Friday, May 10, 2019

A Mere Product Of History And Habit

Children don't like school because to them school is -- dare I say it -- prison. Children don't like school because, like all human beings, they crave freedom, and in school they are not free.  ~Peter Gray

On my first day as the teacher at Woodland Park, a parent warned me about her child, "Paul is an escape artist. He's quick and he's clever. You'll need to keep an eye on him all the time."

My throat was immediately blocked by my leaping heart. I envisioned Paul slithering under the gate or getting lost in the dark, off-limits, back hallways of the building in which we leased our space, a prospectively inauspicious beginning to what I was hoping would be a long teaching career. 

Paul did not try to escape that day, nor in the days ahead. In fact, and I suppose I ought to be knocking on wood as I write this, in my 17 years during which I've been daily coming to this preschool, we've not once had a kid even attempt to make a break for it. Oh sure, there are the occasional two-year-olds who simply want to go where mommy is going, following her to the door or the gate, and perhaps standing there for a time to miss her, but that's not the same thing as trying to escape. Indeed, according to parents of the children I teach, most kids are disappointed to awake on weekends to learn that it's not a school day.

I still think of Paul's non-escape quite often. It had simply not occurred to me that a child would want to escape our school. But isn't that the stereotype? Kids hate school. Around our place that isn't the case. In fact, I've not found it to be true in any of the progressive, play-based cooperatives with which I've been associated. And honestly, I've not found that to be generally true with kids pretty much up through elementary school. In fact, I had several of my former students who are now K-2 come to visit with their younger siblings during the days both before and after the holidays, and they all still "like" school. They like their friends and their teachers, they enjoy showing off the things they're learning. It's going well for them, it's clearly engaging, and over the years I've found this to be true with most of my former students . . . until they hit about middle school.

A few years ago, I was talking to a former student who was just finishing sixth grade. She had recently figured it out and it pissed her off. I can't recall her exact words, but she was quite cynical about the whole thing: tests, and studying, and learning about stuff you don't care about and will never "use" just for grades, and all so you can do it over again the next year. I've heard similar rants from other middle schoolers. My own daughter hit it at about 11-12 years old as well. Me too. It's around this age that children begin to see it for what it is. They've gained the wisdom to understand that they have no choice about if and where they go to school, nor what and when and how they're going to learn. And I have no answer for them when they ask, "What does this have to do with my life anyway?" It's a valid question, one that is not sufficiently answered by saying it builds character.

Some kids thrive, of course, while most make some sort of peace with it, but some want nothing more than to escape, be it under the fence or into the back hallways, if only because they crave freedom, the freedom to learn what and how they learn best. I might suggest that much of what we ascribe to adolescent surliness is largely attributable to this: they've had this epiphany about school and, like my former student, this whole school thing looks like a huge sham. Even the kids who do well in school come to see that it's all a game they're playing, a series of hoops through which they have to jump to satisfy their teacher or the administration or the school board or their parents. When do they get to satisfy themselves?

It's surprising how few of them actually do make a break for it.

It's a pity because children are born passionate about learning. That's what play is, at bottom, the drive to learn. That drive doesn't go away when they hit kindergarten, but we slowly begin to take it away by our insistence that learning is work. This system of education that we've been using for hundreds of years isn't backed by centuries of research, it isn't a product of careful testing and tweaking. It is, rather, a mere product of history and habit, just as is our assumption that many children will hate it. Even the kids who came to visit me over the last month at Woodland Park, those who report they still "like" school, told me they were excited to have "ten whole days off." They didn't feel that way in preschool. 

One of the legacies of Paul's mom sharing her fears about him with me is that I am rigorous about making Woodland Park a place from which they will not want to escape. I want the children to feel free, free to learn what and how they will, to play without coercion or a sense of "duty" imposed from without. No one has ever wanted to escape from freedom.

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