Thursday, July 18, 2019

From There We Create Our World

Several years ago, a child fell and bumped her head hard enough that we decided to apply an ice pack. I fetched one of those single-use gel packs that one activates by squeezing it in the middle until the internal bag pops and the chemicals mix. I had left one of our parent-teachers at the scene with the crying child. Being first aid certified, I was going to take charge of matters, before remembering that this particular parent-teacher was, in her real life, an actual medical doctor, so I naturally deferred, handing her the ice pack. She wrestled with it for a couple minutes before handing it back to me sheepishly, saying, "The nurses usually do this."

I don't share this story to shame her in any way, but rather to point out that doctors rely upon nurses. The knowledge and abilities of the two professions naturally overlap, but each is characterized by distinct set of complimentary expertise: together they heal, cure, and save lives. Of course, both doctors and nurses also rely upon a whole host of other people to get their jobs done, from educators and administrators to orderlies and custodians. No one does it alone.

Schooling tends to be about teaching everyone the same thing at the same time. Everyone learns the same math, the same science, the same history, and then they are tested and graded on how well they've learned it, no peeking over another person's shoulder. This focus on individual knowledge, however, disappears in the real world, a place where solving problems relies not upon individual knowledge as much as collective knowledge, people coming together to contribute their unique expertise to make an enterprise work. When a new bridge is needed, we don't call together a team comprised only of engineers, people with the same skill set, to get the job done. No, we must also include contractors, geologists, and other suppliers of all sorts in order to actually get that bridge built, each contributing to the completion of the whole.

And the real world demands more than just knowledge. It requires the ability to work well with other people, cooperating, and sharing. Traditional schooling, with its focus on competition for grades, tend to discourage the development of these vital traits, focusing instead on the hoarding of knowledge like one might a commodity.

If the purpose of schools is to prepare children for the real world, it seems we're going about it all wrong.

I know virtually nothing about dinosaurs, but I don't need to because the children, among them, know everything they collectively need to know. When the subject comes up, and it comes up often in preschool classrooms, the children share what they know, building upon one another's knowledge, disagreeing, discussing. We use words like carnivores and herbivores, concepts like extinction and evolution, and eras like Jurassic and Cretaceous. Some of them act out the behaviors of certain dinosaurs, moving their bodies and using their voices to bring concepts to life. Others ask questions, encouraging us to probe deeper. Some merely listen, absorbing knowledge that they can then share with other children in other places, each of them bringing their own knowledge and abilities to the table to cobble together a perfectly age-appropriate curriculum. 

This is the way the real world works: this is how play-based education works. We come together around projects and ideas, working together for the benefit of everyone. What I know and what you know come together as what we know. And from there we create our world.

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