Monday, May 31, 2021

"We Have to Liberate Ourselves First"

A while back, NASA commissioned a test designed to measure the creative potential of its rocket scientists and engineers. Only two percent of adults ace this test, being classified as creative geniuses. When NASA tried the test out on preschoolers, however, they found that 98 percent tested at the genius level. Curious about those results, they made it into a longitudinal study, re-testing the same kids after a decade of schooling. They found that the number of geniuses among these kids had plummeted to a mere 12 percent. This study has since been replicated over and over again.

This begs the question: What did we do to them? Nearly all of the kids were geniuses, then we sent them to school and most of them stopped being geniuses. Maybe there is a problem with the test, of course, and maybe there's a problem with our definition of "creative genius," but what if these results are telling us something real, and horrible, about the way we tend to do school to our kids?

If you listen to education policymakers, and I do, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that as far as they're concerned, our schools are little more than vocational training programs designed to prepare the next generation of worker bees for those "jobs of tomorrow" or to conscript them as warriors in an economic war to "out educate the Chinese." Sometimes they dress it up in the language of civil rights, insisting that "education" is the path out of the ghetto or barrio or whatever, which is still, at bottom, an economic argument. And maybe that's what most people want from our schools, but that's not what I wanted for my own child, nor for the children alongside whom I've travelled these past couple decades. I've always been much more interested in their capacity for creative genius.

Director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College and editor of Black Lives Matter at School, Denisha Jones says in our conversation at Teacher Tom's Play Summit, "I can tell you black children are brilliant. I can tell you brown children are brilliant. I can tell you all children are brilliant until they go through American schooling and we educate the brilliance out of them."

Some years ago, as part of a conference at which I was presenting I had the opportunity to visit what is called the Ration Shed Museum in the town of Cherbourg in Queensland, Australia, the site of an aboriginal reservation that was created by the 1904 "Aboriginal Protection Act." Indigenous people from all over eastern Australia were forcibly re-located there, and as European colonists did wherever they went, they took it upon themselves to control every aspect of the lives of these formerly free people. We learned about the schools that were established for the education of these "primitive" people, schools chartered to teach children about keeping their noses to the grindstone, obedience, and a very narrow range of vocational skills. It's a story that can be told about everywhere these colonizers went.

It is impossible to not see parallels with the current state of education in America and around the world. After several decades of trending in the direction of a more truly democratic education over the course of the 20th century we have now seen a sudden shift over the past thirty years back in the direction of those aboriginal schools. 

Oh sure, we don't say it aloud anymore, but it's clear that those who designed such disasters as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core federal curriculum here in the US are seeking to create the modern day versions of obedient domestic workers and field hands. Since the middle part of the last century, childhood has been increasing colonized by such anti-genius measures as high stakes standardized testing, standardized curricula, increasingly academic style drill-and-kill teaching methods, accountability, grit, and a dramatic decline in opportunities to explore art, natural sciences, and the humanities in general. Most critical is the loss of childhood play, which is to say, the loss of freedom.

As Denisha tells us, "Play is freedom. Play is liberation. We're so afraid of free people, but free people make the best learners." 

This year marks the 102nd anniversary of the great John Dewey's seminal work Democracy and Education (this links to a long, fantastic article I urged you to read):

Did you attend a public school in the United States and perform in a school play, take field trips, or compete on a sports team? Did you have a favourite teacher who designed their own curriculum, say, about the Civil War, or helped you find your particular passions and interests? Did you take classes that were not academic per se but that still opened your eyes to different aspects of human experience such as fixing cars? Did you do projects that required planning and creativity? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you are the beneficiary of John Dewey's pedagogical revolution.

Today, we are facing the same sort of pushback against democratic education that John Dewey faced back at the turn of the last century. They claim they are only doing what is best for the poor "primitives," and perhaps they believe they are, but at what cost? The battle lines continue to be drawn between those of us who believe that the purpose of public education is to create citizens with the critical thinking and creative skills to take part in the great national project of self-governance and those who would use schools to turn children into malleable worker bees. While Dewey's ideas shaped the schools we attended, the so-called education "reformers" are shaping the schools of our children, something that if left unchecked will result in nothing less than the end of democracy.

The skills and habits of citizenship such as critical thinking, questioning authority, and living a well-rounded life not always tethered to the almighty dollar, are the diametric opposites of the those required to succeed in the nose-to-the-grindstone, do-as-you're-told future the colonizers have planned for our children.

A return to the promise of progressive education in general and childhood play in particular may not save us, but it's the best hope we have. Before that can happen, however, as Denisha reminds us, "We have to liberate ourselves first."


To hear my entire interview with Denisha Jones, 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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