Sunday, October 22, 2017

Learning To Fight Fire With Fire

I spent the better parts of the months of July and August in Australia. Last week I was in England and I'm now in Iceland at the Play Iceland International conference. In the past few years, I've traveled from Greece to New Zealand, from China to Canada's Prince Edward Island, and everywhere I've gone I've been surrounded by like-minded educators, people who not just understand the importance of childhood play, but who live it, day after day, creating the space, time, and opportunity for children to ask and answer their own questions about the world around them. We know that this is how humans have evolved to learn in the early years and beyond.

It's a joy to be with them, to confirm that the Woodland Park Cooperative School is not a lonely island in a sea of academic testing, standardization, desk-sitting, and developmentally inappropriate expectations of children. When we are together, we don't need to defend a child's right to play, to be outdoors, to direct their own learning, and to choose what they wish to learn and when and how to learn it. We discuss our problems which rarely involve the children, their behavior, their unwillingness, or their abilities, but rather the roadblocks thrown before children by the wider society that exists beyond our bubble. Whereas traditional teachers, those that have found themselves in schools based upon the model of the factory, are forever challenged by the task of somehow compelling children to learn what some panel of self-important adults has determined they ought to learn, by hook or by crook, we are challenged by the task of getting those very adults out of the children's way so the children are free to achieve their own highest potential.

Indeed, everywhere we go, no matter how many inspiring presentations we sit through, no matter how many child-centered schools we visit, we still, inevitably, find ourselves grumbling and ranting about how the world outside our bubble seems to do whatever it can to impede the children we teach, to control them, to push their little noses against the grindstone at earlier and earlier ages. We talk about preschools that are putting uniforms on two-year-olds and forcing them into queues and desks. We talk about regulators who see catastrophe in every stone or stick or uneven surface. We talk about parents who have been made to fear that their five-year-old is falling behind, a cruelty that is being purposely inflicted on families by way of paving the way for schools that are little more than test score coal mines where our children are to labor for the profit of "education" corporations. It's not an accident that the push for ever-more adult directed, top-down, data-driven education is being lead by titans of industry rather than educators; by those who see our children as a means for turning a greasy buck rather than as human beings striving to achieve their highest potential.

When we find ourselves outside our bubble, we've attempted to fight back with reason. We point to the mountain of research, going back for a century or more, that tells us that play is how the human animal has evolved to learn; the science that shows that today's children are increasingly depressed and stressed because of this vicious drive to turn them into objects to be manufactured. I've done it too, here on this blog, in my book, and from the podium, expecting that reasonable people of goodwill, if only provided with the facts, will make the right decision. But despite isolated successes here and there, the overall trend is in the direction of the coal mine.

I've come to realize that we've been doing it wrong. When it comes to influencing public policy, which is ultimately where this battle must be fought, the facts have never mattered as much as emotion, and the corporate guys, with their "Shock Doctrine" messages of failing schools and children who are falling behind, are winning because in a democracy, for better or worse, the emotional argument will almost always trump the reasonable one. And that's where I am this morning as I percolate here in my bubble in Iceland, contemplating what's next: we must find a way, together, to fight fire with fire.

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Emily Paterson said...

Yes. I frequently say that our local public school experience felt like we were sending our son to "kiddy jail." (He's no longer there – we founded our own progressive nature elementary school as a direct result of that experience). He and 600 other children were kept inside of a large brick and concrete-block building with florescent lights for 7.5 hours a day, allowed outside for 17 highly supervised minutes (minutes which were frequently taken away for cold weather or if the class was being "punished"), told how to behave at every moment, punished in isolation for misbehavior (our quiet son was never subject to this, but louder children – especially boys – were made to sit in a corner with an hourglass, away from the group, for "misbehaving"), made to walk in lines and stay quiet and obedient all day, and forced to perform rote, menial tasks. Of course, some of the teachers were wonderful and were trying their best to work within this system. Some were terrible and felt more like prison guards. The overall experience truly felt like prison for children. I believe we should start using this emotional metaphor to make change.

Suzanne said...

I'm so happy to have your book and to have been connected to your blog. It has taught me so much. I do want to put a good word in for (at least my) public school. I was worried about it not being a nurturing environment - too much desk time, too much rote learning. I've been so pleasantly surprised. Lots of outside time with an increasingly complex playground and garden, learning math in a more play based way, and free time to explore their own ideas throughout the day. My daughter comes home so excited about what she's learned. You are not screaming to the wind. Good schools are working hard to re-incorporate natural learning environments and get rid of the desk environment. Keep up the good work!