Both experiments

I read an article last weekend about a scientist at MIT and his work on a new energy technology.  The man’s name is David Nocera.  The technology is what he calls an artificial leaf, which is designed to generate energy the way plants do, but more efficiently.  “For the past two hundred years,” he says, “we’ve been working on this other experiment, with fossil fuels, and it’s not working out so well.”

Scientists are expected to experiment.  But even in science I think it’s unusual to hear someone acknowledge that whatever is already being done, no matter how well it is or isn’t working, is also an experiment.  It would be fair to say, I think, that everything we do as humans is experimental.  We try something, and then we see how it goes.

It would make sense for my next sentence to be something like this: “If what we try goes well, we keep doing it.  If it doesn’t, we try something else.”  But it’s rarely that simple.  Because, of course, our opinions about what constitutes “going well” are very different.  And maybe more to the point, we get attached to what we get used to, and it often blinds us to unworkability, makes us skeptical or fearful of trying new experiments. In one breath we vilify the notion of experiment, if it threatens what we’re used to.  In another we defend the one we’ve grown accustomed to, forgetting that it’s an experiment too.

Anyone who has ever suggested to a parent that they try something other than a traditional educational route for their child has likely been met with an objection born of this anti-experiment sentiment.  We don’t want to think that we’re experimenting on kids.  We don’t want to think of them as guinea pigs.

We forget to acknowledge that what we’re already doing is also an experiment, and that we get to decide whether or not we think it’s working well enough to entrust children to it.  Whether or not it’s likely to offer them what we mean to offer.

When we stick to experiments out of loyalty and comfort, we’re not protecting kids from guinea pig status.  We’re letting habit and tradition replace judgment and consideration.  We’re crossing our fingers that the current (old) experiment will work out for our kids if we’re careful enough with it and navigate it skillfully enough.  We have seen (or just believe) that it does work out OK for some people, and so it feels safer to hope that it will go that way again for our kids than it does to venture into less familiar territory.  Even if we suspect the results could be better in a new frontier.

For so many children the old experiment isn’t working.  Many fail to meet the marks held up by traditional schooling, even when their parents are supportive and they show up every day, working hard the way they’re told to.  And even for those who win at the schooling game – successfully collecting degrees and winning white collar jobs – life in the current experiment is often characterized by lethargy, apathy, anxiety, depression, and much unrealized potential.

Sticking to our age-old experiment is an awfully high-stakes wager, and one we could replace at any time, the way a scientist might, with an inquiry into the kind of learning trajectories that could offer actual specific present-day human children what we want for them now and what we want for them in the future.

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What then?

Last week I wrote about expanding what we imagine is possible, so that kids might realize potential that transcends what history and habit have told us we can hope for.  If we were to find it in ourselves to make that shift, what might it lead us to?  What would we do differently?

Here’s one place to start.  Ask yourself this question: “What capacity does this child have that I think the world could use more of?” Continue reading

The limits of our vision…

Often when we talk about how we want kids to meet their potential, what we mean is that we want them to do well in school, or at academics – at things that we have come to believe/understand/know to be predictors of success.  And we have operated according to the well-meaning and equality-driven commitment that every child can meet the potential they have in those areas.  We strive to make it happen.  We pour ourselves into it.  We even, astonishingly, sacrifice our relationships with them for it. Continue reading

The shoving

The phone rings at 7:30 in the evening and it’s the local newspaper calling to sell a subscription.  But the representative doesn’t say hello, or issue a greeting of any kind.  She launches right in with “All it will take to have the paper delivered right to the door is a name and address…”  She continues for a full 30 seconds and then stops only so I can give my name and address.  Apparently there’s no cause for asking whether or not I’d be interested in reading their paper.

This happens all the time, and I don’t know anyone who isn’t annoyed by it, at the very least. We respond with varying degrees of fury and disgust and commensurate impoliteness.  We don’t like to be bombarded with sales pitches we didn’t ask for.  Here’s the interesting thing, though.  Not only does it make us less likely to buy or buy into anything, it actually makes us less likely to buy or buy into things we might otherwise really want.  I probably wouldn’t have bought the paper last night no matter what, because I just don’t have much use for it, but that fact is far less interesting and noteworthy than the fact that I didn’t even have a chance to think about whether or not I wanted it because I was too busy fending off the sales attack.  All I could think about was getting off the phone without violating too many of my own values of how to treat other people when I feel they’re being rude.  I was busy defending myself against what felt like a violation of the little quiet there was in the day.  The paper, and its potential usefulness to me, didn’t have a prayer of getting any consideration in the face of that.

This is why we get so much auto-resistance from kids – that habitual resistance that flares up in the face of many adult mandates.  (This kind of resistance is distinct from the kind where a child is resisting something due to an actual objection to a task or expectation.) Kids auto-resist not because they don’t know what’s good for them (as reading the paper might have been for me) but because our delivery is so atrociously disrespectful and assumptive that they don’t even have the chance to consider what we’re offering –  learning, preparation for the future, anything.  Kids are bombarded all day every day with adult imposition, and they can barely breathe in the face of it, so they often fight it off like it’s all the same – one big mass of adult nonsense – and they end up missing out on things they may well have opted into if given the chance.

We’re like the woman on the phone trying to shove the paper down my throat – we don’t realize that all that’s getting through is the shoving. The paper was too far in the background to be noticed.  That’s what happens with math, and with reading, with music lessons, and with history, with being polite, with doing chores, with myriad things we try to get kids to do that really might benefit them in some way but they seem to reject. It’s not that all kids want all of what we’ve got to offer, but they want lots more of it than they take.  We set up a dynamic that makes it difficult for them to actually consider and receive what we’re offering, and our relationships with them become largely characterized by power struggle as a result.  Kids want to be knowledgeable, prepared, included, safe just as much as you want it for them.  They just need to be included in the process of getting themselves there.