Wednesday, July 24, 2024

The Brain Alone Cannot Carry Out the Work that the Mind Does


"(A)after years of striving to explain the mind on the basis of brain-action alone, I have come to the conclusion that it is simpler (and far easier to be logical) if one adopts the hypothesis that our being does not consist of two fundamental elements . . . (T)here is no good evidence, in spite of new methods, such as the employment of stimulating electrodes, the study of conscious patients and the analysis of epileptic attacks, that the brain alone can carry out the work that the mind does."

Wilder Graves Penfield stands among the most influential neurosurgeons of all time. He developed a wide range of surgical technics, was the first to map various regions of the brain, and expanded the use of neural stimulation into an array of areas including hallucinations, illusions, dissociation, and déjà vu. In many ways, his work laid the foundation for our current blossoming of neuroscientific research and discovery.

The field has moved forward dramatically since the middle of the last century, yet Penfield's conclusion that the brain alone cannot carry out the work of the mind continues to stand, even as we learn more and more about how brains work. And not for a lack of trying. The world is still firmly convinced that our brains do the real work and our bodies just follow orders and our schools continue to double down on it.

Scientists do what scientists do, which is to propose and test theories, publish their findings and conclusions so that other scientists can attempt to pick them apart, then use that feedback to re-think their theory and the methods used to test it. This isn't to say that things don't get acrimonious and personal, like all human things, but having one's theories attacked by those with differing perspectives stands at the heart of the scientific method and any scientist worthy of the name accepts this as the only way to approach scientific truth. Nothing in science is sacred, not even the idea that our brains are in charge.

This attitude, however, doesn't generally transcend the ivory tower into the real world in which rewards come to those who can "win" arguments and persuade others. Whenever I hear the word "neuroscience" these days I'm both attracted and repelled. As an educator, I'm deeply concerned with our minds and how they work, and brains likely have something to do with that. I'm compelled by the fact that the deeper one looks into the human mind, the more one knows, the more profound the mystery. In that way, it's very much like space exploration. Indeed, not long ago astrophysicist Franco Vazza and neurosurgeon Alberto Feletti published a well-read paper that investigated the resemblances between what they call "two of the most challenging and complex systems in nature" -- the human brain (approximately 69 billion neurons) and the cosmic web of galaxies (approximately 100 billion galaxies) that make up the universe, neither of which can be fully, or even mostly, explained by those elements alone.

I'm repelled by the fact that most of what that comes my way is via popularizers who have taken their layman's understanding of "neuroscience" and use it to sell something. They take a single finding or study, treat it like it's irrefutable (because it's has the word "science" in it), then tell the rest of us we're not following the science if we don't buy their snake oil. In the education field that is often some kind of curriculum or technology or tutoring method that is said to be the product "neuroscience." And almost all of it is based on the (probably) false assumption that there is a brain-body divide, with the brain representing all that is "the mind" (or "the person") and the body being a mere tool of the mind.

Penrose's insight that the brain alone cannot explain the existence of the human mind leads me to assume that the body is at least as important to thinking and learning and creating as the brain. The problem with all this popularizing is that leads many to assume that the best way to improve education is to enforce a still body while subjecting children, even very young ones, to more and more "seat time," more lectures, more drills . . .

The research on learning and thinking, however, time-and-again demonstrates that our brains work more effectively while our bodies are moving, while our hands are engaged, while our heart rates are slightly elevated. Our minds learn more and think more clearly when we engage all of our senses, not just the seeing and hearing that a standard classroom offers. We learn through smell, through taste, through scent, through touch, through interception (the sense of our internal state), through proprioception (the sense of our bodies in space), through nociception (the sense of damage usually indicated by pain), equilibrioception (the sense of balance), optical flow (the sense of the stream of information our eyes receive as we move), and even, probably, through senses we don't think we have like echolocation and the ability to sense electromagnetism, vibration, and pheromones. There are undoubtedly more. Most of these senses are shut down when we are made to be still and quiet.

Our senses are, in fact, where thinking begins and when schools narrow our sensory world, they narrow our ability to learn, completely or mostly excluding children who may not be equipped for sitting and listening (and that's most of them). Play-based learning, a method that is almost universally supported by actual neuroscientists and disdained by the popularizers, is the only "system" of learning that allows the learner to choose, not only what they will learn, but how they will learn it.

The child who stomps around the playground with shortened arms is using all of his senses to  teach themself about the T-Rex, and probably a lot more besides . . .

The child who takes orders, cooks, and "sells" playdough cookies is teaching themself about serving others, food preparation, commerce, and probably a lot more besides . . .

The child who wallows in a puddle is teaching themself about the elements, the quality of their clothing, the patience of the adults, and probably a lot more besides . . .

A child at play is not using half their mind to stifle the movement of their bodies or to silence their enthusiasm or to ignore the scent of autumn that wafts through the window. They are engaging the world with their full mind. No other method of learning can make this claim.

Even as we learn more about our brains, we still know very little about human consciousness, so I offer up these thoughts in the spirit of a scientific paper. Please feel free to pick it apart.

The fact is that there is scant evidence that our bodies create our minds any more than our brains do. It's just as likely that our bodies (including our brains) merely interact with a greater "consciousness" (for want of a better word) and this thing we call self is nothing more than an accidental bi-product of that. Maybe this is nothing more than sound and fury signifying nothing. But it sure is fun stuff to think about.

******

Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Do Preschoolers Need a Little Privacy?


Long before I even considered a career in early childhood, I had a boss who liked to joke, "I'll give you enough rope to hang yourself." It was his macabre way of saying that he was going to trust his underlings to make our own decisions about how to use our time, how to tackle assigned tasks, and even propose our own initiatives. When we succeeded, we got the glory. When we failed there was no one to blame but ourselves. I adopted the same approach to the people who worked for me.

This arrangement suited me. Everything I worked on felt like my own project which tends to be motivating and when you're motivated you give it your best. When things went haywire, and they always do, I worked wee hours, but when things were going well, I was free, without the concern that my boss was hovering judgmentally over my shoulder, to knock off early, take a long lunch, or just goof off in the coffee room. 

Research consistently finds that workers who are subjected to excessive oversight feel disempowered, are less likely explore or experiment, and are, as a result, less creative. In an assembly-line setting, I imagine that this might be exactly what some employers want: workers who go through the motions in a consistent, efficient, and, frankly, thoughtless, manner. But when surveyed, most employers at least give lip-service to creativity. They say they want their people to be self-motivated, to innovate, to make suggestions for improvement, and to assume ownership of, and even take pride in their work. But this is unlikely, if not impossible, in a micro-managed workplace.

The flip-side of this research is that less oversight leads workers to feel empowered. They know that they can experiment, make a mess, and even occasionally fail without judgment or reprisal. In other words, if the goal really is creativity and innovation, employers must give their employees some level of autonomy and that requires the promise of privacy.

The concept of privacy is an interesting one. Babies and young children tend to want nothing to do with it. Indeed, babies, if left too much alone, simply roll over and die. We are born so helpless that we need near constant assurance that there is someone there to care for us. Parents and other caretakers are familiar with opening the bathroom door to find toddlers waiting on the other side, unable to bear even a few minutes of their adult's absence, and they have no understanding for why adults might want a little privacy.

In this example, privacy is a product of "good manners". We've been taught that toileting, and pantsless-ness in general, is for private moments. Shame plays into it as well. I may be worried about my reputation should others catch me, say, engaging in silly walks, hear me singing in my most ear-splitting falsetto, or see me hanging out in my underwear with untidy hair. Manners and shame are likewise incomprehensible to babies.

But there is more to privacy than shame and manners. For most of human history, privacy simply wasn't a thing. As professor John Locke of Lehman Collage of the City of New York says, "Our distant ancestors could see each other at all times, which kept them safe but also imposed a huge cognitive cost. When residential walls were erected, they eliminated the need to look around every few seconds to see what others were doing." The result is that "a human vigil, one beginning with ancestors that we share with apes, was reduced to manageable proportions, freeing up many hours of undistracted time per day."

And this undistracted time is becoming ever more important in a world in which abstract thought is increasingly in demand. As Annie Murphy Paul writes in her book The Extended Mind, "Walls became necessary as a way of relieving the mental strain that comes along with closely packed populations of unfamiliar others."

Young children have much more in common with our ancient ancestors than do modern adults. They still tend to thrive without too many walls, in environments in which they can look around "every few seconds" to see what others are doing. It makes them feel safe to know they are not alone. This is how humans have evolved to feel.

Likewise, much of what we learn through our early years comes from observing and attempting to imitate others. This is how we learn to talk and to walk and, eventually, to close the bathroom door. It's not surprising that young children so often seem to "bounce off the walls: they're in the way of cognitive development. Indeed, the walls and ceilings that we find so necessary to our modern world of abstract thought, can create their own distractions as they echo and intensify sounds, are illuminated by artificial light, and provide few escape routes, which is why most young children, most of the time, are most contented in outdoor spaces in the company of others.

For adults trying to thrive in the modern world, it's a different story. I know many tech workers, for instance, who feel that they were more productive and creative while working remotely (privately) during the pandemic. But as many employers are finding, teamwork and collaboration suffers when most of their workers, most of the time, work from their homes. There is something essentially human in looking around every few seconds to see what the others are doing. From my own experience, many of my best workplace ideas came to me while imbibing at happy hour, lunching with colleagues, or goofing off in the coffee room.

While babies and young toddlers don't really need privacy, older preschoolers often benefit from the ability to separate themselves, to get off the radar of others in order to reflect, to self-sooth, and to think. I often find these children alone at the art table or sensory bin, lost in their creative process, but not every child is capable of creating the mental walls necessary to do this. 

Many of us have created small, dark, cozy spaces in our classrooms as refuges for children. We think of them as places to take a break, but the need for privacy isn't simply about rest: it is about creating the conditions for abstract and creative thought.

Most preschool programs build "quiet time" into their days. Lights are dimmed, napping mats are rolled out, and silence is enforced. That certainly serves the preschoolers' need for rest, but I don't think that this fully embraces this need for privacy because privacy doesn't necessarily mean quietly napping. Privacy might just as easily be a place for primal screams and banging about.

Even so, this quiet time is better than nothing. Sadly, it goes away once children reach kindergarten. Most schools, most of the time, are exactly the sort of full-on, overly supervised, micro-managed and disempowering work environments that stifle creativity. Children spend their days doing what the adults tell them to do, when they tell them to do it, all, often literally, with an adult looking over their shoulder. And they know that they are always being judged. Even their attitude and posture may come up in evaluations.

If we are hoping that education leads to citizens who are capable of abstract and creative thought, research tells us that we are doing it exactly the wrong way. We say we want our children be self-motivated, to innovate, to make suggestions for improvement, and to assume ownership of, and even take pride in their own educations. But this is unlikely, if not impossible, in a micro-managed school. In other words, if the goal really is creativity and innovation, educators must give their students some level of autonomy and that requires the promise of privacy.

I've lately been entertaining how it would look for our schools to provide privacy spaces for children. Ideally, each child would have their own "room" with a door. It would need to be big enough to sit, to sprawl, and to pace a few steps. Children would be free to decorate the room as they please, to populate it with personal items, and to retire to it whenever they felt the urge. Most importantly, it would be a place where the adults don't go except when invited. 

I recognize that this ideal is impractical for most current school settings. I also recognize that some children hate school as it's currently configured so much that they would just hole up in their room for the entire day. And yes, there is the concern that they would "get up to no good" in their private rooms. But we ought not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Most school facilities have space for some form of private space for kids, even if they would probably have to take turns. If kids are just hiding out in these rooms, then maybe we should view this as a child with a problem rather than a problem child and help them. As for mischief making, how much trouble can a kid get into while alone in a room?

I know that for me, it's about creating a natural ebb and flow. Spending time with others is invigorating, but too much and I start to feel frazzled, distracted, and mentally exhausted. Spending time in privacy allows my mind to wander, to connect things, to formulate my thoughts (especially when I'm writing), but too much and I begin to feel dull and disinterested, even trapped in my own thoughts. Ideally, I spend my days with some of both, moving from one to the other as need be.

It seems that this would be likewise ideal for students in schools that are interested in more than test scores. Most of our schools do not accommodate the need for privacy, the assumption being that this is what home is for. Of course, for many children, home is not a place for privacy so they find themselves without appropriate opportunities. But even if every child had a perfect home, our long school days, and our societal need for abstract thought, seem to necessitate the opportunity for children to access genuine privacy. It's something to think about.

******

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, July 22, 2024

Knowledge is the Capacity to Overcome the Difficulties of Life


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

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

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


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

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

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

A few of the adults worried about her, furrowing their brows over her apparent lack of social skills or interest in the more stereotypical pursuits of preschoolers. Her mother asked me for my opinion. I told her that I didn't think there was anything to worry about, but urged her to talk to her pediatrician for a referral to someone qualified to make an assessment, which she did, and learned that the psychologist didn't think there was reason to worry either.


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

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

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


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

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

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

******

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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Friday, July 19, 2024

This Is What I Wish We All Understood


She stopped right inside the gate. In fact, her mother had to nudge her through and there she stood looking at our junkyard playground for the first time. She was only two-years-old and her mother had brought her to the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool for the first time. She was not going to be left with us. Her mother was going to stay with her, side-by-side, bottom-on-lap, arms wrapped around one another if that was necessary, because that's the way cooperatives work.

The girl's mother waved to me, then bent to talk softly into her daughter's ear. The girl was probably listening, but there was no visual indication that she heard her mother, or even that her mother was there. She was studying this new place, probably, knowing the way humans work, looking for something familiar. That would be her entry point.

For some kids, the newness is so overwhelming that the only familiar thing they can see is the adult who arrived with them, but this girl, Paula, spotted a small stuffed bear lying on its face. She took her mother's hand and toddled down the short stairway. When she hit the ground, she freed herself and careened toward the bear, falling on her belly. It was her first lesson in the slope and unevenness that characterizes our playground. She lay within inches of the bear. She turned over and, from her seat, she picked it up with one hand. With her other, she brushed at it, knocking off wood chips, decaying leaves, and sand. She scowled into its eyeless face, then, still holding it in one hand pushed herself onto her feet and toddled back to her mother, not falling this time. Wordlessly, she offered the bear to her mother and her mother took it, who replied with a torrent of enthusiastic words.

Knowing what I know about humans, and especially young children, I recognized that Paula had made a first connection between life as she knew it and this new place. 

As the days passed, she would hand many more things to her mother, who wouldn't always be enthusiastic. Indeed, as her mother likewise became better connected to our space, she was less inclined to nervous enthusiasm and more likely to respond informatively. She would say things like, "This looks like a steering wheel," or "Ugh, that's disgusting." 

As the days passed Paula began to connect me to her world by handing things to me as well. As she got to know the other children and the other children's parents, she would try out connecting with them too. None of us responded exactly as her mother had, even when handed the steering wheel. For instance, I pretended I was driving a car, saying, "Vroom, vroom" and "Honk, honk." The other children did even more interesting things in response to being connected to Paula through the steering wheel. Some banged it on the ground. Some tried to roll it down the slope. Many dropped it. Most, after putting it through its paces, handed it back to Paula.

Exploring the world is how we explore our minds. This lifelong expedition is about connecting what we know with the new things we come across until those new things are also part of what we know. No one needs to tell us, just as no one needed to tell Paula, that to really understand something, you must strive to have it in your hands and to look at it from a variety of perspectives. And there is nothing more natural, more normal, than to do it alongside loved ones. Eventually, Paula would be experienced or confident or curious enough to explore without her mother immediately at her side, at her own pace, until she could securely explore both alone and in the company of this wider "family" that she had both discovered and created.

"A husband, a wife and some kids is not a family," writes Kurt Vonnegut, "It's a terribly vulnerable survival unit . . . I met a man in Nigeria one time, an Ibo who had six hundred relatives he knew quite well. His wife had just had a baby, the best possible news in an extended family. They were going to take it to meet all its relatives, Ibos of all ages, sizes and shapes. It would even meet other babies, cousins not much older than it was. Everybody who was big enough and steady enough was going to get to hold it, cuddle it, gurgle it . . . Wouldn't you have loved to be that baby?"

This is what our children need, this extended family, this village of connection, this place of love and connection that is our birthright. I share Vonnegut's wish: "I really, over the long run, hope America would find some way to provide all of our citizens with extended families -- a large group of people they could call on for help."

That is what I set out to create as an educator, a place for families to connect, whether for a few years or a lifetime. This is what I wish we all understood as not just education, but life itself.

******

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.

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, July 18, 2024

Genius Knows Itself


The boy was running at full speed when he tripped and fell chin first. As falls go, it wasn't a particularly hard one and thankfully the surface on which he fell was forgiving, but the impact startled him and he came up crying.

I wasn't far from where he fell, but still wasn't the first caretaker on the scene. That would be Hattie. Of course, it would be Hattie. This was one of the first days of a summer session which meant we were a multiage mixture of children who had been coming to Woodland Park for awhile alongside newcomers. Over the course of the previous two years, I'd gotten to know Hattie and her particular genius, which was caring for others. With Hattie on the scene, and without blood in evidence, I knew I could step back.


Hattie went first for the boy's head, placing a palm on it, lowering her own face to his. She might have said something to him or she might have just been making sure he knew she was there, locking eyes, sharing breath. Her other hand went to his chin, rubbing it gently. He raised his head, pushing himself up to a partial sitting position. Hattie's arm was now draped over his shoulders, her eyes still on his, studying, interpreting his expression which remained pained.

We adults had come to refer to her as Mother Hattie or Nurse Hattie and that's exactly how she appeared as she began to rub the boys back before noticing that one of his shoes had come off in the fall. She tried handing it to the boy, who whimpered, "I can't," so Hattie proceeded to gently wiggle his foot into the shoe.


As humans we have come to value a certain type of intelligence, the kind that is self-conscious, solves puzzles, uses language, and ciphers; the kind of thing that is measured by the crude instrument of what we call IQ tests. We arrogantly assert that our intelligence is a higher one and are forever ranking other species' intelligence in relationship with our own. Chimpanzee's are the second most intelligent animal. No, it's dolphins! Ravens! Pigs! Elephants! Anyone who has ever loved a dog, however, has seen the kind of intelligence Hattie was displaying as she wrestled that shoe onto the boy's foot: one that is about intuitive mood-enhancement and unselfconscious love, not puzzle-solving. And frankly, from a Darwinian point-of-view, one that favors traits that support survival, not of the individual, but of the species, then, in this moment of caring, this moment of crackling, breath-taking intelligence, Hattie demonstrated an intelligence neither higher nor lower, but just right for dealing with this moment.


By the time Hattie had finished with putting the shoe on his foot, the boy was finished crying. 

The kind of "feral" intelligence that Hattie mobilized in just the right moment, is often dismissed as a secondary kind, generally not even included in discussions of intelligence, but rather demoted with terms like "intuition" or, even lower down, "instinct." But watching Hattie, I knew I was witnessing the kind of genius we could do well to foster in ourselves and others. It's neither higher nor lower, but it seems to me to be exactly the kind of intelligence humans will need to rediscover if we are to survive much longer.

Back on his feet, the boy beamed his gratitude at Hattie. There was a brief moment in which I was tempted to say something to her like, "That was kind" or "Thank you." But I she didn't need me to say anything. Genius knows itself. When she finally looked at me after watching the boy dash away, however, I smiled as the boy had, and I knew, without a doubt, that she understood.

******


Not all risk taking is physical. Much of it involves questioning the status quo, whatever that is where we are. We live in an era of "bubble wrapped" children and helicopter parents, yet we know that healthy exposure to risk-taking through play is essential for proper brain development, self-confidence, and physical competence, not to mention social-emotional and intellectual development. My 6-week course, 
Teacher Tom's Risky Play, is a deep-dive into the value and importance of risky play, or safety play, and an exploration of how we can overcome media fear-mongering and catastrophic imaginations, and work with regulators, to create "safe enough" environments in which the children in our lives can engage in the kind of appropriate risk-taking they need to thrive, both today and into the future. To register and learn more, click here.

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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Common Sense, the Status Quo, and Human Nature


"Common sense" once told us that the Earth is flat. Up until around 1800 the "status quo" was that three out of every four humans lived in some form of slavery. And "human nature" has been used as the shoulder-shrugging excuse for almost every atrocious or malignant act ever committed.

In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. told us that the three evils of society are racism, excessive materialism, and militarism. A half century later, these evils are still with us, of course, and continue to be defended by the absurdities of common sense, the status quo, and an evocation of a certain view of human nature.

Perhaps the most important thing I've learned from working with young children is to be suspicious of "common sense." Psychologists assert that humans reach the "age of reason" at around 7-years-old, which places them beyond the reach of this preschool teacher. They would have me believe that my colleagues lack common sense, but this is patently absurd. Each and every one of them is deeply reasonable, they always have a reason for what they do, they simply haven't yet learned which of their reasons are socially acceptable and which are not. Evocations of common sense is a tool of the kind of social power that French philosopher Michel Foucault called "normalization," in which our souls are imprisoned by expectations and standards. I find myself inspired by these newly minted humans who are not yet subject to the power of common sense. They allow me to see that just because it's common it doesn't mean it makes sense.

"We've always done it that way" is likewise an argument that carries no weight with a young child. The status quo means nothing to them because there is nothing status quo about their world. Each day, every moment, brings a new revelation, a new perspective, a new ability, and a new question. Adults, especially in groups, have learned the hazards of bucking the power of normalization, even if as individuals they see the absurdity. My young teachers, however, unencumbered by the status quo, are ready to rail against it when it doesn't suit them. By the time they're seven perhaps they've learned to not rock the boat, but a three-year-old who doesn't like the way things have always been done will let us know it, and I've found, quite often, they make perfectly valid points.

As for human nature, Emma Goldman writes, "Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! . . . The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weakness of human nature." What I've learned from young children is that human nature is a product of the society in which it finds itself. If placed in conditions of command and control it becomes one thing; if placed in conditions of trust and respect, it becomes another.

I'm not saying that there is no value in "common sense" or that "status quo" is entirely corrupt. And I'm certainly not insisting that "human nature" is that of the angels. What I've come to, however, with no little help from preschoolers, is to always be suspicious whenever anyone, even someone I trust and respect, evokes them. Perhaps, in the end, that is what education is all about. We should demand an education that teaches us to view "common sense," "the status quo," and "human nature" from perspectives that reveal their inherent absurdity. When we can do that, especially when we can see it as absurd from multiple perspectives, we will see that we can never simply accept any of it as truth, there is always something more, and that is what will ultimately set us free.

******

Not all risk taking is physical. Much of it involves questioning the status quo, whatever that is where we are. We live in an era of "bubble wrapped" children and helicopter parents, yet we know that healthy exposure to risk-taking through play is essential for proper brain development, self-confidence, and physical competence, not to mention social-emotional and intellectual development. My 6-week course, 
Teacher Tom's Risky Play, is a deep-dive into the value and importance of risky play, or safety play, and an exploration of how we can overcome media fear-mongering and catastrophic imaginations, and work with regulators, to create "safe enough" environments in which the children in our lives can engage in the kind of appropriate risk-taking they need to thrive, both today and into the future. To register and learn 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, July 16, 2024

"Children Do Not Like Being Incompetent Any More Than They Like Being Ignorant"


As a child, there were certain adults who I instantly liked, whereas there were others for whom I would take an immediate dislike. It generally came down to how they treated me. If they looked me in the eye, spoke in their normal voice, laughed at my jokes, not my mistakes, and refrained from such intrusive things as patting me on the head, pinching my cheeks, or picking me up without my consent, then they were one of the "good guys."


Most adults in mixed-age social settings would just ignore me, which was fine, because I would likewise ignore them, preferring the company of my fellow children, but there were always some who would loom at me, smiling too widely, speaking too loudly, sometimes even descending into a kind of baby talk. They might have been well-intended, but I resented their insipid, prying questions, questions they would never dare ask an adult they didn't know: "What are you going to be when you grow up?" or "Are you a good boy for your teacher?" They would look around at the other adults as I obediently replied beaming condescendingly as if they were a confederacy of superior beings deigning to include the cute, precious, innocent child for a moment.

To this day, there are few things more certain to set this early childhood educator's teeth on edge than adults who condescend to children. As a boy, the irritation was with their obvious phoniness and their clear, insulting assumption that I was some kind of baby. Now, however, I understand that it is even worse. These are adults, and there are more of them now than ever, who see children not as an individual humans, but rather as an idea, a stereotype. They don't see actual people, but rather their concept of children as incomplete adults -- simple, unformed, incompetent, and so so so charmingly innocent. It is okay to command or control them, to even lie to them, just so long as they can convince themselves that it's "for their own good."


Many of these people are in charge of schools and curriculum. Many are teachers. There are even parents who start off with this attitude only to spend the next couple decades mourning the loss of their vision of what a child is as their own child proves to be an actual human being. These are the parents who think they are doing their child a service by protecting them from learning about sex or bigotry because they are too tender and dear to be exposed to such things.

John Holt writes, "It is condescending when we respond to qualities that enable us to feel superior to the child. It is sentimental when we respond to qualities that do not exist in the child but only in some vision or theory that we have about children . . . Children do not like being incompetent any more than they like being ignorant. They want to learn to do, and do well, the things they see being done by bigger people around them. This is why they soon find school such a disappointment; they so seldom get a chance to learn anything important or do anything real. But many of the defenders of childhood, in or out of school, seem to have this vested interest in the children's incompetence, which they often call 'letting the child be a child.'"


We are born into the shock of light, cold, and sound, then must spend our first days learning to live with it. From the moment we come into this world, we are fully aware that there is pain, fear, and that life is often unfair. We are never innocent in this life: the idea of childhood innocence is really just adults romanticizing ignorance. Our children do not need to be protected from the hard lessons of life, even if that were possible. They do not benefit from our theories about what children are and are not. They are here on this earth, like all of us, to learn what it means to be alive and our responsibility as important adults in their lives is to be fellow travelers, consoling them when the lessons are hard, helping them when the tasks are difficult, but most of all loving them as the capable, competent humans they are.

******


We live in an era of "bubble wrapped" children and helicopter parents, yet we know that healthy exposure to risk-taking through play is essential for proper brain development, self-confidence, and physical competence, not to mention social-emotional and intellectual development. My 6-week course, 
Teacher Tom's Risky Play, is a deep-dive into the value and importance of risky play, or safety play, and an exploration of how we can overcome media fear-mongering and catastrophic imaginations, and work with regulators, to create "safe enough" environments in which the children in our lives can engage in the kind of appropriate risk-taking they need to thrive, both today and into the future. To register and learn 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!
Bookmark and Share