Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Long Paint Brushes

Earlier this week we got out the long paint brushes. I don't know where the idea came from, but some time ago, I got it into my head to duct tape regular length paint brushes to sturdy bamboo stakes. Usually, I then tape a piece of paper or cardboard up high on a wall so the extra long paint brushes make sense: if you're going to paint that paper or cardboard you need a long paint brush. This time, however, mostly out of curiosity, but partly because I was feeling a little lazy, I hung the paper at a regular height.

I figured that kids might gamely start by trying to use the long paint brushes, but would soon realize that they were entirely unnecessary. After all, using these paint brushes to paint on paper hung at eye level makes no sense: it transforms something simple into something challenging. I wondered what they would do once the epiphany hit them. Would they just give it up? Would they try to find some way to shorten the brushes, either by removing the bamboo or by "choking up" on the handle to give themselves more control? Would they instead opt for finger painting? I was half expecting at least one child to ask me accusatorily, "Why are we using these brushes anyway?"

And sure enough, there were a couple kids who resorted to finger painting, but for the most part, the kids who chose to pick up those long brushes stuck with the program I'd manufactured for them: making something simple into something unnecessarily complicated. No one was compelling them, of course, they were free to give in to their frustration and drop those brushes any time they chose.

Not all the kids picked up those long brushes. Most, in fact, only paused long enough to reject the idea before running along to something else. Indeed, only a handful really engaged with project -- about ten percent of the kids, I'd say -- but of those that did, most tended to stick with it beyond the point of mere novelty, approaching it as a technique or skill over which they sought some mastery.

I couldn't help but reflect on all the unnecessary challenges we adults set up for young children in the name of education: these lists of arbitrary objectives against which we measure them. The difference, of course, is that in a "normal" school all the kids are expected to not only pick up those long paint brushes, but to drill with them, together, until they are capable of producing something that the adults find acceptable, like "grade-level" reading proficiency or the ability to perform certain mathematical calculations or the memorization of spelling words, dates, or the location of some dot on a map. For a few kids, say 10 percent, this is hunky-dory, they are drawn to the challenge because it is either something about which they have a natural curiosity or they are temperamentally attracted to these sorts of challenges. There is another percentage, perhaps even a large one, who will more or less resign themselves to undertaking the task, not because they've chosen it, but because the adults they love insist that they must, or because we attach rewards (grades) or punishments (failing grades) to them.

And then there are those who simply will not be compelled, the "problem" children, the one's who don't see the point and have better things to do with their time. Most children would join them on the swings if they could, or in the sandpit, or in the midst of a game of their own creation. Anything other than wasting their time with those damn long paint brushes.

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