Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Human Thought is More Magnificent Than That

"The Thinker," Auguste Rodin

If learning is, as Eleanor Duckworth defines it, "the having of wonderful ideas," one can legitimately wonder what a child is thinking about when they are not having ideas. 

Certainly, some of their mental energy is expended upon thinking about the questions and problems that will ultimately lead to those wonderful ideas. But I was once a child (and while that assertion is rarely the lead-in to a sentence that demonstrates any understanding at all about childhood), I nevertheless feel fairly confident that I spend more time stewing on things as an adult than I did as a kid. The endless pondering and fretting has come with age and experience: as a thoughtful boy I was more inclined to tuck my questions and problems away while engaged with the world in front of me where they would remain at the back of my mind until something happened in the real world to bring them back to the fore.

This phenomenon of things suddenly clicking at unexpected, unrelated moments -- while say in the shower or the stairwell -- is one we've all experienced. Often you have to walk away from your questions or problems, to turn your senses in another direction. The natural state of consciousness is freedom so it's only reasonable that it would often work best when set free from the confines a question or problem creates. I find that long walks help with this. An active vacation is better. But even reading a few chapters of a novel or going to the theater or playing a video game can provide the escape required by the thought process . . . Which is to say "the learning process."

My point is that educators must take this phenomenon seriously. If the goal is learning and learning is the having of wonderful ideas about the questions, problems, discoveries, and concepts that emerge in a child's life, then we must allow them the freedom to walk away to focus on something else, anything else. That is clearly part of how thinking and learning work and when we don't have that freedom our thinking suffers.

Of course, too often we insist that children in school remain in their seats, quietly, and expect them to, I guess, ponder questions and problems that haven't even emerged naturally, but have rather been imposed upon them. No one thinks well under those circumstances: there's no self-motivation, no natural curiosity. So then educators, knowing that their jobs depend upon all of the children "learning" the solutions to these specific questions and problem, must resort to all manner of tricks and tropes to motivate "reluctant learners." Or, when that fails, threaten them with some sort of punishment, like a loss of recess, which is likely exactly what a child needs in order to get to their Eureka! moment. We're eager to label children as "easily distractible" and to keep children "on task," forgetting that the distractions and the seemingly unrelated tasks (like taking a shower) are essential parts of how humans arrive at their wonderful ideas.

As an educator, my main concern is that children learn. Learning is thinking, but thinking doesn't usually happen in the methodical, linear, stove-piped manner envisioned by our school system. That's the way computers do it. Human thought is more magnificent than that, more complex, more capable of finding alternative routes and exploring the roads less taken, but it must be free if wonderful ideas are going to happen. 

Sometimes, perhaps, the image of "The Thinker" is how thinking looks (although, honestly, he's always struck me as more despondent than thoughtful). But most of the time, in the real world, the thinker is the one digging in the sand, climbing a tree, or picking wildflowers.


As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Register now to receive early bird pricing. Discounts are available for groups.

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