Monday, November 30, 2020

Talking to Children About the Pandemic and Everything

In a recent interview in The New York Times Magazine, children's book author Mo Willems was asked if he had any advice for parents struggling to talk with their children about difficult things, like the pandemic.

"Probably the most fundamental insight is that even a good childhood is difficult: You're powerless; the furniture is not made your size. But when parents come up to me and ask, "How do you talk to the kid about the pandemic?" they're asking me to be disloyal. They're actually asking about a form of control. "Hey, you have this relationship with kids. Help me control them." (Expletive) you! I'm not on your side."

I would have said it differently, but he puts his finger on a central challenge in the relationship between children and the important adults in their lives. Even those of us who don't believe it's right for adults to control the kids struggle with it. Of course, most of us have learned to not physically and emotionally bully children into obedience, but this drive to control them creeps in nevertheless. Willems' point, I think, is that the moment we begin to strategize about our relationship with a child we are seeking to manufacture a response that satisfies our own emotional needs, to control them for our own ends. None of us like to be manipulated. We rebel when we detect that someone, be it a salesman, guru, or lover, is using their words to steer us. It's the same with children.

When we tell ourselves "But it's for their own good" we set ourselves up as the experts on their bodies and minds, granting ourselves rights over them. It's not our job to talk to children about things like the pandemic, but rather to listen to them. It's not ours to somehow manage them through their feelings, but instead to allow them to practice managing their own feelings and the only way to do that is to set them free from manipulation and control, however well-intended. It's okay to be angry, sad, frustrated, confused, and anxious. When we strategize, when we seek to control, we tell children that their feelings are not okay. Our place is to listen, to hold them if they want to be held, to assure them they are not wrong, and to answer their questions honestly, even if the answer is, "I don't know."

It's so hard for us because our entire society is geared around telling us that it is both our right and responsibility to control the children "for their own good." We are so steeped in it that it becomes habit and we fail to see their fierce rebellions for what they are. We wonder why they won't brush their teeth or eat their broccoli or go to bed. This is their way of saying "(Expletive) you!" It's their way of taking control of their own lives even if it's not for their own good. 

It's hard for us because we live in a world in which children are viewed as "lesser," even as we strive to respect them as fully formed human beings. As John Holt wrote: "Be wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adults whose good opinion and affection you value." Good advice, I think, for talking to children about the pandemic and everything.

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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Friday, November 27, 2020

How Brains Grow

“We now know enough about the brain to realize that it’s mystery will always remain. Like a work of art, we exceed our materials.” ~Johan Lehrer

When our daughter was a preschooler, authority figures informed parents that the human brain was fully formed by around five-years-old. After that, there would be no new brain cells, which was why, they told us, the early years were so important. These were the scientific facts. Just a few days ago, a parent of a preschooler told me that the director of her child’s school told the assembled parents that the human brain was “90 percent developed” by five, information which she conveyed to me in a kind of jittery breathiness that betrayed both awe and panic. I recall feeling similarly about these scientific facts. 

The problem with these facts is that they were not facts 20 years ago and they are not facts today. They are the product of a debunked theory about human brain development. Sadly, these non-facts were, and still are, being used to support the toxic academic pressures being applied to our youngest citizens.

It seems that the earlier “facts” were based largely upon studies done on monkey brains in a laboratory. When skeptical scientists more recently tested the theory on monkeys living in their natural habitat they found that not only do their brains continue to produce new brain cells throughout their lives, but they produce a lot of them. It was being held in captivity that caused their brains to stop producing new cells. This has now been confirmed in birds, rats, and other animals, including humans: when animals are free, their brains grow, when they are not free they don’t.

Play is the “natural habitat” of young humans. Traditional schools are, at their core, a form of captivity. Longer school days, more academic instruction, developmentally inappropriate expectations, less time outdoors, standardization, and high stakes testing are causing children’s brains to stop growing. The cure, according to science, is to set our children free, to let them play: that is how brains grow.


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, November 26, 2020

I'm Thankful to Have a Day Like This

I have so many things for which to be thankful. At the top of my list is our daughter (who, like many young people, is spending  Thanksgiving away from us today) and my wife to whom, as of two days ago, I've now been married for 34 years. I'm also thankful for my mother and father who I won't be seeing in a few hours, along with my brother and sister and their families and every dog who has ever been my companion. And then there are the children and families that make up, and have always made up, the Woodland Park Cooperative School community, people who, in a very real sense, created the man I am today. I would not trade my life for any other: if I could do it all again, I'd do it exactly the same way, mistakes and all. 

Not long ago, I read about a survey in which it was reported that the average American, no matter our socio-economic station, feels that they could be economically satisfied with about 10 percent more money. This was true of both billionaires and paupers. I suspect this is true about most of the good things in our lives. For instance, I know I could do with about 10 percent more sleep, 10 percent more free time, and 10 percent more sex, in addition to that 10 percent pay increase. So, as we don't gather today to reflect upon those things for which we are thankful, it's against a background of always wanting, or of thinking we want, more, a phenomenon that we will prove, as a nation, over the course of the month of consumerism that begins with so-called Black Friday.

Among the many other things for which I'm thankful is the fact that the adults in our family chose some two decades ago to step back from the sales and malls and cash registers. We capped our holiday spending at $5 per person and have placed an emphasis on gifts that are handmade. This means that our holiday experience is about arts, crafts, cooking, and baking, rather than just buying crap. I'm thankful that this is not a season of stress and anxiety for me, but rather one during which I take some time to sit down and meditate on my loved ones while manufacturing some little item that I think they might find amusing or tasty. 

It's probably an aspect of human nature to want more, whatever the percentage. It reflects our urge to strive, the engine of our progress as a species: to reach higher, dig deeper, run faster, and see farther. So I don't want to sound like I'm sitting here judgement of anyone else's striving. 

This morning, I awoke when I normally do, but lay in bed listening. On normal days when I awake there are the sounds of traffic, construction, and people laughing on the sidewalk, but today it's quiet. Everything is even more closed than normal. Everyone is getting a little extra sleep. I'm thankful to have a day like this to set aside my striving and just be thankful.

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, November 25, 2020

To Know Life Intimately and Lovingly

Author and poet Diane Ackerman writes:

"(I)t probably doesn't matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply, are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, and enjoy nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly."

We live in a time of plague, and I don't mean Covid. The virus is called productivity and the disease it causes is an all-consuming sense of guilt or anxiousness whenever we take more than a few moments to remind ourselves that we're alive. Our busy, buzzing minds insist upon reminding us of the tasks undone and challenges ahead, making us perpetually feel as if we're just barely keeping up. It even visits us in our dreams, if we're ever able to go there amidst the tossing and turning. 

Some 2500 years ago, Buddha described our minds as being full of drunken monkeys and the loudest of all is fear, so it's clear that this plague isn't new. And it's a real pity because we've worked so hard over the centuries to protect ourselves from fear. It's unlikely, for instance, that anyone reading this will be eaten by a wild animal. You're probably not going to die in a war or from starvation. Present day challenges notwithstanding, our ability to protect ourselves through medicine has never been better. Yet still the monkeys shriek at us as if it's all a matter of life and death when really it's just about the relentless claims that productivity makes on our every waking moment. The monkey fear that we might fall behind.

Behind what? It's a question we ask about our children and their education, especially now with our schools reduced to video conference calls. I hear the voices of "experts," echoing through our policymakers, warning us that the kids are really going to have a lot of work to do to catch up. Too many children, even young ones, are hearing the monkey's shriek. Never before have so many children, even young ones, experienced the levels of depression and anxiety we're seeing today. The Covid pandemic probably isn't helping. To have experts intentionally stoke the fear-of-falling-behind in parents so that they may infect their children is outrageous.

No matter how hard we scramble to keep up, we will always leave things undone and that guilt and anxiety will, in the end, have amounted to a narrowing of what it means to be alive. As we sit down for Thanksgiving, whatever that means this year, I'm grateful for the young children in my life. They are our best teachers. They are not yet infected with the virus of productivity. Gloriously, they try too hard, are awkward, and prone to caring too deeply. They are driven by their excessive curiosity and that opens them to the totality of experience that comes from enjoying a nonstop expense of the senses in the only human project that matters: to know life intimately and lovingly.


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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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Something That Always "Works"

A two-year-old was standing at the gate, his fingers through the slats, crying after his mommy who had left. The grandmother of another child was sitting with him. I wanted to go take her place, not because she was doing anything wrong, but it was the first day of a summer session, I imagined she was there to enjoy it with her own grandson, and I see it as a big part of my job to be with the kids when they struggle with the transition into their time with us. That said, there were some 30 other kids to be welcomed, along with their parents, and I had several other things to do to get things launched, so I left them there, knowing that at least the poor boy wasn't abandoned, even if he was feeling a bit that way.

It took about 10 minutes in order to carve out the time to get to them. He was still crying. This was the first time we had spoken, other than me saying, "I'm happy to see you," when he first arrived in his mother's arms. I sat beside him on the steps, used his name, and asked by way of confirmation, "Are you sad because your mommy left?"

He nodded.

Several of my old friends had followed me, excited to see me after a break, wanting to be in my sphere for a bit to start their days. "Why is he crying?" "What's wrong?" "Teacher Tom, I want to show you that I learned to pump myself on the swings." I told them that I was going to talk to this boy for awhile, using his name again, letting them know that I would be with them shortly, saying, "We'll come find you when he's finished with his cry."

As I'd managed our space in this way, he had turned away from the gate, still whimpering, but obviously listening. When they had gone he turned his face back to the gate and resumed his cry.

I said, "You're sad your mommy left. It's okay to be sad about that. I'm going to be with you while you're sad, but I want you to know that mommy's always come back. Your mommy will come back." I then verbally walked him through our daily schedule, ending with, "Then I'll read a story and mommy will come back." I had a passing thought about what I would do if this didn't "work," before remembering that the goal is not to end his crying, but to create a space in which he could finish his cry. Of course, it would "work," it always "works" when one person sits with another like this, calmly making statements of fact.

I asked if he wanted me to hold him. He nodded yes, but when I touched him, the recoil of his body said no. I asked if he wanted to sit beside me. He wanted to keep standing. I said, "Okay, then I'll sit here with you while you're sad about mommy leaving." After a couple minutes, one of my old friends raced up, demanding excitedly, "Teacher Tom, you have to come see our major overflow." "Major overflow" is the term the kids had coined for when they fill a 20 gallon tub with water using the the cast iron hand pump, then dump it down the hill, creating a river with a waterfall as it plunges from the upper level of the sandpit to the lower. I answered that I couldn't come right away because (and I used his name again) I was sitting with this boy who was missing his mommy. The older girl widened her eyes, looked at him, then said insistently, "He can come watch it too!"

I asked him if he wanted to see the major overflow. Still weeping, he nodded. I stood and said, "I will go with you. I can hold your hand." He took my proffered hand, and slowly we walked to the sandpit where we witnessed the promised event, which was accompanied by big kids cheering with the kind of joy that can only come from a collective accomplishment. "Did you see it, Teacher Tom?"

I answered that we had seen it, referring of course to the two-year-old who had, it seemed, finished his cry. Soon, he was engaged with the water, probably still missing mommy, but no longer incapacitated by the feelings it evoked.

This is my job. I'm not here to make things better, to end the crying, or to distract them from missing their mommies. I'm not even there to soothe them any more than I'm there to "good job" them: that is not my job. Becoming soothed is their job. Cheering for their own accomplishments is their job. My job is to be with them when they're crying and when they're cheering, speaking truth, and creating space for them to feel exactly how they feel for as long as they need to feel it. It "works" every time.


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, November 23, 2020

The Skills That Will Make Tomorrow

"Let's play Tiger Babies."

"I want to be a polar bear baby."

"You can't because tiger babies would eat polar bear babies."

"That's not true! Polar bear babies eat tiger babies!"

"That's not true!"

I stepped closer because it was the sort of argument that could escalate, which is always the case when "truth" is at stake. And truth is always at stake when children are engaged in dramatic play.

Of course, by definition, dramatic play, like all fiction, is about the imagination, a place where "truth" is, at best, subjective. Indeed, the children were engaged in a counterfactual game, one in which they were asserting something that is objectively not true: that they, human children, were in fact animal babies. In that context, it seems absurd to be arguing over truth, and adults often respond that way when they feel compelled to intervene, yet games like this are not only crucial for children seeking to understand their world, but also one of the things that makes humans human.

As far as we can tell, we are the only species that regularly engages in counterfactual thinking, a term used in psychology to describe the phenomenon of imagining the world in ways contrary or different from the way that it is. It is both the bane and the glory of our species in many ways. On the one hand we are cursed with the ability to imagine an impossibly perfect world which too often serves to make it even more difficult to make peace with the real one. On the other hand, counterfactual thinking is always the first step in changing the world from what it is to what it could be.

Indeed, the entire world of today is counterfactual from the perspective of a Stone Age human. The modern world is a product of counterfactual thinking, as will be any future that includes humans in it.

There are a whole host of things children are learning as they engage in counterfactual play. It gives them the opportunity to work on understanding what goes on in other people's minds, it is a safe place in which to engage in higher order thinking, it lays the foundation for literacy, it requires the social necessities of negotiation and compromise and agreement. It's easy to dismiss children's dramatic play as silly, as a waste of time even, especially when we hear them intensely arguing over "truth," but what they are doing is exercising their imagination and creativity. They are, quite simply, learning the skills that will make tomorrow.


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, November 20, 2020

Getting Into and Out of Predicaments

Yesterday morning, I took a long walk in an unfamiliar place. The advent of global positioning system maps, the kind found on every smartphone, has made this a less adventurous proposition than it was even a decade ago. I used to regularly get myself lost and found, but on this day I checked the map and found a route that avoided major roads. It was a bit of a detour, but I was out, in part, for exercise, so I winded my way through unfamiliar neighborhoods for over half and an hour before discovering that the key connector I'd been shooting for was blocked off by the locked gate of a community of private homes. I briefly considered just climbing the fence, but the camera and signs promising an "armed response" to intruders, made me pause. I finally decided that the solution to this predicament was to backtrack. I cursed the failure of the map in my pocket and the full hour I'd spent getting no where.

Once I was back on a main road, however, I set out once more, confident in my surroundings, my predicament behind me. Not long thereafter, however, a man on a bicycle emerged from a roughly paved path that snaked between houses. The signage indicated it was a bike track. It wasn't indicated on my map application, but I figured, having biked along countless bike tracks that taking it would eventually land me near some landmarks, and from there I could find my way home. The path was enclosed on both sides with cyclone fence to ensure that cyclists didn't trespass on private property. After another half hour I came to a fork in the road. One led off into the distance in a direction opposite to where I wanted to go, while the other was, that's right, blocked by a locked gate, this one topped with razor wire making climbing entirely out of the question. Again, the solution to this predicament was to backtrack.

Once more back on the main road, a full two hours of my morning having been eaten up going more or less no where, I vowed this time to stick to the main stem, a heavily trafficked thoroughfare, only to discover that the road was at one point under construction. Cars could snake through, but there was no place for pedestrians. Any alternative route would eat up at least another hour. This is when I considered just calling an Uber, but the thought of it felt like failure. One side of the roadway was entirely impassable, but upon further study, I spied a rise along the opposite side that looked promising. I crossed over, dodging traffic, to find the ground liberally littered with construction debris. Taking this route meant I would have to trespass, but this time there were no threatening signs, so I lurched up the narrow rise of grass, traffic now below me, and picked my way to the top, where I saw the ground open up into a muddy ravine. But father on, I saw what appeared to be a way through, so I continued forward.

I navigated though the mud, hopping over ground that was marred by the be-puddled imprint of construction vehicle tire treads. I finally emerging into a sandy area that lead me to a second grassy incline. This one was higher than the previous one, at least 15 feet above the roadway. Not only that but here they had erected a temporary fence that pinched the path no more than a foot wide at the highest point. If I fell from there onto the busy street, injury was certain and death possible. As I contemplated my new predicament, I realized I was faced with the choice of taking the risk or backtracking yet again, a project at would eat up the rest of my morning and the beginning of my afternoon, leaving me, for all my efforts, exactly no where. So I summoned my courage and went for it.

As I passed the narrowest point I began to internally celebrate. I'd once more gotten myself out of a predicament. I knew where I was now. Indeed, I knew that there was a decent diner along the route, one that has moved its tables outside, well-spaced for the pandemic. I would be rewarding myself with some corned beef hash and eggs.

Later, when my wife asked me what I'd done with my morning, I told her I'd taken a long walk, not bothering her with the petty predicaments I had gotten myself into and out of, yet as I look back, it was those predicaments that gave the morning savor. I could have easily avoided those predicaments by sticking to my well-traveled paths, but then I would have missed out on the process of extricating myself. Finding ourselves in predicaments is evidence that we've strayed from the main road, that we're trying something new. The learning comes from getting ourselves out of it. Indeed, from one perspective life can be viewed as a journey of getting into and out of predicaments, each one teaching us something about ourselves and our world. This, one can argue, is what education should be: not predicaments imposed on us by others, like when presenting us with a list of math problems we must solve or homework we must do, but predicaments of our own making, ones caused by our own curiosity and ultimately solved by our own actions.

When I watch young children play together, this is what happens. They are forever getting themselves into predicaments, be they intellectual, physical, social, or emotional. We often leap in to help them, like Uber drivers arriving at the curb without being ordered, but when we do, we rob them of the savor found in extracting themselves. We rob them of the success. Perhaps they will need our help, so we stay nearby, but when we allow them to study their own predicaments and make their own decisions about how to get out, we put them in a position to learn the important lesson that they can find their own way out.


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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Thursday, November 19, 2020

Imagine If We Stood On the Shoulders of the Remote Learning Giants

Anne Slack

A couple days ago, I wrote a piece that had been long coming in which I called upon educators to embrace the opportunities and challenges presented by this pandemic to reimagine how we teach young children while continuing to embrace the "freedom, equality, and hands-on democratic education" that so many of us fear we are losing, especially with remote learning. In that spirit, I will be throwing out my own thoughts and ideas from time to time, like the ones below.


Remote learning wasn't born in 2020. Mister Rogers was doing it, and doing it well, in 1968. Language teacher Anne Slack pioneered distance learning in the 1950s. Chef Julia Child started teaching the art of French cuisine to Americans in 1963. Art instructor Bob Ross showed us how to paint "happy little trees" throughout the 80's and 90's, while Levar Burton shared his love of books on Reading Rainbow. "The Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin was teaching us about nature and wildlife up until his tragic death in 2006. Documentary filmmaker David Attenborough and science educator Bill Nye the Science Guy are still going strong.

Even a cursory look at the work of these remote educators shows us how most of our schools are getting it wrong in this era of pandemic education. We are continuing to persist in compelling children to "watch," just as we compel them to physically attend during normal times. No one ever made us watch Mister Roger's Neighborhood or The French Chef, which is central to their success.

It's tempting to argue that they compelled us instead with the flash and pizazz of big budget TV production, but the more recent examples of Attenborough and Nye aside, this hasn't typically been true. Indeed, much of the most highly regarded educational programming has been produced on a shoestring, relying on single cameras and little editing. Puppets, painter's tools, books, pots and pans, knowledge, and charm: that's what they had instead of the carrot of expensive productions or the stick of compulsion. Their students opted to tune in because they were interested in the hosts and the subject matter, which, I assert, is the ideal for any classroom, remote or otherwise.

What if we allowed these pioneers, arguably the most successful remote educators in history, to inform us as we struggle to transition to a new era of education? 

The first thing we would need to do, of course, is stop compelling the kids and instead allow them to chose for themselves which "programs" they're going to watch and when. This would mean taking the terrifying step of trusting children with their own education, a stride too long for many, I know. But imagine a scenario in which every teacher in an elementary school (or school district for that matter) conducted their own "class" in ways and on topics of their own choosing, or, even better, the choosing of the children. Some might lecture. Others might engage in the kind of give and take that is enabled by small online groups. There would be music, dance, physical education, art and science. If kids wanted to learn about, say, dinosaurs or Elizabethan fiction, there would be a class on that, and if not, one could quickly be created. If children were facing emotional or social problems, there would be classes on that. And best of all, each of these remote classes would be taught by an educator who knows and loves the topic and every student would be self-motivated to learn because they have chosen to be there.

These pioneers might have focused their content on people of a certain age or stage, but they never told anyone they were either too young or too old. Remote learning would be the perfect opportunity to get rid of teaching children, as the late Ken Robinson put it, according to their "manufacture date" and instead allow the children themselves to decide what they are ready to learn. I've watched and learned a great deal from Mister Roger's Neighborhood, yet when he started broadcasting I was already "too old" for the show. Why can't a precocious eight-year-old sit in on a high school level physics class if they so choose? And why can't a struggling high schooler refresh his knowledge and skills by sitting in on remedial classes without risking the public shame that that might otherwise entail.

We could even improve upon the educational TV model by recording the "episodes," creating libraries of content so that kids who have something better to do during live broadcasts can participate when it works best for them. Informal discussion groups might be enabled, allowing children to interact with one another around what they have learned, sharing insights, asking questions, and otherwise extending their learning, with our without educators being involved.

Like those that came before us, I can imaging educators creating cozy, quirky, and beautiful "places" to which children want to return again and again, like Bob Ross' studio, or taking children to places they might want to go, like museums, libraries, zoos, beaches, or forests. Instead of being stuck in classrooms all day, educators would be free to roam as far afield as they needed in order to bring children the best in remote learning.

And perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from these masters is that all of them ditched the unholy trinity of grades, tests, and homework, trusting their students to learn what they needed to learn, relying instead upon their innate curiosity and motivation, which is the foundation of any real education. 

I know that some teachers are already doing many of these things, and more, in this new era of experimentation. Let's keep experimenting, inventing, sharing, and even failing, as we feel our way forward, but let's also not forget that we see farther when we stand on the shoulders of giants.


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, November 18, 2020

Education Has Nothing to do With Intelligence: It is About Growth

Not long ago, I took an online IQ test. It appears that my IQ is between 133 and 149, "or it may even be higher!" which means it may be over 160, so you might very well, right now, be reading the words of a bona fide genius.

Art: Karntakuringu Jukurrpa

Naturally, I'm joking. No intelligent person puts any stock in the validity of tests that purport to measure intelligence. I sure don't, especially a self-administered online test that only took a few minutes, but there was a part of me that was nevertheless disappointed to learn that I'm pretty much average. We all know about the cultural biases that go into these tests, so of course, being a middle-aged, middle-class, white male, one might expect a person like me to score between 133 and 149. And that's the most reliable thing about most standardized tests: they tend to be very good at predicting the demographics of the test takers, but little else.

Intelligence is a cultural construct, something that is dictated by the dominant culture. If history is written by the victors, then intelligence is defined by the powerful, but that doesn't mean that there aren't other ways of being smart, they just might not get you into your college of choice. A Google search will tell you that there is not just one type of intelligence, but rather two . . . or three, or seven, or eight, or nine. The dictionary definition is "the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills," not identifying what specific knowledge or skills qualify, which suggests that intelligence is not so much about what one knows or does, but rather the capacity for growth.

One of the things that I value most about my decades as a parent and teacher in cooperative preschools is that the children's parents attend school with them. Most parents, even if they don't say it aloud, absolutely know that their child is a genius. They've seen it with their own eyes. They've been astounded. They've been inspired as their babies have applied themselves in their sponge-like way to acquisition of knowledge and skills, the connections they've made, the epiphanies, and the apparent ease with which it all happens. And when they get to observe their child in the classroom they get to see that they are right -- their child is a genius! And so is that one, and so is that one, and so is that one . . . Indeed, genius is not the rarity our IQ tests would have it be, but rather the norm, at least during these preschool years.

So what happens? The social construct of intelligence happens. This invention of the dominant culture happens. It sorts the children according to socio-economic status, letting just enough high achieving minorities through to prove the rule of this thing called intelligence. It's as if the concept of intelligence exists primarily as form of social control, as a way for one group to assert its superiority over another in the guise of "objectivity." Or maybe it calls into question, not the concept of intelligence itself as much as the attempt to measure intelligence, because it's only through measurement, through judgement and ranking, that we can sorting winners from losers.

This is the dark heart of academic testing, grading, and assessment. No matter how well-intended, the game is always rigged, at least so long as we presume to measure this non-existent thing called "intelligence." As cooperative preschool parents learn, there are as many types of intelligence as their are children. Education is emphatically not about intelligence, but rather about growth. As educators, we should not be here as referees enforcing the rules that determine who wins and loses, but rather as fellow travelers, supporting each child as they use their unique abilities to become their best selves. Intelligence has nothing to do with it.


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, November 17, 2020

How to Begin Fighting a Viral Pandemic With Viral Learning

First there is denial, then anger, then comes the bargaining, depression, and acceptance. That is the progression of grief. Most of us who have made our careers in early childhood education are somewhere along this path right now, a journey that began abruptly in March as the reality of the pandemic finally caused us to take action.

I know this has been true for me. At first, I welcomed the closures as an accidental holiday, but as it dragged on I found myself angry: at the virus, at my government, at suggestions that we would be plopping young children in front of computer screens. I then spent time casting about for middle ground that I could live with, writing posts here and making videos with suggestions and ideas for how we could continue giving children hands-on, face-to-face opportunities while somehow keeping them safe. I didn't identify the depression when I was in the midst of it, but rather, as is often the case, only after the "black dog" began to release its fangs. 

What's left is acceptance. 

Yesterday, my good friend John Yiannoudis wrote a long piece about acceptance on his Facebook page (John wrote in Greek and here I've taken the liberty of smoothing out the automatic translation):

We can sit and mourn over the spilled milk, but we can also ride the wave of changes, experimenting for a new condition that will fit the world of the 21st Century, and beyond . . . Let us not forget that a child born in 2015 will one day be 35 years old. He won't even remember what the world was like, just as I was born in 1969 and don't remember the world without an electric fridge . . . If we adults continue to mourn the evil that has found us for much longer, the children will first look on sadly and feel sorry as well, but then they will get bored and hate us very quickly.

I had to sit with this for some time and I came to realize that without putting it into words, I've actually been sitting with this for months now. I'm thrilled for my colleagues in New Zealand, Australia, Iceland, and other island nations who have, for now, managed to more or less dodge the plague, and we have a lot to learn from what they have done, but most of us will be living with this for at least another year. That's a lifetime when it comes to young children.

John rightly points out that education and educators tend to be rather resistant to change, reminding us that the basic structure of academic schooling hasn't changed for over 250 years. And that those of us who have strived to buck that essential conservatism by embracing "freedom, equality, and hands-on democratic education" are faced with the added dilemma that there is no current technology that can replace essential "physical activities and face-to-face child and teacher interaction." 

So what do we do? I don't know. No one does, but I've had the privilege of spending the better part of the past two decades hanging out with creative geniuses engaged in freedom, equality, and hands-on democratic education. These geniuses would not begin by sitting down as a committee to discuss and debate. They would start by experimenting. They would not wait for some authority to suggest the brilliant idea. No, they would start by just farting around with whatever was available to them, be it new technology or old. A lot of things would get broken in the process and there would be many, many failures, but eventually one of them would figure something out and show it to someone else. Then, together, they would continue to fart around, breaking more things and learning from their failures. Eventually, there would be more breakthroughs and those too they would share with one another until their discoveries went viral. That's right, they would fight a viral pandemic with viral learning

It starts with all of us accepting that the world is moving on. This evil that has found us has only accelerated many changes that were probably inevitable. If we are going to serve our youngest citizens, it starts with those in authority, those administrators, boards, and committees to finally admit that they don't know what to do, because no one does, and set classroom educators free to experiment, break things, and fail; to explore, to work together, and, yes, to re-introduce joy. Each classroom, however we come to define that, must be a laboratory, a place of discovery, of collaboration, a venue for farting around. We cannot allow ourselves to remain mired in the muck of memorized trivia and internalized routines, but rather engage in the viral process of creating the future. 

And central to that is to let the children lead, because, in the end it is their education, their future, not ours.

As John writes:

After all, let's not forget that those who turn liability into opportunity are the ones who succeed. And while right now we all feel the world around us as a huge liability, now is the moment to look for the new holy grail of education!

The sooner we arrive at acceptance, the sooner we can get started, each in our own bubble at first, then sharing what we've learned. It can begin today, with you and the children in your life.


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, November 16, 2020

Time Travel

I don't catch a whiff of cigar smoke very often these days, but I recently passed a couple of men enjoying stogies over glasses of wine and the scent carried me instantly back to my youth, playing baseball under the lights at Legion Field in Corvallis, Oregon. There was always a fan or two smoking a cigar in the stands and in an instant, my mind was transported over four decades back in time, taken there by the memories attached to that particular hot, sweet smoke.

Odor is a well-known trigger for time travel. Just the right whiff of rosemary or gasoline or a freshly mown lawn can send our minds into the the past and for a moment, however brief, we are someplace else. I've found that this happens more and more as I've aged. I imagine that this is likely because the more I've lived, the more past I've created.

One of my loved ones lost her sense of smell in her early 60's. Not long after that, she began to lose some of her memories, the beginning of the cruel process of dementia. I have no way of knowing if the two things are connected, but it seems possible given how powerfully, and uncontrollably, odor yanks us into our memories. Or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe scent is how we pull the past into the present.

Olfactory cues are vital to the formation of the bond between mothers and their newborns and are probably at least as important as the sense of touch to normal development. 

Our cerebral hemispheres were originally buds from the olfactory stalk. Some say that we think because we smelled. Scientists have experimented with odors as a way of improving memorization in students, finding that test scores can be improved by studying for a test while smelling a certain odor, say rosemary, then re-introducing that odor during subsequent test taking. Although those "successes" in locking in memories through scent have so far been found to be short-term, whereas we all know that deep olfactory learning can last a lifetime. 

As a preschool teacher who has worked his entire career in cooperative classrooms occupied by both children and their parents, I've often been made aware of the difference between the way children and adults perceive odors. I once accidentally made a batch of play dough with some oil that had been infused with rotting fruit, the product of a classroom experiment. Adults could barely stand to be in the classroom for more than a few minutes at a time because of the stench, whereas the kids delighted in their "stink dough," making "stink cookies" and "stink muffins" with which to gross out their parents, seemingly unbothered by the foulness. Adults, not children, complain about the odors of cleaning products or Sharpie markers or the old coffee grounds with which we sometimes play in our sensory table. The children can smell the odors, remark on them, discuss them, even labelled them as "yucky," but that doesn't cause them to keep their distance or crack windows. Indeed, when I suggested we throw out the "stink dough" the kids objected, which is why we played with it for a full week, even as their parents gagged.

Our sense of smell changes as we age, improving until about the age of eight, then beginning to decline in our late teens, although there are some scents that young children can't detect that adults can. There are certainly biological factors at work, but I also imagine that some of the difference, especially when it comes to odor aversion, comes from the fact that children simply do not have as much experience with odors as adults. We are bothered by the places in the past where certain scents take us, whereas our children know these odors only in the present tense. 

There is so much we don't know about our sense of smell, but it seems obvious that it is essential to education and development. Most schools focus on learning through looking and listening: sight and hearing. More progressive schools value the importance of "hands on learning," the sense of touch. Taste tends to be almost as much of an afterthought as scent, and that's understandable given how closely related they are, yet from a biological perspective they are foundational to human learning and ought not be ignored.

Most adults today would pull a young child away from a man smoking a cigar and I would do the same. Yet as an adult, I'm happy my own parents left me to experience that scent from the stands at Legion Field as place I can return today with just a whiff.


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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