This morning I received an email from our hydro-electric provider, advising me of two things: I’m failing to meet my energy-use-reduction challenge by twenty-nine percent (frown-emoji!) and I can earn fifty points on my challenge by sending them a photo of a fan in use in my home (the premise being that it’s replacing the use of an air conditioner, so, saving power). I assume this email was intended to gently prod me into energy-saving action, but it did the opposite.
First I was just incredulous – then a little pissed off. We’ve been on a ten-year journey of rebuilding our home to increase insulation, efficiency, etc. We dry almost all our laundry outside or above the wood stove, and generally use far fewer appliances than the average urban household. We don’t even own an air-conditioner, and right now, when the outside temperature rarely rises above room-temperature, we rarely even need to open a window for cooling. In the deepest heat of late summer we’ll start using a fan. Who are these people, suggesting I should use a fan instead of my air conditioner? They’re not people who know me – that’s for sure. I’m just a number to them. This email made me feel unseen, misunderstood, and totally unappreciated. Instead of sending them a photo of a fan to earn some ridiculous “points” for my “challenge”, I sent them an email advising them on some better ways of engaging their customers.
People need to be seen. You know how most good preschool and kindergarten classes begin with sharing circle? This enables kids to feel seen, connected, and valued at the beginning of their day together. My daughter’s progressive senior high school groups have a daily check-in, which accomplishes the same thing. It allows the group to connect before delving into other activities, so that every member feels seen, and is more able to engage genuinely with the group. Forbes tells us that “Employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work.”
But obviously, this feeling of being seen has to continue beyond just the daily check-in. We need to feel that the groups and activities we engage in are well-suited to us; that we’re valued, and that we’re seen as individuals. Our education system is failing us in this.
We have made learning a desperate act. Our kids have to succeed or fail. They must remember all the elements in the top three rows of the periodic table by Thursday or they won’t pass the test. And if they don’t pass the test, they may not pass the year, and if they don’t pass the year, they’ll have to repeat science next year, or they won’t get into the program they want, or they will simply make their parents angry. Adrenaline will help them to learn. Maybe the fear of failure will make our kids remember the order of those elements; maybe they write them out a hundred times or use a song to memorize them; maybe they list them mentally before every meal, before bed and upon waking. They learn to list the elements, along with their atomic numbers and symbols. And next year they learn them all again, on the same desperate quest to pass the year. And when these kids are forty years old and their kids are listing these elements yet again, they can’t remember them anymore, or maybe worse, the recollection of learning these facts fills them with frustration or rage. Because it was a useless skill in their lives, but they feel inadequate because they’ve lost it.
That big frown-emoji on the email I received from our hydro-electric company reminds me of the disappointment of my teacher when I received similarly disappointing percentages on my tests in school. But did my shame then or now prod me on towards success? No. It made me feel worthless. It made me stop trying. This is what shame does to people. Maybe in some way we can use it to spurn us on, but not really to success – just to a menial good-enough pass or preferably to escape, as many students are waiting to do from the school system.
Does it really have to be this way? Of course not. Those of us practicing respectful, non-coercive parenting and teaching, self-directed learning and unschooling know very well the importance of building confidence and self-worth in our children. We know that when our children are respected for their own individual truth they will be motivated to succeed, and that that success will look different for every one of them. It’s not our job to mold them into a pre-designed vision of success; it’s our job to look at them with open hearts and discover how each of them defines “success” for themselves.
My son taught himself all the elements when he was seven. You know why? Because he was excited about burning stuff! He was excited about setting fire to my scouring pads since he had learned from a YouTube video that they could burn. Then he wondered what else could burn, and how, and why. And we bought him a book by Theodore Gray that explained about the elements in terms of Mr Gray’s explorative play and crazy dangerous experiments, and our son studied it until he knew it all. Because it was fun. Nobody in this house cared whether he knew the names of elements, but he was so curious about what could burn, and then what was in the things all around him, and what was in space, and what happened when he mixed these many things together, that by the time he finally took a grade 11 chemistry class in college, it was all too easy for him. It was boring. Except the chemical equations. He had to learn those, and he did so in an act of desperation because he needed that chemistry credit to attend university. Now he’s questioning his desire to study sciences because, for him, the process of discovery has been stripped from science by our education system. We can learn in all kinds of ways, but some learning delights us, and some devours us.
Recently some of my friends reminisced on Facebook about our grade 8 sewing class, where we were instructed to make a pair of cotton shorts. They were hideous shorts without pockets or style or anything interesting at all other than whatever print we’d chosen for ourselves when our mothers took us shopping for that special piece of shorts-making fabric. Most kids never wore the shorts; many of us had forgotten the class. But I loved it. Because I refused to make the shorts, knowing I’d never wear them (and also afraid of that complicated-looking crotch construction), and I insisted on making a skirt with a lizard-print fabric. So the teacher allowed me to self-direct my project, using a different pattern and making a skirt. And out of my scraps I made a matching skirt for my doll, which I still have today. I remember that class and the extra hours I voluntarily put in much more than whatever we made in cooking class, and also more than the academic classes from that year, which I’ve completely forgotten, but not nearly as much as the wonderful assortment of little judges’ wigs I made for some of my dolls during my grade five math class. I stole yarn and masking tape from the art supplies trolley and stored them in my desk. During math class I reached into my desk and carefully folded masking tape into the shape of my dolls’ heads that my hands knew without the aid of my eyes. Then I cut thin strips of tape, coiled the yarn around them, and affixed them to the little bald-caps I’d made in neat rows, changing direction of the rows as they progressed across the caps so that they hung down at the back, just like old fashioned judges’ wigs. My teacher was furious. My mother thought it was hilarious. The only three things I remember from that classroom are the art trolley, the judges’ wigs, and the assortment of different reward-stickers that I rarely achieved, but learned to steal from behind the teacher’s desk.
You know why I remember these things? Creativity. Problem solving. If, instead of providing us with a shorts-pattern and allowing us to choose our own fabric, the sewing class provided us with an exciting assortment of materials, varying patterns, and free time, things would be very different. Some kids would sit around doing what appeared to be nothing. Some might make clothing, or stuffies or dolls. Some might twist the fabric into ropes and hang like monkeys from the rafters. Can you make a strong enough rope? Can you twist or braid until it holds and doesn’t tear? Can you open up the rope and use it as aerial silks? What kind of fabric will work best? Kids in a class like this will not all learn the same thing. They won’t fit neatly into a system for grading. But they will learn, and they will remember. Those who “do nothing” may in fact be learning social skills, or observation skills. Maybe they’re just processing whatever happened at home that morning. And I guarantee you, it is just as useful to learn to make stuffies, rope or social skills as it is to learn to make shorts. Each of these things involves beneficial lessons; each of them challenges the learner to solve problems and each of them provides opportunity for discovery. And if the teacher makes a point of engaging and appreciating the individualism of each student in their unique activity, each student will be seen. And far more students will have positive, memorable experiences from that class.
Of course not every student is going to learn the same thing. In the shorts class, some of us remember the teacher; some remember the fit of the shorts; some remember shopping for the fabric. The grading rubrics may have been equal, but the lessons were not. Life is like that.
I read George Monbiot’s article about homeschooling his kids through project-based learning, “placing ecology and Earth systems at the heart of learning, just as they are at the heart of life.” And I wish I knew him so I could reach out and say “YES! Yes it works, George! I’ve done this with my children, by just keeping them home and letting them explore the world, and now they understand so many ecologies!” Now they’re thriving in the time of isolation because they’ve already learned how to entertain themselves in creative, explorative ways. They’re thriving and living life.
Ecology is life; we are ecology. Ecology is the interrelationship of everything, and looking at life and parenting and school and learning as just a part of the earth’s great ecology is exactly how we see and recognize each other for our individual gifts and values. And it doesn’t have to happen only at home. This kind of learning can happen at school, too. A group of individual children is an ecology in itself, and it’s deeply rooted in the rest of the world those children relate to. School doesn’t have to be a failure. It doesn’t have to feel like a prison for our children. School can be a vibrant place for meeting up with friends who are exploring, too. School can be an open supported environment of discovery and delight. School can be a place where kids (and adults) come to get creative; to access a bunch of exciting resources and materials and make, do and explore whatever they feel like, until they go home at the end of the day all tired out from laughing and playing and learning. And will they learn to read, with nobody prodding them along with threats of failure? Yes they will! Because actually reading is fun and interesting, though they may not all learn at the same time, or for the same reasons. They will learn to read and to calculate and to care about all kinds of histories and sciences because they will have an intrinsic desire to experiment and discover.
It will be like herding cats. And that will have to be OK with us. Because humans were not built to fall into neat rows and repeat the same words their forefathers repeated in lines of desks with pencils scratching. Humans were not built at all. We are not machines. We are alive, and we are evolving. We are running around like inquisitive, curious cats, sniffing each other and poking each other, and playing with all the mice and the catnip and the strings and cardboard boxes. We are discovering and playing with all that interests us and learning from it and growing and advancing our understanding of how everything works. That is science. And when we have opportunity, we do it of our own free will, because it’s fun.
But how do we get there? We change. We change the way we’re relating to our children, so that being respected and seen is natural to them; so that when they grow up to become teachers and parents, they’ll naturally respect and see the next generation for each individual’s value, and a cycle of true individual engagement and prosperity will have begun.
So I emailed the people at that hydro-electric company. You know what I said to them? I told them that instead of sending their customers challenges, expecting us to submit proof-of-achievement photos to either succeed or fail, they should encourage us to share our own unique energy-saving innovations. Because people are innovative, and we like to share. We like to be seen. And when we feel seen, respected, and valued, we will be successful.
It’s time for us to do the very rewarding work of opening our eyes and seeing each other. We need to see our children, our partners, our friends and co-workers, employees, and just the guy standing ahead of us in the socially-distanced grocery store lineup as individuals who are interesting and valued. It’s time to see ourselves and our activities as unique and essential parts of the great ecology. That is how we succeed as a species.