Thursday, December 10, 2020

Sucking the Joy From Their Lives

I was sitting on a bench near a playground merry-go-round watching our three and four-year-olds play. A pair of boys decided they wanted a spin. They mounted the apparatus, then one of them turned to me, "Teacher Tom, you push us."

I answered, "Sorry, I'm busy sitting here. You'll have to find someone else."

As the first boy tried pleading with me, the second said, "I'll get my brother to push us. He likes doing the things I like," and jogged off in the direction of where their classmates where playing. He called out to them, "Who will push us?" They ignored him so he returned to the merry-go-round. As he mounted it, he gave it a little push with his foot and the two boys began turning slowly.

As the momentum began to die, a couple of girls found their way to the merry-go-round. Without being asked, they decided they were going to push it "fast." The boys were delighted. Working together, the girls managed to get it up to speed, then the two of them jumped on as well. More children began to arrive in twos and threes, many pushed before jumping on. One of the original boys, leaning into it, head tipped back, began to chant, "Oh yeah, it's spin time! Oh yeah, it's spin time!"

The children began jumping off and on as they spun. Many of them fell to the ground upon dismount, most doing so intentionally. Occasionally, one of them would be trampled as they lay there in the path of the pushers. Some of them cried out in objection, while others squealed with delight. It was the kind of wild, breathless fun for which these machines were designed, even if adult imposed rules too often forbid it.

They were learning something, because we are always learning something when we play. I could write a list here of all the things I imagine they were learning, or exploring, or discovering. I could put those guesses into a report of some sort. Indeed, if I were so inclined I would have already filed dozens of reports on the children playing together on the merry-go-round going back to September. I could then take all those reports and compare them to today's report and use this data to pretend that I know what they have been learning over the course of months. I reckon I could even devise some sort of pre and post-test that would allow me to compare the children's progress, identify those who are behind and assign those poor kids some merry-go-round homework so they could catch up with the others. I might even decide to rank the children on various measures that I have identified as important about merry-go-round play, assigning each of them grades based on my assessment of where they fall on an arbitrary scale of learning I'd devised based on data that I and others have collected over generations. I could then use this data I've amassed to devise a merry-go-round curriculum, one that allows me to "teach" children how to play on a merry-go-round, imagine myself an expert, seeing to it that all the children became merry-go-round proficient . . .

This is ludicrous, of course. I could do all of that and not only would I be no closer to knowing what these children were learning, I would have wasted vast amounts of time that I could have otherwise spent doing something more productive, like scratching my ass. No one can ever know what another person is learning. Each of those children on the merry-go-round are learning something different, something unique, something that applies only to them and their lives, and even the person doing the learning often doesn't know what they've learned, and no amount of testing, grading, or data collection will change that.

This is the great fraud of our educational system, this hubristic notion that adults can somehow measure learning, yet for generations we have put children through the processing plants we call schools, marching them into the test score coal mines, subjecting them to our experiments like lab rats. It's lead to a grotesque narrowing and standardization of what we call education based not on learning, but on what we can most easily measure.

I am comfortable knowing that children are learning because they are playing, and that's enough. Indeed, I have no choice because to believe otherwise, is to buy into the lie that anyone can possibly know what these children are learning. It would mean that I must take part in sucking the joy from their lives and I will not knowingly be a party to that.

"Oh yeah, it's spin time!" That's all I need to know.


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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