Wednesday, September 30, 2020

What If We Raised A Generation That Could Recapture Childhood at Will?


Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will.  ~Charles Baudelaire

According to the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, 98 percent of kindergarteners qualify as "creative geniuses." By age 25, only three percent can make that claim.

To me, that 98 percent seems a bit low. I have never met a preschool aged child who is not, in her or his own way, a genius. The three percent rate for adults, however, seems about right. Until I read about the Torrance Test, I figured that my observation and interpretation of this phenomenon likely had more to do with my own prejudices than anything else. I mean, certainly there is genius within each adult as well, left over from childhood, but now simply hidden beneath the layers of normalcy and averageness that come to form the shell of what we call being "grown up."

Every parent of every preschooler I have ever met knows that her child is a genius. Sometimes they are proud of early-onset "academic" skills, but more often they are astonished by genius of the creative, social, emotional, or physical variety. "She can climb to the top of anything!" they might enthuse or, "He cries when another child gets hurt!" or, "She makes friends everywhere we go!" You hear genuine astonishment in their voices, the way one always does when one is discussing genius.

Cynics might say that I'm not writing about genius as much as the doting adoration of parental love, but from my perch as a teacher in a cooperative school, I've spent decades listening to parents being equally astonished at the genius they see in other people's kids. Indeed, I've long felt that one of the most powerful aspects of the cooperative model is that it gives parents front row seats to not only their own child's genius, but also that of others.

The sad truth, however, is that the adult world tends to only reward certain types of genius, those we typically file under "academic" in school settings, then "economic" in the years afterwords, but even then only after pounding it into more traditionally useful shapes. That, I expect, is why genius is so rarely seen in adults: it's there but relegated to the ashcan of uselessness because it serves neither academics or commerce.

As havens set aside for the preservation of genuine childhood, places like the Woodland Park Cooperative School are free to celebrate genius in all its forms whether or not it can pass through the sieve that sorts useful from useless. This is perhaps the greatest sin of our tradition of schooling: it is in many ways a decades-long process of pounding down the nails that stick up as we increasingly value conformity, order, and normalcy. The child with a genius for whistling or comedy or climbing onto the roof of the school is typically shut up or shut down as we seek to force their genius into the molds of usefulness, of averageness.

Genius is quirky, unusual; it may seem insane or even dangerous. Most of the time it is "useless" because we can't grade it or pay for it, but it is genius nevertheless. We all have it, then we outgrow it. I don't think Baudelaire was wrong: the genius is the one who has remained passionately connected to their childish self.

I sometimes try to imagine what it would do to the world if we raised an entire generation that could recapture childhood at will. It would be a world in which our institutions, like schools, would exist not to create standardized products as if off an assembly line, but rather to fill the world with one-of-a-kind humans free to pursue their highest potential according to her or his own genius. It would mean that we spend our lives playing because that is obviously the soil in which genius best grows. I suppose a world of genius would present its own problems, but as long as play stands at the fore, I like our odds of being able to solve them.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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!
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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Where They are the World's Leading Experts

A couple weeks ago I wrote a piece about what is popularly referred to as "loose parts," or what I prefer to call "junk and debris." One reader referring to a body of research that consistently finds that children engaged in loose parts play use more math language and more elaborate vocabulary than children playing with traditional toys or during structured play and wondered why that would be.

I don't know for sure, of course, but I expect that it has to do with the fact that open-ended, unscripted playthings cause children to engage in more cooperative play, which requires communication, not with adults, but with other kids who are likewise learning math and vocabulary. Whereas "toys" and adult-lead activities tend to be more predictable, with many of their answers built into them, children interacting with loose parts are more likely to run across new concepts and unexpected challenges, situations that require children to stretch themselves in order to communicate with one another.

For instance, children building with familiar unit blocks, with their regular sizes and flat edges are playing in a more predictable environment, one that is less likely to present new concepts or unexpected challenges. Children building with a collection of pinecones, sticks, rocks and leaves, on the other hand, are playing with far less standardized building materials, ones that take children to places where they must find new language to communicate about things like relative density, shape, size, fragility, texture, and other aspects of their materials. The answers are not built into these materials.

Whenever children play together without the interference of adults, they are creating their own world, not just through their physical project, but also through the words and concept they discover and communicate about together. Often the words they use are imprecise at first, leading to disagreements and confusion. Often they misinterpret concepts, leading to faulty theories. As they continue to play, however, as they learn more about the world they are creating, their language tends to become more precise and their theories more refined. I enjoy few things more than when children begin using terminology of their own devising, their own short-cut jargon, to describe phenomena they have discovered together.

This is why giving children the chance to engage in unstructured play with junk and debris is so powerful, it removes most of the "scripts" that are baked into regular toys and structured play, freeing children to create a world of their own, a place where they are the world's leading experts.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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!
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Monday, September 28, 2020

"If I Could Take on All of Their Pain, I Would"

Parents, if they love their children at all, at least sometimes worry about what their offspring might say about them in some future therapy session. We strive to love them in a way that guides them to grow up to be strong, confident, thoughtful, and caring, even as we know that the degree to which they fall short of the ideal will inevitably be blamed, at least in part, on us. It doesn't seem fair, especially since we don't get graded on a curve. Sometimes even the most ghastly parents produce saints, while the most conscientious of us are doomed to watch our children struggle and even suffer. That's because there is more at play than parenting, as important as it is. There are so many other factors involved in how any of us "turn out," from genetic to environmental, that only the most abusive and neglectful of parents will ever really know exactly what role they've played in who their child grows up to be, and what an awful knowledge that would be.

The best of us try so hard to help them, to be with them, and to absorb as much of their pain as we can. Parents often say things like, "If could take on all of their pain, I would." It's part of what human love is. In turn, we hope to shelter them from as much pain as possible, and by no means do we want or expect them to absorb any of our pain. But they love us too, and they are human too, which means that they must take on some of our pain. We're wise to avoid laying the whole awful truth on them, of course, the time for that knowledge will come soon enough, but some of our pain will always get through and they will suck it up like sponges because this is part of what it means to love. Likewise, they absorb our joys because to love is to absorb everything from another person.

I've spoken with a lot of early childhood educators over the course of the past two decades, from all over the world. On every continent we talk about loving the children we teach, in every country, in every school I've ever visited. There are those who talk about "professional love." I think I know what they mean. I think they mean that we love children in the way a therapist loves their patients: we play the role of absorber, the role of one who loves, while at the same time doing whatever we can to avoid passing on any of our pain. In other words, we try to make it, as much as humanly possible, a one-way street. The fact that most of us are so emotionally exhausted at the end of the day stems, I think, from our failure to adhere strictly to the so-called professional version of love. (Loving too much is perhaps the most forgivable of failings.)

The Christian tradition is based upon a savior who absorbs all of our sins. That's a lot of love, and what does he ask in return? Only that we love him back, unconditionally, which means, to accept the pain with the joy. The Yin Yang concept of dualism found in ancient Chinese philosophy holds that good and bad, right and wrong, lucky and unlucky, positive and negative are all a part of a single whole, which is, I think, a beautiful way to think about a loving human relationship. 

The only real sin, I think, is when we allow our fellow humans to suffer their pain alone. Without love, they will still sometimes try to pass on their pain along through violence and cruelty or else it will consume them as it turns inward in the form of addiction and other types of self-harm. So powerful is this need to absorb and be absorbed that we destroy ourselves without it.

Being a parent is a loving relationship before it is a project and passing on pain is an inevitable part of loving. The good news is that most of it, most of the time, has nothing but a temporary impact on the child: they are ready for it, they absorb it, and they process it appropriately. It's what humans do. The bad news is that some of it, some of the time, can't be easily absorbed: they are not ready for it, and then they need the help of someone else who can in turn absorb some of their pain, be it another parent, a sibling, a therapist, or a friend, and the pain goes from one to another until finally it gets fully processed. That's also what humans do.

A child's relationship with a parent is, for most, the first one. This is where we are meant to learn about the ebb and flow of both pain and joy. It's where we learn that we can ask for help and how to ask for that help. And it's also where we learn how to help others by being willing to absorb a bit of their pain. Naturally, we still strive to shelter our children, but it should also be possible for us to embrace the dualist idea that loving someone means counting on them to absorb at least a little of your pain in return. That's what humans do. It's not our role to manufacture an adult person complete with all the requisite traits. Growing up is their job. No, ours is to love them as best we can and that is a two-way street paved with joy and pain all mixed up together.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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!
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Friday, September 25, 2020

To Remind Us to Keep Inventing it for Ourselves

I've never written about the day I became a father. I think about that day and often tell parts of the story, but so far I've not found all of the words to do so, if words are even adequate. What I need to say is too complex to express in my normal way. Maybe it requires a novel. Maybe it requires poetry, sculpture, or painting, or it's possible that the way to say what I need to say hasn't been discovered yet.

Those of us who have spent our lives around young children, are familiar with their creative struggle to express themselves. It's part of the process of learning the language, of course, so the conversational short cuts and "good enough" putty with which we spackle our day-to-day adult conversation is yet to be learned. Children regularly find themselves thinking thoughts or having feelings for the first time and they need to communicate about them. Without being able to make use of the cliches upon which we adults rely, they must invent a way of saying it.

An excited five-year-old once replied to an adult who had off-handedly asked, "How are you?" by replying, "This day has a powerful, huge, even big magic in it!"

A three-year-old described an accidental lever she had made on the playground in the form of a chant: "Push down, go up, push down, go up, push down . . ."

Another preschooler, playing with a wine cork in a tub of water, explained, "It went on the water and didn't go down in the water, but I could push it down. And it went back on the water!"

In each example, you can hear the child grasping for complexity, for depth, for knowledge about themselves and their world, then striving to express the fullness of it, grasping at words, building with them the way they build with blocks. Soon they are going to learn to simply say, "I feel good" or to reduce the complexity into words like "lever" and "float," but right now it's the complexity that matters, because it's not just the angels and devils that live in details. Understanding complexity is all about the details, the fullness of a thing, the process or experience. Later will be the time for more concisely summing up the complexity.

Too often, educators try to skip over the complexity and go straight to the summing up, immediately offering children the simple concise answer. Stripped of complexity, the responses are rendered mostly meaningless even if absolutely correct. In Douglas Adams' novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, they build a computer programed to answer the question, "What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?" After seven million years the computer calculates the answer, which is "Forty-two." It's the right answer, but without the rest of the story, it's useless for anything beyond passing a test.

When children play, we sometimes see it as frivolous and purposeless, and perhaps to that child, in that moment, it is, but we should never make the mistake of thinking it's meaningless. This is why we don't step in to correct the child by telling them that there is "no such thing as magic," or "help them" by showing them what else a lever can do, or which other objects can float on water. When we do, we risk rendering the moment meaningless, or as the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget wrote, "Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself." The complexity is where the action is because that's what interests us about a new thing, the details. When we leave children to decide for themselves which of those details are relevant, where to build their own scaffolding, and whether and when to move on to something else entirely, we free them to learn beyond the surface of right answers into where complexity lives. When humans engage like this, even frivolously and purposelessly, we're inventing for ourselves.

And as we invent, we find we must communicate about it. We're a language-using animal, of course, and schools tend to concentrate on using language to bring our inventions into existence, although sadly, most of what they encourage focuses on using language to "prove" what we know on tests or to practice what we know on worksheets. Even our essays must be graded. It's doubly sad because much of children's learning is literally being constructed by themselves as they strive to express it, be it through words, art, or science. That someone else has listened carefully, understood, and acknowledged that they've understood is a vital part of that process. It's this process that is important, not the outcome.

As we get older, we tend to experience fewer things for the first time, which leads many of us to fill our language with words and phrases that rush us past the complexity. We've got places to be and things to do, after all. We don't have the time to just play, to let ourselves fall into the details and wander around, being frivolous and purposeless. I suppose when you've seen it all before, it's hard to summon the enthusiasm for inventing things, unless, that is, you have young children in your life. If you listen to them, listening not just with your ears, but with your heart, it's impossible to not be inspired. 

When a child answers, "How are you?" with, "This day has a powerful, huge, even big magic in it," you find yourself nodding along, at once understanding something more complex, and therefore more true, than the old shoe of, "I'm fine, and you?" We can't do this ourselves without play. Without play, we lose sight of complexity and stop inventing our world, becoming increasingly efficient, but going nowhere. 

This is something I started to discover on the day I became a father: children are here to remind us to keep inventing life for ourselves.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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!
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Thursday, September 24, 2020

As If I Did Not Exist

I was hanging out with a group of kids on the playground, including a two-year-old girl I had just met. At some point she began to dance the way one does when nature calls. I knew she was relatively new to the world of underwear. I prompted, "Do you need to go potty?" She nodded so I said, "The toilet is inside."

We were a long way from the door, as far as one can be on the playground. She began heading that way, albeit without urgency, stopping here and there for a closer look, picking up stray items, but otherwise making her way in the general direction of the bathroom.

I'm not an expert in helping kids make the transition from diapers to underpants, but I've spent a lot of time around children who are in the process of learning. I know that many of them are still accustomed to being accompanied by an adult. I know that many can get distracted. I know that accidents happen, even with seasoned veterans. For these reasons I kept an eye on her as she made her way, knowing that she might need a reminder or a helper or some other support along the way. She didn't. When I later told her mother, she informed me that it wasn't the first time that she had demonstrated this sort of independence, but she was nevertheless impressed, as she should be: not every two-year-old handles using the toilet at our place for the first time with such aplomb.

The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, "The children are now working as if I did not exist." ~Maria Montessori

What I did was provide information, then watch. I was ready to help, but she didn't need it, a fact that I could have only learned by not helping. I'm most "successful," I think, as an important adult in the life of a young child when I do not "exist." Of course, I help when help is needed or requested, although even then I try to do so minimally, lending my support with as light a touch as possible, before attempting to once more disappear.

I've not always been this sort of teacher, and I still sometimes inject myself into situations where I'm not needed, offering advice and opinions that are unnecessary or beside the point, but I know I'm doing it right when I find myself just watching, poised to help, on the balls of my feet, so to speak, but otherwise off to the side, not existing.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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!
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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

To Know and to Love

"Curiosity killed the cat." 

Whenever the notion of curiosity comes up in an English language conversation, someone is bound to say it. Yes, I suppose curiosity can kill, but come on. It's not curiosity that kills the cat, it's rashness or heedlessness or impulsiveness that leads to a careless act, yet curiosity gets the blame, as if we somehow must caution one another against it.

We all know that curiosity makes life at least a million times better than the alternative, which is to be uncurious. 

Curiosity is the impulse behind science. We wonder why or what, when, who, where, why, and how, then undertake to figure it out. It is likewise the impulse behind play.

Curiosity can almost be seen as a synonym for love. After all, what is love if it isn't seeking to know everything there is to know about another person. And of course, it's well-known that love dies when curiosity fades.

Cats are, of course, famous for their curiosity, as are dogs, lizards, fish, and any other animals I can name. Insects may or may not experience curiosity, but they at least exhibit behavior that could be interpreted as curiosity. And for all we know, it may be curiosity that makes the amoeba move and the grasses grow: making it a, if not the, universal creative force.

The occasional killed cat notwithstanding, curiosity, tempered by caution, so far seems to be an adaptive trait, but, of course, maybe not. Maybe not when it's used to do evil, to prey on one another, like the curiosity of an identity thief or or blackmailer, although it could be argued that it's greed, not curiosity, that motivates them. A similar thing could be said for "curiosity" in the hands of merchants and bankers, and while they need not necessarily be greedy, their impure motive is to monetize the products of curiosity. To the degree that they are creative, it is driven by practical, selfish purposes more than curiosity itself. As Iris Murdoch wrote, "All curiosity divorced from love or science (is) necessarily malign." 

According to no less an authority on curiosity than Albert Einstein, "Curiosity has its own reason for existence." In other words, it can't be yoked to any other purpose, but its own, which if Ms. Murdoch is right, is to know and to love. And that is kind of everything. No wonder the cat is so ready to die for curiosity.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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!
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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

He Didn't Like to Get Muddy

He didn't like to get muddy, but he liked playing with the kids who liked to get muddy. This meant that he often appeared to be outside of their play. Adults would sometimes pity him when they spied him at the fringes or hiding behind trees in order to avoid getting splashed, but he resisted their efforts to coach him, insisting "I am playing with them." Sometimes, a particularly incensed adult would scold the other kids for not including "everyone," but they would all, the mud-lovers and the mud-avoider alike, blankly stare the way children do when they find themselves "in for it," but don't know why. It reminded me of Wally's shrugged line from the old Leave it to Beaver television program: "Ah, don't worry about it Beav, sometimes grown-ups just like to holler at kids." 

I knew that this boy was aware that the separation between himself and his friends during these muddy games was his own doing. I knew this because he told me: "I like to play with those guys, but they're getting muddy and I don't like getting muddy." He wasn't asking for them to change their game for him, nor did he seek my advice, so I didn't offer it. If he wished they would play something else, he didn't express it, although the moment they would leave the muddy area, he would leap right into the center of whatever game they were playing. As long as we adults stayed out of it, he chose the role of an actively silent observer, constantly watching, moving around for different views, getting closer when the group conversation dropped into quieter tones, then racing to a distance when the splashing started. He didn't want to miss anything, but the mess. 

In other words, he didn't begrudge them their fun, nor did he judge himself for opting to remain relatively outside of the action, which, I reckon, is a good lesson for us all.

One day, a group was busy digging a deep hole downhill from the pump with the idea of trying to fill it up with water. They were standing in the dry hole to dig. Meanwhile, another group was busy at the pump filling a large muck bucket. This was a 20 gallon bucket and their part in the project was to fill it, then dump it down the hill. The water would, they hoped, fill or perhaps even overflow the hole. In fact, they had named their game "Major Overflow" with that objective in mind.

Both parts of the project, the digging and the bucket filling, were labor intensive and took enough time that the two groups seemed to lose track of one another. The diggers had managed a hole that was as deep as their waists and, their backs turned to the water pump, they intended to go even deeper. The water pumpers, on the other hand, had filled their bucket and were now wrestling with it in the effort to upend it. The boy saw that the kids in the hole were about to get soaked up to their waists, which would, of course, overtop their rubber boots. He cupped his hands to his mouth and began to call out, "Watch out! Watch out! Major overflow coming! Major overflow coming!

Thanks to this timely warning, the diggers were able to scramble out of the hole just in time. After the whooping and hollering had died down, they went to work on a second round of the project. This time, the boy moved back and forth between the two groups, officiously conveying useful information. "The bucket is almost full. The bucket is almost full," or "The hole is not ready. The hole is not ready." Then, "The bucket is full. The bucket is full," and "The hole is ready. The hole is ready." 

When it was time to dump the bucket, he began to chant, "Watch out! Watch out!" with the rest of kids joining him, "Watch out! Watch out!" The water flowed, they all cheered, then it was back to work, everyone playing together.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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!
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Monday, September 21, 2020

In Search of Something Good and True

"Ah, children, ah, dear friends, don't be afraid of life. How good life is when one does something good and true!" ~Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Here in the US, we are in the run up to what many of us consider to be the most pivotal political moment of our lifetimes. Of course, only future generations will be able to tell us whether that's true or not. It could be that the last Presidential election was the most consequential or perhaps we'll find that it's one to come, but nevertheless it feels like more Americans than ever are taking the democratic process more seriously than ever before. We are reading and thinking and arguing. The election dominates the news and dinner table conversations. 

Looked at one way, this is how our democracy is designed to work. It is designed for two political parties. It is designed for average people talking among themselves. It is a system of self-governance that relies upon all of us engaging with one another in the project of self-governance. Looked at another way, of course, it's not working at all. The idea is that an educated populace would, through its collective voice, create the best possible governance through a process of civilized public debate and compromise, but when we look around we see little but anger, enmity, and strife.

Like most human "systems" it looks better on paper. One of the characteristics of any of our systems is that our human brain, for better or worse, has evolved to believe itself. It turns beliefs, prejudices, and opinions into "facts." We all think we're adherents of truth, the purveyors of common sense, and the champions of logic, and political ideologies, but the structure of our brains is such that we are all convinced of "truths" that cannot be proven. Even this, what I'm writing right now, is plagued by my own beliefs, prejudices, and opinions. 

It's enough to make one despair. Indeed, many of us have thrown up our hands and retreated into our smaller worlds, abandoning the rest of us to bicker amongst ourselves. Others opt for partisanship over thinking, choosing one of the pretty-on-paper ideologies, championing it on Wednesday, the same as Monday, no matter what happens on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the rhetoric grows nasty, the systems become corrupted, and in the words of Shakespeare, and we are left to contemplate the "tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing."

Of course, this too is a prejudice, one that holds life to be a "walking shadow," and maybe it is, but at the same time, it is perhaps the only thing that we all know is true: life itself. We are alive right now and the thing we must do is care for the children who are no less prone to turning belief, prejudice, and opinion into fact. To do that is to be human, after all, but it is also human to alter our beliefs, pull back the veil of our prejudices, and change our opinions, and that is where young children have the advantage over the rest of us. They live closer to the idea that reality is not out there waiting to be witnessed, but rather that it is made by the mind. We take it as natural that they do this. After all, they are growing, maturing, and gaining experience, so of course the "facts" of their world are changeable.

There is a common assertion that children don't listen to their adults, but I've found this to be a prejudice not grounded in fact. Perhaps they don't obey or heed us, but I have witnessed that young children listen much more attentively and with more open minds than most adults. Indeed, they might be adept at tuning out our lectures, but for the most part, they listen to everything we say and watch everything we do. From where I sit, this is what it missing from adult life, especially when it comes to things like self-governance. As Bob Dylan once remarked, "He not busy being born is busy dying" and too many of us are simply dying rather than living. We cling to our world of faulty "facts," refusing to deviate, demanding that others listen to us and growing angry, frustrated, or dismissive when they simply "won't listen to reason." Meanwhile, we don't listen either.

But, it's only through listening that we continue to stay busy being born.

Our schools tend to embody this prejudice as well. We have lessons in writing and speaking, but the only listening we encourage is to pay attention to the adult at the front of the room. That's not listening, that's obeying. When children are free to play, however, we see real listening, deep listening, the kind of listening that is necessary for engaging in projects of great importance. It's listening that sometimes must go through conflict, but unlike with adult conflict, it usually, ultimately leads to some kind of understanding, compromise, and agreement. Truth and facts have little to do with it. Or rather the higher fact, the higher truth, is listening. 

I believe in self-governance, not because it is unflawed, but because it acknowledges that we might all have our own set of facts, and also that we must find a way to make those facts work together. We do that by listening the way children do, deeply, with a commitment to understanding. Only then can we hope to do things that are good and true.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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!
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Friday, September 18, 2020

It's the Difference Between Freedom and Captivity

People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some fine, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.  ~Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

A group of us kids once broke away from our families while on a beach outing and began scrambling on the some rocks above the waves until our parents were mere dots below. We began challenging one another to climb higher and higher where we discovered a small cave and, miraculously, growing from an unlikely patch of soil, was a fig tree heavy with fruit. It was an isolated perch with a sweeping view of the Aegean Sea. We were, however, not the first to have found this idyllic place. Someone had built a small fire just outside the cave. We wondered, our hearts racing, if that person lived there. Had we invaded their home? Would they return to scold us or worse? This led to the group of us, four boys and a girl, to imagine that maybe we would live there. We each picked out where we would sleep, argued about how we could restart the fire, discussed the possibility of learning to fish, made crude furniture from rocks, and ate a feast of figs. There was the challenge of figuring out where we would defecate, finally deciding that we would have to climb back down and poop in the sea, where the water would wash us clean. We figured we needed weapons to protect ourselves from potential intruders and antagonists, so we fashioned spears and swords from the fig tree's cast offs. 

We stayed there, planning our utopia for an hour or more, creating a new civilization, until we finally grew restless and climbed higher. We balanced on ledges no wider than our hands, the waves churning against the cliff face far below. A slip would have killed us, a fact that we only discussed amongst ourselves having achieved a paved roadway that ran along the bluff. We guessed correctly that the road would lead back to our beach, where we discovered we hadn't been missed.

Education involves learning and learning involves, as far as we can tell given the state of the art of neuroscience, a change in the strength of synapses in small circuits of neurons. In short-term memory, that change involves the enhanced release of a neurotransmitter. Long-term memory, which is what educators should be more interested in, requires the release of a neurotransmitter accompanied by the growth of new synaptic connections between two cells. This is certainly not all that is involved in learning, despite what some scientists assert, because if we've learned anything by studying the brain, it's that there is always something fundamental we still don't understand.

For instance, the current orthodoxy holds that long-term memory is induced by repeated association of stimuli, which causes many to believe in rote learning, but that doesn't account for brains that shut down out of tedium or those memories preserved from childhood, which are, as Dostoyevsky writes, "the best education." Those were one-off events so profound that they permanently changed who we are. Of course, we have these experiences throughout our lives, but the ones from childhood, because they happen early in life, are the ones that most shape and inform who we are and who we become.

I'm not the only one who has discovered that when you invite adults to share their fine, sacred childhood memories, they almost invariably talk about being outdoors, with friends, unsupervised by adults, and without a schedule. That this is the ideal learning environment for young children seems obvious, even as most schools are bereft of all of these features, although, admittedly children sometimes wind up befriending their fellow prisoners. It's not surprising that few of us have fine, sacred memories that were formed in school.

It's the difference between freedom and captivity. 


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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