Thursday, June 30, 2022

Discovering Ancient Knowledge

In a preschool milieu plentifully populated with superheroes and princesses it was refreshing that these kids played at Dora the Explorer. They prowled the playground, the two of them, sometimes joined by a curious friend, looking for "discoveries."

A discovery could be anything at all -- a shiny pebble, a scurrying insect, a curious stick. They stirred one another up to excitement for even the most mundane finds.

One day, they dug up a cracked and faded plastic bucket from the sandpit. We had retired that particular type of bucket several years earlier, so, it was indeed an artifact from an earlier civilization. 

"This bucket is old."

"It's so old."

They took the bucket to the cast iron water pump and tried the "experiment" of filling it with water, but the crack rendered it useless for this purpose, so they instead managed to fill it with sand, wood chips and other debris. At some point they began using the word "ancient" to describe their special artifact.

"Look what we discovered, Teacher Tom. It's a bucket from the olden days."

I was once challenged by a man who objected to my description of play-based learning as "science, exploration, and discovery." "They don't discover anything," he insisted. "It has to be new knowledge to be a discovery." Once something has been discovered once, he argued, it can't be discovered again. 

I don't recall exactly how I responded, but I suspect I argued that the word "discovery" was valid because the discovered knowledge is new to that particular child. It's not invalidated as a discovery just because someone was there before.

I now know, in a way, that we were both wrong. Indeed, I wonder if at some level the notion of "discovery" itself needs to be re-considered. After all, Columbus didn't discover America. "It was here all along," writes Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. "I smile," she writes, "when I hear colleagues say 'I discovered X.' Experiments are not about discovery but about listening and translating knowledge."

A botanist, Kimmerer, tells us that it's hubris to believe that we discover anything, except in a personal sense. Everything has already known, it has already been discovered, although perhaps not by humans, or Europeans, or our classmates. All knowledge, every discovery, is as ancient as the universe itself. What we call discovery, whether it is attained by trekking out into the world with our backpacks like Dora the Explorer, or through the scientific method, is in reality the process of figuring out where knowledge might be stored, then learning how to ask our questions by experiment or observation, listening, then translating that knowledge so that we can understand.

After a time, the ancient bucket had revealed all the knowledge it had to share with our playground explorers, at least for this day. Before moving on, they returned it to the hole in the sand from whence it had come, and where it waits, perhaps until this very day, to be questioned, to be discovered, once again.


"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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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

What "Real Learning" Looks Like

"(Real learning) does not look like 6-year-olds slumped in chairs . . . staring at iPads . . ." ~parent's testimony before Cambridge School board

This is the problem with letting dilettantes, even well-intended dilettantes, lead when it comes to education policy. They don't have the experience to recognize what real learning looks like, and since they tend to come from the world of business or government, they don't trust mere "employees" (teachers), especially if they belong to a union, so they come up with arbitrary data points that carry with them a hint of education-ness, then subject children to their amateur hour. I don't think that most of them want to be cruel to children and their parents, but in their ignorance they believe they know better because they've managed to make money off selling software or hardware or something, so they conjure up education-ish sounding ideas and, because they can, they impose them, despite the objections of those of us who do have the experience to know what real learning looks like.

Anyone who has spent any time in a classroom knows that real learning does not look like children slumped in chairs staring at iPads. Real learning looks like stepping in a puddle you've made with your friends, then sinking in until the water tops your boots.

Real learning looks like pouring water through systems of funnels and tubes.

Real learning looks like mixing a whole lot of stuff together with your friends to see what happens.

Real learning looks like negotiating how to share scarce and valuable resources.

Real learning looks like children imitating one another . . .

. . .  then taking it to the next level.

Real learning looks like testing our physical limits.

Real learning looks like performing experiments.

Real learning looks like trying on costumes.

Real learning looks like princesses and fairies.

Real learning looks like figuring out how to make something new from unfamiliar materials.

Real learning looks like conflict and resolution.

Real learning looks like hanging out with a friend and talking about the world.

Real learning looks like engagement in a process one has never tried before.

Real learning looks like children cleaning up after themselves.

Real learning looks like children doing things for themselves.

Real learning looks like preschoolers in a brewery carrying kegs.

Real learning looks like children playing in a concrete pond in the rain.

Real learning looks like animals lined up in a row.

Real learning looks like patterns made from goldfish.

Real learning looks like keeping track of important things like how many bowling pins you've knocked down.

Real learning looks like hands covered in purple paint.

Real learning looks like standing in play dough with your friends.

Real learning looks like creating great beauty with your friends.

Real learning looks like doing any project with your friends.

Real learning looks like being together, doing things together, figuring things out together.

Real learning looks like children carving out their own space in the world.

Real learning looks like children following their own path.

This list only scratches the surface of what real learning looks like. I've been working with young children for decades and it would take at least that long to give you my full list. But I assure you, one thing that real learning doesn't look like is children slumped in chairs staring at iPads.


"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

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, June 28, 2022

"To Treat That Like A Problem Is To Treat Life Itself As A Problem"

My friend, fellow play blogger, author of Dirty Teaching, and Teacher Tom's Play Summit presenter, Juliet Robertson, is not fighting cancer, and she corrects you when, invariably, you suggest it. And it's almost impossible to not to talk about "fighting" to someone dealing with a serious affliction. It's so commonplace, in fact, that it has become a cliché that falls from our tongues, but Juliet, the optimistic contrarian, is opting for what she calls "non-violent, direct action," an approach she draws from her Quaker upbringing. "I might have a sit-in with my cancer, although it's more often a lie-in," she joked with me recently. "I don't want to be fighting," she told me more earnestly. "I want to be living."

She's doing what her doctors recommend, but she's not wasting a lot of time worrying or fighting, which in today's world seems like a radical act.

Shortly after my last conversation with Juliet, I came across an essay called Uncertain Times by journalist and author Oliver Burkeman in which he writes, "We're all in the same boat, being carried forward on the river of time, unable to know what's around the next bend -- and to treat that like a problem is to treat life itself as a problem." I thought of Juliet. She got into education as a student because, as she told me, it was the easiest course of study at her university. She got into outdoor education because, as a young teacher, she started off with "the smallest classroom in the world" and really had no choice but to start taking the kids outside. She let her first school principal know that she would never send a child to her unless it was for something "really good." As a principal herself, she was in demand because she made "happy schools" and let the rest take care of itself.

It's not surprising that Juliet's approach to cancer is a radical act; her whole life has been a radical act. There is nothing more radical than to stop trying to control life and to instead live it.

As Burkeman writes, "It was becoming a father that finally drove this home to me. At first, I agonized about what I should be doing -- in terms of nutrition, or reading books, or sleep training, or screen time, or a thousand other variables endlessly dissected in the literature on parenting -- until it finally dawned on me that approaching fatherhood in this manner would mean missing out on fatherhood entirely, to my son's detriment and my own."

To say that we live in uncertain times is to assert another cliché. We cannot know the future, we can never know what's around the next bend in the river. Every one of us, and all of us, are a phone call or natural disaster or misunderstanding or injury or diagnosis away from being transported, as Juliet has been, into a life that is out of our control. "One way of defining worry," writes Burkeman, "might be as the experience of frustration encountered in repeatedly trying, yet failing, to achieve a sense of certainty about the future."

One of our most pernicious modern myths is the one about hard work and planning. Whenever a titan of industry or star athlete or acclaimed performing artist is interviewed about their success, part of the narrative is always about how they kept their eye on the prize as they fought and scratched and clawed their way to the top. I imagine it's a comforting story to those prone to worry. It tells them, contrary to all the evidence, that there is a way to achieve a sense of certainty about what's to come. "If you work hard," they say, "if you fight, nothing can stop you."

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. We don't interview the majority of people who find that all their worry and all their fighting went for nought. The future, as it always does, takes care of itself.

There is nothing wrong with choosing to not make life about fighting and worrying. Indeed, that is the radical approach. There is a power in opting for the easiest path. There is deep wisdom in embracing outside when the future turns out to be the smallest classroom in the world. There is peace to be found in focusing on the "very good" and happiness. And life itself is found, not in hard work and planning, but rather in our relationships that are happening right now. It's this, not fighting or worry, that is the rational approach to an unknowable and unpredictable future.


"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

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, June 27, 2022

"A Gift Creates An Ongoing Relationship"

A colleague's mom recently moved from her house into a more manageable apartment. Over the years, as one does, her mother had collected a lot of stuff in her closets, garage, cellar, and attic, most of which couldn't move with her. "Mom didn't want to throw anything away, so now my siblings and I have her stuff in our attics," she complained. She was particularly frustrated by her mother's good china. "Mom never used it. I'm never going to use it, but it's so special to her. I think it was a wedding present."

So, she was torn about what to do. For her, it was something that would just be stored away in a dusty corner somewhere to be, as she said, thrown out by her son when it was his turn to inherit it. On the other hand, she figured she could sell it or donate it, to at least get it out there in the world where someone would appreciate it. This same set of china that meant so much to her mother, meant nothing to her, except for the nagging fact that her mother had cherished it.

"It's funny how the nature of an object . . . is so changed by the way it has come into our hands, as a gift or a commodity," writes Robin Wall Kimmerer in her stunning book Braiding Sweetgrass. "A gift creates ongoing relationship."

To insult someone as "childish" is, in part, to call them selfish, but I've never found children to be any more or less selfish than the adults I know. In truth, I count young children among the most generous and thoughtful people I've ever known. They haven't yet learned our culture's lessons about consumerism, so nothing to them is a mere commodity. I wrote last week about a girl who gave me a picture she had been drawing simply because I admired it. Over the course of my decades in the classroom I could have filled a dozen garages with the gifts I've been given by children, these young humans who are emphatically unselfish, who know in their hearts the connecting power of a gift.

I realized long ago that these gifts of artwork, of nature, of found objects, and of thoughtfulness, contained, as Kimmerer writes, a "bundle of responsibilities," and that by accepting these gifts I was creating a "feeling-bond" between children and myself. That, of course, is the real value of things. 

One of the first things a baby does upon learning to grasp hold of objects, is to offer them to us, holding them out as gifts. They, in turn, take them from us, only to immediately offer them back in a cycle of gift giving that weaves our lives together. Mere objects simply don't do that. Kimmerer writes, "That is the fundamental nature of gifts: they move, and their value increases with their passage."

Many Indigenous cultures see this dynamic throughout all of nature. "Wild strawberries," writes Kimmerer, "fit the definition of gift, but grocery store berries do not." As our children grow older, more and more of their world becomes commodified, they learn the harsh lessons of consumerism, which creates no bonds other than through the tit-for-tat exchange of money. It's easy to see how this separates us from our natural impulses, which is to connect through sharing.

I don't know what my colleague will finally decide about her mother's china. She still feels, through her connection with her mother, the value of this gift, but the longer it remains boxed up in the attic, as the feeling-bond becomes lost, the more it is becoming a soulless commodity. By the time it gets to her son, it will no longer be a gift at all. I hope, for everyone's sake, that she decides to transform it back into a gift.


"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

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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