Looking back on my own childhood, I’m grateful for many things … particularly that it wasn’t presented to me as normal. I grew up in an unusual place, at an unusual time, with parents who never flaunted their uniqueness (that would have been impolite and showy) but never pretended to be “just like everybody else.”
What is a “normal childhood” anyway? Or a normal family, a normal school experience? Who gets to decide? If you don’t think about it carefully, it’s easy to see your childhood, parents, school experiences as normal and normative – and anything different as abnormal and wrong or tainted.
That’s important to remember in conversations about schooling and learning.
Thursday evening, when I ran into a pair of friends, we started talking about kids and schools today. T and her sister, L, are approaching retirement after full, happy careers … and they’re ready to retire, to take on new challenges, to get away from the changing 21st-century workforce. “I really feel for you,” said T, “because schools and teachers have to do so many things that used to happen at home.” She made and decried a long list of social and educational changes – the decline of cursive writing, early use of calculators, increased needs for social and psychological services in schools, changing dynamics of parent-child interactions. I agree: those things are important, and they’re connected to deeper social changes that shape, and are shaped by, changes in schools.
But for T and L, these changes are bad and scary because they’re different. “How will kids read the original Declaration of Independence, or do genealogical work, if they don’t learn to write in cursive?” asked T. “How will they develop number sense if they don’t calculate on paper?” (I can think of lots of ways … and from the inside, I can see l these “traditional” approaches haven’t been working very well.)
It’s easy to assume the only means to a desirable end is the “traditional” one, the “regular” one, the one we experienced. But when we do, we fall into the normal-normative trap, and we appoint ourselves as the Ones Who Decide.
I’m glad I’ve been reading Rod Baird’s book Counterfeit Kids in an electronic format because it’s easy – yet unobtrusive – to make virtual annotations. When I’m deeply engaged with a book, I carry on written conversations with the author. My copy of Dewey’s Democracy and Education is so crammed with responses that it’s almost unreadable, and so is my copy of Rousseau’s Emile. (Speaking of genealogical research – and bad handwriting – I’ve discovered these written conversations with books are a family trait.) With an e-book, I may be able to see my perspective develop over the years and still read the original book!
Though I love the book, I’m frustrated by times when Baird seems to present his educational experiences, and those of his generation, as normal and normative. I’d like to go into greater detail another day, cite passages, engage deeply with the argument, see if I’m misreading him. (Baird family, I know you’re reading, and I’d really like to hear from you.)
I’m also frustrated with the way Baird uses the word unable – for example, describing students as “unable to think critically.” Unable used to be a simple word, with no connotations about whether you could become able or not: today, I’m unable to bench-press 250 pounds (but when I get back into a regular workout routine, I might become able). But in educational contexts, unable has developed connotations of permanence, a fixed-mindset veneer: “Poor Little J, K, or L is unable to learn from auditory techniques, to sit still for long periods, to control her impulses.” Once that unable label is affixed, schools accommodate the label rather than develop the abilities – which both Baird and I decry.
Unable and its sad verb-twin can’t are powerful labels, labels that Ms. X and Mr. Y just love. Students may hate them, but, as Baird points out, they often embrace them because they’re expected to. “I can’t do this,” they say, “because I don’t know how.” And they often respond by sitting and waiting; that’s as normal and normative for them as striving and struggling were for Rod Baird or me.
But who gets to decide which approach is right or better?
I am also reminded of toddlers when you know they comprehend and have things to share, want or need but they lack the physical development to form the words to express themselves. How challenging it is for them to “know” but “can’t”.
… On one hand we need to make sure that we are providing the opportunity to develop the balance of skills. On the other hand we need to remember that the children are still developing and sometimes we just have to wait for them to mature and to develop the skills.
And Brendan added
I’ve had that problem myself, of knowing things, but being unable to communicate them, because of a combination my own lack of skills, and at times others not knowing how to, or not wanting to listen.
Many of those examples have occurred in adulthood — such as that is in today’s world, where so many people take so long, even into their 30’s, to figure out their life in any significant way. It’s extremely frustrating for all involved, when the script doesn’t just play out the way it apparently did more often in previous generations.
That question of how much is just nature’s timeline, for a given developmental skill, vs. something that can be taught or learned using some approach, is a key one. And then there’s the question of cultural or institutional timelines….
How can we build a joyful community that’s big, strong, and safe enough for everybody to share – and respect and learn from – different ideas of normal and normative? To listen and understand before we dismiss or decide?