Wednesday, May 26, 2021

"The Bigger and More Important Education"

Ask any successful person for their secret and they'll inevitably talk about people: parents, teachers, relatives, and friends. Oh sure, some of them talk about hard work and perseverance, but that generally always strikes me as a matter of form, almost like we're expected to credit these Puritan work ethic traits, like a kind of good luck talisman, but the long list, the thank yous and gratitude, is always reserved for the relationships they've had with other people.

Sometimes they might give credit to things they have been taught, like in the case of a mentor, but more often than not it's the relationship itself that they talk about. 

"They believed in me." 

"They supported me." 

"They never gave up on me."

"They loved me."

Rarely does anyone give credit to their education, yet as a society we've convinced ourselves that school is the lynchpin to success. 

Researcher, author, and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter Peter Gray points out that "almost nobody asks the question, 'What is my child actually learning in school?' Instead, they ask the question, 'What is my child's test score?'" He chuckles at the absurdity of it. As a researcher, he knows that the high stakes standardized tests that have come to dominate public education and drive education policy and that the tests "aren't measuring anything that's important." In other words, test scores have nothing to do with success, except perhaps within the narrow world of climbing the academic ladder. Indeed, research has shown that high test scores don't demonstrate intellectual ability as much as the current socio-economic status of the test taker. The same can be said of grading of all kinds.

Peter tells us, "I often say that I had two educations: I had school, but the bigger and more important education was a hunter-gatherer education which was everything that happened outside of school." This is what those people are talking about when they share their secret to success. 

"They trusted me."

"They saw something in me that others missed."

"They knew I could do it."

"They're my biggest cheerleader."

These successful people are not talking about what they learned, at least not in the formal sense. They're talking about how other people made and make them feel. That is what they credit for their success.

Peter cautions us that American school children today, at least pre-pandemic, are suffering from mental illnesses like depression and anxiety at historically high levels and much of it can be directly traced to the rising "importance" of what we've come to call schooling. In the name of setting our children up for "college and career" we've re-made our schools into academic factories and turned the assembly lines up to full speed. There is no time to waste, they tell us. Our children are falling behind, they warn. We must out educate the Chinese or prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow, all of which is demonstrably bunk, yet the fear this creates in parents and school boards is real. In the rush and crush of more and faster, there is less and less time for the "more important education" Peter talks about. You can't replace relationships with test scores and expect everything to be alright. Or as Peter puts it, "If you take play and freedom away from kids, they're going to get depressed."

Those of us who work with young children -- parents, caregivers, and educators -- have been increasingly feeling these pressures as well. It's hard not to see us as the last stand for the kind of hunter-gatherer education, the relationship based education, that underpins success, however you define it. 

Peter is a researcher to his core, so he's waiting for all the data to come in, but he offers a ray of hope. Speaking about the pandemic, he notes that "some people are learning that going to school is not as important as they thought it was" and that many surveys are showing that more children than ever won't be returning to it the pandemic's aftermath. He sees a spike, for instance, in parents reporting that they intend to homeschool or unschool their children, having seen that their children seem happier and healthier without the daily grind. He talks about "tipping points" when it comes to social change and wonders if perhaps, perhaps, we are beginning to approach one with regard to education, one favors the "more important education."

"They saw the real me."

"They understood me."

"They picked me up when I fell down."

These are the education stories that successful people tell whether they are standing on a stage receiving an award or talking to their grandchildren about a life well-lived. That is the bigger and more important education, the one that no amount of drilling and testing can overcome. It's noteworthy that when I asked Peter, as a parting question, for words of advice for parents and teachers, he answers, "Look into your heart . . . When you're thinking from your heart, what is it you really want for children?" 


To hear my entire interview with Peter Gray, please join us at Teacher Tom's Play Summit. What if the whole world understood the power of trusting children with the freedom to play, to explore their world, to ask and answer their own questions? What if everyone respected their right to learn in their own way, on their own time? What if we remembered that children must have their childhoods and that means playing, and lots of it? Teacher Tom's Play Summit  is a free, online conference that takes place June 20-25. Click here to get your free pass to all 24 of our incredible sessions with early childhood and parenting experts and thought leaders from around the world. Every one of these people are professionals who have placed children first. You will walk away from this event transformed, informed, challenged, and inspired to create a world that respects children and sets them free to learn and grow. Together we can, as presenter Raffi sings, "Turn this world around!"

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