Thursday, October 31, 2019

Playing Their Way To A State-Of-The-Art STEM Education

(Note: I hate that I need to write this post, just as I hated writing my post about how children learn to read through play. Play is a pure good and should not need to be defended, but I also know we live in a real world where  policy-makers still consider play a mere relief from serious work rather than a core aspect of the real work of being human. I hope, at least, that those of you who do need to defend play will find this useful.)

My wife is the CEO of a software company. Earlier in her career she was an automotive executive and has held senior positions in several technology-based businesses. She is, as she realized to her delight not long ago, one of those much sought for rarities: a woman with a successful STEM career. That said, she studied languages at university. That's right, languages, not science, technology, engineering or math, yet here she is today running a technology company.

One-to-one correspondence

Science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM as they are collectively called in the contemporary lexicon, has become an emphasis for our schools both public and private. The idea is that those legendary "jobs of tomorrow" will require STEM skills and so we are feverishly "educating" our children to be prepared for their future roles in the economy. Setting aside the hubris embodied in the assumption that anyone can predict what jobs our preschoolers will grow up to hold, science, technology, engineering and math are important aspects of what it means to be human and fully worthy of exploration whether or not one is going to one day require specific employment skills.

These boys are swinging while simultaneously trying to avoid being hit by the swinging tire, a game that involves science, technology, engineering, and math, among other things.

Science, after all, is the grown-up word for play. As N.V. Scarfe wrote while discussing Einstein, "The highest form of research is essentially play." I know a number of scientists and whenever they are discussing their work, they describe it as play: "I was playing with the data and guess what I discovered," or, "I played with the variables and you won't believe what I found." Conversely, the highest form of play is essentially science as children ask and answer their own questions with both rigor and joy without the soul-sucking artifice of rote.

Working on math skills at the art easel.

Technology, which is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, is how children typically extend their play, building upon their discoveries to further explore their world.

Engineering is the process by which children create their technologies, be they dams intended to hold back flowing water or springboards designed for jumping into it.

Exploring a circle

And math is something humans have to be taught to hate because, after all, it is the process of learning increasingly complex and wonderful ways to do things that give us great pleasure as human animals: patterning, classifying, and sequencing. When we boil it down, that's the entirety of math, which is ultimately the foundation of analytical thinking.

Constructive play forms the foundation of engineering knowledge. In this case, she is also exploring set theory, including the  horses in one set while relegating the other types of animals to another.

The tragedy of STEM education in the early years, however, is that too many practitioners have concluded that we must engage in extraordinary measures to teach it, that without lectures, worksheets, and drill-and-kill testing it simply won't happen, which is, in the lexicon of a generation long before mine, pure hogwash.

This two-year-old is exploring the technology of a lever or a balance scale, striving to find a balance point.

STEM education is not a complicated thing, children are already doing it when we leave them alone to pursue their own interests in a lovely, varied, and stimulating environment. We can, however, destroy their love of science, technology, engineering and math by turning it into the sort of rote learning that involves authoritarian adults dictating what, how, and by when particular knowledge is to be acquired or skills learned. A good STEM education, at least in the early years, is a play-based one; one that takes advantage of a child's natural curiosity; that gives free rein to their boundless capacity for inventiveness; and that understands that vocational training is but a small part of what an education should be about.

These hydraulic engineers spend their days working together to manage the flow of water.

When we step back and really observe children in their "natural habitat," which is while playing, we can see the STEM learning, although it takes some practice because it's intertwined with the other important things they're working on like social-emotional skills, literacy, and the capacity for working with others, which is, at bottom, the most important "job" skill of all. Indeed, while we are only guessing at what STEM skills our preschoolers are going to need in the future, we do know that getting along with our fellow humans is the real secret to future employment, not to mention happiness.

What happens when I stick this in there?

When my wife was a preschooler, no one envisioned computers on every desktop, let alone on every laptop. The internet hadn't even made an appearance in science fiction novels. And we all carried dimes in our pockets just in case we needed to make a call on a public phone. Today she is the CEO of a software company by way of the automotive industry by way of the jobs that her study of languages made available to her when she stepped into the workforce. The problem with predicting what specific "job" skills our children will need in the future is that we can only guess, because it's not us, but the children themselves who will invent those jobs, just as my wife has invented her own STEM career.

That said, when we allow children to explore their world through play, we see that they are already scientists, technologist, engineers, and mathematicians. We don't create them, but rather allow the time and space in which those natural drives can flourish, and that's how we ultimately insure that our children not only have the narrow skills that may or may not be necessary for those jobs of tomorrow, but also for the broader purpose of living a good life.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Everything You Need To Know About Lesson Plans

When I was a junior businessman back in my twenties, people were always talking about plans: first came the mission statement, then some objectives or goals, then strategies, then tactics. You couldn't start anything without a written plan. I'd learned how to write various types of business proposals in college and had found that I had the sort of personality that enjoyed piecing them together. I liked creating the internal logic that made them, to my mind, works of art. I liked how one could make them flow from one thing to the next, almost like a work of fiction, and I especially liked the challenge of making doughy ideas sound like something make from concrete. From the very start, I understood these plans to be sales documents. Never once did it occur to me that anyone, myself included, would actually adhere to these plans once the "sale" was made.

Even as a young man, I'd learned that life is too uncertain for plans, at least not ones that go into such mechanistic detail. Certainly, they provide a starting line (which is always right now) and indicate in which direction to take our first steps (which is always one foot in front of the other). And I suppose plans serve as a way to sort of organize a group of people around a common cause, but no matter how much we plan, we are soon making prat falls, getting lost, learning new things, finding our assumptions were way off, encountering unexpected obstacles, having new ideas, warring with previously unknown enemies, and generally, you know, living life.

I summoned the courage one day to express these thoughts to a more seasoned businessman who assured me that I was right, saying, "If your plan is not a living thing, it is a dead thing," which is why most plans, most of the time, wind up bearing little resemblance to what actually happens: they are written in stone which is dead, immovable, and heavy to lug around. The plans that actually come to fruition are the ones that are spoken into the air, existing only while they are useful, then forgotten as the next plan is spoken.

Someone recently asked me about "lesson plans," those ubiquitous blueprints that many teachers are expected to draft on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, detailing what the children they teach will be doing and learning throughout the day. I feel much the same way about these plans as I did business plans. The closest I've ever come to drafting a lesson plan is that I sometimes write down a list of "activities" or materials I think the children might want to have available to them on any given day, a list to jog my own memory based upon conversations and observations from the day or hour or minute before. In other words, the self-made plans the children have "spoken into the air." In a play-based curriculum, the children's own ideas form the lesson plan. I am there to support their projects as best I can understand them and when they have their inevitable prat falls, get lost, learn new things, find their assumptions are way off, encounter obstacles, have new ideas, and war with enemies, I am there to support them in their revised, living, plans as well.

I had a business colleague, a young man about my age, who posted inspirational quotations on the walls of his cubicle. One of them read: "If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there." Another said, "Plan your work. Work your plan." What grim counsel to give, especially to a young person. Where is the room for living, for getting lost, for taking the scenic route? I imagine that there are some teachers who swear by their lesson plans, but most of the teachers I know are only going through the motions to satisfy a requirement of their employment, creating documents that can be put in a file, plans that are as dead as dead can be. These teachers know that the real lesson plan is the one that the children themselves bring to life each time they exhale.

I know some teachers who subversively wait until the end of the day to write their lesson plans. Those are the only "plans" to which anyone has ever adhered.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, October 29, 2019


There are a couple dozen ropes on the Woodland Park playground, most of which are tied to something at any given moment, but occasionally there is a free length lying about. During the short period during which it remains untethered to a tree trunk or bucket handle children will pick it up and run around with it. Usually it starts with a single child dragging it behind themself, but invariably a second child, then a third, will get the idea of grabbing the rope as well, running along behind the first child in a game of follow-the-leader. This is a form of play that predictably emerges, year-after-year, a cooperative endeavor that can sometimes grow to include a dozen or more kids.

If someone doesn't then get the urge to tie one end of the rope to something (the most typical way for all rope-based games to end) there will instead be a moment when a child with a contrarian bent decides to pull on the rope against the flow. This instantly transforms the cooperative game into a contest of tug-of-war.

Yesterday, I watched one such tug-of-war. It started with one boy pulling back against the other, a classic contest of strength. Other children began to join in. One after another, they distributed themselves along the rope, pulling in one direction or another. There was little discussion as they did this, yet they managed to keep the "teams" balanced, with neither side overwhelming the other. Before long there were six children tugging on the rope, three on each side. There was some chatter about "winning," but they had in fact reached a point of happy equilibrium. Children called out to their classmates to join in, to help, which they did. Suddenly, one side had a numerical superiority and their combined strength began to prevail, but before they were able to claim victory, two children spontaneously switched sides, reconstituting the balance. It struck me that contrary to the view of tug-of-war as a competitive contest, the children's collective objective was to keep the rope taut, not to win or lose, but rather to not let the game end by creating balance. In other words, despite the optics, it was still a game of cooperation, with children switching sides every time things threatened to become unbalanced.

This is not the first time I've seen this happen. In fact, most of the time this is how tug-of-war goes in preschool when the adults stay out of it with their ideas of competition. As Peter Gray points out in his book Free to Learn, one of the strongest drives that children have while playing with one another appears to be the desire to "keep the game going," and this is clearly what is at work here in these playground games of tug-of-war.

The game went on for quite some time, but then, as is inevitable, one child suggested that they tie one end of the rope to a pole. And this is how the game ended.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Monday, October 28, 2019

Creating The Stories They Need To Create

Among the earliest human recreations was sitting around the campfire telling stories. I imagine the first stories were of the informational variety, the sort that bees dance to one another about where they've found nectar or pollen. But then someone got the idea to lie, not maliciously of course, but simply because they could, by way of making the story more engaging, or to make themselves appear braver, or to illicit laughter. Maybe the first lie was an accident: they misspoke, were believed, then later remembered they had got it wrong.

Whatever the case, it must have been a real mind-blower, this idea that by simply saying things that are not true, a whole new reality is created. After all, how were these other people to know? They weren't there, they hadn't seen it, they have no choice but to take my word for it. I imagine it's much the same when young children first discover the concept at around the age of two.

We all lie, at least sometimes. The average person lies once or twice a day according to research, although since the methodology necessarily relies on self-reporting, at least some of the study subjects likely lied about their lying. And then, there is the whole matter of definition. There are certainly degrees of lying. Many of us don't consider it a lie-lie if it's spoken, for instance, for the purpose of allowing someone to avoid embarrassment, or to make them feel better about themselves, or some other "white lie." And, of course, there are the lies we tell ourselves, lies of omission, lies we permit in service of a greater truth. I've known some absolutists who consider lying of any kind to be wrong, but for most of us, most of the time, the moral line is more of a situational gray smudge.

And then there the lies of storytellers, those fabrications, exaggerations, and outright balderdash that comprise a really good story. We excuse these untruths because, most of the time, we know from the start that the storyteller, the novelist, or the movie maker is creating something, that it didn't really happen. We're in on it, and in a very real sense, we are co-creators in that we suspend our disbelief and become part of the story. The fascinating thing about stories is that they are made up of "lies," yet very often they convey a greater truth far more directly and clearly than we can ever hope to convey it through truth alone.

Lies told to deceive, harm, or manipulate are clearly immoral, but there is a whole world of untruth that appears to be necessary for humans to make sense of the world. Indeed, in many ways what we consider to be our "self" is really just the story we tell about our experiences, both individually and collectively. As Virginia Woolf wrote, "We are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself."

When young children lie it's generally quite easy to catch them out, and we should, gently, call them on it when their intent is to deceive, harm, or manipulate. But when their lies are of the "because I can" variety, such as about a stuffed teddy that talks or, as one girl insisted for the better part of a year, that she is, in fact, really a fairy, our better approach is to "believe" them as they practice creating the stories that they need to create in order to make sense of themselves and their world.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Friday, October 25, 2019

"I Know This Place!"

We all shape and are shaped by the community in which we live. We are both the cause and effect of, among other things, our local culture, commerce, politics, and religion. Those of us who have always lived in a single place or who have raised children in a place are typically aware of the impact of place in our lives, for better or worse. Transplants and nomads often feel they are more a part of a place they have left behind or that they are the product of many places, never fully at home in any, but our current place, wherever that is, is shaping us nevertheless, even if that shape is into an antithesis.

This is even more true for young children, I think, because this place, right here, right now, is the only place they know: this house, this neighborhood, this school, this town or city. They lack the experience to know other places the way they know this one and they lack the cynicism to be judgmental. This place, its rights and wrongs, its ups and downs, its strengths and follies, is their whole world, and they are, as humans, driven to make it their own, to understand and absorb it. I've known many transplanted parents, aghast at the place they find themselves, who strive to prevent their children from learning certain aspects of the local culture, language, or values, only to find that they've set themselves an impossible task, with their children often becoming more "Seattle" or "American" than those of us who have always lived here.

Last week, on a drizzly day, tourist season and its attendant crowds dissipated for the winter, we hopped a bus for a 10 minute trip to Seattle Center. Our primary destination was the playground with it's giant slides, but we all knew that there was more to this place than that. Of course, we also played in the International Fountain, some of us becoming drenched, which is as traditional an activity as our city offers. We tried to climb the humped backs of the bronze orca whales that emerge from the pavement. We passed through the Center House which is always scented by an overwhelming and familiar perfume of grilled meat and caramelized sugar. We checked out the monorail at its station, enthusiastically telling stories to one another of rides we have taken on it. There was a robot statue there that I had never noticed before, but with which the children seemed to already be familiar. We stood at the foot of the Space Needle, arching our back to take it in.

"I've already been here!"

"I've done this before!"

"I know this place!"

This wasn't the first time any of the children have been here, even if it was the first time this particular group had come together. It was hard to ignore the reality that this place is a part of who we are, as we played in our neighborhood. Making this place and being made by it, knowing it and being known by it, that is what makes a place home.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Thursday, October 24, 2019

"The Supposition That Every Child Is A Kind Of Idiot"

Much of what passes for education, not just in the US, but around the world, starts with the premise that children aren't all that bright, that they are essentially lazy, and that they can't be trusted to know what's best for themselves. Of course, few of us would admit to thinking such thoughts about preschoolers, but there are plenty of adults who will authoritatively assert these criticisms about older children, like teenagers.

Having worked with young children for most of my adult life, I can assure you that every one of them is a genius (a conclusion that is supported by NASA), they are far less inclined toward laziness (if it even exits) than most adults I know, and concerning matters beyond safety, schedules, and courtesy, who am I to tell a child that I know better? The teenagers I've known don't tick any of those stereotyped boxes either, but even if I stipulate that the haters are correct, that many, if not most, teens are ignorant, lazy, and self-destructive, then my question is: How did they get that way? I mean, honestly, how did they un-learn their genius, their motivation, and their ability to make good decisions for themselves?

Is it just in their nature? Are children doomed by biology to become surly, indifferent, and slothful? I doubt that. It makes no sense from an evolutionary perspective. No, to the degree that it's true, it's something we do to them, and from where I sit all signs point to it being a self-fulfilling prophesy.

"I'm beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built upon the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must be taught to think." ~Anne Sullivan

Our entire school system is based upon the premise that children are reluctant learners, that they must be compelled, coerced, tricked, and driven. Not only must we adults rein them up to the wagon for their own good, but we are then required to entice them toward a pre-determined destination with carrots, while always threatening from behind with a stick. Is it any wonder that after a few years of this, they lose their will? We give them "education" as a kind of meaningless drudge, as an authoritarian exercise that seems almost designed to break their free will, even as we insist we are attempting to instill the opposite. How can it end any other way when you've been robbed of your right to control what, how, and when you are to learn? We squander their genius by making them jump through our hoops.

"Learning is the human activity that least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity." ~Ivan Illich

Children either come to hate school because it has been rendered meaningless or, perhaps worse, they become creatures of the system:

The anxiety children feel at constantly being tested, their fear of failure, punishment, and disgrace, severely reduces their ability both to perceive and to remember, and drives them away from the material being studied into strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don't know." ~ John Holt

Play-based education is self-directed learning. We start from the premise that children are geniuses, that they are naturally self-motivated learners, and that when left to pursue activities that they themselves find meaningful, they will come to discover what truly is best for themselves. This approach to education accords with what we know about the human instinct to learn: to become critical thinkers, to collaborate, and to create. Our traditional school system is not based upon evidence, but rather habit and the false premise that children are idiots.

"You are about to be told one more time that you are America's most valuable natural resource. Have you seen what they do to valuable natural resources? Have you seen a strip mine? Have you seen a clear cut in the forest? Have you seen a polluted river? Don't ever let them call you a valuable natural resource!" ~Utah Phillips

There are those who nevertheless defend our current system, based on arguments that without "rigor" and compulsion children will never learn the value of "hard work." If they are to spend their days at their self-selected activities, how will they ever learn to put their nose to the grindstone? To do what they are told? To jump through society's hoops? These are the arguments of those who will forever attach education to the economy, as if we exist to serve it, rather than the other way around. It's a view of children as valuable natural resources, which means that we have a right to exploit them in the name of a greasy buck. "Hard work" is code for doing things we don't want to do and no free human, no matter how much they practice, gets good at that, except perhaps for people who have been broken, a fate I'd not wish on anyone. If you want to see real hard work, swing by a preschool playground where children are busy pursuing their own freely chosen meaningful activities: no one on earth works harder.

I have never met a child who is not curious and curiosity is the human urge to learn made manifest. Schooling seems to be designed to erase that curiosity and replace it with mere performance.

"This is really what the whole debate over compulsory schooling is about. Do we trust people's capacity to be curious or not?" ~Astra Taylor

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Enemy Of Learning

I went to kindergarten in the 1960's. We played outdoors, built with blocks, pretended, and made some art. I don't think there was any particular curriculum or ideology behind the program offered by Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Ruiz. We mostly played, much like the kids do at Woodland Park, although I remember one classroom project in which we sat around tables, each responsible for coloring in a part of a train -- box cars, coal cars, passenger cars. I got the engine. Mrs. Jennings gave very specific instructions about how to color our pictures. We were to strive to color side-to-side, using only horizontal motions, and to stay within the lines.

It was the kind of project I always enjoyed. To this day I love the challenge of creating artwork that requires fine motor deftness and precision. I chose to make my engine mostly red and was quite impressed with how wonderful the finished product looked. I'd already learned to take aesthetic pleasure in staying within the lines, but the whole horizontal coloring concept was an epiphany to me, a concept I employed in coloring projects throughout the rest of my youth.

The following day we arrived at school to find that Mrs. Jennings had taped our individual pictures to the wall to create a train, my red engine at the front. I was proud of that engine, but man was I appalled at my classmates' work. Most of them had failed to stay within the lines, and from what I could tell only I had adhered to the horizontal coloring method. Yet there was Mrs. Jennings, not scolding anyone, not correcting anyone, not making anyone do it over, but rather enthusing about the beautiful train we had made together.

Of course, today I can see that the problem was not with the other kids, but rather with my own expectations. You see, I was apparently a coloring within the lines prodigy, much in the way some four-year-olds prodigiously teach themselves to read in preschool, while most of their classmates are still years away from being developmentally ready for it. Mrs. Jennings instructions had hit the five-year-old me right where I lived, while it went right over the heads of most of my classmates: she knew this, which is why she didn't scold or correct. It's why she saw beauty.

The development of human beings, especially in the early years, is notoriously spiky. My own daughter began to speak at three months, but didn't crawl until her first birthday, and wasn't walking until she was closer to two. Some kids are capable of reading at an early age, some are genius climbers, others have advanced social or artistic or musical skills. Every parent knows their own child is a genius: every preschool teacher knows that every child is a genius. And we all know that every child is also "behind" in some areas. This is all normal and it's not something that needs to be "fixed."

Indeed, the range of "normal" is enormous. This is one of the most powerful aspects of a cooperative preschool. As parents work with me in the classroom as my assistant teachers, they come to appreciate this, and even, as Mrs. Jennings did, find it beautiful. And this is why a play-based curriculum is ideal for young children, it allows each child to focus like a laser her own personalized educational objectives in a way that meshes perfectly with her developmental stage.

Sadly, kindergarten, at least he public school variety, no longer accommodates this wide range of "normal." Over the past decade or so, kindergarten has transformed dramatically, and not for the better:

A new University of Virginia study found that kindergarten changed in disturbing ways . . . There was a marked decline in exposure to social studies, science, music, art and physical education and an increased emphasis on reading instruction. Teachers reported spending as much time on reading as all other subjects combined . . . The time spent in child-selected activity dropped by more than one-third. Direct instruction and testing increased. Moreover, more teachers reported holding all children to the same standard.

The whole idea of standardization runs counter to what we know about how young children learn and develop, yet that has been the focus of the corporate education "reform" movement, which spawned this era of the federally mandated Common Core State Standards and high stakes standardized testing. The cabal that created this pedagogically indefensible mess, lead by Bill Gates through his foundation, have ignored what professionals know about how children actually learn:

To make matters worse, the drafters of the Common Core ignored the research on child development. In 2010, 500 child development experts warned the drafters that the standards called for exactly the kind of damaging practices that inhibit learning: direct instruction, inappropriate content and testing . . . These warnings went unheeded . . . Consequently, the Common Core exacerbates the developmentally inappropriate practices on the rise since NCLB (No Child Left Behind).

No, the goal of these "reformers" was never to meet the children where they were developmentally, nor to shape a curriculum around the way children learn, but rather, as Bill Gates famously said in an interview with the Washington Post: "(T)o unleash powerful market forces on education." You see, standardization makes it easier for businesspeople to develop products to sell to schools. The dehumanizing metaphor Gates used was to compare it to standardizing electrical outlets.

Mrs. Jennings understood, as all professional early childhood educators do, that children cannot be standardized like computers or washing machines or electrical outlets. Some of us can stay within the lines, but most of us can't, and that's what makes us beautiful.

Standardization is always the enemy of learning.

I've published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share