A friend recently told me about her child's inspiring kindergarten teacher, a brilliant woman who had spent most of her life with five-year olds. For a while, she moved up to first grade teaching but, she said, first graders already knew what they couldn't do. "No kindergarten child says 'I can't draw' or "I can't sing.' They think they can do anything. By first grade they already know what they are good and poor at, what they can and what they cannot do." Think about that. Age 6 and you already have a personal score card.
Another friend stopped by a few months ago with her very rumbunctious two-and-a-half year-old. HASTAC's offices are in Smith Warehouse, a beautiful and ecologically-sound refurbising of an old tobacco warehouse (like a lot of Durham) into an interdisciplinary center of centers. Outside my office is a very long carpeted corridor, with lots of dips and waves, as safe a "roller coaster" for a toddler as you're likely to find anywhere. The child saw an amazing opportunity and was zipping all over (this happens a lot: it's a small child's fantasy of freedom, I think!) as my friend kept telling him don't do this, don't do that, don't go over there, no you can't climb on that couch. When it came time to leave, the child threw himself on the floor and started shouting "No! No! I don't want to go. I won't go." She said, "I hate the Terrible Twos. I'm so sick of 'no no no' all the time." I knew I should bite my tongue but I couldn't resist pointing out that the child had just perfectly mirrored all the negatives she'd been throwing at him for the last hour. If he had mastered 'no,' he had learned its power from a maestro.
What if we stopped teaching kids what they cannot do? I know that's not practical, that part of nurturing is limits, but other cultures shape by merit and reward rather than punishment and opposition. These are not fixed categories in child nurturance, and not all cultures have "Terrible Twos." Think about it. Before a child walks, all we do is coax her forward, encouraging, you can do it, come on, you can, you can. And then suddenly the child gets her sturdy legs and starts to walk and everyone claps and cheers and is all smiles . . . and then she starts to run and it's "be careful, don't go there, stop, don't go so fast, don't don't don't . . " Talk about a moment of cognitive or even existential despair? This vertical world is all about limits, a two year old must be thinking. To be an adult, to be big, is to have the power to tell others what they can and cannot do. Talk about a toddler paradigm shift!
And, sadly, much of our formal education is about standardizing exactly that shift, in teaching that kindergarten child who believes she can do absolutely anything that, no, she's a poor reader, or bad in math, or a poor speller, or a poor artist or has no musical talent (as my husband was once told when he was a child: he got his revenge when he went on to be a DJ with the most amazing musical knowledge I've encountered and now an editor who publishes a lot of wonderful books about sound and music). I once heard a six year old say of her sullen older brother, "he's not meeting expectations," a hilarious and tragic appropriation of Adult Speak. No. No. No. No.
Do I think we should automatically say everything a child does is grand and wonderful? Not at all. Kids see through false praise pretty quickly. Rather, instead of defeating them either with false praise or with rigid critique, I would rather set them challenges they can meet, and then, when they do, set them greater ones. Where the bar starts is not the issue. The issue is allowing kids the confidence to see they can get over the bar all on their own . . . even in those things that, by conventional standards, they are not "good" at. Learning is partly about passing the test. It's also about having the confidence to learn, to work at, to master, and to succeed against odds. In anything. At any time. At any age.
Expertise--think graduate or professional school--is like one very loud voice that we have created to certify excellence. It's a bulwark against "no." If you have the certificates or the badge (think Oz and the awards given to a Tin Man, a Lion, and a Scarecrow), no one can tell you that you lack a heart, courage, or a brain. Of course, the lesson wonderful Dorothy imparts is that her three pals had those things all along. They didn't really need the movieland equivalent of the diplomas. But how do we get to that place, of knowing we have gifts that we've been told we lack? How do we understand our gifts without the certificate, the diploma? That's the challenge.
And inspiring, gifted, visionary teachers know that power of the challenge-driven yes. Would that we all did. Would that we could find a way to teach that didn't depend on telling one another what we cannot do but modelled all the ways of inspiring one another to do more than we ever thought we could.
NOTE: BOOK LAUNCH: AUGUST 18, 2011
Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011). below. For an early, prepublication review of Now You See It in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, click here.
A starred review in the May 30 Publisher's Weekly notes: "Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come." PW named it one of the "top 10 science books" of the Fall 2011 season.