Two twos

John Holt once wrote (in Instead of Education) that no one can truly say yes to an idea unless he can freely say no to it.

Yesterday I played a round of Yahtzee with an eight year-old.  This particular eight year-old tends to favor instant gratification, a tendency which on one occasion during our game was putting his chances of winning in peril.  He loves a fast pace, and he usually acts quickly but also enjoys winning.  Because he is new to the game and its nuances, I thought it only fair to point out the potential cost of the choice he was about to make.

I should say before I proceed with the story that I have been meeting with this child for several weeks, because he’s been having difficulty in school and his mom is hoping to find a way for him to exist there with less stress and anxiety.  It has been my experience that it’s impossible to empower a person to receive ideas for making his or her experience of any situation better, (or his or her performance in any situation better if that’s the goal), without, as John Holt suggests, giving that person the opportunity to decline any suggestions made. Young people are so often trapped in patterns of generalized resistance, after many years of being bossed into things by adults whether or not those things serve and support, that they miss out on input that they might actually want.  (I wrote about this in more detail here.)  So with this child I have been, in the context of games and other activities he engaged in with me by choice, offering suggestions with the understanding that he would likely say No thank you at least as often as said Yes (if not always). He has in fact said No thank you many many times.

So when it came time for him to choose between recording a pair of twos on his scoresheet or recording a pair of threes, I once again offered a suggestion knowing that it might well be turned down.

Me: Hey, I have a suggestion for you about this one.  Do you want to hear it?

Him: Um… yes.

He stopped moving for the few seconds it took me to explain, glancing back and forth between my face and the dice.

Me: I know it probably seems better to take the two threes because that’s six, and the two twos is only four, but the thing is that by taking less than three of the threes, you sort of lose three.  If you take less than three twos, you only lose two.  Which makes it a little easier to catch up later on, if you still want to get the bonus. I just thought you might want to know that before you decide, but of course it’s up to you.

He didn’t quite understand, which isn’t surprising, given the complexity of the argument and my lackluster presentation of it. And I know he was skeptical, because he knows that in games, nearly always, more is better.  But he opted to take the twos instead of the threes. As he wrote the four carefully on his scorecard, he said to himself quietly “I think I’d like to lose less here.”

I’m certain that if I hadn’t accepted weeks’ worth of No thank yous he wouldn’t even have bothered to listen, though he might have pretended to, and might even have followed my advice. But in this case he did listen, enough to say back to himself the part of what I’d said that seemed consistent with his commitment in the game (that is, winning, which presumably seemed related to “losing less”). He listened, considered, and then acted according to the new information he had and his own commitment.  He truly said yes to it.

It could seem as though all that was at stake here were two measly Yahtzee points.  But imagine the difference it can make to a young person to feel free to evaluate the potential value of a piece of advice.

When we stop trying to force kids to take input, they become free to actually receive it.

And then what happens is that it becomes possible for them to use adults for the purpose for which we are best suited and for which they actually need us:  to be team members with them as they navigate their way through a complicated world; to let them know which things we’ve found to be true for ourselves and what has worked for us, in case it might help them find what’s true for them and will work for them.

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One child’s hockey is another child’s…

It’s been cold enough this winter that the pond in the park is frozen.  When I drove past on my way home the other day at sundown, several kids were playing hockey on the ice.  Practicing, actually.  They were taking turns shooting pucks at a makeshift goal, the way they would in an organized drill. They were studying, refining, mastering, though no coach was there to direct them.

It’s safe to assume that at least a few of those kids are not showing the same discipline and determination in their schoolwork that they were that night on the ice.  Many of them likely struggle through much of their days sitting still, reading, answering questions. Their best selves emerge late in the day, out there on the ice. We exclaim “That’s because hockey is fun!”  “It’s different! It’s a game.”  “They have to do schoolwork for their own good but it’s not fun so of course they resist it!”

But these explanations – the words we use to dismiss the variation in commitment we see in kids – don’t hold up when checked against what we know about the diversity of actual people, based on how each of us chooses to spend time when it’s up to us. There’s no list of inherently fun things and another of un-fun things for kids to consult when they’re choosing what to love and where to direct their resistance.  (Though there do seem to be ways in which turning something into an actual game can alter the experience of it.)

Hockey is something some people love, with all the zooming around, the crashing, the strategy, the repetition, the force.  And hockey is something other people wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot… stick – all that high speed and spilled blood and chaos and repetition and bruising. For some people, hockey is fun. For others, yikes.

So it doesn’t work to say hockey IS fun, just as it doesn’t work to say that schoolwork IS NOT fun.  I sat with a 14 year-old the other day who, when she arrived at my office, was exhausted and deflated from a week of racing around from class to activity to part-time job.  After a few minutes of reviewing practice SAT questions, she was invigorated and delighted.  She loves to think about words, about what they’re doing in sentences and paragraphs, how they can be interpreted in more than one way. Others would have wanted to poke their eyes out at the thought of spending time on this kind of thing.

Fun is not a fact, it’s a taste. It’s a specific and dynamic way of relating to an activity.  When a person is experiencing it, they’re often driven to push themselves toward deeper mastery.  Someone who under one set of circumstances appears lazy and indifferent can in the context of something that’s fun for them look like a patient and driven student, striving for excellence.

We can choose to roll our eyes and scowl when we see kids favoring the things that are fun for them, or we can get interested in what they’re choosing. If it’s future work and livelihood we’re worried about (when they show preference for things we think are distracting them from what’s important), we’ll be wise to notice that kids’ choices can actually tell us a lot about what kinds of work they may be suited to – what kinds of participation and contribution might be right for them.

If we can find the courage to open ourselves up to it, we’ll see that whatever is setting those fires of commitment and determination under kids can expertly inform the guidance we offer them.  What we learn from their choices and preferences can help make it possible for us to offer kids the chance to carve paths through life that make the best possible use of the capacities and commitments they’re already carrying around with them.

Jake’s example

I just watched this 60 Minutes story on Jacob Barnett, the 14 year-old student at Purdue University who’s been attracting attention for his exceptional abilities in math and science, particularly physics. It’s just generally inspiring and delightful to watch Jake in action, but the part of this story that got my attention begins about six minutes in:

Morley Safer: Just before his second birthday, Jake began to regress; stopped speaking and making eye contact.  After consulting with several doctors, the diagnosis was autism.

Michael Barnett, Jacob’s dad: We went through speech therapy, physical therapy, developmental therapy, occupational therapy; therapists came to the home…

Kristine Barnett, Jacob’s mom: He was going further and further from our world into a world of his own and I really was just baffled as to how we were going to get him back out of that world.

Morley Safer: And how did you get him back, out of that world?

Kristine Barnett: We realized that Jacob was not happy unless he was doing something he loved.

Morley Safer: Which even as a three year-old was math and science.  His parents say the more he focused on the subjects he loved, the more he began to communicate. 

Kristine Barnett: You could just see him just relax.  You could just see him feel like ‘Thank goodness we’re not working on something that I can’t do today.”

I’m inspired by the way Jacob’s mom talks about what happened when he was two.  She says that her son was “going further and further into a world of his own,” and that they wanted to get him back.  It seems like it would have been easy to worry that supporting Jake’s ventures into the depths of abstract mathematical thought would have pushed him further into the “world” they sought to bring him back from.  But the Barnetts trusted that those things that brought Jake the most peace and contentment were the key to maintaining connection with him. They reorganized his life around what was already engaging and fascinating to him, and eased up on pushing him to do the things that seemed to be shutting him down.

As it turned out, having permission to give his attention to the pursuits that called to him seems to have made it possible for Jake to find (or regain) avenues for communication and other social interaction.  From the sound of it, the family continued to work with him on speaking and engaging with others, but those things were no longer the center of attention.  Communication skills were reassigned – instead of taking center stage, they were given the chance to support the complex intellectual work Jake craved.

The Barnetts are quick to acknowledge that Jake is one person and it doesn’t work to generalize their experience to all or even any other children with autism diagnoses.  But they do encourage parents of any child who appears to be struggling to do just what they did – to look for the spark of contentment and delight in the child – and build around that spark.  Not every child makes it as obvious as Jake did where that spark lies, but I haven’t met a child yet who didn’t have one.

Thrum

Lots and lots of people watched a YouTube video yesterday of a young child’s trip down a tricky mountain bike trail.  The camera is attached to the rider’s helmet, so the viewer gets to experience the ride with him.

The whole thing made me a bit uneasy at first, mostly because I’m not much of a risk-taker and I wouldn’t have wanted to ride a bike down that trail myself.  It didn’t seem safe and I was concerned.  I got over that after a few seconds when I realized that the rider is very skilled and probably wasn’t in much more danger than I am when I ride around on streets with zero grade.  (Actually he’s probably safer, given the absence of cars and drivers.)

Once I got over that I could enjoy his enjoyment of the ride.  I think much of the appeal of the footage lies in the tone and articulation of his commentary; he’s still getting some of his consonant articulations worked out, so his expressions of the large emotions he has over the course of the ride are especially endearing.

But for me the most striking thing about the soundtrack is the quality of attention in his voice and his breath.  Behind the young exclamations it’s possible to hear the thrum of vitality, as he calls on everything he’s learned about moving his weight in concert with his bike, regulating velocity, negotiating turns and terrain.

The good news is that it doesn’t take a treacherous trip down a mountain to call forth that kind of aliveness.  It’s not the ride itself that inspired the quality of this child’s commentary.  It’s his relationship with the riding. He’s been practicing, studying the skill and performance of his dad and others, in order to be able to do a thing that delights him. Everyone has a thing they can be like this about.  At least one.

Thanks for the reminder, Malcolm.

The future of smart hiring

Yesterday’s post about the two NASA engineers reminded me of the excerpt from Stuart Brown’s book Play which I’ve mentioned a few times before.  (Here’s a link to the most recent mention.) Brown tells the story of how the managers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (the lab behind the Mars landing) noticed in the late 90s that graduates of top engineering schools were often unable to solve the kind of problems JPL needed them to solve.  The hiring managers started asking candidates how they spent their childhoods, looking for those who’d done a lot of tinkering, taking apart, fixing, building… playing.  If Brown has his dates right, this JPL realization came before Steltzner and Ferdowsi were hired.

It can seem, given the competitive job market and the competitive college admissions realm,  as though it doesn’t matter to employers whether or not you can actually do the work they need you to do, as long as you have the right alma mater and the right grades.  But employers who really want to do the best possible work are changing their ways, which means it’s no longer a good idea to forsake genuine inquiry, investigation, and relevant training for the sake of toeing the academic line.  Like I said yesterday, the Curiosity guys didn’t make it to the control room just by building things out of blocks and gazing up at the stars.  But the fact that they were driven by their connection with these experiences not only made it possible for them to conquer the obstacles that surely came up in the course of their training and education, it also made them appealing candidates for the extremely complicated work they were interested in doing.

Big difference

(I realize the blog has been heavy on the sorrowful early September school observations, so I’ll try to make this the last one, at least for a few days…)

This week’s  New Yorker cover is a drawing by artist Chris Ware which seems to be calling attention to some of the things I’ve been carrying on about lately.  It also reminds me of this thing I hear every fall at this time, at least a few times and usually several. Sometimes it’s a parent or neighbor to one child, others it’s national advertisers or public figures broadcasting it throughout the land:  a condescending chuckle with a tough-luck-for-you, too-bad-you-kids-don’t-like-it-that’s-just-the-way-it-is sort of a tone.

Interestingly, it’s a similar tone to the one we often take with one another, in shared woe on a Monday as the work week starts.  The difference is that wherever it is we’re implying we’d rather not be on a Monday is someplace we’ve agreed to be.  We may well feel that we had little choice in being there, because we have to work somewhere, but the reality is that no one said to us “This is what you’ll do for the next 13 years and this is where you’ll do it whether or not you feel safe, whether or not you feel productive, whether or not you feel like it’s a waste of your time… OK! Have a good day, see you later!”

We say we send kids to school for their own good, we say they’ll thank us later, we say it’s the best we can do.  And I think we do mean to send them for their own good, and we hope they’ll thank us later, and at least some of the time we believe it’s the best we can do.  Mostly, though, I think we just think we have no choice and there’s nothing to be done about it.  We certainly acknowledge left and right that schools are struggling and we must see that they’re taking kids down with them.

So we could just keep at it, laughing it off when they protest.  Or we could ask ourselves what the long faces and the dragged heels might be trying to tell us about the arrangements we’ve made for our young.  We could decide not to turn a deaf ear any longer; at the very least we could decide to stop making fun of them about it.

We could confront the fact that we operate as though we deserve the dignity of considered feelings, opinions, and preferences when it comes to how we spend our days, but children don’t.

16,380 hours

Yesterday as I was trying to imagine (because I don’t remember) what it’s like to be five years old and going to school for the first time, I got to some calculating.  Six or seven hours a day (here it’s seven, beginning in kindergarten) for 180 days a year for 13 years.  If I’ve got the math right, that’s 16,380 hours. That is a lot of hours.

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000 hours-to-mastery guideline.  (The piece that didn’t make it to popularization was that it isn’t just 10,000 hours, it’s 10,000 hours of this thing called deliberate practice.  I think it’s important to mention this with any mention of the 10,000 hours. It matters how you do the thing and, one can gather from fact of the how, also why you’re doing it.)

So if most kids spend in the vicinity of 16,380 hours at school, and it takes 10,000 to master a thing, that means that the chunk of time set aside from a young person’s life for compulsory schooling is the equivalent of more than one and half potential masteries.  It seems to me as though anyone who’s required to set that chunk of hours aside for learning should have some reasonable degree of assurance that he or she will emerge with at least one mastery, perhaps close to two, or something that’s in some way comparable to that.

I don’t know very many people who would say they got anything like that, but that’s not my point.  I just think it’d be a good idea to be honest with ourselves about numbers like these, because it’s so, so many hours, and they’re precious hours, committed during the part of life in which a person’s brain is most available for learning. Are we sure enough that what kids are getting is worth what they’re giving up?