Updated: Sep 29, 2020
I was a middle school classroom teacher for almost 12 years. I never liked the word. Teacher. It was my job title, but I didn’t really teach. At least, I didn't really want to. Rather, what I wanted to do, what I aspired to in the rigid school environments imposed upon me and the students in my classrooms, was to create conditions for learning. Lecturing, depositing knowledge into students' brains, explicitly demonstrating the "right" way, expecting children to mimic me…not my style. I knew intuitively and from my own education that children, or any people for that matter, do not learn very well when they're taught in those ways. Or at least, they don’t learn what we want them to learn. When a child is lectured to, what they’re more likely to learn than the content of the lecture is how to sit still and politely nod while daydreaming. When a child is explicitly is shown the way something should be done, according to the teacher doing the demonstrating, what she's more likely to learn than the skill is how to comply and imitate in a way that will please the teacher. In these situations, the children are not learning how to think. And they’re not learning the most important lesson of all: that they have the agency and competency to create, to problem solve, to collaborate, to innovate, to synthesize.
To focus on teaching, our attention is often on the what, the knowledge or the skill, and we forsake the who, the learner.
I later learned that I’m not alone, and actually, I’m in really good company. Albert Einstein and world-renowned evolutionary psychology researcher Peter Gray (and probably many, many others) have said: We don’t need to teach children. We need to provide the conditions children need in order to educate themselves.
What will this mean at Cocoplum? What will “conditions to educate themselves” look like in practice? Picture this: When one of our Cocoplum guides is walking with a small group of children in the garden, and one of the children notices a brightly blooming hibiscus, math learning ensues. The guide, depending upon the ages and skills of the children, will help them count the petals and stamen. Perhaps they’ll pick a few blossoms from the bush and count by five's. The guide will ask carefully crafted questions to lead them through multiplication and division reasoning. If it’s appropriate for the children and the situation, the guide might ask, “Do you know what those numbers look like when we write them down? Would you like to know?” Perhaps in this particular moment, the children are really interested in the numbers, and perhaps many of them know their numbers and are eager to share their knowledge. So the guide will locate the nearest notebooks and pencils, or sticks in the sand, or rocks with numbers pre-painted on them. The children might dig numbers in the sand with a knotty stick, observing a little beetle making it's way over the etched mounds and trenches. Or they'll feel the cool, smooth numbered rocks clicking in their hands. Using these tools and the momentum of the moment, the guide and the children use written representations of numerical values to demonstrate the math equations they already understand through their experiences with the flowers. Of course, maybe the children will say “No” to the guide's invitation to work with numbers. Maybe at that moment, numbers don’t appeal to them. The guide will not coerce them into thinking it will be fun, or incentivize them with a gold star for complying. The guide will simply continue to observe them, using developmentally appropriate and accurate mathematical terminology if and when it's useful to the children. The children will continue directing their level of engagement with the math concepts and the flowers, which may be quite extensive or cursory and brief. Then, maybe if the children start creating something artistic and aesthetic with the flowers, the guide will invite them to string the flowers in a garland to tie from the trees and hang overhead. Of course, to do that, they’ll face the challenge of measuring the string, working together to tie the flowers at even intervals, and considering the height at which to hang the garland so that even the tallest of them can pass under safely. Maybe they’ll have to devise a plan to measure and record the height of everyone in the school, determine the greatest of these numbers, and mark the height on the trees. More math! And all without a single flashcard or worksheet.
What we learn with joy, we learn for life. I can think of few things more joyful than a group of children collaborating to create a flower garland to hang overhead in their garden.
This story of hibiscus-inspired math learning is an amalgamation based upon one muggy August morning in my backyard with my two young children and countless accounts of similar adventures in the forest elementary schools of northern Europe and other free unschools around the globe. As I imagine the future students of Cocoplum Nature School engaged in their nature and play inspired learning, I’m also imagining you, my reader. I imagine you're an adult, and I imagine that you attended traditional schools similar to those I attended and those where I was a teacher, complete with desks in rows, fluorescent lights, textbooks, red pens, and Trapper Keepers. If those details ring true to your experience of schooling, I invite you to reread the hibiscus math scenario once more. But this time, as you read, imagine you are one of the children. Notice how your child-self feels.
As adults, in our daily lives, we function best when we’re happy, calm, confident, interested. Children are no different. Beyond just functioning, we learn better when we feel happy, calm, confident, interested. Our growing Cocoplum family knows this in our heart of hearts, and we live it. And so, when our doors open (SOON!), we won't be teaching. We will create conditions where children feel good, are appropriately challenged, and learn through experience when the learning serves their own personal goals.
The guide in the story did not teach from a predetermined plan of learning objectives for the day other than perhaps a general intention to facilitate mathematical thinking if and when the opportunity presented itself. She didn't trick the students into doing anything they didn't themselves express interest in. She didn't need a lesson plan with a list of standards to teach or a ready made packet of one-size-fits-all activities. She didn't push them into a skill-drill like the times-tests worksheets that I vividly remember from my elementary days. (Remember those? They were photocopies from a workbook, way too easy for some children who had already mastered them, and impossibly hard for those whose brains just weren't ready yet.) Rather, the guide did create conditions for learning. By walking in the garden, by observing the children as they observed their surroundings, and by having at the ready at all times all kinds of useful tools--rulers, numbered rocks, measuring tape, rope, scissors, collection baskets--the guide created conditions for the children to lead their own learning.
I’ll leave you with this quote from a Peter Gray video linked on our Curriculum page here. And I encourage you—when you have 15 minutes or so—to watch the whole video.
“I’m absolutely sure that one day, people are going to look back at us and say, ‘What were they thinking? Why on earth did they every believe that coercion is essential for education? That’s like believing you have to force people to eat, or you have to force people to breath! Why on earth did they believe that standardization, such that people regardless of their interests, regardless of their predilections, should all learn the same thing, in the same way, be tested by the same tests? What kind of a crazy idea is that?’”