Thursday, June 09, 2022

The Capacity For Overcoming The Difficulties Of Life

While the other children played a game of tea party, she spent her morning painting her hands with tempura paint, then washing them off in the soapy water in the sensory table. As the other children pretended to eat play dough cookies, she mastered the cycle of applying paint and removing it.

As the children around her donned their costumes and bickered over their games of make-believe, she took charge of washing down the snack table, sweeping the floor, and accompanying the adult to the dumpster to dispose of the trash.

When the other children played with dolls, she made a study of the racks upon which our artwork dried.

Outdoors, she was uninterested in rowdy games of chase or climbing or jumping from high places, but rather fell to her knees to study pebbles and plants, or stood with her nose to a cedar trunk to pick at the bark. She was drawn to the workbench, not because she liked to make things, but rather because she was attracted by the tools, any tool.

She rarely played with the other children, and never games of make-believe. Instead, she focused on what I thought of as "real life," or to use John Dewey's phrasing, "life itself." Whenever some new machine or gadget came into our school, like an old typewriter or hand crank pencil sharpener, she would monopolize it until she had it mastered. She was barely able to contain herself on the day the plumber came to install new toilets. 

As her verbal abilities began to develop, she used them to explain things to others, like how window latches or water fountains worked. She figured out how to read our classroom analog clock and would let me know when it was time for transitions. 

A few of the adults worried about her, furrowing their brows over her apparent lack of social skills or interest in the more stereotypical pursuits of preschoolers. Some even began to whisper the word "autism."  Her mother asked me for my opinion. I told her that I didn't think so, but urged her to talk to her pediatrician for a referral to someone qualified to make that kind of assessment, which she did, and learned that the psychologist didn't think so either.

It was at about this time, shortly after her fifth birthday, that she suddenly, almost as if a switch had been flipped, began to apply her curiosity to the other children and the games they were playing. Having seen her figure out so many things by her self-motivated process of trial and error, I could see the same process at work as she experimented with power, emotions, cooperation, and the bafflements of the counter-factual world of make-believe. Some days, it seemed like she was exploring the other children as if they were fascinating insects she had found on the underside of a rotting log.

It was, to my mind, as if she had, finally, discovered that other people were also part of life itself.

In any group of people, there are those who are, atypical learners, those who do not follow the patterns of development that we categorize as "normal." Indeed, from one perspective, we are all atypical learners because just as there is no accounting for taste, there is no accounting for curiosity. Standard schooling is built around the fallacy of typical or normal: it seeks to find some dull, muddled middle, ignoring curiosity as a motivator because to keep curiosity in the equation means that a roomful of a couple dozen kids would require accommodating 24 divergent paths, something that adult-driven schooling is not equipped to handle. Play is the only curriculum that can accommodate the realities of curiosity, which is the source of self-motivation.

I often hear educators in standard schools complain that "some children are just not naturally self-motivated." I have never encountered a child who is not self-motivated. What these educators are complaining about are children who have not yet learned the real lesson of schooling, which is to replace their curiosity with a desire to please the adults.

The idea that knowledge is essentially curriculum-driven is a very modern view, probably, as Marshall McLuhan writes, "derived from the medieval distinction between clerk and layman . . . The orginal and natural idea of knowledge," he writes, "is that of 'cunning' or the possession of wits. Odysseus is the original type of thinker, a man of many ideas who could overcome the Cyclops and achieve a significant triumph of mind over matter. Knowledge is thus a capacity for overcoming the difficulties of life and achieving success in this world."

When life itself is the curriculum, we see that everything is about this capacity for bridging the gap between what we know and what we find we need to know, not to satisfy our teacher, but to overcome the real difficulties and questions we encounter as we live. For that, curiosity and autonomy is all we need.


"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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