Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Learning The Hard Way


Our daughter lives in Manhattan, which means that my wife and I regularly visit the Big Apple. I love walking in that city. Every block, it seems, offers vistas and experiences that can only exist in the urban density. It's exciting, vibrant, rough, and beautiful. 

And the people -- there are so many people. I'm aware that this isn't a selling point for many, and sometimes they do just seem to be in my way, but honestly, most of the time, I'm thrilled by being one of millions, a unique individual amidst other unique individuals, with our varied histories, perspectives, opinions, and attitudes. You can hear a half dozen different languages in a single block. I find myself regularly overwhelm with the miraculous idea that we are all there, closely together, somehow, despite our differences, finding ways to make it work. It's not always pretty, of course, but in the back of my mind is this idea that this city is evidence that there are still a lot of us who have not given up on humankind.

When I'm in the city, I find myself becoming a different person. For instance, I've spent most of my adult life in Seattle, a place where most of us wait on the curb for the crosswalk light to change. It's such a habit that when I first arrive in New York, I find myself instinctively waiting while my fellow humans flow past me, crossing against the light. At first I might try to stick to my Seattle training, but before long, perhaps after two or three days, I've joined the flow.

Education consultant Mr. Chazz Lewis shares this example with me at the fast approaching Teacher Tom's Play Summit. "Crossing against the light is part of the culture of New York. No one has to tell newcomers what to do." This is an example he uses to show us how culture teaches.


I'll never forget an early, rainy morning in downtown Seattle, standing on the curb waiting for the crosswalk light. There was no traffic. Indeed, the only people I could see were the people standing, waiting, in the rain, on either side of me. To my right was a disheveled man who had obviously been sleeping rough. To my left I recognized John Ellis, the CEO of the Puget Power company. No one was telling any of us what to do. There was no threat of punishment, no reward, no fear, yet here we stood together, united as products of our culture.

In his frank and honest interview, Mr. Chazz talks about his own journey as an educator, how he learned "the hard way" about such "unhealthy classroom habits" as punishments, rewards, coercion, fear and shame. "We spend too much of our time yanking children along the path," he says, instead of focusing on creating a true learning culture, one that doesn't require such heavy handed "management."

The Reggio Emilia model of early childhood education considers the environment, which includes culture, to be one every child's three teachers, on equal footing with adults and peers. More often than not, I've found that when challenging or upsetting behaviors emerge from children, the solution isn't to fix the child, but rather to fix the environment. It might not always be the case, but it is always the right place to start. What is it about the classroom culture that makes this child feel like he needs to hit others? How can I work with my third teacher to reduce the amount of shouting or running? What is it about our culture that causes so many kids to hoard or compete or destroy the work of others?

Sometimes the solution is as simple as re-arranging the furniture. If the kids are running in circles inside the classroom, it's probably because the environment looks like a race track. 

Often, however, the answer lies in the culture you are creating as the de facto leader of this small, dense community. For instance, no one, no matter what their age, responds well to being told what to do. Imagine what would happen if you tried to command those New Yorkers to wait for the green light. Or, perhaps better, imagine how you would respond if one of those New Yorkers brusquely ordered you to, "Move it!" I might, after all, move it, but I'd do so reluctantly, probably feeling resentment or anger, but there's an equal chance I'd refuse to budge at all. There's even a chance that I'd have some choice words for them.

Most classrooms with which I've been involved, most of the time, share much in common with Manhattan. As Mr. Chazz says, "Classrooms are a diverse mixture" of family backgrounds, temperaments, and capabilities. Like the city, classrooms tend to be densely populated places, exciting, vibrant, rough, and beautiful. 

As the adult in the room, we make a mistake when we think it's our job to command and control these children, forcing them to comply with our ideas of order. This can only lead to learning lessons the hard way, both for the adults as well as the children. No, as leaders, as guides, our responsibility is to first see the children, to understand them in all their wondrous diversity, and then to work, hand-in-hand with them and the environment, to create a learning culture that works for everyone.

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To watch my full interview with Mr. Chazz, please join us August 13-17 for the free Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. You will be inspired, informed, and challenged. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Together we can create cultures that teach.

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