Friday, April 28, 2023

"The Collective Creation Of Knowledge"

I became a preschool teacher at 37-years-old. Prior to that, the profession in which I had the most extensive experience was as a baseball coach. I've only recently realized this, probably because coaching baseball was never been a serious career. Sure, I'd spent four seasons coaching children of all ages through the Corvallis, Oregon Parks & Recreation department and another two coaching a second division German adult team, but up until now if you asked me what I did prior to teaching, I answered something like "freelance writer" or "junior business executive."

Those years coaching baseball and softball -- some 40 teams in all, including boys, girls, teens, and adults -- no doubt taught me skills and techniques that translated into the classroom. For instance, I was, from the beginning as a teacher, comfortable speaking in front of groups of children. I was also relatively comfortable interacting with the children's parents from the very start because that had also been a big part of my coaching life.

The goal of every team I ever coached was to have fun. Some of my teams won a lot of games, some of them rarely won. Even my adult players in Germany, a group that included a player who was selected for their Olympic team, insisted that they were in it for fun. For me, that meant that every player played in every game and that, to the degree that I could manage it, they got to play the positions they most wanted to play. In this, I was supported by my Parks & Rec boss who gave us coaches full authority to ban any adults from the parks who made a fuss about winning, losing, balls, strikes, or playing time, an authority I used on a handful of occasions. Even as a teenaged employee, I was trusted by my employer to coach my teams as I saw fit. If we wanted to take advantage of a hot day to play on a slip-n-slide instead of practicing baseball, that was perfectly fine. 

Some might say that this wasn't taking baseball seriously, but I beg to differ. I took my job very seriously. I took the children's fun very seriously. And I took each of my teams seriously in that I wanted each of them, as a group, to get out of it what they wanted. I coached one girl's 12-14 year old softball team, for instance, that was choc-a-bloc with talented players. I don't think we lost a game all season. How did we do it? We spent a large part of every practice sitting in the shade talking in a large group about whatever the girls wanted to talk about. It was no accident that we were a true team in every sense of the word. 

I coached another team of 7-8 year old boys that not only lost every game, but only managed to score a single run all season. You've never seen a more joyous celebration than the one that erupted upon scoring that run. Another true team.

The idea of a "team" is probably the sports metaphor we most commonly use. We talk about teaching teams, management teams, volunteer teams. Some employers even encourage workers to refer to one another as "teammates." In that same spirit, and because of my years as a coach, I've always thought of my classes of children as teams as well as individuals. The majority of the professional teachers I know came through college teaching programs (I did not), most of which focus on individual learning, which is all well-and-good, but much of what children learn, at least in the early years -- especially the important stuff like motivation, working with others, and being personable -- is the result of collective, or team, learning. Teams are in the business of what Eleanor Duckworth called the "collective creation of knowledge," which she defines as the "interaction between many minds."

Naturally, as a coach, I would work with individuals on specific skills they might need or want, but I rarely, if ever, pulled an individual aside for one-on-one coaching. Instead, I would create games and drills that included everyone, both skilled and unskilled all mixed up together, because I intuited, as a coach, that they would learn most effectively from one another, through observation, imitation, and inspiration. Sure, I would offer some basic advice on technique for doing something like, say, fielding a ground ball. But, I would then just hit lots of ground balls at them, letting the kids figure it out as a team. Some of the kids I coached went on to play varsity baseball. Most went on, I hope, to have fond memories of playing baseball. But I'm certain that all of them learned something about what it means to be a member of a team, one engaged not only in the collective creation of knowledge, but also the collective creation of community.


"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, April 27, 2023

The Freedom To Choose What To Learn

I spent ten years reading almost exclusively Dickens and Eliot and Bronte and Hardy. I consider Austen to be the greatest of them all; some say that Emma was the first truely Victorian novel. I find Trollope to be a bit thin and Stevenson to be underrated. I'll bet that I know more about these novels than any preschooler alive.

It's a boast that won't impress anyone, of course, because even the few preschoolers who are already reading are certainly not reading 150-year-old English fiction. In the same fashion, the typical American preschooler is far more expert than I on the works of Disney (at least since 1970). The same goes for things like Minecraft and Star Wars. Every human alive, including all the children, have areas of expertise in which their knowledge surpasses my own.

Of course, many, maybe even most, adults would assert that knowledge of the Victorian novel is of a superior sort, but they're not only wrong, they're missing the point. No one made me read those novels, I read them because I wanted to read them, because I was interested, because it was knowledge that I felt I needed (albeit for reasons I'm still not able to fully explain). Likewise, as a boy I was variously absorbed with baseball cards, Batman, and the Hardy Boys, none of which were considered "serious" pursuits, yet I made myself an expert nevertheless. Looking back from my perch as a middle aged man, I can see that those baseball cards were an important part of my lifelong fascination with statistics, Batman influenced my sense of humor, and the Hardy Boys inspired me in my quest to be an independent young man. When those Victorian novels were being written, many very serious critics considered them a complete waste of time, at best, while some labeled them a dangerous influence on young minds, much in the way that Disney, Minecraft, and Star Wars are critiqued today. Perhaps history will prove the critics right, but then again, any one or all of those subject areas may become the Victorian novel of our grandchildren's grandchildren's generation. In other words, we'll never know and to pretend to know is hubris.

When it comes to modern early years education there is a kind of unofficial hierarchy of knowledge at work, with mathematics and literacy at the top. Subjects like science, history, literature, and the humanities fill out the second tier, with physical education and the arts (dance and theater in particular) occupying the basement. Yes, there are schools that emphasize things differently, but the point is that Disney isn't on there at all, nor is popular music or baseball cards or Batman. Instead, we have prepackaged knowledge capsules of "learning objectives" for the kids to swallow. For many it's a bitter medicine, one they would rather hide under their tongues to be spit out the moment they are no longer under adult supervision. That's the way it usually is with "knowledge" for which we have neither want nor interest nor need. Oh sure, hard working teachers do their best to smooth that over by striving to persuade their proteges, and sometimes it works and the children come to embrace the adult approved want, interest, or need, but more often than not it's a struggle for everyone.

It should be obvious to everyone that education would be a lot easier if we simply let the children pursue their own interests. Then there would be no need for "teaching" at all, at least when it came to the acquisition of specific bits of knowledge like the Victorian novel or Star Wars, because everyone would be self-motivated, and nothing beats self-motivation. The main role of the "teacher" would then be to merely keep up with the kids and help them find the information or tools they need. I suppose it would also be nice if that teacher could play the role of coach, confidant, and cheerleader as well.

So what of the math and literacy? Would kids grow up ignorant of those things? Would any of them ever read a Victorian novel? What kind of jobs will they get with their encyclopedic knowledge of, say, Beyonce, and little else? Good questions, all. I'll try to address them in order.

As things are now, math and literacy are treated as core subjects, yet in real life, for most of us, calculating and reading never stand at the center of our endeavors, but exist rather as tools that allow us to pursue those things for which we have want, interest, or need. My own experience with baseball cards is a case in point: I spent hundreds of hours ranking, ordering, and grouping my cards based on the lines and lines of statistics on the back. I came to an understanding of fractions and averages and percentages long before I came across them in a text book. But it was never about math. It was about baseball. The math was just a tool I used to pursue something for which I had want, interest, and need.

Reading works the same way. I didn't read all of the Hardy Boys mysteries because I was working on reading skills, it was because I was acutely interested in these two brothers, my elders, but still boys, who were free to roam the world, having adventures without some grown up telling them what they need to know and by when they need to know it. The only reason we believe that most humans must be "taught" to read (or do math or understand basic science) is that we've been using school to "teach" them to read for generations. It's a habit. Believe it or not, people learned to read long before we started teaching it in schools. The advent of the ability to mass produce printed material is what really boosted modern literacy. It was the internet of its day, full of information, ideas, and entertainment for which people had wants, interests, and needs. People were highly motivated to figure it out and so they did. In today's terms we would say that reading went viral. By the beginning of the American Revolution in 1776, literacy rates were about what they are today (even a bit higher) and they've pretty much stayed there ever since, whether we were teaching it in schools or not. Reading is just a tool we use to pursue something for which we have want, interest, or need and most of us learn it because of that.

So no, I don't think kids would grow up ignorant of math or literacy or science or history. Indeed, I expect they would grow up to view these things as useful tools rather than study chores, because they would have learned to use them in the context of something for which they had want, interest, or need.

As for the second question, most of them probably never would read a Victorian novel, but that's really no different than things are now. Sure, many of us have been forced to read one or two, but most of us will never in our lifetime voluntarily read another. This is true of much of what we "learn" in school because humans typically don't respond well to being told what to learn because, to capsulize the eternal complaint of the sixth grader, most of it is "irrelevant." Most of it is stuff for which we have no want, interest, or need so we forget it as quickly as we can, freeing our brains for more important stuff.

And to reply to the third question about how being an expert on Beyonce (or Disney or baseball card stats) helps you "get a job," my response is it that it might. Maybe the skills we acquire researching our pop idols will serve us economically. It's far less likely that the historical dates we were compelled to memorize will help fill the coffers. Maybe the knowledge we gain about how the entertainment business works will give us a leg up. Maybe our fan participation in Beyonce's social media marketing outreach will allow us to understand how marketing works. All of which might be useful when it comes to earning a greasy buck, but for me that's kind of beside the point. If the primary purpose of education is to train future employees, then I say let's give the whole project up and let the corporations train their own damn workers.

I hope we all, first and foremost, want our children to be educated in the art of self-governance, and while part of that may be vocational learning, that is far from the primary goal. That is the promise and demand of democracy. And there is nothing more fundamental than the freedom to pursue one's own wants, interests, and needs because that's how we find our own place amongst our fellow self-governing citizens. That is the pursuit of happiness and it runs through our own unique wants, interests, and needs.


"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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Wednesday, April 26, 2023

He Was Happy, Which Is To Say, Motivated

I once had a three-year-old in my class who taught himself the Periodic Table of the Elements, including the atomic numbers. I didn't teach it to him. His parents swore they hadn't taught it to him. And his grandfather, who was his day-to-day caretaker, found it amusing, but otherwise barely worthy of notice, just as he hadn't been particularly impressed when his grandson taught himself to read as a two-year-old.

The boy's parents felt pressure from friends and society at large to place the boy in some sort of program for gifted children. But, as his mother told me, "He's happy here, so we're happy here. Besides, he seems to be learning just fine as it is. Why would we mess with that?"

Of course, the word "happy" in this context was used to mean something more along the lines of "motivated," because he wasn't always happy at school. In fact, at school his primary project was making friends, a notoriously fraught field of study. As a two-year-old he had been primarily focused on "the ABCs." If he couldn't find an alphabet themed puzzle or book, he would begin to shape letters from play dough or paint them at the easel. Sometimes he would cry until we helped him discover some kind of alphabet-based activity. And even though he continued his "academic" pursuits on his own time, as he grew older, his main focus of study at school became the other people in the room.

He found this kind of learning far more difficult than chemistry or literacy. He was often confused to the point of tears by the behaviors of these children with whom he sought connection. Yet, each day he arrived curious and motivated to figure things out, even if these social-emotional pursuits remained complex and unpredictable. In a world that tends to elevate children like him above the hoi polloi, he wanted, more than anything else, to fit in, to be one of the guys. Sometimes he sought to lead, but most of the time his strategy was to fawn, follow, and befriend. It left him vulnerable, but time and again he bounced back. By the time he was four, he spent most of his days at school in the midst of a pack of children playing classic preschool games of pretend and adventure. He was still interested in things like the solar system (he was upset that "some picky scientists" had demoted Pluto), presidential politics (he knew every President, their Vice Presidents, and First Ladies), and reading (well above his so-called "grade level"), but at school he didn't have time for those things.

The last time I saw him was as a fifth grader performing in a public school production of Shakespeare's The Tempest, one of a cast of dozens. He was happy, which is to say, motivated.

By now, he's approaching high school. I'm sure that he and his family are feeling pressure to "accelerate" his learning, to separate him from his average classmates in the name of his obvious intellectual gifts. To do that to the boy I know, would be the equivalent of depriving him of oxygen. Self-motivation is what he breathes. I've not spoken with the family for a few years now, but I have no doubt that he is feeling no pressure from them to do anything other than follow his curiosity because, at the end of the day, that is the only way any of us will ever truly live a "happy" life. If there is any single thing I want parents to know, it's this.


"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, April 25, 2023

Distracting Ourselves

Anyone who has ever worked with young children, at one time or another, has resorted to distraction as a way to sooth an upset child. I know I sure did. In fact, I once considered myself the king of distraction. I was confident that if I was given five minutes I could always find a way to divert an upset toddler, be it with attractive friends, toys, silliness, song, or stories. 

Parents typically learn very early in their journey that distraction can be their friend. At the start of each school year, I would ask parents to provide us with tips for how their child was best soothed when sad or angry, most of which could be classified as distractions -- a favorite song, being read to, bandaids. Even being held or cuddled could, looked at one way, be considered distractions.

Over the years, I found myself moving away from distraction as a soothing technique, however, as I began to see it as both manipulative and as a way of teaching children to deal with their feelings by stuffing them. The therapeutic approach, after all, encourages us to not avoid our emotions, but rather to examine them, to feel them, and to understand them by way of finally moving beyond them. As convenient and effective as distraction could be, I worried that by distracting children, I might even be sending the subtle message that there was something wrong with their emotions.

This doesn't mean that I've given up on distraction altogether, just that it isn't the first thing I whip out of my tool belt. Today, I'm more inclined to sit with the child as they are experiencing their emotion, preventing them from hurting themselves or others, but otherwise simply being with them while assuring them that they are heard and understood. I might try to help them put words to their feelings, to assure them that there is nothing wrong with how they feel, and that I am there to provide whatever kind of comfort they need from me. I don't automatically scoop them into my arms, but I ask them if they want me to hold them, then honor their answer. I echo their words back to them. And I gently assure them that mommy will come back, that the hurt will subside, and that they will eventually emerge on the other side where friends, toys, silliness, song, and stories await.

Lately, however, I find myself reconsidering the double-edged sword of distraction. 

On the one hand, we live in an age of distraction. Many of us carry small computers in our pockets that we use to distract ourselves from our day-to-day anxieties, depressions, and boredoms. When I take a moment to examine my own smart phone use, I find that a great deal of it is spurred by an urge to distract myself from worry or fear or loneliness or to avoid something like a chore or a difficult conversation. I tend to think that this is true of most of us. And it's not just our phones. We live most of our lives in a miasma of distraction. I mean, it's so pervasive that we use distraction to distract ourselves.

This, of course, can so often become a vicious cycle. As we escape one feeling by distracting ourselves, say, with a headline or a chat, we find our shoulders tensing, our hearts beating, and our palms sweating as we experience new unpleasant emotions from which we must distract ourselves. This, at least in part, explains the endless scrolling and clicking as we strive to distract ourselves to some sort of peace of mind that never comes. Phone and text conversations often work in the same way.

On the other hand, distracting ourselves from our negative emotions is an essential survival skill. We can't just sit with our fears and sadnesses all day long. When we are overly stressed, for instance, few of us would deny that the distraction of a beach holiday might be just the thing we need. When the world is feeling a bit dull and gray, a night out can work wonders. Coffee with a best friend is a distraction we all need sometimes. Life would be unbearable if we could never distract ourselves into new perspectives and ways of thinking.

Indeed, distraction is a big part of how the human brain works. Not long ago, I wrote a post here about what is called "artificial intelligence" in which I quibbled with the idea that it could be called intelligence at all, at least not intelligence that is comparable to human intelligence. In part, this is because while computers "think" in linear ways, human brains rely upon distraction. My biggest concern about AI is not that we will somehow learn to install human intelligence into machines, but rather that our educational system is increasingly trying to install machine intelligence into humans.

The French have an expression, L'esprit de l'escalier, which more or less translates into English as "genius in the stairwell." It is the phenomenon that we've all encountered, while, say, taking a shower, in which brilliant ideas, solutions, or comebacks occur to us when we are completely distracted by something else. We often cannot think properly, or feel properly, as long as we remain fixated on the chore or problem or anxiety at hand. It often seems that it is only while distracted by something else that we are fully capable of thinking clearly.

Distracting ourselves with screen-based technology may not be the healthiest kind of distraction, just as jangling keys in front of a crying toddler might not be the healthiest approach to their unpleasant emotions. But distraction itself ought not be off the table. I think it matters how we distract ourselves.

For instance, when I'm feeling overwhelmed, I like to put my phone in a drawer and head out for a long walk, preferably in nature, but even an urban hike will do. A long, hot shower or soak in the tub is usually a healthy distraction. I've found that quite often, a child can better self-sooth in a quiet corner or during a quiet turn around the empty playground -- distractions that don't necessarily compel the mind into new channels of fretfulness, but rather free them to do the kind of background problem solving and processing that characterize the way human brains most effectively work.

We've come to think of distraction as a real and present negative. Teachers in standard schools are forever strategizing about how they can prevent their students from being distracted. Some even punish them for their distractibility. It's a sad thing that so many educators simply do not understand how a healthy, thinking, human mind actually works. We thrive both intellectually and emotionally on distraction. When it is denied us, we suffer.

We bemoan the distractions of the modern world, and when I look around at all those heads bent over smart phones, I see distraction at its worst. Yet we forget, I think, that there is an infinity of distractions to be found on a solitary woodland hike as well. It's not distractions that are a problem, but rather that we must be thoughtful about the distractions we choose.


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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Monday, April 24, 2023

Our Job Is Not To Control Children, But To Help Them Get Their Needs Met

I met this four-year-old boy because he had been forced to leave his previous preschool. Apparently, he had taken to hitting, biting, kicking, and otherwise abusing the adults around him. From what I'd been told, and I didn't quite buy it, he got along well with other kids, it was just the adults. Whatever the case, I would know the truth soon enough. As he glared at me from under his bangs, I knew we were starting out from a place of distrust.

I said, "Good morning" to him without any extra enthusiasm, then let him go about his business. My original plan might have been to spend the morning getting him on my bandwagon, but that was out the window with his very clear signals to back off, so plan B was to observe him from afar. And sure enough, he began making friends right away. His father had told me that he was a "big fan" of Legos, so I'd dumped our entire collection of plastic bricks into the sensory table and that's where he spent most of his morning, talking constantly about the cool things he was making. He positioned his body as far away from the adult as possible without leaving the table entirely.

I've known kids who were suspicious of me before, who found my personality a little too big, my voice a little too loud, my presence a little too overwhelming. I get that, but I'd never met a kid who kept his distance from all adults, his own parents, of course, excluded. His father had told me that he felt the problem in his previous school was that the teacher "kept getting in power struggles" and his son "always wins power struggles."

The boy had a spectacular morning, frankly. He was charming and engaged, eventually moving away from the Lego table, making a little art, checking out the cabinets in the home center, playing a round of a board game. He even sought me out at one point to show me the Batmobile he had created from Lego. The family, in consultation with an occupational therapist who had found nothing "diagnosable" in her time with the boy, had come to Woodland Park in the spirit of getting a new start.

It wasn't until we hit clean up time that his glare returned. "I'm not going to clean up!" he shouted at me when I passed where he sat, sulkily against a wall. "Fair enough," I answered, "Maybe you want to read a book or something." This is my standard response to a child who opts out and wants me to know about it.

Later as we gathered for circle time, he said, "I'm not coming to circle time." Again, I answered, "Fair enough," adding, "Sometimes kids like to spend circle time in the loft where it's quiet. If you change your mind, you can always join us."

I was employing a technique, whether I knew it or not, that founder of Transform Challenging Behavior, Inc. Barb O'Neill describes as "Yes, and . . .," a technique she borrowed from her experience performing improve comedy. Too often, important adults in the lives of children become so focused on controlling a child's behavior that, as Barb says, we forget that our primary role is to help children get their needs met. When we find a way to tell a child "Yes, and . . ." we are letting them know that we are on their side, that we are not "opposition," but rather an ally. What we say after the word "and" is a suggestion for an alternative to conflict.

That first day, the boy simply glared at us from his stance of opting out, although he did take my suggestion to look at books as the rest of us tidied and took refuge in the loft during circle time. And he made those choices the following day and the day after that, as the rest of us went about the business of our community, tidying up, singing songs, and talking about important things. 

On his fourth day with us, however, our circle time conversation turned to superheroes. One of the kids asserted, "I like Batman because he can fly to the clouds." I'd noted that the boy had been listening to us from afar and this was something he clearly couldn't let stand. "No he can't!" We all turned as he came down from the loft to tell us, "Batman doesn't fly. He swings on a rope and drives a Batmobile."

As the other children took up further debate, he slowly made his way across the room, drawn in by the manifest importance of this conversation. He had chosen to join us, a choice he continued to make from that time forward.

He never lost his knee-jerk opposition to adults who would presume to tell him what to do. It would come out whenever we forgot that his healthy need to think for himself must first be met. Of course, all children have this need, but in this boy it was particularly pronounced. It's an instinct that might frustrate future teachers who don't know that "challenging behaviors" are almost always best addressed by examining ourselves and our environment. As Barb says, the key is "transforming how we think, how we feel, and how we talk about children who exhibit challenging behavior." And more often than not, this starts with stepping back from our urge to command and control to take a long hard look at what needs are not being met.

This is often a difficult thing to do. Our culture tells us that it is in the job description of any adult who works with children to "control" them, to make them behave, to insist upon obedience, to walk them in single file lines, to make them do their fair share. This attitude is reinforced everywhere. As classroom teachers we are often, first and foremost, judged for our "classroom management" skills, which is really just fancy jargon for compelling obedience. Parents are often judged by how appropriately their children behave and when they misbehave it's the parents who have "lost control." In other words, we, as a society, expect young children to instantly and without objection set aside their own needs, always, and upon command, in favor of the needs expressed by the adult, be it for quiet, stillness, tidying up, or whatever. No wonder some children, like this boy, rebel. Indeed, I worry most about the children who simply go along with whatever they are told to do.

When we see our role as helping children get their needs met, rather than controlling them, much of what we label as "challenging behavior" is transformed. By not engaging in power struggles with this boy, I discovered that he had a strong need for autonomy, to make his own decisions, a healthy, natural thing. When I offered, "Yes, and . . . ," I let him know that he was heard and, even more importantly, trusted.


"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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Friday, April 21, 2023

Where The Wednesday Bunny Frolics

There will always be unknowable things. For those things, even in this age of science, we rely upon belief. There are obviously religious beliefs, faith in a higher power, but even atheists build their lives upon belief.

We might, for instance,  believe in the essential goodness of humankind, and we might hold to that belief even in the face of contrary evidence. 

Many Wall Street types base their careers on the maxim that greed is good, a belief that allows them to turn profits in ways that many of us find distasteful, even immoral. 

Forty-four percent of Icelanders believe in at least the possibility that "hidden people" actually exists -- elves, fairies and the like.

We are all believers, in things both large and small.

Even those things we are most certain about, like the things we see with our own eyes or hear with our own ears, are likely based on beliefs about how the universe should operate rather than how it actually operates.

Even science is a system of belief, one that depends upon scientific consensus, a fickle thing at best. Indeed, the core belief of the scientific approach is that it doesn't rely upon belief at all. But even its most staunch advocates admit that today's consensus may, or even will, one day be found to be bunk. That's how science works: at any given moment "scientific truth" is a best guess based on what we believe we know. The purpose of scientific theories is not to demonstrate how the world works, but rather to offer an idea to be tested, challenged, changed, and, if ultimately found lacking by consensus, discarded and replaced with something new.

Our world is the way it is, because of how our beliefs interact with one another: religion and science and human nature and greed and fairies all stirred up together to create what we call reality.

Intelligence, I don't think, is ever our problem as a species. We have the necessary intelligence, even those of us who don't believe that we are sufficiently intelligent. No, it's our various beliefs, and how they interact with one another, that cause most our human problems.

The biggest challenge with beliefs is the simple fact that mine are true and yours, to the degree they vary from mine, are not. And vice versa. It is on the basis of this that our species organizes itself, with people of similar beliefs flocking together, allying themselves around those common beliefs, while othering those whose beliefs differ, even going so far as to label them as enemies.

This perhaps is the greatest difference between young children and adults. Young children have not yet learned to feel threatened by the beliefs of others. A girl once introduced an imaginary Easter Bunny into the game she was playing with her friend. The friend declared, however, that there was no such thing. The girl asserted, firmly, the way one does about an article of faith, "I know there's an Easter Bunny because he came to my house!" Her friend replied, "Well, I know there isn't an Easter Bunny because he didn't come to my house!" And there they stood, looking at one another for a moment, confronting the ambiguity they had uncovered. 

The girl called out to me, "Teacher Tom, what day is it?"

I answered, "It's Wednesday."

She turned to her friend, "Let's pretend it's the Wednesday Bunny, okay?"

That is what children know that we have forgotten: there is a place between your beliefs and mine where invitation ("Let's . . .") and imagination ("pretend") can build bridges. This is the place where young children live before we feel compelled, in our adult arrogance, to disabuse them of their "false" and childish beliefs. It's a place where your beliefs don't compete with mine, but rather offer me the opportunity to expand my understanding of the world. What if instead we leave them alone for awhile longer, or better, for our own good, seek to join them in this wonderful in-between place while it exists, a place where the Wednesday Bunny frolics?


"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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Thursday, April 20, 2023

Understanding Children's Art

"I'm painting out of my mouth"

We've all seen photos of prehistoric cave paintings. From the perspective of today, they seem crude, comparable to the art our preschoolers make: stick figures, hand prints, and similar images made over and over. Few of us, however, have seen these paintings the way they were likely meant to be seen. 

Early humans could only create or view these paintings by leaving the world of sunlight and descending into the dark. The images were viewed by flickering firelight and shadows that illuminated the uneven cave surfaces, creating the illusion that they were moving, revealing themselves as more than simple, two-dimensional drawings. Those repeated figures, rather than being lots of drawings of the same thing, were possibly there to create the impression of single characters in the story being told, moving through space and time. Perhaps the artists were like today's movie directors or shamans or magicians. Perhaps the audience participated the way we do at the movies or in our houses of worship.

This is speculation, of course, but there is no doubt that the creators and original viewers of this artwork saw them as something different than we do today.

As adults who work with young children, we are privileged to be present at the creation of their artwork. As professionals, we know that if we really want to understand -- and we should want to understand -- then we must avoid leading questions or making guesses about what we see, but rather to observe the child's process, to consider that in the context of what we already know about the child, and to encourage them by saying things like "I want to know more about your picture." Many of us learned to say, "Tell me about your picture," but I've tried to drop that one because it's expressed in the form of a command, which means the child must reply. Too often, I've seen children who feel forced to scramble to respond to this sort of command, clearly making up a response, even as they speak: "It's uh . . . a . . . beautiful flower!" I find I get closer to understanding when the things I say are informational rather than directive or questioning. In that way, they become loose parts for the children to respond to, or not.

Of course, sometimes it looks very much like a beautiful flower, even if the process that produced it was emotional or philosophical or something else that the child cannot put into words. Indeed, that's why we make art -- to express things that cannot adequately be put into words. 

I once watched a boy drawing a "truck" that appeared on the paper as a series of jagged lines. I didn't see a truck on his page, but by sitting quietly with him, I eventually heard that he was making the soft rumbling sounds of engine noise as he worked. He was drawing the truck he heard, not one that one could see.

I once sat with a child as he struggled to draw an idea he had: "What if 1 was 2?" He started over and over in his effort to represent this idea for which he had no words other than a question that had been inspired by Sarah Perry's book If . . . Maybe he was conceiving of a mathematical concept like multiplication or division or a philosophical one like transformation or paradox. Maybe he was considering the way love can make two individuals into one. Whatever the case, he never quite satisfied himself, although he did insist on taking home all of his discarded efforts as if collectively they represented something to him.

Psychologists and art therapists know that children's art can tell us about the children in ways beyond what appears on the page, but it requires, as Jean Piaget's protege Eleanor Duckworth puts it, listening with your whole body. When we study children's art, looking only for evidence of geometric development, we miss the things we've been conditioned to ignore: the connectedness of meaning and understanding. It might show up on the page, but it might also be completely found in their process. And as we all know, there is far more in heaven and on earth than can be drawn on a cave wall or a piece of paper.


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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Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Inventing Life For Ourselves

I've never written about the day I became a father. I think about that day and often tell parts of the story, but so far I've not found all of the words to do so, if words are even adequate. What I need to say is too complex to express in my normal way. Maybe it requires a novel. Maybe it requires poetry, sculpture, or painting, or it's possible that the way to say what I need to say hasn't been discovered yet.

Those of us who have spent our lives around young children, are familiar with their creative struggle to express themselves. It's part of the process of learning the language, of course, so the conversational short cuts and "good enough" putty with which we spackle our day-to-day adult conversation is yet to be learned. Children regularly find themselves thinking thoughts or having feelings for the first time and they need to communicate about them. Without being able to make use of the cliches upon which we adults rely, they must invent a way of saying it.

An excited five-year-old once replied to an adult who had off-handedly asked, "How are you?" by replying, "This day has a powerful, huge, even big magic in it!"

A three-year-old described an accidental lever she had made on the playground in the form of a chant: "Push down, go up, push down, go up, push down . . ."

Another preschooler, playing with a wine cork in a tub of water, explained, "It went on the water and didn't go down in the water, but I could push it down. And it went back on the water!"

In each example, you can hear the child grasping for complexity, for depth, for knowledge about themselves and their world, then striving to express the fullness of it, grasping at words, building with them the way they build with blocks. Soon they are going to learn to simply say, "I feel good" or to reduce the complexity into words like "lever" and "float," but right now it's the complexity that matters, because it's not just the angels and devils that live in details. Understanding complexity is all about the details, the fullness of a thing, the process or experience. Later will be the time for more concisely summing up the complexity.

Too often, educators try to skip over the complexity and go straight to the summing up, immediately offering children the simple concise answer. Stripped of complexity, the responses are rendered mostly meaningless even if absolutely correct. In Douglas Adams' novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, they build a computer programed to answer the question, "What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?" After seven million years the computer calculates the answer, which is "Forty-two." It's the right answer, but without the rest of the story, it's useless for anything beyond passing a test.

When children play, we sometimes see it as frivolous and purposeless, and perhaps to that child, in that moment, it is, but we should never make the mistake of thinking it's meaningless. This is why we don't step in to correct the child by telling them that there is "no such thing as magic," or "help them" by showing them what else a lever can do, or which other objects can float on water. When we do, we risk rendering the moment meaningless, or as the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget wrote, "Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself." The complexity is where the action is because that's what interests us about a new thing, the details. When we leave children to decide for themselves which of those details are relevant, where to build their own scaffolding, and whether and when to move on to something else entirely, we free them to learn beyond the surface of right answers into where complexity lives. When humans engage like this, even frivolously and purposelessly, we're inventing for ourselves.

And as we invent, we find we must communicate about it. We're a language-using animal, of course, and schools tend to concentrate on using language to bring our inventions into existence, although sadly, most of what they encourage focuses on using language to "prove" what we know on tests or to practice what we know on worksheets. Even our essays must be graded. It's doubly sad because much of children's learning is literally being constructed by themselves as they strive to express it, be it through words, art, or science. That someone else has listened carefully, understood, and acknowledged that they've understood is a vital part of that process. It's this process that is important, not the outcome.

As we get older, we tend to experience fewer things for the first time, which leads many of us to fill our language with words and phrases that rush us past the complexity. We've got places to be and things to do, after all. We don't have the time to just play, to let ourselves fall into the details and wander around, being frivolous and purposeless. I suppose when you've seen it all before, it's hard to summon the enthusiasm for inventing things, unless, that is, you have young children in your life. If you listen to them, listening not just with your ears, but with your heart, it's impossible to not be inspired. 

When a child answers, "How are you?" with, "This day has a powerful, huge, even big magic in it," you find yourself nodding along, at once understanding something more complex, and therefore more true, than the old shoe of, "I'm fine, and you?" We can't do this ourselves without play. Without play, we lose sight of complexity and stop inventing our world, becoming increasingly efficient, but going nowhere. 

This is something I started to discover on the day I became a father: children are here to remind us to keep inventing life for ourselves.


"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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Tuesday, April 18, 2023

It's Really That Simple

"I'm The Hulk!"

The three-year-old flexed into a wrestler's pose, baring his teeth. His parents had named him Chase. I said, "Good morning, Hulk."

He corrected me, "I'm The Hulk." So, I corrected myself, "Good morning, The Hulk." And I continued to call him The Hulk, and so did the rest of the kids, for the next several days until one morning, he let us know, "I'm just Chase," so that's what I called him.

A girl who I knew as Anna once told me, "I'm a fairy." She must have thought I might not believe her, because she looked me right in the eye and said, "I'm a real fairy." I replied, "You're a real fairy." She nodded at me, adding, "My name is even Fairy." So I called her Fairy, and so did the rest of the kids.

When I was in first grade, my teacher's name was Miss McCutcheon. That's what she asked us to call her and that's what we called her. In the middle of the school year, she got married. She asked us to call her Mrs. Andrews, so we did. We often got it wrong the next several weeks. She patiently corrected us until it became natural. The same thing happened in third grade when Miss Daniels became Mrs. Williams from one day to the next. 

My wife's name is Jennifer. She dislikes the nicknames Jen or Jenny. Most people call her Jennifer, but some insist on the nicknames even after she's told them, repeatedly, that she dislikes those names. She's patient with them at first, and most finally come around, but when someone persists in calling her by names she despises, she has no choice but to assume that they are intentionally showing her disrespect.

I introduce myself as Tom or Teacher Tom depending on the circumstances. I've had people try to call me Tommy. Like with my wife, I dislike that diminutive, perhaps because our neighborhood bully was called Tommy, but whatever the reason, it's no one else's business, I choose to go by Tom. When people call me Tommy, I correct them, usually by adding, "I really hate being called that." Sometimes people call me Thomas, which is my given name. I'll answer to it, but never feel like getting to know anyone who can't bother to call me by my chosen name.

So when the two-year-old told me he was a boy named Joe, I called him Joe.

Whether it's a chosen name for a day or a lifetime, it's really that simple.


"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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