Tuesday, March 09, 2021

A Curriculum of All-Bugs-All-The-Time vs. Hubris and Habit


I once taught a boy named Rico who had a passion for insects. He came to me that way as a three-year-old and was still hunting for bugs as a five-year-old. He didn't care at all for the tub of plastic insects we had inside the preschool, even the super-sized scorpion that every kid wanted, left him shrugging. Instead, he peered into the dark places -- under and behind furniture, for instance, or into the thin cracks between the baseboards and walls. -- because that, he knew, was where the bugs wanted to be. He included spiders in his studies, as well as snails and worms, even as he knew they were arachnids and mollusks, and for a time allowed himself to be fascinated with crabs and lobsters after the visiting "Bug Man" told us that they were, in fact, a type of insect. But his main interest were the bugs that live among us on a daily basis, the creatures he found in his garden, under his house, while on walks, and, of course, on the playground.

He would occasionally play with the other children, and often lure some of them to join him in his hunts, but he spent a great deal of time on his own, on his hands-and-knees, peering under leaves, turning over rocks, and investigating the damp, dark corners of the yard. When he found something interesting, he would begin to call out to others, drawing them together, excitedly telling them what he thought he had found. He wasn't always correct, but it didn't matter because he would go home and, with the help of his parents, do his research, then return the following day with the corrected facts. When children didn't respond to his excited calls, he would coax the living treasure onto his hand, then walk around the playground to show others.

The adults at Woodland Park didn't try to help him to find other interests. Occasionally, someone might, out of curtesy, invite him try something apparently non-insect related. If he wasn't too terribly hot in his pursuit at the moment, he would gamely give it a go. When he was handed a hammer he promptly drove six long nails into a piece of wood, leaving most of their shafts exposed, and called it a beetle. When he was handed a paint brush he painted a yellow and black striped yellow jacket, warning us that it could both sting and bite. When he was handed a pencil and paper he would ask for help spelling the names of his favorite insects. When he was handed the opportunity to tell a story it was about a family of termites. When he was handed play dough . . . Well, you know what he did.

When other children came across insects, they always rushed first to Rico to show him what they'd found, to have him name it, to inform them of its salient features. His lectures could be longwinded, but I never saw a child walk away. When we raised butterflies from caterpillars he gave us daily reports on their progress, often noticing minute changes that the rest of us missed. When our first butterfly emerged from its chrysalis, the child who discovered it, went to tell Rico first.

He was not the first child I've known, nor the last, who demonstrated this sort of laser-like focus on a single interest. Indeed, there have been other insect specialists at Woodland Park, as well as experts on dinosaurs, princesses, volcanos, outer space, Minecraft, and every kid's movie ever made. Indeed, most children find their passions. Not all of them, however, had parents like Rico's who simply delighted in his passion, including insects in everything they did, even tolerating, I was informed, "pet" bugs in their jars on the dinner table. 

But certainly, at some point, he's going to have to move on, right? What if he becomes stuck? What if that's all he ever wants to do? It's a question people ask about self-directed learning. Our conventional schools, after all, are designed specifically around the notion of a "well-rounded education" as determined by . . . Who? We blame school boards or administrators or governmental committees, for the top-down, hodge-podge curricula that find their way into our schools, but honestly, the real culprit is hubris and habit. We've always taught the kids, all the kids, no matter what their interests, no matter what is going on in the world, this certain, narrow, slate of subjects. Oh sure, there are often efforts made to include "relevant" material or to integrate current events, and particularly clever teachers might come in dressed as a the au currant super hero or come up with a learning game that involves the latest Disney princess, but it's all just packaging to sell a generalist curriculum of English, math, science, and history.

It's the kind of backwards approach that can only come from the hubris and habit of "that's the way it's always been done." It's as if we had compelled Rico to first learn to use his hammer before we allowed him to hunt for bugs. It's as if we were to make the poor boy learn to paint straight lines, then circles, then mix colors before we allowed him to turn over rocks. It's as if we insisted that he learn his A-B-C's and write his own name before we allowed him to let a ladybug crawl between his fingers and up his sleeve. Even if we had held the promise of insects before him like a carrot on a stick in an effort to trick him through the tedium of rote, it's likely we would have killed the passion long before he mastered the tools and skills demanded first and foremost by the curriculum of hubris and habit. 

As a teenager once said to me, "I never let my teachers know what I really like because then they use it against me."

The most frustrating thing is that as far as these curricula are concerned, no child has mastered the tools and skills required of them until they day they graduate from high school. Only then are they ready, according to the irrational logic of our hubris and habit, to hunt for insects, but by then they will have lost their allure, as they too get reduced to curricula.

Self-directed learning, play-based education, is the counter to the curricula of hubris and habit. It dismantles the hierarchy of subject matter and replaces it with every child's passion, be it an abiding one or, which is more common, one of the moment. And it's these passions that become the hub from which the lessons of life itself are most joyfully learned.

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