disservice when we seek to separate ourselves from "nature":

In many rural land-based societies, learning is not coerced; children are expected to voluntarily observe, absorb, practice, and master the knowledge and skills they will need as adults -- and they do. In these societies . . . even very young children are free to choose their own actions, to play, to explore, to participate, to take on meaningful responsibility. "Learning" is not conceived as a special activity at all, but as a natural by-product of being alive in the world.

This certainly fits what little I feel I've learned about being a "teacher" in a "school," but most of my colleagues don't spend their days teaching the way I do, nor are they in schools like we have at Woodland Park: 

Researchers are finding that children in these settings spend most of their time in a completely different attentional state from children in modern schools . . . it may have much in common with the Buddhist concept of "mindfulness." If something moves in the broad field of perception, the child will notice it. If something interesting happens, he can watch for hours. A child in this state seems to absorb her culture by osmosis, by imperceptible degrees picking up what the adults talk about, what they do, how they think, what they know.

I'm not claiming that Woodland Park achieves this ideal, because, after all, we were all subjected to the schools spawned by the Industrial Revolution, but we try each day to keep in mind this essential truth about human learning. To spend one's day being compelled to "learn" about things that don't inherently hold our interest leads only to stress for the sake of stress whereas when we are allowed to spend our hours pursuing our interests we find our passion for life.

If professional educators can't understand how kids outside of school learn so much without being taught, it may be because they don't understand how this kind of attention works. They shut it down as soon as the bell rings. In school children must turn off their powers of observation, they must narrow their attention and "focus," which means they must not notice what's happening around them. They are told not to look out of windows. They are told not to let their eyes -- or their minds -- wander. A child who maintains a state of open attention in the classroom will be diagnosed with an attention "disorder" and drugged.

Humans are not widgets to be manufactured, yet this is how schooling treats us and, as Black illustrates, the mindset of rote, subjugation, and obedience has come, horrifyingly, to become a cornerstone of our political world. Again, I urge you to read it.

Today's education reformers aren't as fixated upon assembly lines as they are on upon computers, but they are just as wrong as those earlier corporate reformers. "The human brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge, or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer," but because they seem to believe this is true they are actually doubling down on the anti-human aspects of our pubic schools, making them into the sort of test score coal mines that would have made even our Victorian era ancestors cringe.

I don't know if I'm a teacher, but when I talk to "real" teachers it is clear that I don't spend my days doing what they do. I don't know if we are a school, but when I look at "real" schools it is clear that we don't do what they do, which is to strive against our industrial school past to create a place in which children follow their own interests, together, with adults around to support them. Perhaps we're not yet "wild," and perhaps our environment falls short of "nature," but it is the direction we are going.

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Sammy said...

Hi teacher Tom,
I am a homeschool graduate, and I now have a 3 year old daughter. She has always stayed at home, and our "school" has always been what I imagine the preschools of yesteryear were like- singing songs, puppets, stories, reading books to her. It's always her choice what we do for school that day, and this changes over the weeks. Honestly, I don't know what coercive schooling looks like. I taught myself high school, and even when I didn't care for a subject I still enjoyed learning. In college, I enjoy learning new things. I take online classes and read and work because I like it. I wonder if you ever talk to homeschoolers who are a couple generations away from institutional schooling? I do know that many homeschool curricula are based on the factory model- it's just done at home by the mom. But sometimes it's not like that, and kids love to learn, and everything is interesting. I love your work, thank you for sharing. Oh, and I was wondering if you listen to Prairie Home Companion? I think Garrison Keillor was poking a bit of fun at you and your school. But he didn't get many laughs for it. Have a good one, Sammy.

Grace Decker said...

Tom, are you planning to go to the AERO conference this August? (Alternative Education Resource Organization). It will be in Portland, and you will meet many, many educators who do what you do. I assure you, you're a "real teacher".

Cynthia said...

I highly identify as an unschooler and struggled with being rather anti-school but teaching in a "school" even if what I do isn't really...school. It is really great to read that it might not be as strange as I feel it is. No matter how I try to describe my school, classroom, and personal approach - even calling it child-led, play based, democratic - nothing ever really feels accurate. But whatever we are, I love every minute of it.

??????? said...

Oh Teacher Tom.. here in Aotearoa / New Zealand the government is really pushing to have children transfer from the parent run Playcentres to daycare for long hours... so that Mums can go to work... and there is a real push for us ece kaiako (teachers) to be 'teaching' the children... rather than acknowledging the absolute brillance of young children to learn what they need to learn through their own, self-directed free play. We seem to be getting sucked in to what you 'leaders' are doing in the US... what a shame... arohanui

Oswaal Books said...

Nice posts - this is really great story of the kids play in Portland. Oswaal Books

SangCie said...

Hi T.Tom! I'm from a country where you would least expect to get an avid reader from. I'm from Philippines, a mother and also an early childhood educator. I'm now at the verge of quitting my post as the centre manager since I have found a lot of things that's really ironic to my personal beliefs in early childhood education. I may not know too many things as of yet, but i'm sure as hell the educational system is doing so many wrong things. How can I revolutionize when I'm only one believer at allowing kids follow their own passion?

I certainly apply so many things to my own toddler that is opposite to what we do in school--all because I'm still employed under their system, and man! she's a genius on her own!(By the way, I have decided too to let her quit schooling 2 months ago--I listen a lot to my guts!) I would love to keep reading your posts and get inspired that what I do here is not parallel to those kids in that music video "Another One Bites The Dust."