If You Let Them, They Will Build
I recently read an article about childhood and play and the increasingly all pervasive place of school in the lives of children. School work which runs all day, followed by extra-curricular activities such as sports, followed by hours of homework, does not leave a lot of time for playing. The author of the article argues for a central importance of play, unstructured and unsupervised, in the lives of children.
Sometimes it is hard for me to get into the mindset of school. When I was a kid I was homeschooled. All of us siblings were. We did more actual work and got better grades and test scores than our public school peers, but we spent less time at it. I remember looking up at the school buses going down the road in the morning while I was eating breakfast or doing barn chores, not having even started school for the day. I remember looking up again in mid to late afternoon while I was working on hobbies, or reading a book, or playing with legos, or running wild with my brothers, having been done with school for hours. School was self initiated, self-directed. The lesson plans were given to us at the beginning of the week, and as long as we turned in the required assignments and got passing grades, we were free to decide when we did what, how quickly we did it, in what order we did it. We could knuckle down and get to it, or we could dawdle. It was completely up to us. My siblings and I frequently worked an extra hour on Thursday to do all of Friday’s work, so that we would have Friday completely off to play all day, or go on a field trip or whatever else took our fancy.
This kind of personal control over our time, and the amount of free time we had are, in many ways, an ideal only feasible in a small group setting. (Or is it? Why would I assume that? Has anything different been tried?) My family’s particular small group model was far from perfect, despite that amazing privilege, but that freedom was foundational to who we became. I think it is safe to say, and I doubt my parents would gainsay it, that the vast majority of our learning took place in the out of school hours. This does not mean that school hours are not useful, or that 12 years of unstructured play is the ideal educational model. Rather it seems to indicate a model of formal education that I am becoming increasingly enamored of.
Formal education is a foundation. It provides training in skills of the mind, through reading, writing, arithmetic, and the sciences and arts, which shape how the children think. Good training will yield better thinking than poor training. It will be more logical, more nuanced, more systematic, more communicable. However, the educator is really only laying a foundation. The real education is the building that is built on top of that foundation. To grasp the relative importance of the two, and to settle any silly debates about which is more important, simply look at any building you please and ask which is more important, the foundation or the building which is build upon it. A good formal education, like a good foundation, is largely a hidden thing. No one walks around spouting multiplication tables and spelling “prestidigitation” and balancing chemical equations, anymore than people live on cement pads in the open air. It is in the building that the real business of life happens, and it is in the active life of the mind that real learning happens. On the opposite side of the coin, no house weathers the exigencies of life without a solid foundation, and no mind can long survive the airy heights of unfounded creativity.
The practice in reading, diagramming sentences, writing essays on fungi and field mice and Ferdinand of Spain; mutilating multitudinous math problems; and learning about levers and and lemmings and chemicals that exploded when mixed with water; all of these were slowly shaping my mind into the sort of mind which could analyze, recognize, organize and philosophize. However, the real education came from the use I made of those abilities in my free time.
When children are little, in preschool, kindergarten, maybe first or second grade, they are full of dreams and schemes and big ideas. They want to build skyscrapers and castles in the clouds. By the time they reach middle school, a lot of them lose that imaginative spark. Instead of asking questions like, “Why does that work like that? Where do these chemicals come from? What makes gravity work? Why would Hitler do that? Didn’t he know better?” they start asking questions like, “Is this going to be on the test? How many paragraphs do I have to write?” We start out by training kids to achieve a standard, usually one set by the lowest common denominator, and they follow by sinking to the level of the standard we expect of them. I am hypothesizing that this is because education has tried to go into the business of building buildings instead of merely pouring concrete for foundations. We have codified and quantified, metered and measured every possible dimension of what we term success, broken it down into its component parts, and tried to fit children into that model of what we think they should look like when they are done. It is a natural temptation for any educator, trainer, teacher or mentor, but kids quite rightly resent being built. Eventually they want to build themselves, even if they cannot articulate it, and it is meet and just that it should be so.
It is not the responsibility of adults, parents or teachers to see that children “make something of themselves,” that is their responsibility, and I think we needn’t worry too much about it. As I said, little children are natural born builders, (once they get past the natural born destroyer phase, which takes longer for some than for others.) Young children build castles on clouds and to them nothing is impossible. The ideal education is one which preserves into adulthood that imaginative spark, that impulse to build something beautiful and interesting and useful and just plain cool, coupled with a mature, level-headed knowledge of ways and means and a foundation upon which to build their castle. Such young people will build themselves, and it will not be after the image that their elders would have chosen for them. It will be more nearly after the image they were created to show.