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Learning at its Best

We Must Look to Young Children

This week the Coöp asks, What must we do to transform schools into places of authentic, democratic learning?

I agree with what everyone has put forth this week. My addition

Look to Young children to be Catalysts of Change. We have been talking a lot about what we as teachers can do, but what about the children. The very act of empowering them to be at the table is a paradigm shift that could change the world. It is not a simple act, because often it is merely talked about and forgotten when the power is truly removed from the hands of the teacher or adult.  I read Paula’s students wiki last week, that spoke of the change her students were seeking in their school. Why not truly give students the opportunity to be change agents?

Soon enough it will not be change but invention!

Vygotsky believed that learning and development happens in social settings and by interacting with other people along with using the tools and wisdom of the society in which they live. I believe that school can be a place where student do not just learn to use the tools and wisdom of our current and past societies, but also be a filter, critique and revise the usefulness and merit of these ideas.

The great wonder of our current school system is the lost potential for real innovation and change. We have created a system that could be use to consistently rebuild our society to be at the cutting edge of thought and creativity, instead we spend a quarter of our lives learning how to run in place and call “foul” on anyone that chooses to disagree with the way things have been done. What if Schools worked like  non-profit business? Solving problems big and small, locally and globally? How would that shift the purpose of education?

We should harness the energy and passion of our new learners. We most looks to our young children to reinvent and construct new ways to think about our past , future and the current state of being. Schools should and can be a center for this type of work.

How can we truly give children a seat at the table? Can we give children the seat at the head of the table?


20 thoughts on “We Must Look to Young Children

  1. David, I want this to happen: “What if Schools worked like non-profit business?”

    I’m not at all experienced with early elementary school, apart from raising my own kids. How do you think kids should start whatever school becomes – formalized learning, maybe? – and when should they transition from play into joyful work more like the social entrepreneurship we would both like to see?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 21, 2010, 5:56 am
  2. David,

    First of all, this is an obvious “must-do,” yet still had potential to be cloaked as we are so accustomed to making plans for children.

    How do we temper children’s developmental needs for adults to be responsible for them, their authentic need to learn some basics, and empower them to have a voice in what happens to them? How do we still shoulder our responsibility and gradually let them assume theirs?

    David Sobel details the trauma that can happen if we turn the world’s problems onto children at too early an age. Instead of doing so, we need to create safe and joyous opportunities for them to be in the natural world and with their human community. Inevitably, the wounding of innocence occurs and children begin to form into adults, how do we recognize when it is appropriate to initiate children into adulthood?

    These are all the questions running through my mind, I don’t expect you to have all the answers.

    With hope,

    Posted by Adam Burk | May 21, 2010, 6:15 am
  3. (updated)
    Adam and Chad thanks for the questions. I think you both hit at the tension that has been my study this last year. I believe we need to be developmentally mindful, but not developmental fearful. Often we come from a place of fear, when working with children. We must remember to ask ourselves “is this for the children or is it for me?” Who’s fear is this?

    I say play until play is no longer the major driving force of the child or their learning…..most agree around 7. But hey what about changing the world is not fun. It an unmature Adult who looks at the world in black and white, happy or sad. Do we want to transfer these views to our Children, because it is often our view of the world that learn from? Like Adam, I don’t believe all adult send this message or pass this along to the children they work with. I think it is important to help children learn to believe that they can make the world what they want. Children often see the world in bright colors with their natural optimist…. One of favorite quotes this year….came for 12 year tedtalk of Adora Svitak…..” we kids still dream about perfection. And that’s a good thing because in order to make anything a reality, you have to dream about it first.”

    I just think we should dream about perfections and what can we make if we shift our energy?

    How do you feel Adam? What about my comment made you feel that I was saying children need to be brought to adulthood early? Are adults the only ones that can change the world? Are the joys and problems of our adulthood our problems?…..

    Posted by dloitz | May 21, 2010, 10:15 am
    • David,

      I like the template for following natural trends in human development to map education onto. What made me think about children being burdened with adult problems was, “What if Schools worked like non-profit business? Solving problems big and small, locally and globally? How would that shift the purpose of education?” I was thinking about elementary schools and how far one could take this idea.

      I agree that we must dream our perfections, but we must also learn how to bring forth those ideals–peace, justice, democracy, universal human rights, sustainability, etc. This is the cultural reform I have my head stuck in lately. We have to transform our current systems so that they are aligned with these perfections or ideals of human communities. We can’t just wish for them and go along with habits that create the world we know today. (And I am not saying that you are doing that, I am just speaking rhetorically.)

      I do caution about generalizations such as “Adult look at the world in black and white, happy or sad. Children learn these skills from adults, because we teach them about how “sad and not fun” life is.” Not all adults do that, in fact I would say that it is an immature tendency to see black and white, with a tendency towards pessimism, or a lack of ability to find the lesson, the gold nugget, in any given situation. Now it is true that many adults do possess this immature tendency and are thus unable to help paint the world with the vibrant palette of color you describe.

      I don’t think adults are the only ones that can change the world, I think it is an intergenerational affair and each developmental group (adulthood is made of many stages too), has it gifts and liabilities to offer to the task at hand.

      Your point “Often we come from a place of fear, when working with children. We must remember to ask ourselves “is this for the children or is it for me?” Who’s fear is this?” is most appropriate and deserves to be part of our contemplative experience.

      Thanks for the vibrant discussion David, I am enjoying it!

      Posted by Adam Burk | May 21, 2010, 2:54 pm
  4. Here are some links of examples of children….say the heck with it, if your not going to change the world then I will.

    from Kirsten’s comment….

    “My 19-year-old son, who has turned our entire household into vegans, is going to study sustainable urban agriculture at McGill next year. His anarchic, activist vision, which is that we must in small, coherent communities remake our way of living on this planet, gives me hope about being transformed by a new group of revolutionaries.”

    Posted by dloitz | May 21, 2010, 10:19 am
  5. David, Fabulous! I love these.

    I couldn’t agree with this post more. I am just about to go over to Fenway High School to work with the Humanities Team, and I will go early just to hang out and talk with students. The best thing about being in school is talking with kids, especially about school. They know the game so well, and are the clearest thinkers about what’s wrong with the game–and how to change it.

    It would be great to get a couple of students into the mix here at Coop. Does anyone have a couple of students who might want to write here sometimes? (My own 4 children often joke that they have been involved in the longest running educational seminar in the Northeast.)

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 21, 2010, 12:18 pm
  6. David this is a great point and question, “Children are not born with the idea that world is full of bitterness and hate….they are natural optimist and I just wonder how we unlearn or forget our optimist as we get older. It is learned? I am not sure?”

    I think there are multiple factors involved–nature, nurture, and chance. Some people are genetically pre-disposed to having dark outlooks, this could be depression or other conditions. Some people grow up in cultures beginning with their families where the general perspective is bitterness, hate, or despondence. In these situations, I think that a child’s natural optimism and joy is eroded away by the caustic tendencies of those around her, and in time she may adopt those habits as well. Lastly, there are children who have neither of these “pre-existing conditions” but rather have life experiences that either are traumatic or sorely disappointing, perhaps one experience or many. That is the first stroke of the luck, the second would be that they lack a caring person who has sufficient insight to help them make sense of these experiences. So instead of being able to find the light in the darkness, the darkness remains.

    That’s my two cents, what do you think?


    Posted by Adam Burk | May 22, 2010, 8:58 am
  7. Talking about children’s voice and ideas, Deborah Meirer says “their self-confident voices are a reminder of what children are like- at least sometimes, under some circumstances. It’s critical to keep these voices, in all their variants, always in our heads as we think about what could be for all children under all circumstances.”

    and to Adam point I would like add this additional quote from Deborah Meirer, “Human beings are by nature generators of ideas, what I didn’t understand was how it was that some children recognized the power of their ideas while others became alienated from their own genius. How did schools, in small and unconscious ways, silence these persistent playground intellectuals? Could schools, if organized differently, keep this nascent power alive, extend it, and thus make a difference in what we grow up to be?”

    I am guessing you have read her book, The Power of Their Ideas…..I am picking it up for the first time today. The semester so now I can get back to reading…. 🙂

    anyway she goes on to basically articulate what I was trying to get at….which is the children have ideas and are capable of creating the change that we need…. and we need to remember to look to them, and not just ourselves as adults or teacher to create that change.

    I will add more as I continue to read. Books find me right when I need them…. i have had this book for over a year, but just opening it for the first time….

    I am excited.

    Thanks adam!

    Posted by dloitz | May 22, 2010, 9:39 pm
  8. I think it all comes down to acceptance. While most of us mean well, we are all hooked on the model of what “should be” , and ofcourse that which “should be” can change in a heartbeat, according to where, when, and who. The “should be” also comes with a worth tag attached to it, some activities and talents are worthier than others, so all strive for those, since not all will thrive in that model, we then have the outcasts….and a whole slew of other problems arise that truncate the growth of “success” or the joy of the path to it.

    When we start out with what “is” and work with how that could be turned into the best it could be, then success is eminent. I believe we are all dna or somehow hardwired at a starting point, and we have innate stregnths and weaknesses and likes and dislikes…one only has to look at a nursery in a hospital to see the differences in personalities already come through, as well as likes and dislikes, later with the experiences we have in life and the knowledge and wisdom we acquire, it is that we become who we are within our community. If we understood that none of these children/students need to be “fixed” but only “enhanced” , then learning would be a natural and joyful thing. Firstly we would not be trying to band a square peg into a round hole, and secondly by not trying to do that ,we would not giving the message that a certain shape is better than another and that is the key to joy and happiness and thus success at all we do.
    I am not saying that we should not expose children to all kinds of knowledge and that they somethimes have to do what they have to do in order to achieve goals, I am saying that we must view our world as a large machine full of intermeshed gears working together. I had a great teacher who taught us this in an activity where one person would make believe they were a moving part of a machine, and then we each had to find a way to connect to that machine, until the whole class was connected and moving as a part of a whole machine. I didn’t understand this back then, but now I see the genious of that teacher in showing us how we each have a place and function within the machine. The key of joy is not only doing what we like or what we are good at, but accepting that task that we are doing and having joy and trying to be good at it. We will not be able to do everything we like, but we have to like everything we do, its not about knowing that you can succeed its believing in what you are doing. So I believe wheter its acceptance of our talents and limitations, and the talents and limitations of others, as well as acceptance of what we have to do, or acceptance of the time we have to wait for achieving a goal, or the heartache we need to go through, or whatever, will be the key to learning, thus knowledge, thus wisdom, thus the end result of what we are trying to achieve. Wholesome, well rounded students that can be financially independent and socially interactive.

    Posted by norma | May 25, 2010, 8:53 am
    • Norma, I appreciate so very much your work with us here – thank you.

      I want to challenge you a little bit on the notion of finding joy in the task at hand. Is that too much of a license for teachers to expect students to be joyful about irrelevant work? Where is the intersection of relevance and joy? Of choice and fulfillment? When do we exercise choice in questioning a task instead of accepting it?

      I love your story of the human machine – what a fantastic way to illustrate our individual roles within a system of healthy interdependence.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 25, 2010, 11:03 pm
      • I believe students will never be joyful about irrelevant work and should not have to do it.I do believe however that we all see “relevance” in a different way, so what is relevant to some is not relevant to others. Except for the times that a teacher gives busy work to do something else or because they don’t feel up to teaching, or when some in education decision making have hidden political or financial agendas, I am hoping most of the time they do things to make relevant all they are making the students do. It is our job of questioning and brainstorming a task, , but even in a true democracy, our points will not alwaysprevail, or even be the best, and then the choice is to do it or not to do it, and if you choose to accept and do it then you must find the relevance or make it worthwhile . It could be to understand the ridiculous relevance of others, or to use it as time to daydream as Einstein did when he had some of his brainstorms thanks to some of the tedious repetitive tasks…or whatever…how you grow from any and all situationsis up to us …
        I am an ADD student (as you may have noticed by my impulsive ramblings) and luckily I was in a gifted program where I had freedom and choice and most importantly the underlying notion that I could do through freedom and choice….and it is this that I am trying to achieve for all students, since they are all gifted,( just not all gifted at the same things.).. and I do it in through my actions for all thowe i can reach, but in the meantime, greater or large scale change is slow, especially since those in ” authority” can feel weak or vulnerable when they open to brainstorming or change of course or accepting different democratic ways, so they dig their heels…and as teachers or as students we are faced with tasks that in our opinion are not relevant, much less joyful, but accept we must sometimes.”no rain, no rainbow” “we need courage to change the things we believe we must change, stregnth to accept those we can’t change and the wisdom to understand the difference”

        Posted by norma | May 26, 2010, 8:11 am
      • Through this acceptance idea I am not saying we should not work for change, or be change, always, or at least in change mode… we should not accept things because they are, especially when they are clearly not working or thriving… When I started talking about acceptance I meant more for the acceptance of teachers and the education standard wizards towards students ideas and differences and potentials more than for acceptance of mindless authority, but I guess it has to work both ways in a democracy…the key is to make our ideas of how freedom and choice is the way to excellence in tasks and outcome and not mindless irrelevant authority training and when we succeed , the latter will be obsolete.

        Posted by norma | May 26, 2010, 8:36 am
      • Those questions get at the very heart of Buddhism. I can’t be too sure, as my Buddhist studies are not advanced, and I’m going to have a difficult time trying to explain it, so you’ll have to go with me. But the real idea is that if you are able to find happiness and acceptance in everything you do, the question of accepting it or not is no longer important.

        One of the cores of Buddhism is about living in the moment. If you are able to focus on the present moment, you don’t have to worry about the past or the future so the idea of something becoming irrelevant is, in fact, irrelevant. If you are always living in the current moment, you can always reach happiness.

        There’s an idea I really about a man who said that he felt like he never had time for himself, but was always busy with something. It wasn’t until he started to wash the dishes just the wash the dishes that he realized that everything he did was his time and was able to find more happiness.

        I think it’s easy to see all this as a way to not bring about change or let things that are traditionally considered bad continue, but it’s really more about a radical change in thinking.

        I’m not doing the idea justice with this explanation.

        Posted by aliciarice | June 5, 2011, 7:30 am
  9. I forgot to tie in the fact that the optimist view is squashed at very early ages when we convince the kids that they have to , or should do this or that, that success is measured in a certain way, that “this is important” , while kids know the basics of what is important since the day they are born, as “food, sleep, bodily functions, love, laughter, and learning” we somehow put it into their minds that what we tell them is important, that if they don’t do it this way they will be punished or at least not be rewarded… that those basics can be given up in the name of “success” what we don’t tell them is that what is important or what is right is measured by how your actions help you feel ,or can undermine you, how affecting others or how the outcome of it all affecting others is essential because conneciton is essential… I believe that is where the negativity sets in from the natural optimism that “life is good” as a baby because hopefully they have the basics met to then being told that those “basics” are unimportant in the name of “success” and that nobody cares about how you feel, or your basics are met, , they live in a constant state of want and thus have an even harder time on the road to “success”…(which is just a judgment based on your values). For some, the basics are not met even as infants and thus the negativity and aggression sets in at early stages, then they become judged in school as “bad” and the downward spiral begins and can be a pipeline to jail, or drugs or other ordeals unless hope sets in through mentors, or a fortunate change of circumstance

    Posted by norma | May 25, 2010, 9:32 am
  10. or raher a fortunate change of how you look at and accept your circumstance…

    Posted by norma | May 25, 2010, 9:38 am
  11. i know for a fact my best research has come from listening to kids… if we truly listened more.. wow.
    that’s why i believe… if we let them take on the world’s problems during school hours… well – we’d live in a different climate for sure…

    nice post David… and i would add to your words here:

    instead we spend a quarter of our lives learning how to run in place and call “foul” on anyone that chooses to disagree with the way things have been done.

    —-that we spend at least another quarter of our lives unlearning how to run in place..

    Posted by monika hardy | June 2, 2010, 6:43 pm
  12. This reminds me of a guided meditation session I was able to do at a Thich Nhat Hanh retreat.

    They told us to picture ourselves as a 5-year-old and we are crying. They told us to sit with our crying, young self and remember what it felt like. And then, they told us to remind our 5-year-old self that we are no longer young and powerless. They said that as a child, we felt powerless to all the world and our problems, but we are no longer that child and no longer need to hold on to that sadness.

    For them, it was an exercise in accepting that our childhood is the source of most of our suffering in adulthood. Their belief is that as children we are only able to accept and therefore experience pain that will be with us our whole lives. I tend to agree, as the second they told us to picture yourself as a child I burst into tears.

    I think there’s a growing trend to get children involved in the creation of classroom rules and punishments. But, what happens if the rules and punishment the children make have the potential to be detrimental? I know when teaching 1st graders in Thailand, whenever a student misbehaved, I’d have students run up to me and tell me that they broke the rule and should be hit.

    I wonder sometimes about the level of power that should be given to students in terms of their education. I almost think that if you’re going to go with a system where you give students a large amount of control, you really have to let them run with it. As an educator, you would have to step back and let students do things that you disagree with because otherwise you’re only given them the false sense of power and decision-making. “I’m going to let you decide what you want to learn about, but if you don’t decide on your own that you want to learn about what I want you to learn about, then you can’t.”

    This kind of free education has found success with Sudbury and similar schools, but could this kind of education be done on a wide scale? Well, I think it can and has happened in countries around the world for ages, so I suppose the real question is could this kind of education be done in the “modern” United States?

    Posted by Alicia Rice | June 5, 2011, 6:57 am
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    Posted by strawberry festival | March 3, 2012, 6:42 pm

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