Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Perhaps, Parents, That Future is Closer Than We Think

Parents should know that what is happening right now via Zoom meetings is being called "school," but please don't judge your children's teachers by what is happening right now. Or rather, please remember that just as this is an all new world for you and your children, it is likewise an all new world for the teachers who are tasked with inventing this way of delivering curricula via a schedule that has been imposed upon them by administrators and school boards.

I'm guessing that most young children, despite the upheaval, are excited and enthusiastic about the start of the new school year, diving in, adopting the can-do spirit of their teachers. Parents are proudly posting those first day of school pictures on social media, one of the traditional highlights of fall for me as it's a chance to sort of "catch up" with children I know who are no longer preschoolers. There will be even more challenges ahead, we're going to have to maintain our collective sense of humor, and of course we're all hoping for an end to the pandemic, but getting off to a good start is no small thing.

That said, I know it's already been hard for a lot of kids, especially those who thrive on moving their bodies or socializing or who simply don't have an affinity for the technology being used. I know because parents have been writing to me, asking for advice or simply using my shoulder to cry on. One mother told me that her bright, curious child has become increasingly sullen and irritable since the advent of online lessons last year. Another wrote me to tell about the day long battles she is having just getting her daughter to sit in front of the screen. Every day, I'm being told tales like these of tears and tantrums.

Of course, my inbox isn't a proper survey by any stretch of the imagination, and even if it was, one must allow for a period of adjustment during what is certainly a very steep learning curve for everyone involved. So that's mostly what I'm saying to these parents. No one sees online school as ideal, of course, but for many families, this is the only option and we have no choice but to make the best of it.

What parents should also know is that what is happening right now is very much what "school" is all about. The sitting, the schedules, the worksheets, the tests, the muting, and the instruction are all a part of school whether it's in-person or virtual. That hard work the teachers are doing to deliver the curriculum they've been handed from above hasn't changed either: the endless coaxing, cajoling, as well as the punishing and rewarding. If you've spent any time watching over your child's shoulder, you can see how difficult it is to figure out how to deliver that curriculum to children who may or may not be motivated to learn it, not to mention those who are simply not developmentally capable of comprehending. Even without the added stress of it all being online, I'm sure that one byproduct of this era will be a generation of parents with a new appreciation of just how hard teachers work.

And one more thing that parents should  know is that young humans, whatever their age or ability, are designed for learning. From the moment we're born, even before we are born, we are learning. Indeed, we can't help learning. It is a condition of being alive, like breathing and growing, so you might ask yourself, Why must this be so difficult? Why must teachers wear themselves out and why must children struggle? If learning is such a natural process, why does it seem so unnatural? 

The answer can be found in that curriculum teachers are required to deliver. You see, the human brain is not just designed to learn, but also to decide what it will learn. In our hubris, over the course of the last century or so, we adults have decided that we, and only we, without any consultation with children and ignoring most of the research, must decide what is important for all children to learn. Not only that, but we've even determined a schedule of when they must learn these things in order to avoid being labeled as "behind." And there was a time when teachers were looked upon as the professionals tasked with deciding how this curriculum would be delivered, but that has in many ways fallen by the wayside as well, as non-teachers are now increasingly even dictating the how, which leaves your child's teacher with little more than the coaxing, cajoling, punishing, and rewards. For the most part, virtual school hasn't changed any of that. Adults who have never met your child have pre-determined what, when, and how your child will learn and your child's brain is designed to resist that. This is why it is all such a struggle for everyone, whether it's being delivered online or face-to-face.

If there are to be future generations of humans, they may well look back on us as the heroic generation that overcame pandemic, fire, flood, and fighting in the streets, but they will shake their heads over the craziness of our idea of schools. They will wonder why we took the most natural thing in the world and made it unnecessarily difficult by robbing our children of their right to chose what, when, and how they will learn. Self-directed education (what we in the preschool world call play-based learning) will undoubtedly be the norm for more enlightened future generations, because we will understand that it's not our job to indoctrinate children in a certain set of trivia based on little more than guesswork about what they might need to know, but rather to set them free to learn according to their own curiosity, which is the appetite of learning. We will understand that a child's play reveals what their brain has decided it needs or wants to learn, and they will teach themselves according to a perfectly individualized timeline, by methods of their own devising.

What if we used this time to begin to radically reimagine our schools? What if we set children free to learn as they are clearly made to learn? Perhaps, parents, with what you are now learning about school, that future is closer than we think.


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