Thursday, May 26, 2022

The Matter Of Intelligent Thought

If you listen to education dilettantes, like policymakers and journalists, like businesspeople who are stooping to conquer, like administrators who are more politician than educator, you would think that the highest educational virtues are things like grit, hard work, self-control, time management, focus, and, of course, coding. Coding is on the list not because any of them know how to do it themselves, but rather because they've hired young people who know how to do it so they figure it's a marketable skill.

These are fine virtues, I suppose, but the real challenge is that no one knows how to teach them. 

Oh, they think they do, of course. Like with most things in standard schools, they guess that these virtues will be learned by being compelled to, essentially, fake it 'til you make it. Which is to say, sit at your desk, furrow your brow, don't let your eyes wander, and do it for long stretches of time. When you fail, naturally, there will be reprimands, extra homework, and reports sent home. Those who are unable to exhibit these virtues will be punished under the behaviorist assumption that they can be made to exhibit, say, self-control, in the same way Pavlov "taught" his dogs to salivate. Those who are able to exhibit these virtues, even if it is purely performative (i.e., "fake it"), will be rewarded under the ugly assumption that there is no harm in replacing a child's self-motivation with a desire for more star stickers.

No one knows how to teach these virtues because they can't be taught. They can, however, be learned and the efforts by standard schools to teach these things is perhaps the most certain way to ensure that they will not be learned. Of course, there are some children who learn these virtues in spite of their schooling, while an equal number appear, in school settings, to be completely incapable. Meanwhile, most kids learn the lesson of "faking it" without any intention of ever "making it." That's how we end up with so many adults who still need to learn these very virtues.

In her book The Having of Wonderful Ideas, Eleanor Duckworth writes, "Surprise, puzzlement, struggle, excitement, anticipation, and dawning certainty -- those are the matter of intelligent thought. As virtues, they stand by themselves -- even if they do not, on some specific occasion, lead to the right answer. In the long run, they are what count."

There's nothing fake about these virtues, they emerge spontaneously from humans engaged in learning at full capacity. They rarely emerge in standard schools because these are the responses of autonomous people engaging their world through their own curiosity. They are the stuff of intelligent thought, yet these are the very virtues that "classroom managers" seek to squelch in the name of their lesser virtues. "Quiet!" "Criss-cross apple sauce." "Control yourself!" "You're right." "You're wrong." "Wait! Wait! Come back here and get in line!" 

In a play-based preschool, however, that's all there is: surprise, puzzlement, struggle, excitement, anticipation, and dawning certainty. When we allow children to pursue answers to their own questions, there is no need to motivate them. There is no faking it; there is only making it. We don't need to punish and reward because intelligent thought is always its own reward.

And here's the thing the dilettantes don't understand: their precious lesser virtues are still learned. Indeed, we see that grit, hard work, self-control, time management, and focus emerge naturally because they are inevitable byproducts of self-motivated intelligent thought. As for coding, I threw it on the list as a joke, but the truth is that every coder I've ever met has told me that they are largely self-taught because, for certain people, coding is an endeavor full of surprise, puzzlement, struggle, excitement, anticipation, and dawning certainty.

That, as educators, which is to say non-dilettantes, should always stand as our our goal. Our world should be full of surprise, puzzlement, struggle, excitement, anticipation, and dawning certainty. The rest will take care of itself. There can be no faking it, but rather the genuine article, intelligent thought, and that happens when children, or anyone for that matter, is set free to learn.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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