Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Learning is for Each Child a Unique and Personal Experience (and why not acknowledging that is so stressful)

I've been married to my wife Jennifer since 1986, that's 35 years, and during that time we've shared a lot of experiences, side-by-side, the difference in our relative perspectives only a matter of degrees, yet we still regularly find ourself disagreeing about what we saw, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled. Often, it's a simple matter of whether someone was wearing a red or green shirt, but other times our memories differ about matters of great moment. Indeed, there are some things that I remember with clarity, moments in which something significant happened, that she hardly remembers at all, and vice versa.

The older I've gotten, the less certain I've become about the objective accuracy of my memories. Or rather, I find myself questioning the concept of object accuracy altogether. Yes, something in the past happened, but it only exists for me as the form it imprints upon my brain. But not even that. Researchers have discovered that we are constantly making and re-making our memories. Each time we recall something, they tell us, it becomes altered in some way. The more we recall something, the more we tend to change it until our memories very often only have a passing resemblance to what actually, objectively, happened.

This is a recognized phenomenon in law, for instance, as eye witnesses can credibly report seeing the same thing in different ways. It's why contemporaneous comments or writing about an event is often accepted as stronger evidence than oral testimony, under the assumption that one was created closer in time to the actual, objective events.

We tend to think of memories as a kind of recording of what happened, but in reality, what we "remember" is actually something our brains have constructed, and continue to construct even long after the arrow of time has swept us off into the future. As educator Eleanor Duckworth writes, "(W)e cannot assume that an experience whose meaning seems clear to us will have the same meaning for someone else."

This is why we don't all think, for instance, that The Catcher in the Rye is a great novel. For many, it's work of genius, perhaps the great American novel, while for others it's a real yawner. Our brains do not record events, but rather shape and interpret them from the very start. For instance, if an English teacher has forced me to read Salinger's novel (which happened thrice during my years of formal education) my brain will store the experience completely differently than when I choose to read it of my own accord. 

This is the big challenge for most teachers, those charged with the task of somehow working through a standardized curriculum. The expectation is that if we expose all the children to the same experience they will learn the same thing. We cannot assume this, not about children, not about anyone. Perhaps some will have the experience we expect, but most won't. They can, however, learn to create the illusion that they have had the "right" experience by getting the "right" answers on a test, which is the real lesson of school for most children. Oh, they are all learning something, but what that is specifically is different for each child and is most certainly not the lesson intended by the teacher or the curriculum.

Even before the pandemic, polling found that teaching is one of the most stressful occupations in the U.S., tied only with nursing. (You can find the 2013 poll here, although you will have to download it to read it.) And it has only, of course, gotten worse during the past year. In my decades in the classroom, I had my moments, but by and large I didn't find it particularly stressful, and I attribute that in large measure to the fact that I was never charged with implementing a standardized curriculum. Our play-based program is based on the concept of allowing the curriculum to emerge from the children themselves rather than imposing it on them. The result is that I don't have to pretend the children are learning what I'm teaching. I don't have to spend my energies on such nonsense as "classroom management," which is the equivalent of trying to push water uphill or herd cats. Add to that the fact that teachers are expected to also keep children perfectly safe, serve as therapists, mitigate the impact of a pandemic, and heal the wounds of bigotry and poverty, and it's easy to see why we, as a profession, are so stressed out.

It's all an impossible task, at least the way we now have it set up. And if teachers are unduly stressed, the same must be true of our children. I'm blessed to have worked my entire career in places that don't expect me to do the impossible. When the random benchmarks of standardized curriculum are removed, when we acknowledge that learning is for each child a unique and personal experience, when we stop trying to herd the cats, we find our natural role as important adults in children's lives, which is to care for them, keep them safe enough, and to support them emotionally and intellectually when they need it. That's why most of us, especially in the early years, got into this profession in the first place. 


A "new normal" requires that we take a good, hard look at what "normal" means, to ask ourselves tough questions, and consider that maybe we've been doing it wrong all along. Teacher Tom's Play Summit is nothing less than an attempt to bring the early childhood world together with the singular mission of transforming the lives of young children and their families. It's a chance to listen and learn about best practices and new ideas from around the world from a wide variety of perspectives. As I've interviewed our presenters, this idea of play within the context of community is a strong recurring theme, especially from indigenous educators. Please join us for this important free event. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here. If not us, who? Together we can turn this world around.

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