Tuesday, October 22, 2019

This Is Real Life

I attended a play-base kindergarten, although back then it was just called "kindergarten" because everyone apparently understood enough about education and development to know that play is what five-year-olds should be doing. First grade is when I was introduced to the concept of the desk. My own teacher, Miss McCutcheon, was obviously a progressive educator in that she had organized our desks into a sort of horseshoe shape, but the rest of the classrooms in my elementary school were arranged in the stereotypical forward-facing rows. Even in a horseshoe shape, we were expected, like the rest of the kids in the rest of the school, to sit at our desks, to mostly listen, to raise our hands if we had something to contribute, to answer questions, and to tip our heads to our desks while quietly working on assignments. We had to ask permission to use the toilet. Recess and lunch, the only times we were free of our desks, were the highlights of the day.

With some small variations, this more or less characterized what school was all about for the next 17 years. Yes, there were some innovative teachers who would have us "act things out," or work in groups, or otherwise break with the norm, but the result was always one in which we followed our leader, all of us working on the same things at the same time, and never, never, never looking over at a classmate's desk lest one be accused of cheating, the worst classroom offense.

This is more or less what schooling is still like for most kids. If school was supposed to be my preparation for life, then, generally speaking, it did a pretty poor job of it. Since graduating from college, I have rarely ever found myself sitting at a desk in a roomful of others, listening, raising hands, answering questions, and tipping my head to quietly work the same assignment as everyone else. I've had bosses, of course, but I've not once found myself in a roomful of colleagues working on the same thing at the same time. I've never again had to ask permission to pee. I've never again been expected to sit still even when my legs or back are aching. And as for looking over at someone else's work: how else can I be expected to collaborate if I don't know what they are doing?

Adult life turned out to be nothing like school. Most of what I've done in the "real world" is to gather together with other people around a "project," self-selected or otherwise, each of us bringing our unique perspectives, skills, and ideas to the table, and then, together, figuring out how to get it done. Our leaders, if there are leaders, aren't there to control our behavior or march us through an assembly line process with the expectation of results that can be judgmentally compared, but rather to guide and inspire, to help us as a group and as individuals to come together in ways that supports achieving what we've set out to achieve.

If we really want to prepare children for life, wouldn't that be better accomplished by letting them live it? When children are allowed to play together, when the adults are there to guide and inspire, rather than direct and judge, then they are really living the life that exists beyond the artificial confines of school. When they play they are learning the habits and skills required to succeed. It's collaboration, not competition, that stands at the center of our day-to-day lives. It's self-motivation, not compulsion, that makes life worthy of its name. As I watch children play, I see them again and again coming together around projects both large and small. I see them figuring out how to get it done. I see them each contributing according to their own perspectives, skills, and ideas. Leaders emerge when necessary, but if they seek to control rather than inspire, the project is doomed. 

This is real life. The children's own ideas are the project of the minute, day, or week, and from that they prepare for life by actually living it.

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