Friday, June 02, 2023

The General Theory Of The Second Best


It is well known that the attainment of a Paretian optimum requires the simultaneous fulfillment of all the optimum conditions. The general theorem for the second best optimum states that if there is introduced into a general equilibrium system a constraint which prevents the attainment of one of the Paretian conditions, the other Paretian conditions, although still attainable, are, in general, no longer desirable. In other words, given that one of the Paretian optimum conditions cannot be fulfilled, then an optimum situation can be achieved only by departing from all the other Paretian conditions. The optimum situation finally attained may be termed a second best optimum because it is achieved subject to a constraint which, by definition, prevents the attainment of a Paretian optimum.  ~General Theory of the Second Best (R.G. Lipsey and Kelvin Lancaster)

There is an artist who hangs-out in the Center of the Universe named Fawzi "Benny" Benhariz. This guy's artform is to balance rocks. Some of his pieces are staggering in their apparent impossibility, large stones, perched atop one another on points no larger than the tip of your pinky, balanced there where even the slightest breeze could topple them over. I swear it looks like a magic trick, surreal and beautiful and as close to perfection as a human being can get. 

But sooner or later the rocks always fall. Or at least I assume they do because of what I know about the world: perfection will not be abided. Something always happens to even the most wonderfully balanced of systems, and when rocks fall, especially big rocks balanced precariously between a well-traversed city sidewalk and a well-traveled city street, they can result in damaging or injurious consequences, which is why the city wants Benny to get a street use permit that would require carrying liability insurance, something beyond the reach of a man who is unhoused and mentally ill. So he's become a sort of outlaw artist, loved and hated, and not only because he points out by his very existence there on the streets of Fremont, that the rocks will always come tumbling down.

In 1956, a pair of economists, one Canadian, the other Australian, published a paper in which they detailed their General Theory of the Second Best. Essentially, they proved that in any theoretical economic system, if even one of the "optimal conditions" cannot be fully met for whatever reason, then it makes moot all the other conditions required to balance the system. In other words, when it comes to making economic theories work in the real world, it's all or nothing. Close enough doesn't count, and according to the theory, if one persists in still trying attain those other conditions, one can in fact create disastrous consequences. Indeed, the second best option probably requires none of the conditions that would have been required to fulfill the first option, sending everyone, in a rational world, back to the drawing board.

I'm not an economist, and I have no doubt that there's a lot more to this idea given that the authors expanded it into an entire book (which I've not read), but I see the basic principle at work every day even in areas apparently unrelated to economics, so I'm inclined to accept its essential truth. It's why fundamentalist dogma of any sort (economic, religious, educational) always becomes dangerous when it comes into contact with reality and why, when faced with the real world, advocates, unwilling to give up on their other optimal conditions, have to instead resort to increasingly draconian measures to keep the faithful in line, usually with the excuse that this is just a phase through which we must pass in order to get to their utopic promised land.

And that brings me to the systems-based education reform types (e.g., education dilettante Bill Gates) who believe that if they can only inject public education with the kind of systematic rigor, carrot-and-stick accountability, and bottom-line focus of their neoliberal "Paretian optimum," then, by the magic of the "invisible hand," our schools will invariably tend toward perfection. They are undaunted by the fact that the real world keeps right on toppling their rocks, crushing toes and denting cars, because, they tell us, "this is just a necessary phase." We'll see they were right when we finally get to the other side. In the meantime, we're going broke paying doctors and mechanics, with no real hope of meaningful reform.

From the moment a child is born into our bright, cold, noisy world, she knows it is an imperfect place. I know it. You know it. And Bill Gates knows it. And all of us, given that sure knowledge, seek the next best thing, which is to get as close as we can to our ideals, even while knowing that perfection is impossible. The perfectionists among us bang their heads against the wall, but the rest of us scramble and scheme and shrug our way toward a "good enough" or "as good as it gets." And we know to append that with "for now," because we also know that everything important requires constant re-balancing, re-organizing, re-assessing: that the ever-changing world and fallible humans will always upset our best laid plans, unsettle what we thought was settled, and break what we've recently mended. We get up each morning and wrestle life back into shape, knowing we'll have to do it again the next day and the next. We have all always known this.

Yet there are those who persist in devising "general equilibrium systems," which are often fascinating, even inspirational, but that are mere thought experiments designed for the two-dimensional world of paper. In the proving ground of the 3D world, however, they fall apart the moment it becomes clear that  the "optimal conditions" cannot be met. Their tendency is to persist in balancing those rocks, striving to come as close as possible to the ideal, but they do so at inevitable peril because the General Theory of the Second Best always comes around to bite everyone in the ass.

When Benny, in the moments when he isn't drunk or throwing rocks at people in fits of rage, talks about his art he says he is "playing with rocks." I've seen him playing with them, a true tinkerer: gently, carefully, focused, a man who is fully present. There is no system or dogma that can balance a rock. Only a human at play can do that. 

I do appreciate that there is right now such a focus on education in America, and indeed much of the rest of the world. The talk is of reform, of progress, of improvement. This is the conversation to be having, but not because our current system is a bad one, but rather that it's been neglected for too long, and from what we all know about systems, no matter how beautiful they look on paper, someone needs to be constantly messing with them, playing with them, tinkering with them, or the whole rock pile comes toppling down. All that the so-called reformers are trying to do is replace one ultimately fallible human system with another, their version made particularly dangerous by "invisible hand" fundamentalism.

Education reform is something that should be happening every day, in every classroom, as teachers, parents, administrators, and students play together, wrestling their world into a newly, temporarily balanced system. Then we do it again tomorrow. That's how we make the best schools possible, not with an invisible hand moved by pretty formulas that live only in the fantasy world of thought experiment, but with our own hands, our many hands, the only ones capable of balancing those damn rocks.


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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Thursday, June 01, 2023

Summer Break: To Know What It Means To Have The Luxury Of Choosing

My wife Jennifer and I spent a chunk of the the 90's living and working in Germany. We were there because Jennifer was an executive with Volkswagen. Every August, the factory closed, giving workers a long, paid, summer holiday, which was common practice throughout the country. This was on top of another month of paid vacation that employees could take during other months of the year. Since the kids were out of school for their own summer break, many families would opt to for two full months off, together, traveling and sharing other experiences.

We didn't have children at the time, but what an incredible thing for German families. As summer break approaches here in the states, however, I'm saddened by how many preschool-aged children (and teachers) just continue to trudge on. It seems that if we had our priorities right, if we really valued and supported families -- or human beings for that matter -- everyone would have a summer break.

The argument against that, of course, is that employers, or the economy, couldn't afford it, but it's not like Germany doesn't have plenty of giant, bureaucratic, profitable corporations. I'm sure shutting down the factories for a month means leaving money on the table, but it's not like Volkwagen, Bosch, and Adidas are going broke. At one point during our time in Germany, management needed to cut costs. They gave employees the choice: a cut in pay or a four day workweek. They overwhelmingly chose the four day workweek. In other words, they chose time off over money.

I wonder if American workers would make that choice. I mean, compared to Germany, we in the US obviously place a relatively higher value on work than we do on families. At least that's what our policymakers have decided. Germans do have higher taxes, but that pays for healthcare, child care, retirement, and a social safety net that lets relatively few fall through. Yes, there seems to be more cheating, both on taxes and the collection of social welfare benefits, but they don't let the cheaters ruin it for everyone else.

One thing we do know, is that the suicide rate for young people who get a summer break will drop during the summer months, just as they drop over weekends during the school year, and rise again in the fall. And we know that as fewer and fewer children get their summer breaks over the course of this century, the overall suicide rate has climbed. All of this, of course, is just correlation. It's certainly more complicated than that. And I'm also aware that for children with dysfunctional family lives, school can be a refuge. But the evidence before us indicates that for most children being in school is more stressful for most children than staying at home, and getting a regular break from stress, knowing how to destress and what that feels like, is a vital life skill.

My data can be picked apart, of course. People far smarter than me are trying to figure out our nation's disturbing youth suicide trends. And perhaps suicide rates are not a good indicator to compare mental well-being, but I hope we can all agree that it is something to take seriously.

But my point is not to quibble over data, but rather to engage in pure, amber-ized nostalgia for the summer breaks of my own youth: eating popsicles in the shade; feet so dirty they never really got clean; riding bikes up and down the block; sneaking into neighbors' garages; climbing fences; gangs of kids ebbing and flowing throughout the neighborhood; idly watching the shadows cast by leaves as they dance on the walls; swimming and running through lawn sprinklers; pick up games of all kinds.

Of course, being nostalgia, I'm sure the lived experience wasn't as beautiful as I remember it, but from where I sit today, what actually happened is a moot point: the way it exists in the present, which is to say, in my memory, is of days during which I awoke each morning and chose how to spend my time. I chose what to think about, what to create, who to play with, and whether or not I was "successful," however I chose to define it. That's why the loss of a proper three-month summer break is so awful. These poor kids are being robbed of the opportunity, for at least a small part of their lives, to know what it means to have the luxury of choosing.

I know, I know, the curmudgeons argue, But that's not real life. In real life you don't get to play and choose. Or perhaps they say, But all that playing and choosing is a waste of time. We must get them ready for real life.  Or they argue, perhaps with a sigh, But the parents need their kids to be in school because they have to get to work. That's just real life.

What if real life included two months of "summer break" every year, and even four day work weeks, not to mention regular weekends and holidays? I don't know what's going on in Germany today, but that was actual real life for working families during the 90's. That's quite a bit of free time, time during which to choose to eat popsicles and run through sprinklers. What if summer breaks didn't end when we graduate?

Of course, the mountain is beautiful in the distance, but steep when you're on it. The collective and contentious effort required to drag our nation to anything like this would be a long, difficult slog. But as preschool teachers and parents preschoolers, we have the small, but mighty power to not let the promise of summer fade away. We can, at least for the next three months, let up, even if just a little. We have it in our power to grant the children in our lives the freedom to experience real life as a place of choosing what it is we will do and think about with the short and precious time we have. And if we do this, they will grow up to be adults who know, in their hearts, minds, and bodies, no matter what real life looks like, that summer break is possible.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

"You Never Change"

"Teacher Tom, you always wear the same shirt."

It wasn't entirely true, but I understood why a kid might say that. "I wear different shirts."

"No, you always wear your purple shirt."

Again, not entirely true, but I did always wear something from my by extensive Woodland Park logo t-shirt collection, and among them were three purple ones. "I do wear a lot of purple shirts."

"And you always wear the same jeans."

This was true, although I'd switch to shorts when the weather permitted it. I had one pair of threadbare jeans I thought of as my "work pants." They got washed every weekend whether they needed it or not. "Fair enough."

"And you always wear the same shoes."

By now, I was starting to feel a little defensive. I had several pairs of shoes I wore to school, but I had to admit that I'd gone with the same old (mostly) waterproof boots during the preceding long, wet winter. "I don't always wear the same shoes. I just mostly wear the same shoes."

"You don't even change your hairstyle."

"It gets longer and shorter, but yes, you're right about that."

Up to this point he had taken the posture of an earnest prosecutor, laying out the bare facts as if from notes. I appreciated his honestly and was flattered that he had apparently given my appearance a good deal of thought, even as I wasn't exactly thrilled with the portrait he was painting of me. But now he smiled as he came to the conclusion toward which he had been working, "You never change."

In a flash I recognized that while I do change, while I do continue to grow, in this boy's eyes I am a man upon whom one can rely day after day, a man that he saw as solid, predictable, stable, and safe, like my father had been for me. That isn't the kind of man I have always been. I liked what I saw in this unexpected reflection of myself. I said, "Thank you for telling me that."

"You're welcome."


"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, May 30, 2023

That Is Flat-Out Cruel

Not long ago, I was asked to observe a two-year-old who was, according to his teachers, disruptive in class. When we were outdoors, I saw a curious, outgoing, physically active preschooler going about his business. When we were indoors, I saw a curious, outgoing, physically active preschooler whose curiosity was suppressed by a limited, fairly bare-bones environment where his outgoing-ness and physical activity showed up as a problem for the teachers. And that was essentially my on-the-spot "report": if you want to change his behavior indoors, then change his indoor environment.

I could tell his teachers were doubtful. After all, most of the other kids were "just fine" with things they way they were.

Later in the day, a young man with a clipboard removed the boy from the classroom. When I asked what was going on, I was told that this was the boy's occupational therapist. In other words, the poor boy already had a diagnosis based on his non-standardized behavior. Now, it's quite possible that there was something else going on that I hadn't observed, but I assure you that his behavior would not have raised an eyebrow in any school in which I've worked. Of course, I've never worked in a standard school, but rather ones that operate based on what decades of research tell us about young children, learning, and development: there is nothing standard about any of them.

Perhaps the greatest cruelty inflicted on children by standard schools is the unscientific notion that this child or that child is "falling behind." Falling behind is not a psychological or developmental concept. It is a notion that emerges, not from research on how humans learn, but rather statistics, based upon the manufacturing concept of standardization.

The idea of falling behind, for instance, is based on standardized tests. Test-makers identify a narrow range of things to measure, administer their test to a bunch of kids who are all the same age, then use their average score as their "standard." This means that approximately half the kids are above average while the rest are below average, or behind. They adjust their ranges so that a pre-determined percentage of the kids test as being up to standards. It has nothing to do with what they know or don't know, what they can do or can't do, but rather where they sit in relationship to a statistical average. 

Non-standardized children, like the two-year-old I observed, are identified as problems. Children whose genius lies in the infinite array of non-tested areas are labeled deficient. There is no psychological of developmental basis for connecting these standards to age. My own daughter said her first word at three months old. She was talking in full sentences by five months. Had there been a standardized test for that, she would have been identified as "gifted." She did not crawl, however, until her first birthday and wasn't walking until she was closer to two. On that standardized test, she would have been "behind." We performed no special interventions nor did we provide extra instruction, yet today she is an adult who walks and talks like all the other adults.

Clinical psychologist and author Naomi Fisher recently wrote, "Imagine that I decided that speed of running up the stairs is an important skill, and I tested thousands of 6-year-olds on it. I could create norms for that age group, and now I can identify 6-year-olds who are behind in stair-running. I can offer them extra stair-running . . . I can tell their parents that they need to do special exercises to catch them up. I can create a lot of worry about their deficiencies . . . The more things that you assess, the more likely it is that you'll find areas where a child is significantly different from the average."

Maybe none of this would matter if educators, schools, and districts used these averages as one data point in an ongoing process of improving themselves, but that's emphatically not how they are used. Instead, these averages, these standards, have become goals in and of themselves, while non-average, or non-standard, are problems, both for the individual child as well as the teacher, school, and district. Parents are called in and told that their child is "behind." That is flat-out cruel.

Now we have a child labeled as deficient, which too easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of each child being allowed to play, develop, and learn according to their own unique timetable, these deficient children are subjected to extra stair-running. It's cruel because it tells their parents that their child is deficient because they are not average. It tells children that there is something wrong with them because they are not standard. It's cruel because it is, quite simply, fear mongering.

This whole concept of age-standards or grade-standards, of "falling behind," is a deeply flawed cruelty disguised as science. It makes us define anything outside the narrow norm as a deficiency that needs to be fixed at all costs. Maybe we've always, secretly or not-so-secretly, sought to standardize our children, to make them all fit perfectly into the egg carton, but count me out.

Instead of hunting out deficiencies, what if we dedicated ourselves to identifying what makes each child non-standard, what sparks their curiosity, what motivates them? What if the goal was schools that preserve and support each child's unique genius, where behind doesn't exist? What if we didn't cut down the tall poppies in the name of average, standard, and uniform, and instead made natural habitats in which each child got the soil and sun they need to grow into the best version of themselves, no matter what the other poppies were doing? Maybe we'll discover that they aren't a poppy at all. What if we simply envisioned schools as places that adapted to the actual non-standardized children, rather than the other way around?


"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, May 29, 2023

We Asked One Another, "What Do You Do?"

I spent recent evening at a Memorial Day weekend barbeque in the company of several people I had never met before. We asked one another "What do you do?" which is our culture's shorthand for "What to you spend your weekdays working at, which is ultimately the question, "How do you go about acquiring food, clothing, and shelter?"

This dawned on me when one of my new acquaintances answered, "I don't do anything. I'm retired, just living off the fat of the land."

Of course, this man spends his days doing something. As we chatted, he mentioned grandchildren, golf, and gardening, he talked of travel and hiking. All of these things meet my definition of "doing," yet in his mind, in our collective mind, he's an idle man. In this, he is very much like most of the children I've known.

Indeed, this may well be the most decisive dividing line between children and adults. Kids just don't take work all that seriously, whereas for most of us grown-ups it's the center of our lives. Even if we love our jobs, we envy the kids their freedom, meanwhile we grind our teeth and wring our hands when they show any sign of being lazy, which is to say unproductive. We gripe that today's youth feel "entitled," that they don't seem to understand that they must work for their food, clothing, and shelter. We worry that our children are directionless, that they lack grit, or that they are more interested in their friends than their school work. These are all concerns, I would assert, related to answering the question "What do you do?"

Of course, in many cases it is illegal for children to contract to do proper work so we assign them chores -- some parents even pay their kids for completing them -- or we re-define school as a work place with grades as the paycheck. It's not the same, and the kids know it, because at the end of the day, they can't exchange their grades for their basic necessities. They see our re-framing for what it is: a flat-out lie. The consequence for not getting your chores or school work done is, at worst, punishment, whereas actual productive work, the kind of thing we say when someone asks us adults what we do, is life or death stuff.

Years ago, I went through a phase where I consciously avoided mentioning my profession when someone asked, "What do you do? I would say, "I read books" or "I like to cook," and my fellow adults would almost always follow up by asking, "Are you retired?"

It seems so natural to define ourselves by our work that we forget that for most humans throughout most of our history, work, the process through which we acquire the necessities of life, held a relatively insignificant place in the scheme of things. Marshall Sahlins' highly influential 1968 essay "The Original Affluent Society" made the point that despite claims to the contrary, technological advancement does not liberate us from work. Indeed, the story of modern man is one of spending more and more of our waking hours working. What we today call hunter-gatherers spent, typically, no more than two to four hours a day acquiring material necessities. Even Medieval serfs worked fewer hours in a day than we do and had far more holidays. One could argue that nearly every technological, political, or social development over he course of the past several centuries has resulted in us consuming more of our life in order to acquire food, clothing, and shelter.

I'm a big fan of food, clothing, and shelter, but if that's what it's all about, if that's all I "do," then what's the point? This is why we envy children. Life, as we've created it, is increasingly all work and no play. This is also why we worry that our youth won't have the grit or maturity required of our all-work-all-the-time society. What if they are so entitled that they think they get to continue playing?

This is all, however, just a story we tell ourselves. As David Graeber and David Wengrow write in their book The Dawn of Everything: "By framing the stages of human development largely around the ways people went about acquiring food, men like Adam Smith . . . inevitably put work -- previously considered a somewhat plebeian concern -- centre stage. There was a simple reason for this. It allowed them to claim that their own societies were self-evidently superior, a claim that -- at the time -- would have been much harder to defend had they used any criterion other than productive labor."

This is the story of colonization. Everywhere Europeans went, they found people who placed art, community, relationships, and play at the center of their lives rather than work. Instead of learning from them, we labeled them as backwards and lazy and sought to correct these flaws. In many ways, this is exactly what we do today with childhood, colonizing it with our grim story about work. We tell them, meanly, that school is their job, that learning is a matter of toil, that they can only play when they have done their work. But as we all know, the work is never done. For most children, when we open the door to school, we close the window of play, allowing it to only re-open again decades later, at life's sunset, the only time when it is acceptable to do "nothing" with our lives.

"What do you do?" We tend to relegate the question to holiday barbecues, but really, isn't it the question for every day. Isn't this the question we should be asking ourselves as we awake each morning? What will I do? There are valid answers other than work. I see it every day at preschool.


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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Friday, May 26, 2023

"Okay, I'm Going To Drown The Baby"

A few years back, someone donated a box of swimming and waterpolo trophies and medals to the preschool. It's the sort of thing we treasure. For a time, they dominated our playground, finding their way into the every game or story. They were mostly plastic, but made to look like gold. The shiny medals with their fabric ribbons became both jewelry and coin-of-the-realm. The statues of fit young women in mid-stroke were especially popular: the children thought they looked like superheroes. 

Over time, the statues became separated from their bases and arms were snapped off. Some became lost in the depths of the sandpit. It's the story of loose parts on our playground: gradually dimming, dwindling, and wearing away. The bits and pieces of the trophies never regained their initial popularity, but they still surfaced in the children's games for several years. By now, they were largely a memory, although I'd recently spied the upper torso of a muscular male preparing to throw a ball. 

The children asked me for a story. On the playground this has a specific meaning. We start by gathering up a collection of loose parts, then convene in the sandpit row boat where we use them as props to tie together "Once upon and time . . .," "Meanwhile . . .," "It was about this time . . .," and "The end." I found myself holding this torso. I said, "And then along came . . .," then paused for the children to offer their ideas.

Someone shouted, "A baby!"

"Along came a baby . . ." and we continued our story featuring this baby. There is never only one story. The props often transform into new characters with each new story, but in this case the baby remained the baby, playing a part in a half dozen impromptu tales of friendship and adventure. One boy in particular took an interest in the baby, wanting to be responsible for it. At one point he asked me, "Is this metal?"

I replied off-handedly that I thought it was plastic, but he apparently wasn't convinced. As the story-making session began to wrap up, he asked me, "Can I have the baby?"


"Okay, I'm going to drown the baby."

"What did you say?" I was certain I'd misunderstood.

"I'm going to drown the baby."

Of course, it's not unheard of for children to incorporate death, even killing, in their games, but these words struck me as particularly brutal, especially as he delivered them in such a matter-of-fact, almost scientific manner. There was none of the "I'm being a bit naughty" delight that usually accompanies these games and I found myself, not worried, but certainly wondering. The boy ran off with a friend to "drown the baby."

I didn't know this boy very well, nor his family, so the comment wasn't as easy to dismiss as it might have otherwise been. There was nothing I'd learned about the boy so far that worried me, but drowning babies isn't an every day theme. If there was a baby at home to be a rival for mommy's attention, it might have made sense, but the boy was the youngest. Where had he picked up the idea of drowning babies? It doesn't turn up in children's stories or programming, but maybe he had access to more grown-up fare. The media can certainly plant upsetting ideas in the minds of children. Children often talk about all manner of things at preschool, but it was the sort of emotionless way he had said it -- "I'm going to drown the baby" -- that really struck me.

Presently, I became engaged in other matters and forgot about the boy until he rushed up to me, full of information. "I tried to drown the baby, but I couldn't do it!"

"Well, I'm happy about that," I replied, "I don't like the idea of drowning babies."

"Come look!"

I followed him to a bucket of water where the baby floated in the water. "See?" he said, "The rocks drowned, but the baby floated."

I said, still not getting it, "The baby is swimming."

He looked at me as if I was a special kind of idiot, "No, Teacher Tom, it's floating. That's because it's plastic. If it was metal it would have drowned."

As I stood there appreciating his moment of "Eureka!" I was happy I'd simply wondered, which is, most of the time, the proper stance of an educator. I'd been wrong in all my suppositions and musings. Anything I would have done or said would have been, at best, confusing, not to mention wildly off the mark. My inaction created the space for this perfect experiment designed by him to answer his question.

I said, "Plastic floats and metal sinks."

To which he replied, "That's what I said."


"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids
If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 

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Thursday, May 25, 2023

The Education Transformation We Need

In 1983, the Reagan administration released a report entitled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Its focus on the low standardized test scores of (some) American children compared to those of other nations combined with dire warnings that it would, if not urgently addressed, lead to our imminent economic demise, made it one of the few non-partisan issues in our ever more deeply divided nation.

This wasn't the first time that politicians blamed education for economic problems, of course. That goes back to the beginning of modern schooling when industrialized nations created mandatory assembly-line schools in the hopes manufacturing assembly-line workers to serve the Industrial Revolution. Since then, whenever policymakers have been confronted by their own failures, they've conveniently pointed their fingers at schools. What was new in this report, was the assertion that racial inequality and poverty could also be solved by schools.

So for the past 40 years or so, our entire political establishment has more or less agreed that our schools, which is to say teachers, parents, and children, are responsible for fixing racial and economic inequality as well as the economy as a whole. It's not an accident that every administration since Reagan has, in one way or another, called education reform "the civil rights issue of our time." This conveniently shifts the blame for their failure to address inequality onto our schools. When, predictably, inequality has gotten worse due to lack of political action, our policymakers predictably deflect the blame onto "incompetent teachers", "bad parents", and "lazy children".

Recession? Poverty? Racial inequality? Blame the schools, blame the teachers, blame the parents, blame the kids. And since it's impossible to educate our way out of these systemic problems, of course our schools fail, which leads to yet another round of top-down reform. 

It's a vicious and cruel cycle.

Do we need to reform education in our country? Absolutely. And the first step in that reform is to bust the myth that education is here to serve the economy. If the primary purpose of our schools is to train workers, which is what policymakers of all political stripes would have us believe, then perhaps we the people shouldn't be paying for it at all. If it's all about vocational training, then maybe it's time to let the corporations train their own damn workers.

So then why do we need schools? Well, frankly, we don't, but if we're going to be a self-governing, democratic society, one that values equality and justice for all, we need a population of critical thinkers. We need citizens who have the skills, habits, knowledge, and curiosity to think for themselves. We need citizens who listen to one another, who value fairness, who know it's not just their right, but also their responsibility to articulate their own nuanced thoughts and ideas, and who are capable of coming to agreements, of working with others, and who are self-motivated.

Can our schools do this? Not as they are currently conceived. We probably need transformation more than reformation. But when we think in terms of critical thinking instead of schooling or education, we find common ground across the political spectrum. 

I'm just one preschool teacher who spent his career in one school. I never once considered the economic prospects of the children in my care. All I ever concerned myself with was creating a community in which everyone was free to think for themselves. And because it was a community, these free thinkers would have to talk and listen to one another, to come to agreements, to figure out how to get their own needs met while, in fairness, also making it a place in which others could get their needs met. Because it was a community, if things were to get done, it wasn't on me or some other authority to do it, but rather the responsibility fell to these critical thinkers, working together.

This is the education transformation we need.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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