Friday, March 31, 2023

Waiting For Life To Happen

In John Lennon's song "Beautiful Boy," he sings the line, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." He may have come up with it all on his own, but 20 years prior, the cartoonist Allen Saunders similarly wrote, "Life is what happens while we're making other plans." And indeed, one can go back and find other epigrams expressing the same idea, perhaps not phrased quite so pithily, going all the way back to the Buddha. 

When I consider my decades of schooling, I really do see that there was an underlying and pervasive sense of waiting for life to happen. Maybe not so much during my early years, but certainly by the time people started warning me about my "permanent record," it felt as if my primary job was to make plans for life. I got increasingly serious about the question, What do you want to be when you grow up? I began to take classes, read books, and engage in extracurricular activities that I hoped would provide me knowledge or skills I would need, not now, but in the future. Sure, I got my kicks in between the preparation and planning, but at bottom, the adults around me made it clear that life had not yet really begun. Life was always in the offing.

After all, my grades, the compensation for which I labored in school, were objectively meaningless without the prospect of the life that lay ahead. People assured me that I owed it to myself to forego joys and adventures in order to prepare for life, that would, if I did it right, be comprised of proper joys and adventures. Not to mention money: earning enough money to live on was the was to be the sign that life had truly begun. It certainly didn't begin when I walked out of that final exam in my final year of university singing "I'm Free." It would begin once I had that first job that afforded me that first apartment.

The problem was that even once I had successfully replaced grades with money, I can see that the 20 years of waiting had become a habit. My job had replaced school as the place where I waited, planning for the next job and then the next. Life itself was the thing that happened on evenings, weekends, and holidays. Work was where I waited, planning . . . for something.

I'm not the only one who learned the habit of waiting and planning instead of living. What if school was something more than a waiting room for life? 

That's certainly how the preschoolers I teach approach it. They come to play, to actually live life itself, right now, as it presents itself. It was as I watched our daughter play with her friends that I came to understand that all that waiting and planning was standing between me and a life of deep and personal meaning. She focused, like a laser, not on counting or reading or memorizing, and definitely not on planning and waiting, but rather on creating relationships; messy, fraught, and joyful relationships. She came home in tears. She came home in ecstasy. She was living.

Play-based preschool is where life itself takes place. It's tragic how many of our youngest citizens are robbed of life itself as they are compelled, even as young as two and three, to learn the school-ish lessons of waiting and planning, and of putting life off into the future.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 

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Thursday, March 30, 2023

We Must Find A Way

We must find a way to make wrong things right, hand in hand, together.

Living in a Rainbowland
Where everything goes as planned
And I smile
'Cause I know if we try, we could really make a difference in this world
I won't give up, I'll sleep a wink
It's the only thought I think, you know where I stand
I believe we can start living in Rainbowland

A Florida public school art teacher, teaching at a school that emphasizes its "classical" education, recently showed her sixth graders a photo of Michelangelo's sculpture of David during a lesson on Renaissance art, one of the most famous and influential statues in Western history. A parent complained that it was pornographic, which lead to the firing of the school's principal.

Living in a Rainbowland
Where you and I go hand in hand
Oh, I'd be lying if I said this was fine
All the hurt and the hate going on here
We are rainbows, me and you
Every color, every hue
Let's shine on through
Together, we can start living in a Rainbowland

In Florida and elsewhere, educators have been forced to removed books that address race, gender, and bigotry from their classroom bookshelves under threat not only of being disciplined or fired, but being charged with a felony. These book bans have included the removal of books by such iconic writers as Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood. The Diary of Anne Frank has been banned, as have books about civil rights icons like Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr.. Even books on pioneering athletes like Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente have been removed from shelves.

The skies are blue and things are grand
Wouldn't it be nice to live in paradise
Where we're free to be exactly who we are
Let's all dig down deep inside
Brush the judgment and fear inside
Make wrong things right
And end the fight
'Cause I promise ain't nobody gonna win (come on)

In Wisconsin, elementary school administrators prevented a class of first graders from singing the song Rainbowland because, apparently, its message of love and togetherness, is "too controversial." They had previously banned The Muppets song Rainbow Connection on the same grounds. They argued that the theme was too mature for young children. I've included the lyrics in this post. Judge for yourself.

Living in a Rainbowland
Where you and I go hand in hand together (let's do it together)
Chase dreams forever
I know there's gonna be a greener land
We are rainbows, me and you
Every color, every hue
Let's shine on
Together, we can start living in a Rainbowland

The educators involved in all of these stories, and many others have received received death threats above and beyond those implied every day as our nation does nothing at all to prevent mentally ill people from arming themselves with guns from murdering us and the children we teach. The US House of Representatives has recently passed legislation that, if it were to become law, would only make all of this worse.

Our profession is under attack, literally. I am a teacher. I have always loved being a teacher, but there is no way that I'd encourage my own child to enter this profession, not in today's world. I've never worked in a public school, but many of my good friends do. All of them are considering walking away, even in places where the statue of David or Rainbowland aren't considered controversial. The job was already difficult before this recent intensification of the culture wars that seek to ban teaching about the very essence of our nation's principles and history. The job was already thankless before we could wind up as felons or murder victims just for wanting to support and teach young children and their families.

There is a reason that fewer and fewer young people are seeking careers in teaching. There is a reason that school districts across the nation are struggling with staffing, even going so far as to lower their standards just to get warm bodies in the room. 

I want to call for a general teacher's strike, but the truth is, it's already happening. In slow motion, one teacher at a time, we are walking out, walking away, leaving our classrooms and kids behind. I know there are many who are girding themselves to stay because the children and their families need them, because they still feel they can do good "inside the cracks." I won't judge anyone's decision, but I worry that change will not come through passive resistance and quiet subversion alone. 

As educators, we have so much more power than we know. Without us, the economy simply cannot function. I don't know how, I don't know when, and I don't know who, but if we really want to serve children and their families, we must find a way to make wrong things right, hand in hand, together.


"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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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Sometimes It's Okay To Say, "You Can't Play"

We were playing with cardboard boxes and cardboard blocks. A group of three-year-olds discovered a game that involved standing in a rough circle around a box while drumming on it together with long blocks. Before long they began to chant which allowed them to find a mutual rhythm. Periodically, they would then all fall down on the ground in a kind of pig pile. After a lull they began their drumming again, repeating the cycle over and over, joyfully.

It was a noisy, full body game that attracted others, both as participants and observers. Before long, we ran out of long blocks. Some children allowed this to be their barrier to entry into the game, so they either moved on or griped while watching the game as an outsider. A few, however, simply picked up shorter blocks and attempted to join in. Unfortunately, the nature of shorter blocks meant that they had to stand closer to the box that was the target of their drumming, placing them in position to be hit and jostled by the longer blocks. Each time this happened, and it began to happen a lot, the child with the shorter block complained, "Hey, you hit me!" which meant the game had to momentarily stop.

Before long, this previously fun game was paused as often as it was in motion, which caused the game to lose much of its savor for the kids who had originally begun playing it. Not only that, but those complaining about not having long blocks began to become louder and more insistent. First one, then another of the long blocks were dropped to the ground as the game was given up by those who had discovered it. These abandoned blocks were then bickered and tussled over by the remaining children. The game resumed with an altered cast of participants. There was no chanting. They were not smiling. The joy had been sucked out of it.

Meanwhile, the three kids who had originated the game, moved off together to an empty space, picked up short blocks and began to play their game together, just the three of them, joyfully, beaming into one another's faces and chanting as they had when the game first spontaneously erupted. They were clearly having more fun than the others, whose game had devolved into a kind of dreary contest. 

Before long, however, a fourth child attempted to join this new game, to the annoyance of the three short block drummers.

"You can't play with us," one of them said. "You have the wrong kind of block."

The ground was covered with dozens of blocks identical to the ones being used in the game, but no matter which one the newcomer tried, he was told, "You have the wrong kind of block." They were excluding him based on what might have appeared to be arbitrary grounds, but having witnessed the entire episode, I knew that their exclusion was based on experience. The previous game had been fun until it had gotten too big and even though the children weren't able to put it into words, they had learned that three was the right number for this game of drumming with cardboard blocks on a cardboard box.

Few things in preschool are more icky, emotional, and complicated than when children exclude one another. Had I only tuned in during the second phase of this game, I would have likely interpreted their attempt to exclude as unfair and would probably have intervened in some way on behalf of the child being left out. But as it was, I knew that their reluctance to add another child to their game had a basis in reason and experience, even if their way of expressing it, of drawing the line, appeared arbitrary. This isn't to say that children (and adults) don't sometimes exclude one another arbitrarily, but only to point out that there is more gray area here than not, which is why children must explore it if they are to ever understand it.

I helped them with their words, "This game is a game for three people." Then I supported the boy who had been excluded, for a perfectly acceptable reason, to find two more children with which to play their own game of drumming on a cardboard box with cardboard blocks.


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.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

How We Learn To Be Courageous

The children were rowdily queuing up to take turns jumping from the impromptu "diving board" they had created from a plank of wood that they had rigged up. The distance from springboard to the ground was less than two feet. A few leapt fearlessly, hurling their bodies into the air with abandon, but most were more cautious, some exceedingly cautious, and many remained on the sidelines, watching.

This was, in the eyes of most of the children, risky business. They didn't need adults hanging around cautioning them. They most definitely didn't need anyone commanding them to "be careful." They were all, clearly, approaching this self-created, self-selected challenge with the knowledge that pain was a possible consequence and were taking due measures.

One of my wife's relatives, a man who had made pediatric orthopedic devices for a living, was famous within the family for having regularly joked that "Kids are always trying to kill themselves" which was in large measure, he claimed, why he remained in business. It was an edgy joke, one I'm sure he rarely made in front of the families he served, but it echoes an attitude that many of us carry with us about young children: they may not be trying to get hurt, but they are certainly too ignorant, innocent, careless, and foolhardy to be trusted with their own assessment of risk.

Our first responsibility as adults working with young children is safety. We tend to define a "safe environment" for children as one in which injuries are rare. All preschools and child care centers have safety protocols. Hazards are identified and removed. Rules are made to prevent children from engaging in activities the adults deem too risky. Educators are often called to the carpet, fired, or even sued when a child is injured on their watch. Yet we all know, just as did the children lining up for this diving board (which would likely be banned in many settings), that complete certainty and safety in life is impossible.

And I think most of us also know, or at least we should know, that if we ever managed to create a completely certain and safe environment, it would be a kind of hell on earth. Novels of dystopia are written about futures in which the only freedom is the freedom from risk. Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids movement emerged from the recognition that in our extreme efforts to keep children safe we are inadvertently teaching our children (and parents) to be incompetent and fearful. Gever Tulley's book Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) is a stark reminder of how our culture's anxious embrace of safety at all costs is a very recent phenomenon, one that robs children of an authentic childhood.

I won't to go into the research about the benefits, indeed necessity, for children to engage in risky play, but if that's what you're looking for, Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter is one of the pre-eminent researchers and scholars in the area and you'll find everything you're looking for in her blog.

What I want to focus on here is the more philosophical and psychological side of risk and courage.

Not only is life without risk impossible, but a life without it is no life at all, which is to say the only absolute certainty and safety is death itself. The great William James wrote: "It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all." One of the great problems, according to James, is that life is full of decisions and most of the time we are forced to decide even when the evidence is less than fully persuasive either way. In other words, no matter how scientifically we approach our decisions, no matter how carefully we analyze the data, no matter how orderly our row of ducks, at the end of the day every important decision we make first requires us to make a decision about what to believe.

In our scientific age, however, deciding what to believe is a kind of sacrilege. It calls into question the very concept of truth. It requires faith that takes us outside of the realm of evidence. When those children edged out to the end of the diving board, contemplated, then leapt, they were not thinking about educating their vestibular systems or developing their pre-frontal cortexes, they were choosing to believe that they would land safely. And those who turned around and edged back to the security of the solid ground were choosing to believe that they would not . . . At least not today.

We worry about the kid who leaps, but we should be at least equally worried, perhaps more so, about the child who never chooses to leap. 

Courage is the ancient virtue that is called forth when we choose to believe, then act. And courage only comes to those who practice. Indeed, the more we practice behaving courageously, as these children were doing, the more courageous we become. As I stood watching the children, I saw them grow, before my eyes, more courageous with each effort. Before long, those who chose to believe, were believing more and more courageous things about themselves: leaping higher, farther, and faster until they had played the risk out of this game and were ready for another.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that "action is character" an assertion that is supported by both neuroscience and social research. The more people engage in day-to-day acts of courage, which is choosing to believe that they will stick their landings, the more courageous they become. Having the courage to act in the face of uncertainty is the very definition of human freedom. The only path to freedom is courage.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click 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, March 27, 2023

All It Ever Needed To Be

We once had this little platform built from a pair of shipping pallets and some discarded fencing slats that resided just behind the windmill. They were products of our very first summer session, and we've been using them as outdoor "floors" ever since.

It's in the nature of loose parts to go wherever the children take them, but when I was tidying up the place, when I came across interesting toys and tidbits like seashells or baskets or cow bells or knots of root or other junk, I would toss them into the area of these platforms behind the windmill.

In all honesty, I did it mostly so that I would later have a collection of objects at hand for playing stories. Sometimes when a kid got upset or was missing mommy, after we'd spent some time hanging out with the emotion, I would walk them to these platforms. It was a great place to reconnect that child with what was going on at school, especially the other children, who usually then gathered round, finding their own loose part props or sets or characters to take part in the game.

But I certainly didn't have to wait until a child was upset to play there, nor did the kids. 

For a long time, I kept getting the urge to do something "more" with that space in the bullseye of our outdoor classroom: maybe build it out a bit more, frame in a wall or two, create more opportunities for making cubbies or forts or whatever. I once saw a photograph from the 1920's of a giant outdoor doll house, which was really just a set of irregular, head-high shelves accessible from both sides. I also thought it might be cool to inset colored plastic windows in the windmill so when the sun shined through it would create patches of color on the platforms and nearby ground. And I often considered adding some sort of mechanism to make it a little easier for the kids to turn the windmill's vanes -- as it was, only the oldest, strongest kids could manage it.

But then again, as much as I was in love with my ideas, I always came around to preferring the ideas that were already emerging in this platform space, a simply defined area in which I tossed junk as I tidied.

The whole point of our school, and the reason that what we were doing was important, is that it was a place where children got to practice playing with the other people. It really doesn't matter how much you know, how many facts you can recite, how high you can climb, or how talented you are. If you don't learn how to play with the other people, it makes everything else a little empty. It's the other people, your friends and family, your relationships with classmates and teachers, your connections with co-workers, bosses, and customers: it's what happens there that at the end of the day makes for a happy life.

So when they connect, like this group of our younger children did over a simple game of "feeding the pony" using the small pile of straw that remained from the big one we once had there, a game that started in earnest, then evolved into silliness, a game that erupted spontaneously as a result of several independent suns revolving around the floor behind the windmill, then suddenly syncing up, they were doing the most important work there is.

I would start thinking about what we adults could do with this space behind the windmill whenever it sat fallow for weeks on end, as it did sometimes, being used primarily as a pass-through on the way to somewhere else. However, after watching how this area was used for 12 months, studying the ebb and flow of how the children played there, I had the data I needed to discard more concrete concepts like building a full-on play house. It needed to remain much more flexible than that if it was going to fully support this kind of open-ended, freeform cooperative play. 

I'm glad we adults went slowly here, that we didn't give in to the urge to colonize it with our adultishness. We were wise to go on letting the children show us how they wanted to use this space without a name, this space behind the windmill where I tossed the loose parts. This was all it ever needed to be.


"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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Friday, March 24, 2023

Human Intelligence Will Always Be Superior To The Artificial Kind

Tam Van Tram (detail from Nonconceptual Space)

You can't swing a dead computer without hitting someone yammering on about artificial intelligence (AI). It will eventually evolve to enslave us. It will be the greatest boon to humankind since the invention of the printing press. It will make life harder. It will make life easier. It's human ingenuity at its finest. It will destroy humanity. 

The focus in educational circles, at least online, is all about ChatGPT, described by the creators as an "AI chatbot." Proponents are claiming that it will revolutionize and streamline how teachers who are required to march children through standardized curricula will lesson plan, freeing up time for really focusing on individual student needs. Others are bemoaning the fact that it can write essays that are almost indistinguishable from human written ones and, hilariously, that they can pass all of our standardized tests,  meaning that it can qualify for just about any of our educational degrees.

My take is that ChapGPT and its successors, which few of today's adults can even conceive, will no doubt completely decimate schooling as we know it. As it gets more sophisticated, especially in the hands of AI natives (meaning today's preschoolers), it has the potential to upset the entire apple cart of top-down, adult-controlled, test-measured, curriculum-dictated schooling, revealing it as the empty charade it is. Within a generation, we will see that schooling as we do it today has very, very little to do with learning or education, as our entire system will be revealed to be a cage in which we hold children until they are compliant enough to join their parents in the workforce.

That's my prediction and preferred outcome. And I sure hope I live to see it.

The term "artificial intelligence" is a marketing term. It is indeed artificial, but I have little expectation that it will ever be intelligent. Will we one day release a nefarious program that evolves into a kind of robot that harms us, either physically or through some sort of brainwashing? No doubt. But it will continue to be long on A and short on I because what computer scientists call "intelligence" isn't really intelligence, at least as humans experience it.

Intelligence is a product of what we call the mind and learning is how the mind adapts and changes through its interactions with its environment. This, I think, is exactly what those who are developing AI are trying to do: create computers that can adapt. And they are certainly beginning to accomplish that. The great challenge, and the one that will prevent true intelligence from ever emerging in my opinion, is that there is no actual mind behind it. In humans and other living creatures, the mind precedes the adapting or learning. And increasingly, we are beginning to understand that our emotions and feelings precede all thinking.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio points out that emotions and feelings are the product of evolutionary survival (avoidance of pain, satisfaction of hunger, drive for procreation, avoidance of toxic food). And it is from these survival instincts that what we call the mind has emerged. In other words, all learning starts with emotion and our emotions start from a sensory experience. Something we see or hear or smell or taste or feel triggers a bodily sensation (sweaty palms, racing heart, hunger) that then translates into an action, one of which is likely some sort of thought process.

The place where the alarmingly and inaccurately named AI falls apart is that it conceives of the mind as separate from the body. It reminds me of the science fiction trope of trying to preserves the minds of great people by preserving the heads. It's fiction, but not science. The mind cannot function without a body: it is not just a product of our brains. Or, if you will, our entire bodies are our brains. We don't have bodies. We are bodies.

AI is something. Perhaps something wonderful or horrifying, but at the end of the day, it is not intelligent, at least not in the way that humans are intelligent. 

As science writer Ed Yong says in his book An Immense World, "You can't simply imagine how a human mind would work in a bat's body or an octopus's, because it wouldn't work." This is because their bodies have, over millennia evolved specific kinds of minds that produce kinds of intelligences that we cannot fathom. I suppose it's possible that should humans survive for another million years, we will be able to, through computer husbandry evolve an entity with the actual survival instincts and sensory abilities required for intelligence to emerge, but I'm not holding my breath.

In the meantime, I'm cheerleading for ChatGPT and its potential to reveal our current schooling madness for what it is.

And, of course, I've written all of this with the caveat that there is no way for any of us to know any of this. It's all quite likely BS -- long on both B and S. But I find it fun to think about. A computer will never do anything just for fun, and that, at the end of the day is why human intelligence will always be superior to the artificial kind.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click 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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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Why We Need To Sometimes Mess With People

You've gotta mess with people. ~Utah Phillips

When our dog plays with other dogs, after the initial sniffing ceremony, she proceeds to engage in behavior that, were she a human, would be called "messing" with them. She tries to jump on their heads, to bite their butts, to nip at their heels. She bumps them. She runs at them. She sometimes even barks and growls. Some dogs, usually older ones, rebuff her by turning their backs, ignoring her. More timid dogs might attempt to hide. Prickly dogs might react with fangs and snarls. But most take up the challenge and mess with her right back.

Of course, we recognize this as playing, but it usually at least starts off with this sort of probative messing with one another and even after they've settled into a mutually satisfying game, it isn't always pretty.

This is how it often looks when young children attempt to enter into play with one another as well, at least when left to their own devices, without adults urging the usual niceties and rules.

Sometimes it starts when one two-year-old messes with another by knocking down her block tower. Sometimes the builder objects and that's when I say something like, "She's crying because you knocked over her tower." But sometimes she laughs and wants to do it again. Sometimes these very young kids mess with each other by snatching things or knocking things on the floor or moving right up into someone else's face and smiling like a horror movie clown: just messing with people to see what will happen. 

Not long ago, I watched a boy systematically go around our block area, smiling and smacking kids on the top of the head, each one recoiling or even crying. Adults were futilely attempting to persuade him to stop, until he came to one boy who smiled, stood up, and smacked him right back. They then wordlessly exchanged head smacks until they were both laughing uncontrollably. You never know what's going to happen when you mess with people.

As they get older, most of them have figured out to leave the other people's block towers alone, but that doesn't mean they're done messing with people. For the most part that's what spontaneous classroom wrestling is all about, or the silly name calling, or intense dramatic play. There are always a few four and five year olds in our class who more or less greet one another with a body slam or even a hit. Last year, one boy went through a phase during which he snuck up behind both peers and adults alike and swatted them on the rump. One of the most popular games in that class was called "sneak attack" and involved tagging someone, shouting "Sneak attack!" and running away. Heck, a big part of the gun play we see around our school is really just an attempt to mess with people. This week, a group of boys and girls experimented with pouring water onto the heads and backs of unsuspecting people, including me.

And it's not just messing with people physically. As they get older it often turns toward messing with people socially or emotionally, playing games of rank or inclusion and exclusion.

This is a core part of the play instinct, I think, and it's an aspect that confuses adults perhaps more than anything else. We jump in with admonishments and corrections, telling children what not to do, and, frankly, robbing them of the opportunity to learn from the natural consequences of their behavior. Of course, if a child is being physically injured (or the likelihood is high), or if the social-emotional stuff tips toward bullying, we step in, but most of this messing with one another is of the run-of-the-mill experimental variety and if kids are going to get the full benefit of it, we need to take a couple steps back.

More powerful and effective than telling children what not to do, is when children are provided the opportunity to learn what they can do. They can say, "No!" or "Stop!" They can say, "I don't like that!" I role modeled that behavior, for instance, when children poured water on my back, standing up and firmly saying, "No! I don't like when you pour water on me!" More powerful and effective than telling children what not to do, is to narrate (or as Magda Gerber called it "sportscast") the consequences of their messing with the other people, like when I say, "She's crying because you knocked over her tower," supporting young children in making the connection between their behavior and the behavior of others.

As important adults in children's lives, we too often create worlds too strictly controlled by black and white rules -- no hitting, no taking things, no excluding -- then proceed to enforce them assertively and uniformly, and in the process we too often gut much of the essential educational value of playing with the other people.

We'll get it wrong sometimes, of course, but developing the ability to recognize when it's just kids messing with people and letting it play itself out is vital if our children are going to grow into emotionally and socially healthy adults. It's through this instinct to mess with people that we learn how to connect with one another in mutually satisfying ways, which is the reason we're here.


"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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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Truth Is Always About Perspective

is the word used to identify the myth that life prior to the industrial era was brief, brutish, and simple. It's a concept that emerged from the European Enlightenment, the era during which large parts of the globe were subjugated by brutal colonialism, often excused in the name of bringing civilization to the "savages." Primitivism remains with us today, of course: just witness how readily we label our adversaries -- be it in war, politics, or just neighborhood squabbles -- as animals or cavemen or simply idiots (e.g., both sides portray their enemies as apes in political memes). These labels help us dehumanize others, freeing us therefore to not have to treat them as human.

Naturally, not all Europeans believed the myth of primitivism during the Enlightenment, or at least not entirely. After all, America's so-called founding fathers used the principles of the Iroquois Confederacy as the foundation of much of the US Constitution. Early Jesuits reported that the New World "savages" were on the whole more clever than the average person from back home. Famously, the pilgrims who landed at Plymouth only survived because the Wampanoag people taught them how. Ultimately, none of this stopped colonizers from simply taking whatever they found valuable, be it natural resources, ideas, or knowledge, but first they had to re-label the people they stole from as primitive.

More open-minded Europeans learned from these sophisticated civilizations, but the learning was typically narrow and superficial because precious few saw them as anything other than primitive adversaries or noble savages, dismissing the very soil from which their wisdom grew.

Kandiaronk, a chief of the Wendat people, a man who had spent time in Europe, is quoted as saying, "I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can't think of a single way they act that is not inhuman, and I genuinely think this can only be the case, as long as you stick to your distinctions of 'mine' and 'thine'. I affirm that what you call money is the devil of devils; the tyrant of the French, the source of all evils; the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living. To imagine one can live in a country of money and preserve one's life is like imagining one could preserve one's life at the bottom of a lake."

Many of us today, centuries later, see the great wisdom of this critique. Yet although Kandiaronk clearly disapproved of European society, he only labeled their ideas as inhuman, not the people. Were it not for the myth of primitivism, Europeans might have learned what indigenous people knew. For instance, they might have known that trees talk to one another, a truth that Western science is only now "discovering": they communicate via pheromones that carry meaning on the breeze and through interconnected root systems and by other mechanisms that we are still trying to figure out. Enlightenment era scientists dismissed talking trees as primitive mumbo jumbo, yet even then it was already ancient wisdom.

Primitivism, or something like it, is a bundle of prejudices that become limitations preventing us from seeing all kinds of truth, not just human.

Birds have known about and used magnetic fields for navigation for eons, yet Western science is only just now starting to understand them. Scientists have only just discovered that marine animals make D-amino acids, yet catfish have known and used them for hundreds of millions of years. Galileo invented his famous telescope in 1609 using tubes with lenses, a "primitive" imitation that jumping spiders evolved millions of years before.

In this regard, primitivism might be better framed as speciesism. But it's all of a type.

And our blind spot isn't just for animals, but plants as well. (Even that term, "blind spot," is an ableist term -- like "lack of vision" to mean lack of creativity, or saying "I see" to mean "I understand." It presumes human vision as some sort of superior way of sensing the world.)

As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her amazing book Braiding Sweetgrass: "Plants tell their stories not by what they say, but by what they do . . . What if you were a teacher but had no voice to speak your knowledge? What if you had no language at all and yet there was something you needed to say? Wouldn't you dance it? Wouldn't you act it out? Wouldn’t your every movement tell the story? In time you would become so eloquent that just to gaze upon you would reveal it all. And so it is with these silent green leaves . . . Plants teach the universal language."

These -ism myths are grounded in the concepts of hierarchy, power and progress. We see them at play in how we relate to young children. Due to their relative helplessness (although they are not ever as helpless as we seem to assume), their size, and the fact that we believe we can see them progressing into the future, we likewise tend to see them as comparatively simple, perhaps even brutish. Experts have long asserted that they are driven by "base" and selfish motives, that they must learn to be civilized, that their instinct to play is a waste, and that they must be controlled and even colonized for their own good. Some have labelled these attitudes, assumptions, and prejudices as childism.

I have found, however, having spent my career observing children with the goal of learning from them rather than raising them, that like other cultures, species, and even plants, they possess insights into truth that I simply cannot perceive as an older, straight, middle class human male of European heritage.

Truth is always about perspective. And what primitivism is, in all its forms, is the supremacist assumption that one's own perspective stands above all others. What we "see" is simply the result of perceiving the world from within our own cultural, biological, and sensory bubble and that "blinds" us unless and until we take the time to "listen" to other people, to other species, to plants, and to children, especially when what they reveal to us about the world are the devils that are invisible from our own perspective.

Whenever I catch myself insisting upon my own perspective and mine alone, I try to recall what science journalist Ed Young writes in his book An Immense World: "With every creature that vanishes, we lose a way of making sense of the world. Our . . . bubbles shield us from the knowledge of those losses. But they don't protect us from the consequences."


"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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