Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Building a Learning Machine


A five-year-old boy once accused me of being a "bad teacher." He wasn't mad at me. It wasn't intended as an insult. He was grinning as he said it, but he offered it more as a statement of fact than a joke.

I've had children tell me that I'm "supposed to be a boy," "you smell stinky," and "you're a big, fat guy." Learning the unvarnished, unblinking "truth" about yourself, at least from one person's perspective, is one of the "perks" of being a preschool teacher, but I'd never been told I was a bad teacher. 

"What do you mean? I'm not a bad teacher."

"You are a bad teacher."

"Why am I a bad teacher?"

"You never teach us anything."

"That means I'm a good teacher. I get this place ready and then you all come here and teach yourself things."

He was in the midst of a project he had been working on for a week. To an outsider, it probably just looked like he was gathering junk from the playground and putting in a big heap, but we all knew by now that he was building a machine. He hadn't yet decided what this machine did.

"But you are supposed to teach us."

I thought about this for a moment, watching him carefully balance the guts of a defunct clothes dryer on his machine. "Maybe you're right. What should I teach you?"

"I don't know." 

"Do I get to pick what I teach you?"

"Yes, you pick."

I said, "Did you know that my fingernails were dirty? See?" I held my hand out to him. "Now you know that. I taught you."

"You didn't teach me. You have to teach us about something like . . ." He paused to think. "You have to teach us about science."

"Okay, Did you know that everything is made out of atoms."

"I already know that."

"Gravity is the force that keeps us from floating away."

"I already know that."

"Dinosaurs are extinct."

"I already know that."

"What can I teach you about? You already know everything."

"I do. I know everything."

"Well, that's good because I don't know everything. Maybe you should be the teacher."

He quietly worked on his machine for several minutes before saying, "I don't know everything."

I nodded, "But you know a lot. How did you get to know so much?"

This was a question that required his full attention. He stood on his pile, his eyes rolled upward, his forehead furrowed. Finally, he said, "I taught myself."

"Wait a minute, you taught yourself?"

"Yes, I taught myself."

"Then I guess I'm a better teacher than you thought."

He laughed. "You're a bad teacher."

"Well, at least you're a good learner."

"I am a good learner," he confirmed while shifting a wheel-less wagon bed into place.

I said, "Maybe you're building a learning machine so you can teach me."

"It is a learning machine, but I can't tell you how it works. You can use it when I'm done." He then peered at me earnestly and added, "And then you will learn."

******

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