Thursday, March 04, 2021

Despite My Utter Lack of "Teaching"


I never pretend to know what kids will learn on any given day and, honestly, any teacher who does is either deluded or blowing smoke. No one can possibly know what another person is going to learn. You can hope. You can plan. You can lecture yourself blue. You can even, if you're especially clever, trick someone into learning something, but the idea that one person can "teach" something to another, except under narrow circumstances, is one of the great educational myths.


There is a quote that is most often attributed to the Buddha, but is more likely of Theosophical origins, that goes: "When the student is ready the master will appear." I like these kinds of quotes that persist because they are true even when they can't be traced back to the utterances of Buddha, Socrates, or Einstein. This one is even so true that there is a corollary: "When the master is ready the student will appear."


Some days I accidentally "teach" something to a kid. For instance, I once improperly used the term "centrifugal force" (when I actually should have use "centripetal force") while a child was experimenting with a hamster wheel and the kid, months later, was still misusing my term while performing his experiments, even as I repeatedly tried to correct him. But most days I teach nothing at all except, perhaps, what I convey to my students by role modeling. I've tried, believe me, to convey specific information to kids, like when I tell them that dirt is primarily made from volcanos, dead stuff, and worm poop, but most of the time the only things that stick are the things about which the kids are already asking questions.


And still, despite my utter lack of "teaching," the kids who come to our school are learning. How do I know? I watch them. I listen to them. I remember when they didn't know and then I hear them saying and see them doing things that demonstrate that now they do. And even though I'm not teaching them, they mostly learn exactly what I want them to know.


What do I want them to know?


The joy of playing with other people.

The frustration and redemption of failure.

Emotions come and go and they are important.

I'm the boss of me and you're the boss of you.

Our agreements are sacred.

It's not only important to love, but also to say it.


It's not my job to "teach" these things. It is my job to love them and to do what I can to create an environment that is stimulating, beautiful, and safe enough: a place where children can ask and answer their own questions about the world and the people they find there. A place not of teaching, but of curiosity, exploration, experimentation, and discovery. We call it play and it's how we learn everything a preschooler needs to know.


******

It's not quite a finished product, but I finally have an actual website, not to mention this cool logo that my friend Mindy made for me! We're starting to try to consolidate all my work in one place, including e-courses, books, and other projects. You can also find out about booking me to speak at your event, consult, or contact me in a way that will be sure to get answered. Click here to have a look around!  And if you want to get on my mailing list so you'll be the first to know the latest, email me at teachertomhobson@teachertomsworld.com. I promise I won't flood your inbox!

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Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Talking to Ourselves


I'm as eager for the plague to end as anyone, but one thing I'll miss is the freedom to talk to myself in public. Of course, I've always had that freedom, but when you're wearing a mask, no one can tell. For whatever reason, I don't mind admitting that my inner dialog sometimes escapes into the wild, but it would be embarrassing to have strangers actually hear me muttering to myself as I walk along a sidewalk.

I don't know when I decided that talking to myself was something to hide, but it's been a message that's been internalized for a long time. Even as a boy, I knew that etiquette required I confine the externalization of inner conversations to behind closed doors, and even then it was best to restrict them to whispers lest your brother tease you for it. I still whisper when I talk to myself, because it's important, I guess, to keep it a secret. I know it started even before my teachers convinced me that "real reading" meant not even moving your lips. I know I didn't care who heard me when I was a baby just beginning to vocalize, so it was sometime during my first six years that I got the message.

It's an odd thing, too, because words, while inert here on the page, represent sounds, built from smaller units that also represent sounds, yet we've almost universally decided that there is something wrong with releasing them into the world where someone might actually hear them except under certain proscribed circumstances. We tend to see talking to oneself as a sign of mental illness, and it can be, such as with schizophrenia, but the opposite is actually true in most cases. Talking to oneself has been linked to greater emotional control, higher intelligence, better memory, improved performance in visual search tasks, and perhaps most importantly, it helps to relieve feelings of loneliness. Indeed, even when we manage to keep the words from becoming audible, scientists have found that our tongue and vocal cords are activated nevertheless, shaping words soundlessly as we think or read.

We've not always had this relationship with our own voices. Up through the Renaissance, at least, western culture, like the rest of the world, was still largely an oral culture. Even reading was mostly an oral activity. Those "study carrels" you might remember from your school library originated not as a way to prevent you from being distracted, but rather to prevent others from being distracted by monks as they read or sang aloud. Words, you see, couldn't be confined to a page or one's head: they were real things, momentary deities, that had a real impact on the world. 

We learn this quite young. Indeed, one could argue that it is the real world "magic" of words that first motivates us to speak. Our cries summon nutrition and nurturing. Just as we experiment with our hands and feet to see how they can affect the world, we do the same with the sounds coming from our mouths. The word "No," for instance, can have a powerful impact. I've suffered permanent hearing loss from children who have discovered that a high pitched shriek can make silence fall in an instant. Chanting, repetition, and song unify groups engaged in communal activities. 

I've learned the conventions of keeping my internal dialog silent, but I've found that I make more sense, that I can hear myself better, that I'm more lucid when I speak aloud. Even as I write these words, I often try them out first aloud (in a whisper). Sometimes I'm speaking the next sentence even as I'm writing this one. I always take a few minutes to "listen" to my words before I publish them.

Do I want to live in a world in which everyone is talking aloud to themselves? I imagine it would be rather distracting at first, and probably overwhelming for some, but I can't help wondering what we lose when we, without even really knowing we're doing it, place a cone of silence over our thoughts, feelings, and words, when we prevent them from becoming real active forces in the world. When we hide even the best of our thoughts for fear of shame. It carries over into other aspects of our lives. The convention we all know of sitting silently as we, say, watch a movie or play, would have been unheard of in Shakespeare's time, for instance. Audiences expected to be part of the show, to contribute, an expectation that goes back through human history to Homer and beyond, and still lives today in indigenous cultures where the idea of being a passive audience is simply unacceptable. An oral society is one in which we all take part, shaping reality with our spoken words, whereas a "literate" society is one in which we tend to retreat into the silence of our own heads, only imagining the sounds, experiencing existence one-step removed from life itself.

In preschool, we are an oral society, even as the habits of literacy continue to shape us. We sing together, a lot. We talk and chatter and chant. It's quite common for children to carry on quiet monologues as they lose themselves in their play. Dramatic play does not exist without the spoken word. Much of what the children say to us is a kind of stream of consciousness in which they are thinking even as they are speaking, listening to themselves even as they are forming sounds into words, shaping the world for themselves and others. I enjoy few things more than to just listen to a play yard full of preschoolers, their voices mingled together making individual sounds that join together to make new sounds. 

It's music. 

It's poetry. 

Perhaps it's even the voice of a collective consciousness in the process of creating the ever-emerging now.

******

This 6-part e-course can help you to become the teacher or parent you always imagined yourself being. Are you tired of constantly butting heads and scolding? Bossing them around? Feel as if they just don't listen?  Sign up now for The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, in which I pull the curtain back on the magic that comes from treating children like fully formed human beings. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, click here. Thank you!

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Tuesday, March 02, 2021

The Strongest Kids in the World


We were talking about how strong we are, children taking turns sharing feats of strength they had or could perform. It had started with a boy boasting that he was the strongest kid in the world. Others had challenged his assertion, offering as proof stories of other kids they knew who were very strong, the superior strength of big kids, the unbelievable strength of parents, and the superpower strength of fictional characters.

It was a fun conversation, full of exaggeration, hyperbole, and a lot of self-aggrandizement. As we rambled, we created a kind of collective spoken word poem about strength as defined by the ability to lift heavy things off the ground. Most of the kids knew it was a game, but a few stuck with the reality before them, chiming in with "No, you can't!" and "Nobody can lift the whole school!" They were in the minority, but their doubts required defending and eventually we were taking turns lifting chairs and the corners of tables and pretty much anything else wasn't nailed down to demonstrate our actual strength in that real world.

"I can lift the whole loft!" One girl declared, standing with a hand on one of the legs of the two-level structure that occupies a corner of the room. The other children told her, "No you can't." And she couldn't. "Help me!" she called, and several of her friends joined her. It still didn't budge.

"We need more help!"

The children rushed to fill in every available space, all of them, taking hold where they could. It was a disorganized effort that likewise failed. Then the chant of "heave, ho, heave ho . . ." began and suddenly, almost magically, the loft rose in the air. I'd not expected them to be able to do it and rushed to brace the large piece of furniture lest it topple over. Worried now about how they were going to put it down without landing it on toes and fingers, I took much of the weight myself and said, "You did it! Now let's set it back down, gently. I don't want anyone to get squished!" And that's just what we did, as one.

"Wow, we're really strong!"

"I'm going to tell my mom!"

The children milled about, proud, congratulating one another, celebrating. 

"I didn't think we could do it!"

"Me either!"

"I thought I was going to drop it!"

"Me too!"

I was as buoyant as they were. I felt the urge to make a lesson of it, to point out that alone we were weak, but together we are strong. I wanted to drive the point home, to make sure they got it, to draw a clear line between this moment and their futures as people who, when they work with others, can do anything. But, thankfully, the perfection of the moment muted me. It was their moment, one I could only spoil, so instead I stood aside, leaving them to this experience they had created by themselves, for themselves, together.

Someone called out, "We're the strongest kids in the world!" And they cheered.

******

"Teacher Tom's Second Book has once again captured his profound understanding of children. His stories and insights are not only thought provoking, they are full of compassion, respect and hope. This is a must read for everyone who lives with, or works with our precious young children." ~Maggie Dent, parenting educator and author. To order your own copy of Teacher Tom's Second Book or Teacher Tom's First Book, click here.

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Monday, March 01, 2021

"What Is It?"


I heard her mother saying, "What is it?" Her daughter, a two-year-old, was scribbling on a piece of paper with a marker creating a spiky purple tangle made from the kind of thick lines that indicate she was exerting excessive pressure. The girl paused briefly in response to the question, then resumed her work.

Her mother said, "It looks like a butterfly. Is it a butterfly?" 

I would have preferred that the mother wasn't questioning her child about her work. I would have preferred that she limit her comments to useful things like "You're using a purple marker" or "That's a spiky tangle of thick lines," informative statements that, should the girl choose to attend, might be used or not used to support her creative journey. Even better, this mother would not have been saying anything at all, leaving her child to her pursuit without interruption.

Adults are forever asking young children, "What is it?" Older preschoolers know the drill. They often have an answer on the tip of their tongue. They've learned that when they sit down in front of a piece of paper at the "art table," they should be ready for this question. Others clearly make something up on the spot, quickly studying what they see before them for inspiration, "Uh . . . It's a . . . chair with a hat on it!" speaking like one might upon making a discovery even if it has nothing to do with their process. Many reply glumly, "It's not anything," seeming somewhat embarrassed to disappoint or annoyed at the interruption. 

Once a girl who was so excited by her drawing that she began to carry it around the room, showing it to adults, "Look what I made!" One by one, the adults cheered her with words of exaggerated praise, then invariably asked, "What is it?" Before long, she was on the verge of tears, shouting her answer, "It's nothing!" I suggested she show her picture to other kids. That went much better for her. Most of them just looked at it blankly. A few said, "Pretty" or "Good," while others squinted in confusion or judgement. A few were even critical, "Ugly" or "I could draw that." She found this experience much more satisfying. I suspect it's because she was more interested in the impact her art had on other people than empty praise or being quizzed by them about her intent.

Lately, I've been watching old videos of historic figures being interviewed, such as Carl Jung, Aldous Huxley, James Baldwin, and Bette Davis. The other night I watched Dick Cavett interview the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. It is a fittingly surreal interview, barely comprehensible, as the great artist jumps around between languages and concepts, even seeming to invent words here and there. But he makes one thing quite clear, repeatedly, "My paintings mean nothing."

I guess we never stop asking artists, "What is it?" Many have armed themselves with answers, although I've noticed a good number avoid the question by talking instead about their process or inspiration. But Dali reminded me of that girl who shouted, "It's nothing!"

The questions "What is it?" or "What does it mean?" are requests to translate the artwork into words. Some things cannot be said in words. That's what art is all about, after all. No one ever asks, say, an Iron Chef, "What does this mean?" It's food: it's flavor and texture and temperature. We all know it doesn't mean anything other than itself. Like Dali's paintings, or the scribbling of a two-year-old, this delicious plate in front of us just is. Both Dali and a two-year-old are using the tools of art to express something that cannot be translated into words. That's why it could only be expressed as art.

The word, especially the written word, dominates in our culture and we have a tendency to be confused, even angered, by anything that can't be translated. Efforts to do so often result in someone saying, "Well, why didn't she just say that?" as if a dance or a song or a spiky purple tangle can't speak for itself. Our questions have their place, but sometimes, if we really want to understand, we must learn to leave words behind and "listen" with all of our senses, and hear beyond words with the fullness of our being. In that, we are sadly far less literate than most two-year-olds.

After being repeatedly ignored, the mother who was hovering over her daughters scribble fell silent as the girl made so many marks, so aggressively, that the paper began to disintegrate under her pen. Soon she was drawing directly on the table top, continuing her pursuit as her mother joined her on this journey into a place where things cannot be expressed in mere words.

******

It's not a finished product, but I finally have an actual website, not to mention this cool logo that my friend Mindy made for me! We're starting to try to consolidate all my work in one place, including e-courses, books, and other projects. You can also find out about booking me to speak at your event, consult, or contact me in a way that will be sure to get answered. Click here to have a look around! 

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, February 26, 2021

I'll Try Not to Yuck Your Yum if You Try Not to Yuck Mine



"There are only two bad kinds of ice cream: pistachio and tutti frutti." It's one of the jokes I tell that no one thinks is particularly funny. The kids tend to take me seriously, "What's so bad about them?" And adults tend to snort in imitation of The Dude, "That's, like, just your opinion man."

It's true that those two flavors ruin ice cream for me, although if that's all there is, I'll still eat it, just not with the usual gusto. I've found many who agree with me about tutti frutti, but I often feel as if I'm all alone in my dislike of pistachio. "But that's the best flavor," they'll say or, "You don't know what you're talking about," all in the spirit of the joke, of course.

Ice cream isn't something to fight over. We've all known since we were quite young that everyone perceives flavors in a different way. What we find "yucky" others seem to find "yummy." And even as our beloved adults sometimes try to coax us with promises of bigger muscles or trick us by hiding, say, broccoli in an otherwise delicious marinara sauce, the palate doesn't want what the palate doesn't want. The same goes for all of our senses, which accounts, at least in part, for different tastes in music, color, scent, and the kind of fabric we like against our skin.

Everyone interacts with the world through our senses. We are born into a hubbub of sensation, then gradually begin to sort them out. In our culture we've settled on five senses, but people who study these things count up to 33 and, as we know, even among the commonly accepted five there is a great deal of crossover, say, between smell and taste. Some theorize that we are just one big bio-machine that exists for the purpose of processing the universe into a form our consciousness can comprehend, each of us put together differently from the start, then shaped by events and environment, into a unique interpreter of reality.

My joke entertains me because I know that children will query and adults will object. I'm setting myself up to be told I'm "wrong," even as I know I'm as right as anyone about the flavors of ice cream. When I tell my stupid joke amongst children it almost inevitably turns into a comparative conversation about our senses, with children offering up their "yucks" and "yums," agreeing and disagreeing. It's a way to talk about our similarities and differences. 

There have, however, over the years been a few instances in which the conversation turned angry. For example, one boy grew livid at another who insisted that he liked the taste of garlic on his bagel. "You don't like garlic!" he shouted. Had the emotion not been so real, I would have laughed. But it made me think about how often our inability to accept the perceptions of others, without judgement, stands at the heart of our bigotries.

Marshall McLuhan of "The medium is the message" fame asserts that the "ratio" among human senses changes depending upon the medium (or environment or tool) through which we are experiencing the world. We've all know of people, like Helen Keller, for whom the absence of one sense, leads to the enhancement of others. That would be an example of this sort of change in ratio. McLuhan, in great detail, writes about how the introduction of the phonetic alphabet turned our oral and aural sense into a visual one. Up to the adoption of the written word, we lived in a space in which our sense of hearing played a much more prominent part in our experience, something that we modern humans, steeped as we are in the visual realm of literacy, can no longer fathom. As the ratio of senses among Europeans increasingly shifted toward the visual and away from the aural over the course of centuries, we began to label those who perceived the world in preliterate ways (e.g., through the ear) as primitive or barbarian. Even the word "preliterate" contains the connotation of inferiority.

But just as there is no objective "better" or "worse" when it comes to ice cream flavors, there is no better or worse when it comes to the shape of our senses. As much as humanity gained from severing spoken words from the sounds they make with the adoption of the phonetic alphabet, we lost just as much in the process. Pre-literate humans had much better memories than modern man, for instance. Even young children were capable of quickly and easily committing epics and opuses to memory in ways that would be impossible for most of us. There is no better or worse, only different. Humans adapt to the environment or medium in which they find themselves. McLuhan's big contribution to the ongoing dialog of the world is that he sees that western culture is in the midst of another major change in sensory ratios that began with the advent of electronic media. We are now re-entering, in his view, a new era, shaped by new media, in which our sensory ratios are once more shifting toward those known by our ancestors and those few remaining people who still live as their ancestors did.

I'm not entirely sure I buy the theory, but there is no doubt that our children are growing up in a changing environment that is reshaping their senses. We often see it in the news media as "rewiring their brains," a framing that most of us read with alarm. As we wring our hands, our children, as children always do, are simply adapting and adopting. And just as we, as a culture that has spread itself in colonizing ways around the globe, came to view non-illiterate cultures as inferior, we are actively labeling ourselves as superior to whatever it is that's coming next as well. Meanwhile our children become digital natives with our without us.

Admittedly, there is a lot of conjecture in what I've written here. The science of the senses, the history of literacy, and the legacy of McLuhan's ideas can all be argued from the other side. What is not in doubt, however, is that our senses, no matter how finely honed, cannot begin to tell us the whole truth. To get at that requires bringing all of our perceptions together in cacophonous dialog in the hope that our collective consciousness can bring us closer. It's worth considering.

In the meantime, I'll try not to yuck your yum if you try not to yuck mine.

******

"I recommend this book to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here. They're written using a phonetic alphabet!

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Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Concept of "Learning Loss" is Complete BS


Just scanning the first page of my search engine's results for "learning loss" without clicking a single link I see that children have "suffered" learning loss during the pandemic, that the learning loss is "grim," that it is "unprecedented," and that schools are "racing" and "struggling" to correct it. It will, apparently, "take years to overcome" the damage that's been done to our poor children who we are counting on to fill the jobs of tomorrow.

Oh boy, we're on high seas alright. Just when we think we're seeing a light at the end of the pandemic storm, we see there are still choppy waters and dark clouds ahead, and this time it's all going to come crashing down on our children. The poor children. Think of the children!

But breathe easy. Fortunately, there are heroes here to save the day: for-profit corporations who just happen to sell exactly the lifesavers we need in the form of curricula, text books, and, most importantly, standardized tests. Of course, it will apparently mean tossing a few less important things overboard. Recess must, of course, be reduced. School hours can be extended. Summer break can be shortened or perhaps eliminated entirely. And perhaps we can put those extras like music, physical education, and art on hold for a few years. If these measures seem harsh, please consider the poor, wee, suffering children whose brains are being, as we speak, drained of learning; who have been traumatized by what is clearly a brain damaging event. But if we act fast, with the kind of tough love only institutions can administer, and with, most importantly, rolls of freshly minted bills (that are definitely not needed to make up for the financial losses these self-proclaimed "education" corporations experienced during this dark time when children were not being rigorously drilled-and-killed), these benevolent heroes can save our children from being hopelessly lost at sea for the rest of their lives . . .

This is what they are selling and it should sicken all of us. The concept of "learning loss" is complete BS. It's been with us forever, of course, this noxious idea that if we don't keep children's noses to the grindstone year-round they fall into some sort of swoon of blithering ignorance, but now it's being weaponized and aimed directly at our children. "Learning loss" is not a real thing. It's an invention of the standardized testing crowd. If it's so fragile that a few months, or even a year, will cause it to somehow disappear, it was never learned in the first place. It was, at best, a bit of trivia that a child managed to store away in their short term memory long enough to fill in the right dot on a test. I have no doubt that kids have sloughed off tons of this sort of trivia during the past year, but that isn't evidence of learning loss: it's evidence that what we've been doing to children at the behest of these testing companies isn't learning at all. Or rather it's learning in the only thing that matters to their bottomline, which is proficiency in taking tests, of cramming, of scoring points. It is a useful, self-perpetuating set of skills just so long as testing remains the center of their educational experience. It is not useful for anything they will ever face in the world beyond the classroom.

Clearly, the actual content doesn't matter, and that's usually the way children feel about it as well. Once they've used it for it's only conceivable purpose, filling in a bubble with a number two pencil, they are free to dump it to make space for the next set of test answers they must retain long enough to fill in the correct bubbles. This is not learning in the sense that professional educators think of it, which is why it's no loss at all.

Professional educators know that real learning cannot be lost except in the case of some sort of brain damage. Professional educators know that real learning continues unabated, even during a pandemic. Professional educators know that the children who return to their classrooms will have been transformed by their experiences, profoundly, and not all for the bad. Professional educators know that "falling behind" is a concept invented by testing companies whose only measure for "behind" is the very tests they create, a convenient, cynical self-perpetuating cycle that has nothing at all to do with learning or education or life itself. Professional educators know that one must apply knowledge before it is learned and our children have spent the past year applying their knowledge to living through a pandemic. That's where the learning has happened.

The real heroes are the children who stayed home, who sat in front of computer screens, who continue to wear masks and keep their distance even when every fiber of their being is telling them to hug and wrestle and hold hands. The real heroes are the educators who ditched the curricula and tests, and joined the children on their learning journey, supporting them as they learned lessons that can never be lost. 

It's now beyond sickening to watch our elected representatives (of both parties) fall all over themselves to beat the "learning loss" drum, eager to once more sic the profit-mongers on our children. 

Have some of our children, maybe even most of our children, suffered during the pandemic? Of course, but not because of this "learning loss" BS. Have things been grim? Indeed, but not because the kids had a break from the test score coal mines. Has there been suffering and struggling? My lord, yes, but not the kind that is manufactured in institutions that are designed to run the kids through the kind of assembly line that characterizes most of what these cruel profiteers pass off as curriculum.

It's tempting to wrap up this rant with some heartfelt verbiage about how the children need us to listen, to support, and to help them process the real world events that have changed everything, at least for a time. All of this is true, and we will do it, but right now, as I contemplate the abject meanness of the "learning loss" crowd, I don't want to simply become like them by thinking we can or should prescribe anything to these kids. Let's just admit that none of us know what's next. Let's just admit that the children, overall, may well be weathering this better than most adults, and that they have learned things that we have not. We find ourselves, after a terrible storm, in sight of land, all of us together. We don't know what we will find there. All we know is that we will disembark together and from there we can begin to build something new from what we have actually been learning about ourselves and our world. But first we have to throw the "learning loss" crowd overboard.

******

This 6-part e-course can help you to become the teacher or parent you always imagined yourself being. Are you tired of constantly butting heads and scolding? Bossing them around? Feel as if they just don't listen?  Sign up now for The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, in which I pull the curtain back on the magic that comes from treating children like fully formed human beings. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, click here. Thank you!

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, February 24, 2021

Young Children Don't Need Adults to Make Their Play Meaningful


I was watching a boy named Henry carry a yellow traffic pylon across the playground. He carefully placed it on the ground, not on it's base, but on it's side, taking care to get it "just so," before climbing atop an old packing crate. He stood poised atop the crate for a moment then launched himself, coming down on the pylon. Crack! I heard the sound of the pylon breaking from across the yard.

Stupidly, I asked him, "Henry, why did you do that?"

Without missing a beat he replied, "I wanted to see if I could break it." Duh.


We had a brief conversation about property after that, although in hindsight I think that "property" has a somewhat different meaning when we spend our time on a junkyard playground like ours, but I keep this episode in mind whenever people begin to talk about "play with a purpose," a mantra for those who have accepted the importance of play while clinging to the hubristic notion that children need adults to "make" it educational. Here was a boy with a question, one of his own devising, and therefore one in which he had a genuine interest. He was motivated by his curiosity, Can I break this? and set up an experiment in which he discovered his answer.

The standard definitions of play frame it as "for enjoyment" or "recreation," which can clearly both be aspects of play, but those of us who spend our lives observing children going about the business of actually playing know that there is always a question behind what they do, even if it's not one that can be stated as clearly as Henry's. The purpose of the player isn't always evident to the observer, but there is always, beneath the enjoyment or recreation, an inquiry of some sort at work, one that might not always lead to a definitive answer as Henry's experiment did, but is an exploration of oneself, the other people, and both the physical and psychological environment in which the child finds himself. Play is how our instinct to educate ourselves manifests.


When it comes to preschool education, play is enough: it contains within it all the important questions and answers. We don't need adults commanding, coaxing, coaching, or cajoling the children in order for it to be purposeful. When I hear people use the phrase "play with a purpose" (or something similar) I cringe because no matter how well intended, I know that these are people who don't trust the children's natural instincts and so feel compelled, however gently, to turn their self-directed learning into yet another adult-directed activity that may or may not lead children to answers that are important to them.

Not long ago, I watched a teacher attempt to compel a group of five-year-olds through a type of relay race she had designed to help the children "deepen" their understanding of the autumn leaves they had collected, matching like-with-like and so on. The teacher's enthusiasm and the children's curiosity about this "game" she was describing was enough to keep them interested for a few minutes as they waited in queues for their turn to race from one end of the room to the other, but it wasn't long before there were children exploring under tables, chatting with friends, and, in the case of one boy, simply moping against the wall. The teacher started by trying to cheerfully coax them all back into the game, but it didn't take. She tried to ignore the rebellions to focus on the children who were still engaged in her play-with-a-purpose game, although it seemed to me that most of them were doing it by way of pleasing their teacher more than because the game held their interest. I sympathized with the teacher as I watched her jaw twitch because I have experienced similar episodes in my own teaching past, but the bottom line is that she had managed to turn their natural interest in things like collecting fall leaves and running into a chore from which none of them were learning much other than perhaps a lesson in obedience and disobedience.


Children's play is always purposeful even if we can't tell what that purpose is and it's always educational even if we don't know what they are learning. The moment the adult imposes her own agenda, play comes to an end no matter how playful their top-down agenda tries to be. Children will always lose interest because the questions are not their own and without interest "learning" becomes a chore for everyone.

Play is a pure good, like love or happiness, and, like love or happiness, it tends to disappear when we overthink it.

******

This 6-part e-course can help you to become the teacher or parent you always imagined yourself being. Are you tired of constantly butting heads and scolding? Bossing them around? Feel as if they just don't listen?  Sign up now for The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, in which I pull the curtain back on the magic that comes from treating children like fully formed human beings. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, click here. Thank you!

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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

If the World Disappears When I Close My Eyes



Two-year-old Jonathan put a blanket over his head.

"Where did Jonathan go?" His parents pretended to look for him. "Where is he?"

Jonathan giggled under his blanket. He had played this game before. 

A couple months earlier, he had played the game the other way. He had "discovered" that when he closed his eyes, the world disappeared. It had frightened him at first. He would blink quickly, not wanting, I reckon, to risk losing the world forever, but as he became more confident that the world would return, he took to closing his eyes for minutes at a time. "Everything is gone," he would say, at first with awe, but then matter-of-factually. This hiding under a blanket was a new game for him, an extension of the old one: if the world disappears when I close my eyes, maybe I can disappear as well.

As adults we find his mistaken understanding to be cute, one that reveals misunderstandings about the nature of perception, but at the same time shows us that he's working to build a theory of mind: he was considering the world from our perspective, getting it wrong, but a valiant effort nonetheless . . . 

But maybe it's we adults who are wrong. There is an equal chance that we are.


In his book The Case Against Reality, cognitive scientist David Hoffman tells us that according to the mathematical modeling he's done, there is a zero percent chance that what we perceive through our senses is really what's there. Indeed, his theory is that what we experience as reality is merely a kind of data construct that we ourselves create. What we see, hear, feel, taste, and touch are all things our consciousness creates in order to make sense of the universe so that, in accordance with the Theory of Evolution, we increase our chances of survival. 

The metaphor he uses are icons on our computer screen. Say there is a blue square there that represents an email you've written. We know that the email really isn't actually a blue square. The icon is just an interface that represents that email. The trashcan icon we might drag it into is likewise not an actual trashcan. The reality behind our email icon and that trashcan is a process of circuitry and software that most of us don't understand, nor do we need to in order to interact with our email through this icon interface. Hoffman's theory, which he calls Conscious Realism, asserts that our brain makes icons of everything we perceive and that the "real" universe remains hidden to us like what is really happening when we write an email. As he says, "Our perceptions must be taken seriously, but not literally."

Another metaphor he likes to use is to imagine yourself playing a virtual reality game. You're wearing a headset and as you turn your head, the program renders what appear to be objects in the direction you are looking. When you look in another direction, it deletes those representations of objects and creates other representations to simulate a changed perspective. This, he proposes, is similar to what happens when we look around in the real world. If we are not perceiving an object with at least one of our senses, it simply doesn't exist until we once more are in a position to perceive it.


So maybe, if this outlandish theory is correct, Jonathan was right to conclude that the visual part of his world disappeared when he closed his eyes. Perhaps his insight was not a developmental stage at all, but rather a glimpse into the reality behind our perceptions that is no longer available to us adults. 

The world of literature is full of examples of children being able to perceive things adults cannot: like Peter Pan, The Chronicle of Narnia, or Alice in Wonderland. In these books, it's the adults, in their calcification, who don't see the things that children can. 

Those of us who spend our days with young children know that they often perceive the world more accurately than we do. For instance, they are creatures of the moment, not fretting about the past or future, a perspective that jibes with what both physicists and philosophers tell us about the world. The present is all we ever have, and young child live as if this is true, playing according to their desires, while we fill the present with mundane chores in anticipation of a future that will never come. 

They know that the solution to homelessness is to give people homes. 

They are born keenly aware that the people in their lives, their parents and family, are more important than anything else.

They don't hide their emotions behind false smiles or stuff them until they take the shape of monsters. Children know to let their feelings out, to feel them, and to get on with their life of doing.

We say that children grow out of these phases as they become more mature, but as I consider Jonathan under his blanket, I wonder if we, as a society, really just do a number on them. We've become invested in persuading them, and, in turn, ourselves, that the storybooks are fantasy, that the present is merely a fulcrum between feelings of guilt about the past and worry about the future, that the problem of homelessness is soooo complicated, that our family and friends can wait, and that our emotions make us weak or rude or ugly.

I doubt there are any preschool educators who haven't at least considered how different our world would be if only we could take children seriously, especially the very young ones, who have not yet been taught the dubious lesson that the world doesn't disappear when they close their eyes. 

******

This 6-part e-course can help you to become the teacher or parent you always imagined yourself being. Are you tired of constantly butting heads and scolding? Bossing them around? Feel as if they just don't listen?  Sign up now for The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, in which I pull the curtain back on the magic that comes from treating children like fully formed human beings. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, click here. Thank you!

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Monday, February 22, 2021

How We Become Blind to the Chicken

Karntakuringu Jakurrpa


In 1961, Professor John Wilson of the African Institute of London University published a paper in which he tells of an experience he had while trying to use film to teach an audience. He was working with a sanitary inspector who had the specific goal of educating people about the importance of getting rid of standing water in order to combat mosquito born illnesses like malaria. They chose film as their medium because the audience was illiterate. They likewise knew that the audience wasn't familiar with film, so they kept things deliberate and simple. There was only one character, the sanitary inspector himself, talking to the camera, giving careful demonstrations. They screened it to an audience of 30 or so who were then asked what they had seen. "The chicken," they answered.

There hadn't been a chicken in the film, but every member of the audience talked about seeing the chicken. Upon further questioning, they said they had also seen the sanitary inspector, but he hadn't made nearly the impression as this non-existent chicken. It was only when the filmmakers went back and studied their film frame-by-frame did they finally see that, indeed, a chicken, startled by something, had briefly flown across the corner of the screen. It had appeared for less than a second in a five minute film. Until this audience had seen it, the makers of the film had been literally blind to the chicken.

After consulting with an artist and an eye-specialist, they learned that people who are familiar with film, don't actually focus on the screen itself, but rather at a point just in front of the screen in order to take in the whole picture. This audience, however, had instead focused on the screen itself, the way we might do on a printed page, not seeing the big picture, but scanning the images segment by segment in all their details, one at a time, never making a story of it, while seeing the chicken as clear as day. 

There are few people in the world today who are film illiterate, but studies done on people who are find that there is a whole host of incomprehensible things found in film that we take for granted. Moving pictures are not, as we suppose, representations of reality, but rather a collection of conventions that we've learned to decode. Panoramic sweeps, for instance, are confusing to film illiterate audiences: it seems to them that the whole world is moving. When a character steps out of the frame it appears as if they have inexplicably disappeared. They cannot accept the convention of a person sitting quietly who is then brought into a close-up. It appears to them that the person has grown bizarrely larger. In other words, what we perceive as an accurate representation of reality is really just a collection of conventions and symbols that we've learned to interpret, but in the process of becoming film literate, we make ourselves blind to the chickens. 

I find myself wondering if this isn't the consequence of all learning. We are born scanning our world which is a miasma of sensory input. We're not, at first, even able to distinguish between our senses. In their book The World of the Newborn, Daphne and Charles Maurer write about newborns:

"His world smells to him much as our world smells to us, but he does not perceive odors (as we do) . . . His world is a melee of pungent aromas -- and pungent sounds, and bitter-smelling sounds, and sweet-smelling sights, and sour-smelling pressures against the skin. If we could visit the newborn's world, we would think ourselves inside a hallucinogenic perfumery."

There is no line between the senses. They are all one. The very notion that we have five distinct senses instead of the single all-encompassing one of infancy is itself a product of our having learned a set of conventions and symbols that may be useful, but in fact removes us from the actual reality that we are born into. So we leave behind the aromas of sight and sound, unlearning this way of perceiving the world, in favor of what our social world teaches us.

It is bigotry to believe that our various literacies -- in reading or film watching or dividing up our senses -- represent "progress" or superiority. The people who see chickens that we cannot see are not ahead of us or behind, they are simply attending to different conventions. Babies who can taste what they see and hear what they feel only lose this ability because we have created a world in which they must learn to see with their eyes and taste with their tongue.

As adults who work with young children, we are so steeped in our various literacies that we mistake them for reality. Instead of feeling that we must "teach" children to "read" the world as we do, perhaps we should make the effort to enter into their "illiterate" world, which is, in many ways, much closer to reality than the conventions and symbols we rely upon. Of course, we may never fully understand, we may never again be able to see the chicken or enter into the hallucinogenic perfumery, but by "listening," as Eleanor Duckworth advises, with our "whole selves," we find that children are a window into ways of perceiving and being that we've forgotten. 

******

In many ways, this 6-part e-course teaches you how to become the teacher or parent you always imagined yourself being. Are you tired of constantly butting heads and scolding? Bossing them around? Feel as if they just don't listen?  Sign up now for The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, in which I pull the curtain back on the magic that comes from treating children like fully formed human beings. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, click here. Thank you!

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, February 19, 2021

In the End the Goal is Not Literacy, It's Understanding


I write every day, publishing here and in other forums like Medium and Edutopia, not to mention my two books. Yesterday, I wrote a post that might be considered a bit dismissive of writing, but please don't let that make you think that I don't value the written word. I'm a product of it, as are you, but it has its limitations, severe ones, in that one can never really say what one wants to say, only come as close as possible.

Like everyone who writes, which is most of us at one time or another, I sometimes write to convey information, persuade, entertain, or preserve something, but the primary reason I strive to put things into words is so that I can know what I think. This, of course, is the opposite of how we "teach" children to write. They are taught to start with a thesis, build their case, then end with a pre-determined conclusion. In other words, they are to think before they write, which, as the old woman quoted by E.M. Forester in his book Aspects of the Novel said, "Good gracious! What rubbish! How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?"

For me, the process of writing is, in many ways, my process of thinking and that is what usually happens here on this blog. Sure, I try to go back and tidy things up a bit to make it presentable before hitting the "Publish" button, and I can't tell you how grateful I am that people, millions of them, have found value in reading what I leave here and there, but mainly I write to understand. This too, is the opposite of how one is taught to write. One is supposed to imagine an audience and write to that audience, but that, I think, is only true when writing to inform, persuade, entertain or preserve.

Writing is certainly not the only way to arrive at understanding. An artist friend says she needs to work with "matter" to shape her thoughts, and, in turn, "I need thoughts to give a name and a sense of what happens to matter." The most famous teacher of all, Socrates, never wrote anything. He used his Socratic Method of conversation and questioning to drill down to understanding. In fact, he distrusted the written word:

“The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves . . . You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing.” 

In fact, it's this passage that prompts me to write today (and yesterday for that matter). Oh sure, as well-regarded as Socrates is, he is only known today because his student Plato wrote his words. And like with many of the dead, white males of the Western Canon, we needn't take his words as transcribed by others at face value. He could have been wrong. Perhaps he, like many of us, was a mere Luddite, digging in his heels against a new and powerful technology, but his example of striving to understand even if it upsets our cherished ideals, I think, remains a good one. That's why I wrote yesterday. I value the written word, but I've had a number of conversations lately with people from indigenous backgrounds who have caused me to re-consider the written word altogether, or to at least place it on a lower pedestal alongside others of equal height.

Typically, we think of the role of educators as one of informing, persuading, entertaining (at least a little), and preserving (again, at least a little), but our real function is the two-way street of understanding. That is the business of education: to facilitate understanding. Writing is not an option for most preschoolers. For them, the pursuit of understanding comes through an ongoing spiral of play and the spoken word. One might even say that their's is a much more direct way to arrive at understanding, so much so that I sometimes find myself wishing I wasn't literate at all. 

There are times when I'm frustrated by the limitations of words. They get in my way and never quite say what I want them to say. The most irritating example is the use of jargon and buzz words, which are invented as shortcuts for people in the same profession or clique, but that quickly evolve into walls that keep the uninitiated out. When I'm trying to understand I seek to shed all jargon and use the simplest word possible. Instead of writing about my "head space" I'll write "mood." Instead of writing "meta," I'll use "big picture." The more commonplace the words, the easier it is for me to start to approach understanding. 

Children are more like my artist friend, however, or Socrates. Matter and dialog are real things in the real world. Writing is a step removed. I tell myself that the words I publish here are my tiny contribution to the great and ongoing dialog of humanity, but how can they serve that purpose when they are so distant from the real things taking place, like transforming matter or a conversation or a song or dance or digging a hole to China?

Reading and writing, what we call literacy, is a double-edged sword and we shouldn't allow ourselves to fall prey to placing literacy on a pedestal. As useful as it is, there are so many more kinds of literacy in the world, so many more grammars, so many more and beautiful ways to understand. In fact, most of these types of literacy are available to the young children in our lives right now, at this very moment. Alphabetic literacy can and should wait until they are seven or eight or nine or ten years old. As long as we provide the opportunities for them to explore, create and converse, they will teach themselves to be literate in the real world, multi-literate, profoundly literate.

I write to understand, but there are as many paths to understanding as there are people. Let's each find our own, walk together when our ways run parallel, and walk alone when our ways diverge, emerging as humans who understand, but in our own unique ways, which is the glory of humanity. In the end the goal is not literacy, it's understanding.

******

Tired of butting heads with kids? Scolding them? Bossing them around? Do you feel like they just don't listen? Sign up now for my new 6-part e-course, The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, in which I pull the curtain back on the magic that comes from treating children like fully formed human beings. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, click here. Thank you!

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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