Lines less traveled

If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to check out Logan Laplante’s TEDx talk about how he’s taken charge of his education, organizing his life around a commitment to being happy, healthy, and fostering creativity.

There’s just one small thing I wish Logan had taken a step further. He says that to follow a traditional educational trajectory is like skiing one well-worn line down a mountain, while designing a program for yourself is like heading off into the powder to blaze your own trail.  I’m with him up to the part where he says that the shared line is probably safer.  In the snow it may be, but when you’re building a life, I’m not so sure.

I think it may once have been, but it’s getting less and less safe to traverse the common route.  The competition is so great for the handful of spots there are to fill along the way (in the “best” colleges, “best” graduate schools, the “best” jobs) that it’s no longer a fail-safe way to build a life.  We just keep saying it is because the powder makes us nervous.  The powder’s unknown.  We’d rather take our chances on the thing that will almost certainly work out for some people, even if it’s only a very, very small percentage, than head off into the powder where everyone probably has an approximately equal chance of making it, because there are so many more routes possible and winning spots doesn’t matter so much, if it matters at all.

We’re not safer on the route we know.  We’re just more comfortable there.

I’m so grateful to Logan for the framework he offers, simply and frankly, in this talk. Logan lives in the kind of world I think we could build for everyone, where vitality is of the utmost value and importance and can, in fact, be the best possible guide.


I opened my computer’s browser and saw this video caption: “It looks like this guy is just lugging around a 100 pound tire, but he’s about to do something pretty cool with it.” It turns out, as you can see from the video, that he’s going to use it as a hula-hoop.  If you’ve ever tried to hula-hoop, or lift a tractor tire, you can imagine that this feat would require a great deal of strength, coordination, practice, and patience to achieve.

It also looks very, very awkward at the outset, and like an odd choice of ways to waste time.

Kids are often doing things that look the way this looked – like a guy just lugging around a 100 pound tire.  They spend inordinate quantities of time and attention on things that appear to be nothing.  They run around and around and around things.  They pick things up and move them to other places.  (Or just put them back down.) They draw the same thing over and over.  They ask the same question again and again.  They stack things on top of each other and then knock them over.  It can seem pointless and unsophisticated. But if we’re paying attention in a particular kind of way, if we’re curious about what they’re up to, we often find out later that something else, something complicated or subtle or graceful, was in the works.  If we give kids room to do the things they’re doing that seem unproductive, that seem superfluous, that keep them from what we wish they were doing, we may facilitate accomplishment and contribution we can’t predict.

Anne Lamott wrote of her infant grandson: “Einstein would probably say that [my grandson] is already every age he will ever be, but in such super-slow motion relative to our limited perspective that we can’t see the full spiral of him yet…”

We forget, in our eagerness to make sure kids get by, that our perspective is limited.  We forget that we don’t know everything there is to know about how and where a new person will fit, what potential he or she possesses and is beginning to explore and develop, and how that potential might get expressed in his or her interaction with the rest of the world.  When we give ourselves room to be curious in our uncertainty, rather than just frightened into rigidity, we make it possible for the full spiral of each new person to be realized.


I was on my bicycle the other morning and passed a row of parked cars in front of a restaurant.  One of these cars got my attention because, I eventually figured out, it had resting on its roof rack a small row boat with a pair of deflated pontoons slung over either side.  Fortunately, I figured this out before my puzzled gaze caused me to veer off course.  But for a few moments, I couldn’t quite understand what I was looking at.  Had a giant duffle bag full of wood dropped from the sky and landed on this vehicle?

In the course of any given day, we know what we’re seeing, most of the time.  Or at least we think we know.  Much of the time we see what we’ve already decided to see, or what we’re looking for.  The things that stand out are the ones we scan for.  I was in a workshop recently in which the leader asked us to say to ourselves “yellow, yellow, yellow” as we looked around the room and notice which objects stood out.  And then, “blue, blue, blue.”  If she’d have just told us that we “see what we’re looking for,” I’d have nodded in solemn agreement.  But to watch my mind pull the colors out away from everything else in view; this got my attention in a different way.

One thing we have grown very adept at looking for and seeing is disorder and disability in children.  We look at kids and see all sorts of problems – things that make them less easily compatible with existing expectations.  We name the problems and categorize them, create new interventions intended to eliminate them, build entire institutions around them.  For better or worse.

We’re less skilled at seeing the affinities and strengths that make kids unique and capable.  The problems are so shiny to us, so alluring with their fancy names and their carefully mapped-out recommended responses, that it’s difficult to see the other colors.  And to see what those other colors may lead to or turn into if we pay as much attention to them as we pay to the problems.

On my bike that day, approaching the odd-looking boat flopped over and configured in a way boats usually aren’t, I had to ask myself, with some impatience and force, “What am I looking at?  What the heck is that?  What am I not seeing that’s right in front of me?”  Since then, I’ve been trying to remember to ask similar questions of myself when I’m sitting across from a child.

Because there are the things I already know, the things that are easy to look for and notice, and then there’s everything else.  And the everything else – the things that don’t match up or seem to fit and insist we reach deeper into our ability to imagine and conceive of newness and alternative – is often where the richest, most promising parts of us live.

Their own devices

It’s tough to use this phrase without getting derailed by the obvious pun or irony available given the various portable game consoles, MP3 players, and smartphones that populate many a modern child’s existence.  But I still often find it asking for my attention when I see young people at work on whatever is truly their own; when they’re left to what are actually their own devices –the mechanisms that operate in their minds and internal worlds, made visible in what they create and share with their speaking, drawing, singing, building, imagining, and other art and craft.

Yesterday I saw a series of drawings penned by a nine year-old I know.  One of what I would call this child’s own devices is a knack for telling terrifically dramatic and often ironic stories on paper, with spare line drawings and few words.  At first my eye was tempted to wince at the size and shape of her lettering.  And it would be easy to mistake what she’d drawn and written for an unsophisticated product for someone her age.  It would be easy to worry that she’s behind.

But the plots of these stories, the behavior of the characters, and the choice of words in the dialogue betray their author and illustrator’s wisdom and knowledge.  More than once as I was looking over the body of work I heard myself saying “I’ve never seen that done before.”

Kids’ own devices are often of this nature – a surprising and subtle confluence of the distinct neurological wiring they arrive with and the things they’ve seen and heard along the way that shape and inspire them.  When we’re distracted by how well they are or aren’t forming their letters or whether or not they can remember, quickly, the difference between 17 and nine, we can miss their best stuff.

Which is a shame, because it’s much easier to practice your letters once you find reason to do so, or devise a strategy for managing calculation, than it is to reclaim an authentically original and unique way of responding to the world after it’s been pushed aside or snuffed out all together.

Getting tough

I watched a talk this morning by an economist named Tyler Cowen about the impact of stories.  Every time you tell yourself this kind of  story (good guys/bad guys good neighbor/inconsiderate neighbor, good teacher/bad teacher etc.), Cowen says, you’re lowering your own IQ.  He’s taking liberties, of course but his point is well taken nonetheless.  Stories of good/evil right/wrong disregard the vast complexity of, well, everything.  And they leave us with little more than the comfort of believing we’re right or that we’re in the right camp.  Forgoing this kind of dichotomy means digging deep, looking farther into things than we generally go to the trouble to look.

In Cowen’s talk about stories he mentions the common story structure of “getting tough.” When we’re faced with what feels like an untenable problem, we often resort to getting tough. This is a popular one, he says:

“We [tell ourselves we] have to get tough with the banks. We had to get tough with the labor unions.   We need to get tough with: some other country, some foreign dictator, someone we’re negotiating with.  Now again the point is not against getting tough.  Sometimes we should get tough.  That we got tough with the Nazis was a good thing. But again this is a story we fall back upon all too readily all too quickly when we don’t really know why something happened we blame someone and we say ‘We need to get tough with them.’  As if it had never occurred to [a] predecessor, this idea of getting tough.  I view it usually as a kind of mental laziness, a simple story we tell: we needed to get tough, we need to get tough, we will have to get tough.”

He didn’t mention one of the greatest domestic examples of the getting tough story.  In the realm of education, we almost always resort to getting tough, on one thing or one party or another.  We get tough on teachers, we get tough on school systems, we get tough on budgets, we get tough on everything that has anything to do with the education of children. Because, I think, we can’t figure out what else to do.  And getting tough feels noble.  It feels consistent with the work ethic of our culture.  It hollers “Look how committed we are!  We’re so tough on this!  That proves how much we care about it!  We never give up!  We get tougher and tougher!”

And of course what happens is that all that getting tough trickles down to kids, who for the most part are doing what kids do automatically, which is learn, learn, learn, explore, explore, explore (though it sometimes looks like testing or pushing).  And then when it doesn’t work, when kids still don’t learn what we think they should when we think they should, we get tough directly on them. We take things away, we limit, we lay down the law.

What if we dug deeper?  What if we were to take the case that Cowen’s right, that this getting tough is a lazy story – a fall-back response born of paralyzing complexity?  Because it is.  So complex: Every time a new person is born, the adults charged with preparing that person to thrive on its own have an entirely new problem.  We say everyone’s unique, but if everyone is, which we know from genetics that they are, then we have a major challenge on our hands.  What works for one will not necessarily work for another. In fact it probably won’t.  What on earth can we do about that, if we really mean it that we want the best for everyone?  Who can blame us for falling back on an easy story, for saying “OK, well, we better just try harder to get them to memorize their facts and sit still and toe the traditional line.  Even if it seems like it’s wasting their talents, making them fight amongst themselves, making them sick. We don’t have much choice, because we can’t possibly give each of them something different even if that is what they need.”

What if we wrote a new story?  What if we wrote a story like “We have to get creative.”  Or “We have to start from scratch.” Or “Maybe we should listen to what kids are trying to tell us.”  What if we noticed that getting tough isn’t working, hasn’t worked for years, decades probably, and it’s not about to start working just because we say it louder or convince more people that we have no choice?

Uniqueness is messy.

This American Life’s recent episode on middle school mentions Maria Montessori’s belief that the appropriate environment for a child of middle school age is a farm school.

What I’ve read about this idea and many other Montessori ideas sounds wonderful: young people at work and play alongside respectful adults who can teach them to do things as well as to know things, to apply their knowledge, to be physically active in the course of it… the list of desirables goes on.

But this and every other idea that seem delicious in the abstract start to feel a little less solid when mapped onto actual specific children.  Whether or not they could benefit from the activities proposed, whether or not the values instilled would be useful to them, all people are not equally available for all endeavors and pursuits.  And the timing of one person’s availability for something, their ability to receive and absorb it, is not likely to be the same as everyone else’s.  But that’s what we expect.  We want children to be unique, but at the same time, we’re wary of specialization.  It’s as though we want them to be unique sometimes, or later.  Not when it gets in the way.  If they get too interested in something too early, we tell them they’re not well-rounded.  We want a checklist that will be the same for all of them, of things they should all do first.  When that’s done, we expect them to be ready to be unique and to distinguish themselves. Of course, it often doesn’t happen that way.  Uniqueness and individuality is a tough thing to temporarily shelve.  Kids’ actual uniqueness, which is a messy, unpredictable, impossible to control thing, confounds us. Come to think of it, so is our own.

I think this is why it’s so hard to see the potential that kids already have, the capacities that are already in development when they’re 3, 7, 11 years old.  We might have trouble, for example, seeing that all of the time they spend with their Legos is building skill they might need for engineering, because we’re think that first they need to sit still and add columns of numbers; engineering is for later.  We might have trouble seeing that they’re learning how to think deeply and analytically because we think that first they need to be practicing their spelling; philosophical inquiry is for later.

We know that what we’re doing is not working, not making the most of kids’ potential, but we’re so fixed in this belief that we have to put the many through the one thing (even though it so often doesn’t come out right and is a struggle the whole way) that we can’t see all the things we’re shutting down that could launch individual kids on paths that are well-suited to them and their specific capacities. If the outcomes of educational efforts are to shift in any meaningful way, it’ll be because we confront our biases about what has to happen when, and our attachment to giving everyone the same thing at the same time.

And as we’re retraining ourselves to look at what’s actually there and what kids might do with it – the evidence of potential that may not fall into the traditional, recognizable categories – we’ll also need to stop laughing amongst ourselves at kids’ resistance.  As long as we’re behaving toward children as though the discomfort that drives their resistance is funny or cute, they’ll keep it up.  Because that resistance is not the personal attack on parents and other adults that we treat it as. Young peoples’ defiance is a plea – a plea with us to realize how profoundly we’re not seeing them – not letting them get as full and as strong as they can because we’re too busy trying to make them like they aren’t.  It’s not only disrespectful, this way we laugh them off and roll our eyes at them (“we always get tears when it comes to spelling!” and “boy, she always fights me on the boring parts of math!”).  It undermines our relationships with kids.  It lets them know in no uncertain terms that we are not available for communication; we are only interested in conveying our curriculum, whatever it may be and whether or not they take it in, whether or not they can use it. Any objections children may express that push us to reach beyond the scope of what we think they should know and do, we tend to dismiss as immature prattling.  We more or less laugh it off.

We don’t do it maliciously.  It was done to many of us, and so it comes naturally.  It feels natural and usual.  But that doesn’t mean it’s what we want for kids, and if it’s not, it’ll be well worth the effort it takes to leave it behind, to build  new, empowering, edifying traditions in its place.

Ideas, ‘rising in crowds’

The brain needs time to be focused and time to be wandering, and it needs it when it needs it. If we get too attached to forcing kids to be creative when we think it’s a good time to be creative and to be otherwise when we think it’s a good time to be otherwise, we risk discouraging the creative process, or shutting it down entirely. Continue reading