Gary Stager, an amazing individual in education, and someone who always tells it like it is, has an undying passion for education, and technology in education. But unlike the folks who see computers either as electronic typewriters or gadgets, Gary sees them as tools that can empower learning and inspire creativity and imagination. Whenever I have the opportunity, I love to hear Gary talk, because he is unendingly passionate about everything in his life. It’s often easy to assume he’s being hyperbolic, but he’s not- he knows what kids are capable of. And he knows that all of us could see their potential, if we merely took the time to listen and talk to them, rather than treating them as half-baked cakes, not ready for prime time yet.
Gary has studied and worked with Seymour Papert, the father of educational computing. Dr. Papert has had an amazing life, working with everyone from Piaget, to hanging out with Nelson Mandela, to starting the MIT Media Lab and developing the LOGO programming language. It was listening to Gary talk about Dr. Papert that really opened my eyes to how important technology is for kids to express their creativity and to communicate. He also made me dig deeper into my beliefs that we don’t listen to kids enough, and make all kinds of assumptions about them that are really quite insulting.
We are constantly underestimating the ability of our children. In the learning disabilities world, one of the best things you can do is sit down and talk, one on one, to a child about how they learn. The child has remarkable insights into their own learning and how they think, but we rarely take the time to truly listen to them and understand their point of view.
For example, when a child doesn’t do their homework, or is having problems in school, they often say something like “This is stupid.” As adults, we regularly blow this comment off and assume the kid just has a “bad attitude” rather than taking a moment to unpack that statement. It’s so much easier to get frustrated and walk away, than ask them why it’s stupid and to explain it to you. On deeper inspection, you often find that the kid is telling you either that they find aspects of what they’re being asked to do frustrating or incomprehensible, or that what is being asked is so rudimentary that it’s simply not worth their time and effort.
You’ll often find kids classified as gifted and talented running into problems in school because the homework is simply too brain-numbing and pointless, that they’d rather take the heat from the adults for not doing it than waste their time. Other kids, who may be struggling, may need you to really talk to them about the subject and what is confusing them or getting them hung up. Often, providing some context, some analogy that’s meaningful to them from other areas of their life, is all that’s needed to get over the “I don’t get it” problem.
We’re so busy putting kids in boxes and measuring every aspect of their performance, we forget that what we’re trying to teach them, or should I say, hope we’re teaching them, is creativity, problem solving, communication of ideas to others, experimentation, failure and success- all these lessons that are the ones they really need later in life. Asking kids to fill out another worksheet is not doing them a lot of good in the long run.
That said, even as parents, we underestimate our kids and don’t trust them as much as we should. Reggio Emilia, an educational approach from Italy that comes from a town with the same name, focuses on looking at a child as “a very competent protagonist and initiator, who interacts with their environment.” They “let” kids use real cups and saucers, china, plates; they treat kids as people, not small, unintelligent adults. Kids learn to use what’s in their environment and to do so competently over time, just like any other human being on the planet. When we first do something, we can be bad at it, but over time, we learn and adapt and change. Experience, based on trial and error, teaches us stuff. Amazing! The miracle of Reggio Emilia is that they trust kids and don’t infantilize them more by only letting them use plastic or sporks or remove everything sharp from the environment. They let kids learn how to do things, and don’t freak out when everything isn’t perfect the first time.
One of the big objections people have to kids having their own computers in school- ones they own and can take home and do whatever they want with- its that kids will either goof around and not use them for work only, or they will break them or lose them.
Things do get broken and lost. Adults break things and lose things, too. Kids and adults also don’t often lose the things that really matter to them, that they find important. As Dr. Papert said, “Kids don’t lose their bicycles,” implying why would we assume the first thing a kid would do with a new laptop would be to lose it or break it? Sometimes it happens, but less often than we all anticipate and expect. But instead of accepting that kids and adults are imperfect and bad things happen a small percentage of the time, we’d rather deny kids the opportunity to try. We blanket everyone with an assumption of irresponsibility, cavalier attitudes, and bad intentions, rather than leading with an assumption of trust and learning through experience.
Kids learn over time, but they’ll never learn if we don’t trust them with stuff. I’m an adult, and I still lose stuff, break stuff, and make mistakes. We’re human. But people don’t yell at me or crucify me nearly as much for these mistakes as would happen if I were a child. If I break a glass or lose something, I’ve learned I have to be responsible for the consequences. That means cleaning up the mess. That means replacing the lost or broken item. It means trying to be more careful or making two trips instead of one the next time. And what we need to teach our kids is to tolerate human-ness, to tolerate mistakes and error, and to learn to be responsible for the consequences of this as well. If you want a different result next time, what can we do to get closer to your preferred outcome? As an adult, our responsibility is to use our experience to help guide kids in making their own better choices, not to substitute our judgment for theirs entirely.
I’m guilty of seeing kids as being imperfect adults, and I know better. When I first saw the t-shirt for toddlers that says “I’m the reason we can’t have nice things,” I thought it was funny, knowing how kids can be. If you put on your Reggio Emilia glasses, however, this same cute shirt is actually horrifying. What it says is we’re willing to laugh at the natural mistakes kids make based on their inexperience, rather than take the time to help teach them, instruct them, and nurture them. We’d rather point out how adorable their naiveté and inexperience is, than try to give them more experience and trust them to handle what they can handle, constantly pushing their own boundaries, than set up all sorts of artificial hurdles for them to cross for our entertainment and amusement.
What we have in our schools and our parenting is probably too much artificial pressure on being instantly successful, and not enough on trial and error, getting better, making mistakes, and pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones. Kids have to be given a chance to try and to fail. But in the name of self-esteem, we set up circumstances where everyone can be successful to the detriment of true challenge and learn, and our own fear of failure and consequences for being less than perfect. It’s really crazy.
We have to give kids a chance to try. To be less than perfect, without facing disappointment, ridicule and shame. They have to be given a chance to make a mistake. We learn more from mistakes than we do success. We appreciate success so much more after a string of failures, because we can see our progress.
The thing I’m just learning, or realizing is that success is just another step along the road. It’s fleeting. Even Oscar-winning actors, at the peak of their game, say the acclaim lasts about a week, and then you go back to being the same person you always were, before the hoopla. Success, like failure, is often just another step along a road to finding bigger and more interesting problems, which is often why people have as much trouble with their wins as their losses. Winning feels good, but it doesn’t give you much opportunity to learn and figure out what to do better or different the next time. Success is kind of boring, really. The real growth, is in trying something just beyond our reach, and swinging for the fences. That’s where the risk is, but it’s also where the reward lies as well.
This is a longer piece than I intended, meant to say this: We need to trust kids more- in education, and in life. We have to talk to them, and LISTEN to them, and ask questions so we better understand them and they better understand us. Most of all, we have to give them room to experiment and learn, without so many artificial negative consequences. Let’s try to help kids learn the things that matter, and spend a little less time on going through the motions, making them run on a treadmill like a wheel in a mouse cage, exercising, perhaps, but never really getting anywhere.
Take a moment the next time you talk with a kid under the age of 18 or so. Listen when they talk, and ask questions. Be interested and curious in their lives. Ask for their perspective. Be a little less self-involved. You might be amazed at how they think, how they express themselves and what you can learn from each other. And let’s stop treating them as stupid, smaller adults, but instead, as works in progress, which we can help nurture and let them make new mistakes, avoiding some of ours along the way. They may still need to learn some of these lessons on their own, but that’s okay.
Even you and I aren’t perfect. Let’s let kids have a chance to be imperfect, too.