Monday, January 31, 2022

Most Days I Teach Nothing At All

I never pretend to know what kids will learn on any given day and, honestly, any teacher who does is either deluded or blowing smoke. No one can possibly know what another person is going to learn. You can hope. You can plan. You can lecture yourself blue. You can even, if you're especially clever, trick someone into learning something, but the idea that one person can "teach" something to another, except under narrow circumstances, is one of the great educational myths.

There is a quote that is most often attributed to the Buddha, but is more likely of Theosophical origins, that goes: "When the student is ready the master will appear." I like these kinds of quotes that persist because they are true even when they can't be traced back to the utterances of Buddha, Socrates, or Einstein. This one is even so true that there is a corollary: "When the master is ready the student will appear."

Some days I accidentally "teach" something to a kid. For instance, I once improperly used the term "centrifugal force" (when I actually should have use "centripetal force") while a child was experimenting with a hamster wheel and the kid, months later, was still misusing my term while performing his experiments, even as I repeatedly tried to correct him. But most days I teach nothing at all except, perhaps, what I convey to my students by role modeling. I've tried, believe me, to convey specific information to kids, like when I tell them that dirt is primarily made from volcanos, dead stuff, and worm poop, but most of the time the only things that stick are the things about which the kids are already asking questions.

And still, despite my utter lack of "teaching," the kids who come to our school are learning. How do I know? I watch them. I listen to them. I remember when they didn't know and then I hear them saying and see them doing things that demonstrate that now they do. And even though I'm not teaching them, they mostly learn exactly what I want them to know.

What do I want them to know?

The joy of playing with other people.

The frustration and redemption of failure.

Emotions come and go and they are important.

I'm the boss of me and you're the boss of you.

Our agreements are sacred.

It's not only important to love, but also to say it.

It's not my job to "teach" these things. It is my job to love them and to do what I can to create an environment that is stimulating, beautiful, and safe enough: a place where children can ask and answer their own questions about the world and the people they find there. A place not of teaching, but of curiosity, exploration, experimentation, and discovery. We call it play and it's how we learn everything a preschooler needs to know.


This philosophy of "not teaching" is a key part of my approach to play-based learning. Please join the very first cohort for Teacher Tom's Play-Based Learning, a brand new 6-week foundational course on my popular play-based pedagogy, designed for early childhood educators, childcare providers, parents and grandparents. I can't wait to share it with you! For more information and to register, click here

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Friday, January 28, 2022

Seeing Farther Than Any One Of Them Can See Alone

Between the ages of 10-12 I attended an international school near Athens, Greece that had adopted a curriculum called IPI (Individually Prescribed Instruction). Upon entering fourth grade, I was handed two folders, one for math and one for English, and was told to work through them "at your own pace." Inside the folders I found a series of lessons that involved reading, exercises, then when you felt you knew the material, a test that you turned into the teacher for grading. If you passed, you were to move on to the next lesson. If you failed, you simply went back and did the reading and exercises again before once more taking the test. You took the test over and over until you passed it. 

The idea was to allow children to work at their own pace. It was an acknowledgement that in any group of children a wide variety of abilities and understanding are represented. Looking back I see IPI as a strange hybrid that tried to be both standardized and personalized, but it at least had the virtue of recognizing the variability, even if we were all the same age. I know that many packaged curricula allow some individual flexibility, but IPI was unique, I think, in that we didn't get new folders at the beginning fifth grade or sixth. This wasn't the curriculum for one year, but for as long as it took.

The English material was easy for me. In fact, I discovered that I could skip directly to the test in most cases. This meant that I blazed through the entire curriculum before the end of that first school year. On the other hand, the math work was more of a struggle. I was still working on Level F Division halfway through my sixth grade year when my family moved back to the US. I don't know what would have happened had I remained stuck on that level into seventh grade, but I expect I would have continued working on it, probably with ever increasing support from teachers, because at some point I imagine that they would want me to move on to something else. 

In some ways, as strange as those IPI years were in my educational journey, I look back on them as a kind of golden era of schooling in that once you completed your folder, you got to do "whatever you want" during those the IPI parts of the day. There were options like band (I tried out clarinet) or art (I spent a lot of time drawing), but you could also just chose to play: pick-up soccer or dodgeball, shooting marbles, or just goofing off. In other words, the school didn't feel the urge to fill those hours with "advanced" lessons or enrichment, but rather just let us be. 

I'm sure there were debates among the adults behind the scenes over this policy. I have no doubt that some felt that we were wasting our time shooting marbles. But there must have been someone pushing back as well, adults who were saying, "Why can't we just let them play?" After all, we couldn't be falling behind because the entire concept behind IPI was that there was no behind.

Here's the thing: no matter how much the IPI concept tried to celebrate individuality and working at our own pace, we kids tended to rank ourselves according to the adult-created system, boasting about our levels, lying about our levels, judging others by their levels. What I loved most about having completed my entire English folder was that I suddenly felt free, free to play, but even more powerful, free from the ranking. Down there amidst the marbles, down on the floor under the desks and chairs, out there on the playground stirring up dust clouds, there were no levels. Maybe that was part of the program as well: maybe we, the free, were there to inspire the others who, if they worked hard enough, could join us.

From the perspective of academics, I'm sure IPI produced results as good, or better, than today's more stressful, drill-and-kill crap that tends to view the natural variability in ability and understanding as a problem, where falling behind is the worst of sins, both for the student and the teacher. Still, IPI nevertheless fell short in its hopes of finding a way to deliver adult-centered learning in a way that accommodated the natural variability among children.

The only learning model that truly embraces this is when the children are in charge of their own curriculum, when they are free to goof off. There is no falling behind. The curriculum is always just right for each child. It accommodates all that variability in ways that adult-centric learning never can. When children are trusted to devise their own course of study, when each child gets to choose what, how, and when they will do things, we see that the children, as Russian psychiatrist Lev Vygotsky pointed out, are a head taller than themselves. "In play," he writes, "a child is always above his average age." In other words, at play they are learning at their highest capacity.

Of course, hierarchies (or levels) emerge in play as well, but they are of the ever-changing variety, elevating one child in this moment and another in the next depending on the nature of the self-selected activity. The child who can read is a head taller when reading is important to the game. The child who can tie knots has their moment when tying knots is needed. The child who can spin dramatic tales, the child who climbs well, the child who knows how to sooth others, the child who builds, the child who sings, the child who dances -- each has their moment. And together, linking strength to strength, ability to ability, understanding to understanding, the children create a curriculum that not only better reflects the real world outside of school, but more importantly, this specific community of children as they are, right now.

Adult-centered schooling simply cannot do this, no matter how progressive the curriculum. Adults will always create rankings. They will always require tests. They will always insist that all children perform, ignoring the natural variability in abilities and understanding. Child-centered learning has no need for rankings, grades or tests because the proof is always in the pudding as the children create their own, unique, collective understanding, each standing on the shoulders of others to see farther than any one of them can see alone.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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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Thursday, January 27, 2022

Bickering Is An Essential Part Of Play

One of the things Seattle's teachers won in their 2015 strike was a commitment from the school district that elementary school students would receive a minimum of 30 minutes of recess per day. In fairness, some schools were already providing more than that, but there were several, apparently, that were limiting their youngest students to a meager 15 minutes. It's actually disheartening to this play-based educator to learn that a half hour is considered a victory.

The ostensible reason for such pathetically restricted recess is that longer recesses cut into that all-important "classroom time," but I also heard that some administrators favor limited or non-existant recesses because when children freely play they are more likely to wind up in conflicts.

Let me be the first to say, "Duh."

As a teacher in a school that engages in no direct instruction, but rather bases its curriculum on the evidence of how children learn best, which is through their own self-selected play, I'm here to tell you that conflict stands at the center of how learning happens. Our entire school day is, for all intents and purposes, recess, and yes, much of what the children are doing while playing both indoors and out is bicker.

For adults interested in eliminating bickering, I would say that 15 minutes is about right: it usually takes the children at least that long just to figure out what they're going to do, which, in a robust classroom like ours, with lots of kids with lots of agendas engaging with shared and limited resources, is typically followed by a period of often intense negotiation, which often shows up as conflict.

For instance, a group of four and five-year-olds, mostly boys, found themselves playing together with a collection of cardboard tubes and tennis balls. For the first 15 minutes or so, they engaged like independent agents, each arranging tubes, and collecting balls for their own personal use. That time passed relatively quietly, with each of them exploring and experimenting. 

The next 15 minutes was characterized by physical and emotional chaos, as they began to bump up against limitations of space and resources, but the real impetus for the conflicts were their divergent ideas for how they were going to play. Most of the kids were setting their tubes up at angles down which they were rolling balls, but at least one guy was more interested in using the tubes as a way to practice balance, rolling them the way a lumberjack might. The resulting spills and his lurching body, of course, tended to upend his classmates' carefully constructed efforts and there were a lot of things said about it, like, "Hey! You're knocking over my tube!" which was followed by a round or two of argument, sometimes even accompanied by shoving and other physical attempts to solve their impasse. 

Others began to collect balls, "all the balls," which lead to complaints like, "Hey! You have all the balls!"

Some objected when friends would block up the end of the tube so their balls couldn't pass through, robbing them of the satisfaction of witnessing the end result of their experiment.

By the end of this 15 minutes, there was one boy crying, several flush with frustration, and a couple who found themselves wound up into a slightly hysterical state by the hubbub. This is where I did my work for the day. I stepped in several times to help cool tempers and encourage conversation, which I did by reminding the children of the rules they had made together the previous week, the agreements we had made about how we wanted to treat one another. Among those rules were such classics as "No taking things from other people," "No hitting," "No pushing," and "No knocking down other people's buildings," along with an agreement that if someone tells you to "Stop!" you must stop and listen to what the other person has to say.

Most of the conflicts I let run their course as the kids were talking, sometimes loudly, sometimes heatedly. As long as they were heading toward resolution I stayed on the sidelines, but when things became physical or the emotions turned intense, I dropped to my knees in the midst of it and said things like, "I saw you take that tube from him. We all agreed, 'No taking things from other people,'" and "He's crying because he worked really hard building that and you knocked it down." But mostly what I did was encourage the children to listen to one another by simply saying things like, "I want you to listen to what he has to say."

This is the period of recess play that those administrators want to avoid. I know that many schools consider recess to be a time for the classroom teachers to catch a little break, leaving the school yard in the hands of a few "monitors." One kindergarten teacher told me that they often have 40 or more children per adult on their playground. I know I wouldn't want to face that second 15 minutes without all hands on deck.

So why do we put up with that second 15 minutes? To get to the third 15 minutes and beyond. That's when all that bickering begins to pay off. That's when all the conflict and talking and listening start to bring those ideas and agendas together. 

For the next hour I more or less sat on a bench and watched the children play, together, saying sentences to one another that began with the invitation word, "Let's . . ." 

"Let's connect all the big tubes!"

"Let's put all the balls in this bucket!"

"Let's move it over here!"

There was still a bit of bickering, but it was of the productive variety, with children actually listening to their friends' thoughts and ideas, sometimes disagreeing, but mostly finding ways to incorporate it within their own agenda. This is the gold standard of a play-based curriculum: creative, cooperative play, and sometimes the only way to get there is through that second 15 minutes.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

What Educated People Do

Listening to students' thoughts is a good way to teach. And that very process of teaching is a research process as well. ~Eleanor Duckworth

The reason that I've never considered giving up "circle time" in preschool is that I approach a preschool classroom as a living, breathing self-governing society and, for me, it is essential that we take time, every day to talk together, and listen together, about the things that are important to us as a community.

One day, Amanda told the assembled "us" that she was afraid of the handful of boys who played superheroes on the playground. The boys, and especially one avid superhero named Orlando, argued that they were not bad guys; they were good guys and good guys protect people. Other children joined Amanda, expressing why they did not, despite their declared good intentions, feel safe around the boys. Others sided with Orlando. Most, however, seemed to be trying to find some sort of middle ground. It was a long, often emotional community discussion, one that did not end in any sort of immediate resolution.

There was a time when I would have tried to steer the conversation toward an "answer" of some sort, a compromise that we could formulate into a rule or agreement about how we would treat one another. Instead, I role modeled listening. The way I did that was to actually listen.

There were solutions proposed and discussed by the kids. We talked about possible rules. But since I view my my role as staying neutral with regard to the substance of their possible answers, I was free to simply listen, to understand, and to rejoice in the thinking, the talking, and the listening. 

Most of what passes for formal education comes down to children being expected to answer the questions the adults are asking. This means that most of a teacher's effort involves, in one way or another, signaling to the child what they want the child to say. Most often, this takes the form of a kind of lecture in which the person with all the answers that matter in the context of school simply tells the kids the answers, expecting that they will remember them the next time they are questioned. 

More progressive educators, or those who are not in a hurry to get through their curriculum's schedule, might take the time to guide children toward the correct answer by offering exercises of some sort that are carefully designed to allow children to discover the answer "on their own." This process may involve some superficial back-and-forth between the adult and the child, but in the end, the adult brings the child to the expected answer.

There was no immediate answer to this circle time discussion. We talked and listened and thought together for nearly an hour until we had exhausted the topic before going back to our play.

That evening as I reflected on our community conversation about superheroes, I knew that at least some of the children, and Amanda and Orlando in particular, were doing the same thing. You see, this was an important question, one that had arisen from the children themselves, a meaningful question that demanded an answer. These are the questions that we stew upon as we lie in bed after the light is out. This is the kind of question that requires understanding, unlike the random questions with pre-determined answers that adults tend to pose to children in the name of education. We don't need to think about those questions because we know that the answer already exists, and if we can't remember it, the adult will eventually tell us. But this question about superheroes, this real life question, was one that needed an answer that only the children themselves could provide, and that requires thinking.

The following day, Orlando arrived to tell me, "I'm not going to play superheroes today." When I asked why, he answered, "Because it scares Amanda."

Later, Amanda strode in wearing a homemade cape. "Today," she announced, "I'm a superhero and I'm going to protect everyone!"

Listening and talking and thinking, that is what educated people do.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

"I Don't Want My Coat! I'm Not Even Cold Ever!"

It was cold out, but Maya didn't want to put on her coat. An adult tried to compel her, bringing her the puffy pink parka she had worn to school that morning, holding it out to her coaxingly, urging her, "You'll be too cold outside."

Our policy was that the kids got to make their own decisions about wearing their coats, the theory being that it wouldn't be the end of the world if they discovered, on their own, the natural consequence of being underdressed. When it was particularly cold, I might say something like, "It's cold out there. I'm wearing my warm coat," but otherwise the decision was theirs to make.

It was early in the school year and this parent-teacher either hadn't got the message or was heeding a care-taker's urge that was more persistent than our policy. "Just put it on, please. If you get too hot you can take it off."

Maya responded by running out the door onto the playground, unburdened by her coat. As the adult followed her, still carrying the parka, I said, "Why don't you leave the coat on a hook? Then if she gets cold she'll know where it is."

"But she will get cold."

"I know."

Reluctantly, she returned the coat to its hook and we went outside together. Moments later another parent-teacher raced past us, headed back inside. As she passed us she said, "I'm just getting Maya's coat."

I asked, "Did she ask for it?"

"No, but it's so cold," and before I could say anything else she dashed away, returning moments later with the pink parka. I watched her chase down Maya who didn't seem to be feeling any negative effects from the weather. From a distance, I watched the attempt to persuade, the refusal, and then after a few rounds of it, Maya ran off to join her friends, leaving the adult standing there, coat in hand.

Moments later another adult approached Maya. "Oh, you forgot your coat. Do you want me to get it for you?" Having been witness to the first two attempts, I didn't feel that it was an overreaction when Maya stamped her foot and shouted, "No! I don't want my coat! I'm not even cold ever!"

I felt sorry for her, but also proud. It was hard for me to imagine that she wasn't feeling the cold, but I admired how she stood up for herself, not letting the adults wear her down. That's when I saw the adult who was still holding the pink parka, her attention drawn by the shouting, headed Maya's way. I intercepted her, saying, "I'll talk to her," taking the coat.

I went to Maya who was still engaged in her battle of wills. I held her coat up and called to her, "I'm going to put your coat inside. If you want it, it will be on a hook."

Maya shouted, "I don't want it!" then ran off again to join her friends.

By now, it was clear to me that the mistake in all this was mine. I'd obviously not made myself clear to the adult community about our school's coat policy. Some time later, Maya rushed up to me with exciting news of some kind and I noticed she was now wearing her parka. Worried that yet another adult had badgered her into it, I said, "You're wearing your coat."

She replied fiercely, "Yes. I changed my own mind," then went back to her play. And indeed, that's the only way any mind has ever been changed.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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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Monday, January 24, 2022

Your Wish is My Command

"Your wish is my command."

It's a phrase that originates in the Arabic folk tale Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. It's what the genii said to the boy who conjured him. It is meant as a declaration of gratitude for having been released from the prison of the lamp, one that the genii makes in earnest. He will, up to the limit of three wishes, obey the boy. 

Today, more often than not, when we use the phrase we mean it sarcastically, as a way of indicating that someone has us over a barrel. As autonomous modern humans, most of us have learned to be uncomfortable with ceding our behavior to the whims of others and to feel resentful when circumstances conspire to place us in the control of others. And even when we say or hear "Your wish is my command" spoken with the earnestness of the genii, we know that there are limits to any obedience, even if a great debt is owed.

I've written often here about the widely-accepted cultural notion that children should, at least when it comes to "important" things, obey the adults in their life. In my view, this is a dangerous thing to teach children because we know that the lessons learned in our youth have a way of carrying forward into adulthood and adults who have learned obedience are not adults who are well-equipped to make their own decisions. They tend to be people who look to others to do their thinking for them because, at the end of the day, that is what obedience is all about: it is about making another person's wish into our own command. Obedient people can be more easily made to do things against their own judgment or best interests, which makes them dangerous to themselves and others, and easy targets for bad actors.

I was surprised, therefore, to recently learn that linguists believe that the words "hear" and "obey" most likely originated as the same word. In Latin, the word obedire translates as "obey," which is the composite of ob + audire, which means to hear while facing someone. This is true for Greek, Hebrew, French, German, and Russian, as well as English.

Of course, meanings change over time and through usage, but I recognize that in my own life, hearing, and especially listening, is a kind of obedience.

As Julian Jaynes puts it: "Consider what it is to listen and understand someone speaking to us. In a certain sense we have to become the other person; or rather, we let him become part of us for a brief second. We suspend our own identities, after which we come back to ourselves and accept or reject what he has said. But that brief second of dawdling identity is the nature of understanding language; and if that language is a command, the identification of understanding becomes the obedience."

Jaynes is writing about understanding language specifically, but I think this goes for the entirety of interpersonal communication, which includes both verbal and non-verbal listening.

Not all of what we call "listening" falls into this category. Many of us, especially when we are in positions of power, as when we are adults with young children, merely perform a show of listening while we construct our response, or, as is too often the case when a child tells us a long-winded story, simply as a polite cover for the fact that we are merely waiting for them to come to an end, and lacking that, a space in which we can interrupt. But when we honestly listen, when we, as Eleanor Duckworth says, "listen with our entire self" it is an act of putting ourselves completely at the service of others.

The act of understanding another person is, however briefly, a necessary and voluntary act of obedience because (Duckworth again) ". . . we cannot assume that an experience whose meaning seems clear to us will have the same meaning for someone else."

Our profession as early childhood educators is too often wrapped up in the language and practice of adults controlling, dictating, telling, and "teaching," but the true art, the true practice of an educator is listening, to hear their wishes and make understanding them our command. 

As Mister Rogers writes, "I think the most important part about communication is the listening we do beforehand."


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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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Friday, January 21, 2022

The Hallmark Of A Truly Educated Person

History is sprinkled here and there with the idea compulsory schooling going back at least to Ancient Greece, but it was never implemented in any meaningful way until the early 1500's when the Aztec Triple Alliance instituted mandatory universal schooling. By the middle part of that century, compulsory educational systems, usually attached to the church, for boys only, were set up in Europe and it's from these seeds that our modern idea of schooling has grown.

The idea of mandatory schooling in Western thought, at least, can actually be found some 900 years earlier with Plato's original idea of compulsory schooling. As a student of Socrates, his idea of universal education (excluding slaves and "barbarians," of course) was based on his idea that an "ideal" society would emerge if the entire population were trained as philosophers, seekers after wisdom and truth. The goal was to enable everyone with the intellectual tools they would need to pursue their self-determined goals. There was no notion in this vision of learning vocational skills or to engage in religious indoctrination. That was to be left to life itself. And there was, in this vision, no pre-determined curriculum, but rather the one that emerges from the learners themselves.

In other words, Plato was concerned with self-directed learning supported by teachers who, like Socrates, were there to listen and to occasionally ask questions when the learner was stuck. This is what play-based education is all about. It is what self-directed learning is all about. It is what unschooling is all about. 

The compulsory schools that actually emerged, however, have always cynically payed homage to Plato's ideas, while doing the opposite. 

Today, school as it is conceived is a kind of day prison in which children are shepherded through 12 years of disconnected information that committees of bureaucrats have determined will comprise the curriculum. We still give lip-service to the idea that we are preparing children to achieve their own goals. We tell them they can be anything they want to be, while actively preventing them from pursuing their own happiness. The central principle of compulsory schooling is control, not thinking.

Indeed, most schools are not for children at all. As philosopher Ivan Illich wrote, "School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is." And heaven help any child who rebels against this.

Parents are recruited into this effort by such things as grades, these measures that compare one child to the next. High marks, they are told, is a sign of a successful child. No one asks the child if they feel successful. No one asks the child what they think about anything because school is a kind of competitive battlefield that rewards those to conform best to the norms of society as it is. In fact, when a child happens to express a thought or idea that does not match what already exists, they are often reprimanded, even punished. Or perhaps worse, psychologized. Parents are required to care, and care deeply, about their child's academic progress. Their own pride is satisfied when their child wins and they are shamed when their child fails. 

Periodically, there is a call for a "return to basics" in education that tends to coincide with societal upheaval, something we are experiencing right now. "Society as it is," for instance, wants to strip our schools of anything that challenges the status quo, such as alternative interpretations of history or sexuality or race. This urge is usually accompanied by calls for harsher discipline, straighter lines, more rigorous testing. There is a dismissal of anything that smacks of "otherness." 

Mandatory schools have never been for children. Children do not need schools as evidenced by the 99.99 percent of human existence that did not involve schools. Society as it is needs schools and children trained as philosophers, people who seek after truth, wisdom, and beauty, are a grave danger.

There are those of us, however, who are following in the tradition of Plato. We are the ones playing with children. It can be discouraging to know that most children will leave my care to enter into our system of compulsory schooling, yet I also know that I've done everything I can to prepare them for the battle ahead. They will suffer from injustice there, they will be misunderstood, and society as it is will seek to crush the things that makes them special. I can only hope that the time they have spent with me will gird them for this. I can only hope that the light of self-direction stays with them, and that despite being victims of injustice and misunderstanding, they will know that the only thing that really matters is that they continue to seek to understand, in the spirit of philosophy, and that they do not commit injustices themselves.

That, for me, is the hallmark of a truly educated person.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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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Thursday, January 20, 2022

We Just Don't Yet Know

Richard Becker

The children we are teaching in our preschools today do not remember a time when there wasn't a pandemic. Wearing a mask to go out in public is similar to having to wear pants, an annoying, but apparently necessary convention. Keeping one's distance is as natural (or unnatural depending on the child) as not hitting or not snatching things from the hands of others. Washing hands was already something they did more frequently than most adults. And the open-closed-open-closed pattern of school is new for us adults, but that's just the way school has "always" been for these youngest citizens.

Many of us are concerned about the children's mental health through all of this, and rightly so. This generation is having a different school experience than past generations, so it stands to reason that there will likely be different outcomes, perhaps horrible ones. Indeed, these kids are having a different life experience. We all are. And it's still all too new to have the data we need to tell whether or not our worst mental health fears (or hopes) have been realized.

Experts are penning articles warning us about the mental health harm, but if you read them, you find they are mostly based on anecdotes and fear, both valid bits of data that might point us in the right direction, but hardly conclusive evidence. That said, there is little doubt that some children have been harmed. Many have lost parents, for instance. At the same time there is also little doubt that others are thriving in the current state of things. I expect that families who have managed to simply opt out by homeschooling or unschooling over the past couple years tend to have children who are weathering this, on average, better than others, but that's just a prejudice I have, a theory that may or may not wind up being supported by data. 

I also know that many adults are suffering from increased rates of anxiety and depression right now, probably at rates that exceed those of children, but again, it's just a theory.

I mean, after all, it's not as if the "before times" weren't incredibly stressful for a lot of us. We were already experiencing historic levels of mental illness in young children. So it's completely possible that not being in school is actually improving their overall mental health. I'm not saying this is true. I'm also not denying that the pandemic experience has been a tragedy for many. What I am saying is that all we can see are the tips of a few of the waves that may or may not indicate what we think they indicate.

For instance, the Journal of the American Medical Association recently published an article that found that  teen emergency room presentations for self-harm, overdose, and hospital admissions from both have decreased by nearly 20 percent during the pandemic. That doesn't prove anything, but it is clear that something has changed, in this narrow case, for the better.

And this isn't the only data to suggest that the pandemic has actually been a good thing for older children inclined toward self-harm and suicide. This study found that acute mental health ER admissions did not increase during the first 12 months of the pandemic. This one finds that the frequency with which youth were prescribed psychiatric medications has fallen since the beginning of the pandemic. The CDC reports that for the first time in history, kids died of suicide during school months at the same rate as summer months, in other words, dramatically fewer.

This, of course, doesn't tell the whole story, although suicide and self-harm rates have long been considered pretty reliable leading indicators of increased stress and declining mental health. It's possible that there are other factors at work here, but my point is that we simply cannot make a blanket statement that the pandemic and the resulting chaos in our schools is harming our children's mental health.

There is no doubt that the pandemic and our response to it has caused a great deal of pain for a lot of people, including children. Some of that was unavoidable, like with other natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, although we could have planned better. And I'm certain that we, as a society, are suffering from some self-inflicted wounds, but it is not at all certain that it has damaged an entire generation.

Indeed, a lower teen suicide rate could be telling us something, particularly about the institution of schooling. If it spikes when we return to "normal," will the same experts who are bemoaning school disruptions take note?

As an educator, I'm interested in lessons learned. The pandemic presents us with an opportunity to take a long hard look at what school really does to children, both good and bad. It makes me a little sick to think that today's children are accidental guinea pigs in this accidental experiment, but then again, that's always the plight of all of us, no matter when we were born. We are all always guinea pigs in this experiment of life. We fret and worry and hope, but we never really know the impact of anything until it's behind us. That's the nature of data: it is always a sign from the past that may or may not signal the future.

One thing I do know, however, is that this generation will be different. Every generation is. We just don't yet know what that difference is.


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"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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