Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Trying To Make Water Flow Uphill

A drinking glass holds water, but only if you hold it the right way. Tip it too much one way or another and you lose control of it as it spills onto the floor. A bucket also holds water in much the same way, but if I take it by the handle and swing it with enough velocity, the centrifugal force created will hold the water in place. I know that a sponge can hold water too, at least until I squeeze it. Same goes for paper towels. If I put water in a bottle and screw the lid on tightly I can make the water swirl and wave without losing a drop. I can direct the flow of water, at least for a time, by building channels and understanding that it moves according to gravity. I don't even try any more to make it flow up hill. I can't hold water in my hand for long unless I freeze it, and even then it eventually leaks through my fingers. I can turn it into steam with heat and use its energy to drive machinery. I can add salt to it so that things float more buoyantly on its surface.

Every adult human knows these things about controlling water. It's the stuff of universal knowledge. Water behaves the same everywhere, throughout history, without variance. We can make reliable predictions about water, including that water will always ultimately defy our efforts to control it, leaking out, evaporating, or changing course as it follows the much larger arc of mother nature's purposes. But as far as human time is concerned, we can "own" water and make it do our bidding.

From the wider perspective, of course, it's water that controls us. We've evolved as animals, at least in part, according to its demands. It does this by being utterly unchangeable; a condition of life that we must accept. Water has nothing more to learn. Water has always existed in its final, perfected state.

We living beings, however, have always been and always will be in progress, our perfected state anticipated by religion perhaps, but it always takes death to achieve it. Philosophers and poets often compare this progressive feature of humanity to the flow of a river, and while that metaphor may reveal important things about ourselves, we are really nothing at all like water. For one thing we're nearly impossible to predict and control. That's because it's in our nature to learn, and to do that we must play, a process that is defined in part by its unpredictability.

Scientific American discusses the phenomenon of how, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, preschools are increasingly trying to control children's learning through more lectures, flash cards, and tests, teaching them tricks to impress their parents, and putting these same children at much higher risk for long-term mental health problems:

Perhaps most disturbing is the potential for the early exposure to academics to physiologically damage developing brains. Although the brain continues to change throughout life in response to learning, young children undergo a number of sensitive periods critical to healthy development; learning to speak a language and responding to social cues are two such domains. Appropriate experiences can hone neural pathways that will help the child during life; by the same token, stressful experiences can change the brain's architecture to make children significantly more susceptible to problems later in life, including depression, anxiety disorders -- even cardiovascular disease and diabetes . . . asking children to handle material that their brain is not yet equipped for can cause frustration. Perceiving a lack of control is a major trigger of toxic stress, which can damage the hippocampus, a brain area crucial to learning and memory.

Despite this, preschools are increasingly ditching their play-based curriculums in favor of this kind of toxic direct instruction.

"Scientists are baffled," says Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley. "The more serious science we do, the more it comes out that very young children are not designed to do focused, goal-directed behavior . . . but are to a phenomenal degree very sophisticated about learning from the things and the people around them."

I'm not particularly baffled. The more I read about these corporate education "reform" efforts, the more I come to understand that this is about inexperienced people and their craving for control. Lurking in there is the crazy idea that if we treat education like a predicable, mechanistic system of some sort, we'll be able to manufacture brilliant little minds, all filled up with the names of the countries in Asia or the various species of whales. That if we just put them in the right containers, direct them into the proper channels, or boil them at just the right temperature, we'll have a generation of little knowledge machines ready to set loose on the world. In this vision, teachers need only be technicians, or perhaps mere factory workers, trained to adjust the dials and read the gauges.

This, of course, is like trying to make water flow uphill, with the added sickening bonus that you risk damaging their brains. I think it's because these otherwise intelligent people have so little experience with the process of education that they don't understand the basic principles of how young children actually learn. They don't have the experience to know that the method and the order in which children learn things, the process of learning, is far more important than any trivia you try to cram into their heads. They are trying to push this water up hill because they've not played with it enough to understand that it's simply not in water's nature to flow up hill. In this way, they are showing themselves to be very poorly educated, at least on the topic of education.

It's as if these people are working from the perfected template of a theoretical child, one that they can predict and control the way they might water, a concept they've developed after spending a few hours observing children through one-way glass. Classroom teachers, those of us who have spent years and decades immersed in children's learning, know that they come to us ready to learn everything they need to know, in fact learning it already, usually in spite of us. Experienced teachers know that they spend most of their days racing to just keep up with their charge's natural inclinations and curiosities that carry them in directions often entirely unpredictable and uncontrollable. Much of what I do after making sure they don't kill themselves or one another is to get out of the way. That's much of what teaching is.

The puzzles in the accompanying photos always been moderately popular with our 4-5 year olds. I'd had them out earlier in the year and they kids had been frustrated with them, many being reduced to tears, despite the fact the the official label on the box said they were for "3 and up." Many of the kids had needed a lot of adult coaching to get through them, which is a sure sign that they're not ready for them. I predicted, however, that while many of them still aren't natural puzzlers, enough of them had advanced enough in their puzzling skills by now that at least if help was needed they could help one another. And sure enough, that's how it went. Instead of struggling with the puzzles one-on-one, the children, with no adult instruction, paired up to coach one another.

So there you have it, education "reformers," free of charge, a genuine predictable outcome that took me ten years to finally learn to anticipate. It didn't teach them anything about the nations of Asia or the species of whales in the ocean, but the children did spend a lot of time talking, sharing space, strategizing, taking turns, and generally "just playing," learning from the things and people around them as they are "designed" to do. 

These results are valid until the next time we get out these puzzles with an entirely different set of children, who may or may not take it where this group did. And guess what? No risk of brain damage.

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1 comment:

Steve said...

Love this, Tom. First time I've read your blog, but the way you describe play-based learning matches my understanding of they way highly-engaged learners learn in older grades. Will have to follow up on the idea of toxic stress and the physiological effects on the brain from that.