Tuesday, August 31, 2021

What I Wish Every Parent Understood About School

It only seems like yesterday, but it was seven years ago that I was sitting with a group of parents discussing our children's plans. The kids were on the verge of graduating from high school and were in the midst of considering their options, most of which involved university. Our own child had begun formulating her plans as a 14-year-old, had done her research without much consultation with her parents, and had arranged her academic life in order to qualify for "early admission," which meant that as I sat there her spot was already locked in. There was some thought on my part that maybe she should have done a little more "shopping around," but as I listened to the stories of anxiety, I was grateful that we didn't have go through what these families were going through.

One father spoke in an authoritative tone of strategy, of how they were hamstrung by his son's resistance to choosing any particular course of study, so they had spent a good deal of energy sorting and ranking their options. They were going to apply to at least three schools -- first and second choice, then a "safety" option, meaning a school that was guaranteed to accept them. I'm writing in the plural because that's how this father, all the parents for that matter, were speaking of the process.

After detailing their family's collective efforts, he sighed, "It didn't used to be like this. When I was 18, I just happened to be walking past the Seattle University admissions office and stopped in on a whim. They enrolled me on the spot. I don't even think I told my parents right away because it just wasn't that big of a deal." I'd only applied to one university as well. I recall the admissions form being a single piece of paper.

But it hadn't started there for most of these families. In some cases, they had been monitoring their children's grades and test scores from kindergarten on, thirteen years of college prep. I'm lucky, I think, that I'd already begun my journey as a play-based educator, because I never fretted our daughter's grades. Indeed, I was aware that she was keeping up with her classmates because I often chatted with her teachers, but I don't recall ever actually seeing any of her report cards with my own eyes. Sometimes she would come home and excitedly tell me about acing a test or give me some of her writing to read (which was always very good and I never offered corrections), but I didn't go out of my way to insert myself into her academic life. She seemed relatively satisfied with her school experience; I don't recall her ever feigning illness to avoid school the way I had sometimes done, and on those times when she was genuinely sick, she was eager to get back.

She was surrounded, however, by kids whose parents hounded them about grades. In middle school she told me about a boy who had just received his report card, which was all A's and one B. She was walking with him to where his father waited in the car. When she congratulated him on his success, he rolled his eyes and said, "Watch this," then handed his grades through the window to his father who replied on cue, "What happened with that B? I told you to study harder." She told me the story by way of saying thank you, "I'm sure glad you and Mama aren't like that."

"We usually give a quite unwarranted importance to our children's scholastic performance. And it is nothing but a respect for the little virtue of 'success,'" writes Natalia Ginzburg in her essay The Little Virtues, which I recommend to everyone who works with young children, but especially parents. 

"It is not true that they have a duty to do well at school for our sake and to give the best of their skills to studying. Once we have started them in their lessons, their duty is simply to go forward. If they wish to spend the best of their skills on things outside school -- collecting Coleoptera (beetles) or learning Turkish -- that is their business and we have no right to reproach them, or to show that our pride has been hurt or that we feel dissatisfied with them. If at the moment the best of their skills do not seem to be applied to anything, then we do not have the right to shout at them very much in that case either; who knows, perhaps what seems laziness to us is really a kind of daydreaming and thoughtfulness that will bear fruit tomorrow. If it seems they are wasting the best of their energies and skills lying on the sofa reading ridiculous novels or charging around a football pitch, then again we cannot know whether this is really a waste of energy and skill or whether tomorrow this too will bear fruit in some way that we have not yet suspected. Because there are an infinite number of possibilities open to the spirit."

I wish I could convince every parent of this truth about school, especially as I see them fretting over their preschoolers and kindergarteners. I want to shout, "Leave them alone!" and "Mind your own business!" as they push their poor children to read and cipher before their classmates, blaming teachers when they are thwarted in their efforts to win the race, to succeed, to be crowned the queen or king of the parents. This isn't a new disease -- I remember, as a boy who regularly turned in good grades, how unfair it seemed that some parents actually paid their children cash money for each A -- but it is one that has now infected so many more families, not to mention our schools. It's hard not to compare it to our current pandemic as it ravages this current generation.

I wish everyone understood that school simply isn't all that important in the scheme of things. It is not their "job," it is their life, their intellectual, social, and spiritual life. It is not ours, it is theirs. We might legitimately ask, "What did you learn today?" but we have no right to ask, "What are your grades?" because grades only matter for a fleeting moment; "permanent records" are a fairy tale told to frighten children into good behavior.

"We are there to reduce school to its narrow, humble limits; it is not something that can mortgage their future, it is simply a display of offered tools, from which it is perhaps possible to choose one which will be useful tomorrow . . . We should not demand anything; we should not ask or hope that he is a genius or an artist or a hero or a saint; and yet we must be ready for everything; our waiting and our patience must compass both the possibility of the highest and the most ordinary of fates."

That is what I wish every parent understood.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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Monday, August 30, 2021

A Very Brief History Of Schooling And Why We Still Reject The Evidence

We are currently engaged in the largest experiment ever performed on human children. We call it schooling. Up until the later part of the era called the Industrial Revolution, which most historians peg as the mid-1800's, we had never tried the mass education of children. It was a concept inspired by the innovation of mass production with its systems of standardization and repetition, most notably, the assembly line. The closest historical parallel to what we today call school can be found in religious settings in the era that preceded the invention of the printing press (the grandfather of mass production) in the mid-15th century, when literacy was uncommon and manuscripts were hard to come by. Young monks would sit in rows, facing forward while senior monks read to them from their handwritten copies of manuscripts. The young monks would copy the words, creating their own books, which they could in turn read to the young monks that followed them. Again, it was a kind of slow motion manufacturing process, one suited exclusively for adults who had chosen the monastic life.

Until we began our experiment, formal education was a rather ad hoc project, one that was built upon one-on-one instruction and was carried out largely for the benefit of the children of the elites. But then, inspired by the "success" of factories, the idea that education could be manufactured the way one manufactures consumer products was born, which lead to schools that are fundamentally unchanged to this day.

In other words, the foundations of schooling are not built upon the careful study of human children and how they learn, but rather on commercial processes designed for efficiency and profit. It has only been relatively recently that we've begun to address the full societal costs of these methods: things like pollution, the depletion of natural resources, and the condition of so-called "human resources." Climate change, loss of bio-diversity, racism, sexism, war, poverty -- all are either direct results of this process or have been greatly exacerbated by it. 

This experiment in mass education has been ongoing for a little over a century. Most of us cannot imagine childhood without it. Indeed, if the pandemic has highlighted anything, it's how absolutely essential this model of mass education is to our economic processes. The very fact that we are opening our factory model schools right now in the face of a virus that has grown even more virulent is evidence that we've come, as a society, to value economic productivity over our children's health. Parents, those of us most inclined to side with the welfare of children, find ourselves caught between the horns of a life-or-death dilemma: do we risk our children getting sick, which they assuredly will if required to cram together in these mass production facilities called schools, or do we risk them starving because keeping them at home means we become less able to perform our own economic role?

Educators are obviously caught in this dilemma as well: we are being charged by society with both keeping the children safe and healthy in an environment in which no one can be expected to succeed, while also continuing the experiment of mass producing education lest our products "fall behind" or suffer "learning loss."

Meanwhile, since about the start of the 19th century, researchers have been examining the results of our experiment. Some of the biggest names in education come to mind: John Dewey, Friedrich Froebel, Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, Rudolph Steiner, Lev Vygotsky. These pioneers essentially founded the field of education in an academic or scientific sense and the more they dug into how humans learn, the more obvious it became that the manufacturing model of educating humans doesn't at all match what we know about learning. The idea of moving children along an assembly line as if they are raw materials to be shaped for a particular use is a fatally flawed one: it produces little true education for most children while subjecting them to decades of dehumanization. Today, cognitive scientists, child psychologists, and others engaged in the actual study of education, tell us that most humans learn precious little from being manufactured and no amount of homework or testing or lecturing can change that. On the other hand, we know through actual research that we readily learn things that matter to us, and we learn those things best mostly by being allowed to explore in our own way at our own pace. 

This is what the entirety of the last century of research into education has taught us, yet any suggestion that our schools consider an evidence-based approach is either dismissed out of hand by education establishment types or, more commonly, we are gaslighted by the objection, "But, we're already doing that" when we clearly are not.

The science of education is still in its infancy. The truth is that we still don't even understand how learning happens or how memory works, but we do know what doesn't work. We do know that our children are not standardized widgets to be manufactured. They are not empty vessels to be filled, but rather unique, fully formed human beings, driven to learn things that matter to them. We still have a lot to learn, but the evidence is clear that this, not the assembly line, is the proper foundation for education.


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Friday, August 27, 2021

Is It "Risky Play" or "Safety Play"?

Awhile back, I was watching a boy playing around under the swings as a classmate was swinging. It wasn't a particularly risky activity in my view. I mean, I was standing right there, taking pictures, discussing it with him, and it didn't set off any alarm bells for me in the moment, although after the fact, while going through the photos, it occurred to me that it was something that would be scuttled in other settings. My lack of concern probably stems from the fact that it's far from the first time this sort of thing has happened:

In fact, I think what caught my attention about it was that it was the first time I'd seen a kid do more than just lie there giggling. Of course, many schools have removed their swings altogether, so maybe the very existence of swings is shocking to some. 

I imagine that in some dystopian future we'll become notorious for being the only school left with a swing set, let alone for not having a set of rules about how the kids can use them. That's because, in our decade with swings, since our move to the Center of the Universe, we've not found a need for specific safety rules, because the kids, the ones that live in the world outside our catastrophic imaginations, haven't shown a particular propensity to hurt themselves or one another.

Oh sure they get hurt like all kids do, like all people, but most of the injuries don't come from what people call "risky play," but rather from day-to-day activities, things you would think children had mastered. For instance, the worst injury we've seen during my decades long tenure at Woodland Park came when a boy fell on his chin while walking on a flat, dry, linoleum floor. He needed a couple stitches. Another boy wound up with stitches when he fell while walking in the sandpit. 

Increasingly, I find myself bristling when I hear folks talk about "risky play," even when it's framed positively. From my experience, this sort of play is objectively not risky, in the sense that those activities like swinging or climbing or playing with long sticks, those things that tend to wear the label of "risky" are more properly viewed as "safety play," because that's exactly what the kids are doing: practicing keeping themselves and others safe. It's almost as if they are engaging in their own, self-correcting safety drills.

When a group of four and five year olds load up the pallet swing with junk, then work together to wind it up higher and higher, then, on the count of three, let it go, ducking away as they do it, creating distance between themselves and this rapidly spinning flat of wood that they've learned is libel to release it's contents in random directions, they are practicing keeping themselves and others safe. They don't need adults there telling them to "be careful" or to impose rules based on our fears because those things are so manifestly necessary to this sort of thing that they are an unspoken part of the play.

When children pick up long sticks and start employing them as light sabers, swinging them at one another, they are practicing keeping themselves and others safe. The safety is built into it.

When children wrestle they are practicing caring for themselves and their friends.

When preschoolers are provided with carving tools and a pumpkin they automatically include their own safety and that of others into their play. Adult warnings to "be careful" are redundant at best and, at worst, become focal points for rebellion (which, in turn, can lead to truly risky behavior) or a sense that the world is full of unperceived dangers that only the all-knowing adults can see (which, in turn, can lead to the sort of unspecified anxiety we see so much of these days). Every time we say "be careful" we express, quite clearly, our lack of faith in our children's judgement, which can become the foundation of self-doubt.

The truth is that they already are being careful. The instinct for self-preservation is quite strong in humans. It's a pity that we feel we must teach them to live within our catastrophic imaginations.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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Thursday, August 26, 2021

They Say There Are No Stupid Questions, But I Beg To Differ

They say there are no stupid questions, but I beg to differ. We hear stupid questions almost every time adults and young children are together. 

For instance, a child is painting at an easel, exploring color, shape, and motion, experimenting with brushes, paper, and paint. There is an adult watching over her shoulder who points and asks, "What color is that?"

This is a stupid question. 

Here's another example: a child is playing with marbles, exploring gravity, motion and momentum. An adult picks up a handful of marbles and asks, "How many marbles do I have?"

The adult already knows the answer. The child probably does as well, in which case, the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies in order to reply to a banality. Or she doesn't know the answer, in which case the adult is distracting her from her deep and meaningful studies to play a guessing game.

In a moment, these stupid questions take a child who is engaged in testing her world, which is her proper role, and turns her into a test taker, forced to answer other people's questions rather than pursue the answers to her own.

If it's important that the child know these specific colors and numbers at this specific moment, and it probably isn't, then we should do the reasonable thing and simply tell her,"That's red," or "I have three marbles." If it's not new information, and it probably isn't, she's free to ignore you as she goes about her business of learning. If she didn't know, now she does, in context, as she goes about her business of learning.

This is probably the greatest offense we commit against children in our current educational climate of testing, testing, and more testing. We yank children away from their proper role as self-motivated scientists, testing their world by asking and answering their own questions, and instead force them to become test takers, occupying their brains with our stupid questions.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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