The Rest Is Up To The Kids

I get a lot of credit for things I didn't do. Grateful parents are forever thanking me for "teaching" their children things that they would have learned with or without me, or our preschool, or any school at all for that matter. I accept the thanks or reflect it back to them, crediting them as "great parents," but the truth is that most of what their children have learned they would have learned with nothing more or less than a community, our love, and the freedom to pursue their own interests.

Children hate school because they love freedom. ~Peter Gray

One of the things I get the most credit for is helping their children learn to "love learning," another compliment that I can only accept with a certain amount of guilt because all humans are born with that love for learning. Indeed, that's what play is: the instinct to educate oneself made manifest. Play is what children do to make sense of their world. In everything they freely do, we see children asking and answering their own questions, educating themselves. I often think that my real accomplishment is that children spend three years attending the Woodland Park Cooperative School without learning to hate school, which is something about which I have mixed feelings, because I can't help but think it's a bit of a set up: as long as they go on to attend normal schools, the "hate" is coming, because the freedom to pursue their own interests is going to be slowly throttled. I make myself feel better by convincing myself that we are fattening them up in order to better survive the famines ahead.

Oh sure, they may still, on balance, enjoy school, and there will be parts they enjoy very much, but from where I sit that's more a testament to the resiliency of children than anything else. One of the happiest parts of being a teacher is seeing my former students all grown up; one of the saddest parts is when they tell me they're excited for a long weekend because they "don't have to go to school." When they attended Woodland Park they cried when they learned that school was closed over the holidays. So while hate may be too strong a word, they all certainly come to have mixed feelings, and for some it grows into the idea that they hate learning altogether.

Some will assert that this is the natural order of things, that they must learn to take the good with the bad, to endure, to have "grit," to persevere through their hate. Indeed, there are those who believe that our kind of school does children a disservice by not doing more to get the children "school ready," which seems to mean teaching them to hate school at least a little bit before they get to kindergarten where the hate is inevitable. I will not do that to children. If they must come to hate learning, even a little, I'll leave that to the fun-stealers in their future.

Learning can only happen when a child is interested. If he is not interested, it's like throwing marshmallows at his head and calling it eating. ~Katrina Gutleben

Some will assert that the fault lies with the teachers, that they aren't being creative enough, that they haven't employed all the tricks to "make learning fun," that if we would just "gamify" it or something, then the kids would be happy learners. The problem with this is that children are already happy learners, they were born that way, but they were also born to learn through their own interests, not the compulsion of others. Forcing children to "learn" things that hold no interest is like forcing a person to eat when they aren't hungry or to sleep when they aren't tired: you can do it, but it will always be a battle for everyone involved.

If children started school at six months old and their teachers gave them walking lessons, within a single generation people would come to believe that humans couldn't learn to walk without going to school. ~Geoff Graham

And therein lies the crux of the problem: normal schools attempt to replace a child's natural interests with a curriculum full of crap that kids couldn't care less about. On top of that is the hubris that these children will learn nothing without adults standing over them "teaching" every step of the way. If children started school at six months, teachers like me would even be congratulated for their learning to talk and walk. This is what has happened with so many of the things we try to "teach" in normal schools, like reading and basic math. Humans taught themselves to learn these useful, necessary things for hundreds and thousands of years, at their own pace, through their own interests, before they were made compulsory through schooling. (For those who doubt this, literacy rates in America were higher 250 years ago than they are today, well before widespread compulsory schooling.)

Sometimes a parent will thank me for something for which I really do feel responsible. They will thank me for helping to create the Woodland Park "community," a place in which their child has thrived. I accept those compliments without an ounce of doubt because, after all, that is the main role of adults when it comes to the education of children: to create a real community full of connection, cooperation, and love. When we do that, we do all we must. Everything else is up to the kids.


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"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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