Monday, August 10, 2020

The Freedom to Think is the Most Fundamental Freedom

I once taught a girl named Laura who would sit with the rest of us on the rug during circle time, but when she spoke, she popped to her feet to pace back and forth. She had fresh, thoughtful contributions to make to our group discussions, but clearly needed to move as she said them. She did this when she was two, then three, then four, then five. This was a cooperative preschool, which meant her mother was often in class with us. At first, her mother tried to persuade Laura to conform, but I asked her to back off, so no one told Laura not to pace as she talked.

Naturally, some of the other kids tried it out. Indeed, we went through a spell during which it was a fad. Whenever someone spoke at circle time, they did so on their feet in imitation of Laura. But for most of her three years at Woodland Park, she was a lone pacer, a habit that was not remarked upon one way or another. It was just what Laura did when she had something important to say.

Then she went to kindergarten where she was made to sit at her desk. A few weeks into the school year, Laura's mother wrote me, asking for advice. It seemed that Laura had gone mute at school. Her teachers thought there was something wrong with her. She sometimes spoke on the playground as she played, but never indoors and rarely to adults. I reminded Laura's mother about the pacing. "I thought of that," she said, "but her teacher won't let her stand up during desk time." Apparently, the teacher was afraid that if she accommodated Laura, she would have to let all the kids pace around, and that, in her mind, represented chaos. I other words, she knew that at least some of the children would benefit from moving around as they learned, but classroom management was more important than learning.

Most young children, most of the time, don't have much say in their lives. This isn't a good feeling. No one likes to feel powerless. I wouldn't put myself in a preschooler's shoes for anything. I would hate having someone dictate when I go to bed and when I wake up. I would bridle at being told what to eat, what to wear, and how I'm going to be spending my days. I would rebel against being forced to go places I didn't want to go, especially if I was made to go there every day, like a job I couldn't quit, and be made to do things I found meaningless, tedious, or plain old stupid. I would cry if I were confined indoors on a sunny day, or made to ask permission to even use the toilet.

Of course, I'm looking at this through the filter of having been an an adult for four decades, but that doesn't mean that children don't crave control over their own lives. Why do you think it is that so many parenting battles are over things like bed time, food, and toileting? These are things over which children do have control. You can't make another person sleep. You can't make another person eat. And you can't make another person poop. Exhaustion, hunger, and tummy aches are the prices many children are willing to pay for even these small, small scraps of freedom. In their way, they are freedom fighters.

Adults have power over children. Most of us wield it benevolently, although we can all be dictators at times and we know, sadly, that there are far too many children living under the thumbs of adult tyrants. But no matter how gentle we are, our young children don't have a great deal of say in their own lives. This, more than anything else is why I value play-based education. Yes, it lays the foundation for future learning, it grows the brain, it is how humans have evolved to educate themselves, and there is mountains of research conducted over centuries to support this, but from where I sit, all of that is secondary when set beside freedom.

Of all the freedoms we have, the freedom to think is the most fundamental, yet for most children, school is a place where they are told not just what to think about, but when they are to think about it, and also how they are to think about it. Original thoughts are wrong answers. They are punished when they rebel. 

Laura is not the first child to discover that school traditionally sets classroom management above thinking. Compliance comes first. Thinking, which is what we call the process of learning, is discouraged in favor of sitting quietly. When children are free to learn, it's always the thinking that comes first.

It's been a few years since I've spoken with her mother, but last I heard, as a third grader, Laura had finally started to figure out how to think, speak, and sit simultaneously. She was a "pretty good student," according to her mother, but, "she hates every minute of it." Laura still remembered preschool, however. "It was a golden era," her mother said. It's not the first time I'd heard that. And Laura is far from the first child who has learned to hate school.

Thinking and learning is what we naturally do with freedom. We are driven to it. It brings us joy. I see it in every child, every day, as they play together in preschool. Without the freedom to pace, the freedom to think, what kind of education is it? What's wrong with us?


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