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
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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

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, March 21, 2023

"Education Is A Process Of Living"

Recently, one of our toilets stopped flushing: the chain that connects the tank lever to the flapper had broken. I cycled to the hardware store and located the replacement part I needed. Back home, I turned off the water to the toilet, flushed the tank dry, removed the old part, installed the new one, and turned the water back on. Then, although I was confident I'd set things to rights, I gave it a flush, taking satisfaction in watching the tank empty and refill as it ought to.

I've made this simple repair a number of times in my life. I remember my roommates and I panicking a little when it first happened in college. We were all slightly afraid of our landlord, plumbing repairs were not in our budget, and the internet didn't yet exist, but between the five of us young men we figured it out. I've not asked any of them, but I expect that the world is today populated by dozens of flappers that we have collectively replaced with our own ten hands.

I'm not a plumber, but I've learned repair a toilet. I can also snake drains, replace faucet handles, and know when to put my tools away and call in a professional. 

As a boy, I admired my elders' knowledge about the world. They knew how to fix things, cook meals, drive cars, grow vegetables, chop wood, fold laundry, and operate lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and can openers. They inspired me to want to do those useful things myself.

Rudolf Steiner, the founding philosopher of the Waldorf school pedagogy, built his approach upon the idea that young children ought to be be immersed in environments in which they are surrounded by adults engaged in practical day-to-day activities and projects. Rather than assigning tasks to children, the adults' role is simply to go about their business of living, including children when they wish to be included and answering questions. Not only do children learn the basic skills of life in this way, but they also see that participating in practical day-to-day activities and projects are desirable acts of belonging, of community.

Parents often complain that their children refuse to tidy up their rooms or help out around the house, something most of them do, even eagerly, around our preschool classroom. I expect that's because we parents so often expect them to do it alone, which is unnatural, or we treat it like something undesirable, chores to be done grudgingly as an interruption to, rather than as a part of, our lives. 

As the great John Dewey wrote, "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living." I'm happy to be an adult who can do things for himself, but that was never my goal, nor is it the goal of our youngest citizens. They are motivated by belonging and doing which is what makes life worth living.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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Monday, March 20, 2023

Work And Hobbies

I enjoy cooking. I enjoy eating out as well, but the truth is that I'm always a little disappointed when 3 p.m. rolls around and I realize I won't get to make anything because we have a dinner invitation.

I have friends who dislike cooking. They say prayers of gratitude for delivery, take-out, and cold cereal.

And then there are those who feel trapped by cooking. These are often parents who feel the daily pressure to prepare three squares a day for the family. Sure, there may have been a time when they enjoyed cooking, and that day may return once the kids are fending for themselves, but they now find themselves on an endless, and often thankless, treadmill. 

For folks in the first two categories, cooking is either a hobby or something easily avoided. For those in the third category, however, cooking is work. I had a friend once tell me, "That's not cooking; it's meal prep." Long ago ago, I did a similar thing with gardening. I unconsciously began to label the things I enjoyed doing -- like tending the roses -- as gardening, while I considered everything else to be yard work.

As a culture, we value work. We demonize those who won't or don't work. We fret that our children won't embrace the work ethic. Many of us identify ourselves, at least in part, with our job title. There is a widely held belief that work has a moral benefit for both the individual and society and that hard work elevates us, even when it is obviously grinding us down. Indeed, we tell our children that they can be or do anything they want, just so long as they're willing to work for it.

At the same time, surveys of Americans regularly find that between 50 and 80 percent of us report that we are disengaged from, dislike, or outright hate our jobs. This isn't just a post-Covid or "great resignation" phenomenon. Indeed, both of those phenomena tend to be more about new opportunities for people to give up the old job and try something else. No, our dissatisfaction with work goes back decades, maybe centuries. It's not just "lazy kids" or creeping "socialism," but all of us, or at least more than half of us, who plug away only because we feel we must.

So many come to resent the work in our lives that the word work has become synonymous for feeling compelled to do things that you would rather not be doing. It's not hard work we resent, but rather the compulsion, the tedium, the repetition, the endlessness of it. There's always another damned meal to prepare. The weeds never stop growing. And we work ourselves into philosophical pretzels to convince ourselves that grimly sticking to it is a virtue. We might even grit our teeth and pronounce, despite it all, "I love my work!" because, after all, work is a moral good and resenting it is, therefore, a moral failing.

This isn't just a problem with what is insultingly called "unskilled labor." You can find this attitude toward work everywhere: people with their heads down, going through the motions, and feeling trapped, both by the work itself and by the morality we've built up around the mythology of the so-called work ethic, which in part contains the corollary of "don't complain."

I know a man who literally works in a coal mine, a job that is the very definition of hard, dirty work. He rarely talks about what goes on down in the mines because, as he says, "It's the same ol' same ol'," but one day he regaled us with a long, detailed, and exciting story about how he had figured out how to overcome an unexpected and challenging obstacle. He felt stimulated and proud. He didn't say, "That's why I love my work," but his whole attitude told that story.

It's not work we resent, but rather the mind-numbing, repetitive nature of so much of what we call work. When we get to use our critical thinking skills, when we get to make real decisions, when we get to see that our work makes a real difference: that's when we are truly elevated. It's not the work that's important, it's the knowledge that we are doing something meaningful, either personally or for the greater good.

I've spent most of my adult life amidst young humans who work as hard, if not harder, than anyone I've ever known. They don't do it for money. They don't do it because they've had tasks set for them. They don't do it because it's always joyful. On the contrary, every day involves conflict, pain, and tears. They do it because what they are doing, their play, is deeply meaningful. In everything they do, they see the difference they make in their world, for themselves and for others. They are thinking critically and making real decisions.

I understand how people might look at our play-based preschool and wonder how the children will ever learn about hard work. And I know that most of the children will move on to public schools that are all about learning the harsh lessons of the work-a-day world. Most of them will learn the lessons of feeling trapped, of dealing with it, of playing the mind-games required of the so-called work ethic, of pretending it's all gardening, when it's clearly nothing more than yard work. 

Yet still I persist in the radical idea that childhood is for play. The coal mine may be coming. The grindstone may be in their future. But I will not be the person to subject them to it because my hope and expectation is that the children who come my way will go on to live meaningful lives. I want them to know what it feels like to be self-motivated, to be lifelong learners, to be connected to the purpose behind what they spend their time doing. I want them to know that if they find themselves in jobs that don't provide that, then they can find hobbies that do and that it's perfectly okay for one's hobbies to stand at the center of one's life's work. 

The man who works in the coal mine builds motorcycles. He once found a photograph of a bike he admired, tacked it up on the wall of his garage, then spent his evenings and weekends building his own, perfect replica. He prides himself on doing it on a budget, which meant that he sourced parts from classified ads and junkyards that he then refurbished himself. And when he couldn't find the part, he literally manufactured it right there in his own garage, often taking months getting it just right. 

He is playing, just as the young children play: working hard, thinking critically and creatively, overcoming challenges, and learning. "We are here on this earth to fart around," writes Kurt Vonnegut, "don't let anyone tell you different." That is what I want the children to know. That is what I wish everyone knew.


"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, March 17, 2023

Doing Harmful Things In The Name Of Schooling

The long-term effects of the things we do to children in schools is a notoriously difficult thing to capture in research.

Generally speaking, however, we as a society have concluded, based on our collective behavior and with little evidence, that more academic training at earlier ages is the way to go. We assume that if we want kids to be good at school (a dubious goal at best) then we must give them lots of practice in preschool, which has lead in recent decades to two-year-olds being expected to sit at desks to be the targets of formal literacy and mathematics training. It has lead to our youngest citizens spending the bulk of their days indoors, focusing increasingly on things like worksheets and memorization drills. 

Many of us, including readers here, have looked on with horror. Preschoolers are simply not developmentally ready for this type of schooling. We see evidence that these unrealistic pressures are one of the leading causes of the current spike in childhood anxiety and depression. When we point any of this out, when we say that the push toward academic preschools is harmful to children and prevents them from working on the foundational social-emotional learning that young children need, proponents of top-down, adult-directed academic style schooling insist that it's the price we must pay for the long-term benefits, especially for disadvantaged children. They point to studies that show that children who are exposed to these "school readiness" types of curricula have a leg up with things like letter recognition and print awareness.

They can legitimately assert this because the research on the short-term effects consistently shows that children from academic preschool programs do enter kindergarten with certain advantages over those who have spent their preschool years playing. The part of the research that they ignore is that whenever an attempt has been made to study the long-term impact, we see that those advantages disappear rather quickly leaving the drill-and-kill kids largely indistinguishable academically, and worse off by other measures, from comparable peers who were not enrolled in academic-based programs. 

This is a consistent finding, going all the way back to the Perry Preschool Project, still the gold standard for long-term research on the impact of preschool. This study continues to track low-income children from a play-based program since the mid-1960's. They were the first to find that academic advantages faded rapidly once the kids moved on to elementary school. It's a result that has been replicated repeatedly, right up to a recent study on Tennessee's Pre-K program for children from low-income families that not only recreated this result, but found that by 3rd grade the children who attended the academics based program performed worse on both academic and behavioral measures than classmates who were never in the program.

In other words, the Tennessee Pre-K program harmed the children it sought to help.

The children studied in the Perry Preschool Project, however, the ones who attended a play-based, child-centered program also lost their short-term academic advantages, but continued, into adulthood, to reap the benefits of their behavioral head start. They had fewer teenage pregnancies, were more likely to have graduated from high school, to hold a job and have higher earnings, to commit fewer crimes, and to own their own home and car. They are more self-motivated, better at working with others, and, generally speaking, are more personable. 

The key, I think, is that these kids got to play when they were young, which is the soil from which healthy, happy, well-adjusted adults grow. 

If you want to read more about the research into the harm caused by academic preschools, I urge you to take a look at this piece in Psychology Today from author and researcher Peter Gray.

I know that many of the people who read here do not need more research to tell them that young children need play and lots of it. We are in the classroom every day, seeing the benefits with our own eyes. But as the Biden Administration here in the US gears up to offer free universal state-run preschool for 3 and 4-year-olds, there is a great danger that they will ignore the evidence in favor of yet more academic-style schooling for our youngest citizens. This will harm the children and it's harm that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

I also know that many people who read here will, however, hold their noses and support anything that offers free childcare for low income families. 

We are compassionate people. We know that the families of our low and middle-income students are struggling financially and free preschool, even free drill-and-kill preschool, will be a boon to them. Experience tells us, however, that nothing is really free, no matter what party is in charge. This "free" preschool will come with so-called "accountability" requirements that will invariably mean, among other things, high stakes testing (high stakes for those whose funding is on the line). This will mean sitting preschoolers in desks to be trained to pass tests. This will mean top-down school prep curricula, a grindstone that is completely inappropriate for these children who need to play. And we know from research that this will harm the children we seek to help. 

Still, many well-intended educators have told me that it is a price we should be willing to pay for the economic relief that universal preschool will provide low and middle-income families.

Indeed, one of the Biden administration's strongest arguments in favor of universal preschool is the economic benefits it will bring to families. I can stand fully behind free universal childcare. This is something we should have done long ago. But labeling this as "school," even "preschool," is a real and present danger to the children and families we are hoping to help because our society has consistently demonstrated that it will do harmful things to children in the name of schooling. 


"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 16, 2023

We Hurry Children, But At What Cost?

Several years ago, I had an aisle seat on a flight from Perth to Sydney in Australia. To my right, in the center and window seats, sat two sisters, 7 and 9, whose parents were in the row in front of us. I'd offered to exchange seats with one of the adults, but they, to my delight, waved me off. I might be the only airline passenger who hopes to be seated next to kids, even fussy babies, and in this case the girls were electric with their excitement.

They told me they had never been to Sydney before. They were only staying for a day, then jetting on to a resort somewhere in the South Pacific. It was all exciting, but what had them quivering in their seats was simply the prospect of being on a plane. They clicked their seat belts, they flipped their tray tables open and shut, they dug through the seat back pockets, they fiddled with the overhead controls, they repeatedly retrieved their backpacks from under the seats in front of them, even offering me a choice from their selection of candy. They chattered about what they were seeing on the tarmac from the window, agreeing with one another that they would swap seats every "ten or twelve" minutes so that they had equal turns to see. Everything about the plane and the prospect of flying was exciting.

And I was along for their ride. There's nothing like children to make us old people see things afresh. 

Our excitement built as the plane began to taxi. We were rapt as the flight attendants went through their spiel. The girls' voices became higher pitched as they expressed every fleeting thought or feeling to one another. They clenched one another's hands as the engines roared, and giggled, wide-eyed, as we accelerated, then lifted into the sky. "I don't think we're on the ground any more!" "We're really flying!" "Eeee!" They leaned into the window to see the ground recede below us. "Look how far we can see!" "We're higher than everything!" "The cars look like ants!"

By this time on a normal flight I'm well into my book or crossword puzzle or sleeping. I'm often, these days, asleep before the plane takes off. A woman a few rows ahead of us began to fill in the voids in a coloring book. As soon as he was allowed, the man across the aisle lowered his tray table, broke out his computer and began fiddling with an Excel spreadsheet.

Slowly the girls' enthusiasm cooled. "There's nothing to see out there." Before long, they had their tablets out, and like the rest of us, settled in for the long haul.

"Early railroad travelers," writes Rebecca Solnit in her book Wanderlust, "characterized this new technology's effects as the elimination of time and space, and to transcend time and space is to begin to transcend the material world altogether -- to become disembodied . . . Speed didn't make travel more interesting . . . but duller; like the suburb it put its inhabitants in a kind of spatial limbo. People began to read on the train, to sleep, to knit, to complain of boredom."

It wasn't long ago that traveling from Perth to Sydney was an adventure of months if not years, a fully embodied experience that demanded strength and stamina, alertness, and a deep connection to the natural environment that required the use of all the senses. And time. It required time. Railway travel, followed by cars and then jets, has done away with the necessity to set aside big chunks of our lives to go from here to there, but it has come at the price of, as Solnit puts it, "atrophy as both a muscular and a sensory organism."

Of course, many of us have joined gyms as a way to mitigate the muscular atrophy, setting aside chunks of our lives in a factory-like setting, complete with shiny machines, to apply ourselves to the meaninglessness of squating, lifting, and stretching -- activities that once occurred as part of a normal, productive daily life. Even walking, which was for most of human history our primary mode of travel, has been reduced to a treadmill that goes literally no where. And none of this does much for the atrophy of our senses.

My travel companions were disappointed by the view from their window. Even what they could see -- clouds, the horizon, flat, ruddy earth -- was stripped of its essence, its scents, sounds, sensations, and flavor. Even the weather was made moot just as it is in a gym. No wonder we get bored.

It's hard not to compare this to the experience of schooling, which is, like flying in an airplane, objectively the swiftest way to get from Perth to Sydney, but at the price of everything that actually connects them to one another. Humans, like all living things, are connection-seekers. Knowing that two plus two equals four is one thing: understanding what it actually means is quite another. And that is what we lose when we compel children to disconnect from the world, as we were doing in that airplane, to spend hours and hours being told about Perth and Sydney without the opportunity to actually experience, in a fully embodied way. The result is that much of our learning is superficial, lacking the depth that results in a genuine understanding. It is the difference between spending an hour on a treadmill versus an hour ambling about the countryside. Solnit bemoans the "disappearance of . . . unstructured space in which so much thinking, courting, daydreaming, and seeing has transpired."

When the captain announced that we were to prepare for landing, the girls revived, turning once more to the windows. "There's the Sydney Opera House!" one of them squealed. "I see the Sydney Harbour Bridge!" shouted the other. "Mom! Dad! Can we go see them? Please!" They kicked the backs of their parents' seats in excitement. They knew, deep down, that they needed a fully embodied connection with these famous things that they only "knew" superficially from photos and screens.

"But, you can see them right now," their father began to object. "We've only got one day. Maybe it would be better if we . . ."

"Please! Please!" the girls plead together.

"Okay, okay," he answered, letting their enthusiasm to learn and connect sway him. "We'll go the harbor as soon as we've checked in." Then he paused, "But we'll have to take the train because I don't want to rent a car."



"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
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Wednesday, March 15, 2023

When We "Shed The Self"

When we moved into our new home, I found a stack of notepads in a kitchen drawer. The former owners must have been card players, bridge players I'm guessing, because the notepads feature a fan of playing cards along the upper edge of each page. For the past year and a half I've been using this paper for making our grocery lists. The note pad sits on my counter all day long with a pen that bears the logo of the Triangle Tavern in Seattle where a waiter once suggested I order their chicken Caesar, but to ask for the spicy chicken and extra parmesan. Every time I pick up that pen to write on that pad of paper, I find myself, however briefly, recalling that Caesar and wondering about the former home owners and how they would feel knowing that I was using their special pads of paper for such a pedestrian purpose. After all, they may have made an out-of-the-way trip to purchase those pads to impress or entertain their friends. Or perhaps they were a gift for the host who enthused over them then stashed them in the back of a drawer out of embarrassment.

It's over in a flash, that train of memories and speculations. Indeed in just 18 months, they've become a kind of rut or habit of thought, so common that I pass through those thoughts via shortcuts connected by ellipses, but even so there is an emotional content that is always there, a kind of melancholy that comes from knowing that the former owners sold us the house because the wife was very ill and they wanted to be near their family in Minneapolis. She has since died.

Not long ago, this rut or habit had not been a part of me. The notepads were just notepads, but now, as is true for every object in my home, the sight or heft or provenance of each thing makes it more than a thing. Virgina Woolfe, in her essay Street Haunting, writes:

As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of the vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one's own room. For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.

Woolfe concerned herself with this thing we call personality, feeling that it quite often becomes a cage, confining us through these ruts and habits, not to mention the expectations of our friends who, whether they know it or not, come expect a certain consistency in personality. To "shed the self" is to explore another personality. The poet Walt Whitman expressed a similar sentiment when he wrote:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself.
I am large, I contain multitudes.

Perhaps the most powerful thing about having spent decades in the company of young children in a place that is not their home is that I've gotten to know them as people, as personalities unfettered by the ruts and habits sparked by notepads and whatnot. Their caregivers tried to introduce them by telling me about the child -- what interests them, what frightens them, what soothes them -- but more often than not, this did not turn out to be the child I came to know because this new place allowed them to shed the self and explore the multitudes, or even create the multitudes. These mothers and fathers and other "old friends" would often say things like, "They never clean up at home, but here they do!" or "They eat broccoli here, but throw a fit when I serve it." 

Of course, over time, a school personality began to take shape, although the children often reverted to their old selves whenever mommy was present, and yet a different one when daddy or grandma or other loved on was there. Eventually, however this new self would become a product of ruts and habits that could be both a comfort and a cage.

Looking back over my own experience, I can clearly see those times, although they may not have been evident or welcome in the moment, when I was free to shed the self and to become an entirely other self. There are the obvious times like being the new kid at a school, joining a sports team, acquiring a skill, or moving into a new home. But the children have shown me that it's not just in those significant transitional moments that we discover the multitudes within us. Every time we walk out our front door into the world to join the "republican army of anonymous trampers," whenever we go somewhere new or make a new friend or try something we've never tried before, like eating broccoli in the company of broccoli lovers, we discover that who we thought we were, that the life we thought we lived, is different and bigger and more than we could have previously imagined.

This phenomenon stands at the heart of all learning. Too often, it seems, schooling is about creating or reinforcing those ruts and habits, trying to confine children in the cage of a fixed personality. This is what happens when there is not enough opportunity to play and it leads to anxiety and depression. If learning is our true goal, then what we could be doing is allowing them to play, every day, as they see fit, because this is the only way we've ever stepped beyond ourselves and created or discovered the multitude within.


"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
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Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Preserving And Restoring Childhood

There is a new nature preserve near my home. I was told by a naturalist working on the project that it will one day be "a world class" place that will attract people from around the globe. Right now, however, it's just a former golf course that's being allowed (with assistance) to revert to something like its former state. 

The same hopeful naturalist told me that he estimates that 80 percent of the current flora is invasive. "We'll never get rid of all of it," he shrugged, "but if we can get it down to 20 percent I'll be happy." He didn't hazard a guess about the percentage of non-native fauna, but there are aspirational signs all around the place telling visitors about the mammals, reptiles, insects, and birds that will one day proliferate here. Of particular note are the coyotes. There was one path forbidden to our dog and me last week because, the signs cautioned, it's coyote pupping season and they don't want anyone disturbing them. Fair enough, although I can't really imagine there are too many momma coyotes calling this place home . . . Yet.

The idea of a nature preserve is to protect plant and animal species whose habitats are vanishing. In most cases, we consider humans to be invasive, but since a secondary purpose of preserves like this one is to educate people about the living things that are displaced by such things as golf courses, accommodations are being made for us. Humans are welcome, but we are expected to stay on the paths, to not disturb the wildlife, to leash our dogs, to avoid rowdiness and to generally behave as visitors who want to be invited back.

As the dog and I followed the ad hoc loop trail, the birdsong definitely sounded louder than it does outside the preserve. A couple of hawks circled overhead, maybe hoping for one of those newborn coyote pups to stray, although the ground squirrels are likely their main targets. There were a lot of butterflies. The naturalist told me that they've decided to keep a couple of the artificial golf course ponds in order to attract water fowl. There were coots, mallards, and shockingly white cranes. The artificial ponds are also home to a population of turtles. I didn't ask the naturalist whether or not they were indigenous, but I doubt it. There are also countless tiny mosquito fish in the ponds. I happen to know that they were introduced to California from elsewhere back in the 1920's to feast on mosquito larvae, so useful, but definitely non-native. 

In other words, this place will never be restored to what it was before the arrival of human development. I imagine that the naturalist's goal of 80 percent native plant species is sort of the overall goal of this or any preserve.

As I consider this place, I feel a kinship to both it and the people who aspire to preserve (or restore) this natural habitat. In many ways, that is my goal as a preschool teacher: to create a preserve for childhood, a natural habitat for authentic play. In most places, children are no longer free to roam their neighborhoods and towns the way we did during what Peter Gray refers to as "the golden age" of childhood play. It was a habitat that was outdoors, relatively unsupervised by adults, with playmates of all ages. We had space to roam, time to explore, invent, and discover. Manufactured toys were rare, but the resources to make our own toys plentiful. In this natural habitat of childhood, there was no top-down curricula, adults didn't fret about the children "falling behind," risk and mess and bickering were managed by the children themselves, and adults were only called for in when absolutely necessary. That is the natural habitat of childhood.

For their part, the adults were too busy living their own lives to hover, to intervene, or to settle petty squabbles. Of course, they kept an eye on things, but they knew that young children thrived in this outdoor habitat of autonomy, community, and time. In many ways, they served the same role that the naturalists do in a preserve.

Over the past half century, the natural habitat of childhood has been eroded away to almost nothing, with only a few small pockets remaining. Most children spend far too much of their early lives indoors, sitting, scheduled, following instructions, and being hovered over by well-intended, but misguided adults. Our play-based preschools may never fully re-create the golden age of childhood play, but maybe, with commitment, we can preserve and restore some of it by becoming places of autonomy, community, and time, instead of obedience, individual achievement, and school readiness. Perhaps we can even aspire to some day become childhood habitats in which 80 percent of the invasive species are eliminated. 

What would happen if we replaced the word school with preserve and teacher with naturalist? I don't know if all, or even many, parents would want their kids spending their days in a childhood preserve, but I sure would.

I've never used that terms before, but when I consider it, I recognize the role I've tried to play in the lives of young children and their families. We preserve other disappearing habitats. How about this one?

"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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