Friday, September 10, 2021

Wasting Time

The boy wanted to figure out how to "walk on a ladder." It was one of the three level, step-stool style ladders that live on the playground. After messing around for some time, he figured out that by standing on the middle step and clutching the carry handle, he could rock the whole thing side-to-side, lifting one set of legs, then the other, which in turn caused the entire thing to "walk" forward an inch at a time. 
All told, after all his efforts, he finally managed in the end to move himself and the ladder forward about a meter.  

He wasted more than an hour teaching himself this useless skill, hardly getting anywhere at all.

Of course, that time really wasn't wasted, but that's how most educators with lesson plans to get through are compelled to view it.

He was making a study of physics; he was experimenting with gravity and motion and momentum and balance. He was educating his body. He was learning a lesson in perseverance. This was no easy thing he was doing. It took courage to even consider it. 

An enterprising teacher could, I suppose, make a study of the curriculum through which they are expected to process all the kids and strive to write the whole thing up in a way that cleverly connects ladder walking to one or more of the "learning objectives" found there. That would be the thing to do, but no one has time to do that for an entire classroom full of kids, each of whom is engaged at any given moment in similar time-wasting projects that can theoretically be linked to other "learning objectives." It's much more efficient, meaning less wasteful, to just rely on the worksheets and texts and lesson plans which are already tidily linked to the appropriate "learning objectives." It doesn't matter if the learning actually happens, only that we have data (e.g., a completed worksheet) that suggests that it might have.

This boy wasn't the only one "wasting" his time in this scenario. I was there too, his teacher, watching him. I wasn't busily coaching him or cheering for him or chirping physics terms at him. I wasn't cautioning him to be careful. I wasn't fretting over him falling behind. No, I was just sitting there watching him.

One of the reasons that so many resist the idea of children learning through play is that it appears so inefficient. There are no straight lines from here to there. Much of it looks like this boy on his ladder rocking back and forth, moving forward imperceptibly. They might like the idea of self-directed learning, but they can't bear to look at it in practice because of all the waste. Certainly, they reason, we can streamline this process, cut the fat, and get right to the learning. For one thing, we could get that teacher off his lazy ass.

But that's simply not the way learning works. As John Holt writes, "Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners." It is the product of the thinking and the doing. The gymnastics we go through to plan and assesses and justify, the data we collect, the goals that we set on behalf of the kids: that's the real waste of time.

Education is not a manufacturing process. If the goal is learning, play is as efficient as it gets. There is no way to pre-determine how any one individual gets from point A to point B, especially if they're really striving to get to point C, D, or X. Most of the time, the best practice for a play-based educator is to sit and watch. To "listen" with our whole being. To take the stance of a researcher and strive to know what this child in front of us is thinking about. Not to assess whether they are right or wrong. Not to tick boxes or assign grades, but rather to understand which is the only true guide to what a child is learning and what they need from us.


"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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