A Tale of Two Troublemakers. (And the Teachers Who Teach Them.)

This past week I’ve had two college guys named Johnny* and Christopher* building a table in my garage. They live in an apartment and asked if they could use our tools and our space to carry out their building project.

I’ve been wandering past them as I come and go from the house, seeing their progress and chatting about things going on in their lives. Our lives have intersected in a number of different ways over the past 10 years so there’s always a lot to talk about.

This has gotten me to thinking about friends. And schooling. And raising kids.

Johnny and Christopher were homeschooled. They were very close friends of my second son, Jesse. Collectively, they probably weren’t an impressive group to people who care a lot about school grades and academic discipline. They marched to a little different drummer and they spent a lot of time in high school thinking about how to avoid doing schoolwork. In the homeschool co-op where I was a leader and teacher, the three boys often appeared disinterested in their classes and they got in their share of trouble. Christopher often bragged that he rarely did any schoolwork and was typically working long into the summer trying to catchup.

So, how are these two “troublemakers” doing today? Johnny and Christopher are not just doing well, they seem to have surpassed a lot of their peers in many of the ways that count. Christopher is working himself through college and, in the process, was recently promoted to a managerial position in the large company where he works. He’s a high school ministry leader at a local church. He’s the first person we call on in the family business for assistance in a bind when we need a hard worker, a person we can trust, and someone who can take charge and manage issues as they arise with a large degree of confidence and good sense.

Johnny is finishing up on college and owns an online business. He’s a vociferous reader and reads the writings of all the great philosophers for pleasure. It’s hard to keep up with him in a discussion or argument about politics, philosophy or sociology. This past summer he and my son decided it would be fun to spend some time in a foreign country so they purchased the cheapest airline ticket to the cheapest country they could find to visit and spent three weeks living on their own in Germany, Switzerland, France, and Czechoslovakia. They are fearless that way.

Johnny and Christopher are independent and self-directed, confident to a fault at times. They are also fun and funny. The apartment they share is constantly full of friends. There’s a string of girls lined up that want to date them. Life is not passing them by.

But this is not just a tale about Johnny and Christopher. It’s a tale about the teachers who teach them. And that includes me.

You see, when Johnny and Christopher said they wanted to build a custom table for their apartment in our garage I immediately reverted back to my old teacher/student relationship with them. In other words, I started telling them what to do. And what I was telling them was ALL wrong.

First, I immediately assumed that since Johnny and Christopher had no construction experience that they couldn’t build a table. So I told them they should buy one. Second, because I knew they had little money, I suggested Goodwill or the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store as places to shop. I did what a lot of adults and teachers do when they relate to children: I tried to replace their goals with mine and completely lowered expectations in the process.

Thankfully, true to form, Johnny and Christopher didn’t listen to the teacher.

You see, Johnny and Christopher didn’t want MY table. They wanted a custom table that would perfectly fit the space and meet the varied needs of the people living in their apartment at the time. They never even considered the possibility they couldn’t build the table, proving once again that confident and resourceful people can accomplish and learn almost anything if they really want and need to do it (if they haven’t been convinced otherwise by teachers and other “do-gooders.”) People who really want something don’t need a formal class or curriculum in order to do it. And they certainly don’t need a trained teacher to help them figure it out.

Here’s how Johnny and Christopher built the table: They designed a bar-style, high-top table that would fit perfectly snug between two walls in their apartment. They then tracked down FREE wood (pallets) so they could afford to build what they wanted. They followed that up by borrowing from friends the tools and space they needed to build the table. They carved out time from their busy school and work schedules to work late into the night throughout the course of a week. They were resourceful enough to ask my husband for design and construction advice along the way. (And to borrow our truck to haul the table back to their apartment once it was built). The finished piece was truly useful and beautiful.

A Tale of Two Troublemakers. (And the Teachers Who Teach Them.) serves as a great reminder of how adults often mishandle smart kids and learning. We (adults) think we have all the answers and that children will benefit from what we know. But children learn by creating and problem-solving on their own, not being force-fed answers to questions they didn’t ask. We limit children to our own understanding of the world, holding them back from becoming much greater than we ever were. We suggest imperfect solutions that don’t meet needs when children are willing and able to construct perfect ones that do.

Johnny and Westin wanted a custom table in their apartment and I suggested a common one. They wanted a masterpiece and I suggested a piece of junk. They wanted to work hard and I suggested they take the easy way out.This is the way of teachers.

Thankfully, Johnny and Westin don’t listen to teachers. They have always been “troublemakers.”

Until next time….Be fearless.

*Names have been changed.

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Learning is as Simple as Finding Ways to Do What You Really Want To Do

One of the ideas I often explore on this blog is the curious adult notion that the purpose of childhood is to prepare for adulthood.

The average American will spend almost 12,000 hours of their childhood in school, not counting homework. Many will also go to pre-school. Most will go to college. And, all along the way, parents will beg their children to do things they don’t want to do or need to do as preparation for some vague and inexplicable future goal of adulthood.

Even as a young child this frustrated me. At six-years-old, I thought I was already a master of learning. I could communicate in one of the most difficult languages in the world — English. I could count well enough to buy all the candy that interested me at the gas station. I could follow enough rules to get along at home and church. I had figured out how to make friends (in the neighborhood) and influence people (my parents). And I hadn’t even started school yet.

Oh, yes, learning was easy: It was as simple as finding a way to do all the things I really wanted to do.

This is the essence and motivation of learning. It does not happen in a vacuum. If you get hungry, you find food. If you need to get somewhere, you find your way. If you get lost, you find your way back. It’s really that simple. Or maybe it’s hard. But if you really want or need something to happen, you find a way to get it done.

The problem is that adults see childhood learning not as mastering moments, but practicing for the future. They think children need to learn the map before they even have a place to go.

That might be a nice plan if it were even possible. It’s not. Too many destinations.

It might be an interesting pursuit, if it worked. It doesn’t. Too little childhood motivation.

Forcing people to memorize maps with no destination in mind is about as effective as forcing children to learn things in school when they don’t understand the point.

When my oldest son, Zac, was little, he asked my husband and I a deep question: “What’s softer,” he asked, “cotton candy or God?”

Adults think questions like these are cute. “Ha. Ha. That’s funny. Now stop day dreaming and learn your alphabet.”

We (adults) interrupt childhood and all the wonderful real learning and discovery that happens there to start preparing children for a future they can’t envision. When this process proves difficult, we do what all American parents do: we FORCE learning out of them.

At five years old, we sent our son, Zac, to kindergarten, where he worked on one new letter of the alphabet each week. After four weeks, we got an email from the teacher saying Zac couldn’t remember the name or the sounds of the letters they had worked on and could we please work with him at home.

Concerned parents that we were, of course we did what the teacher asked. Drill, drill, drill, regurgitate, regurgitate, regurgitate. Night after long night.

And Zac learned the four letters. Success!

Or was it? By the beginning of October of his kindergarten year, Zac hated school. He hated it so much he cried every morning, even on the day the class was slated to take a field trip to a local pumpkin patch. By Christmas, our family was meeting with a counselor to assist Zac with increasing school-related anxiety.

Here’s the truth about forced learning. It works. The child might hate it and the teachers and parents might too, but, if you work a child hard enough and drill him long enough, he will eventually be able to repeat back almost everything you want him to know.

Anybody can learn the alphabet this way. Anybody. Sit a child down and show him a flashcard of the letter “A.” Then say, “this letter is an A.” Lay the flashcard down and then immediately pick it back up again. “What is this letter?” If he’s forgotten, you might have to remind him. But repeat the flashcard process until he remembers the name of the letter. And he WILL eventually remember it.

Until he forgets it again. Which, in that case, means you start the memory process over again. This is how we teach children in schools. It may look different in some places and at some ages, but it’s basically the same all over, even in college: Learn stuff you don’t want to learn until you forget it. Then learn it again.

We don’t teach children. We condition them.

But, you ask, “Don’t children need to learn to do things they don’t like to do?” Or “Left to their own devices, won’t children choose to do nothing and never learn anything?”

Not at all. As children mature, they are increasingly able to understand the long-term benefits of any given decision and adjust their short-term actions accordingly, even in academics. If they really want to sing the alphabet song, they work hard to learn their letters. If they really want to read, they work hard to learn their sounds. Desire and need are the fuel of success and learning. Children and adults alike learn what they need to learn in order to do what they want to do.

This is “the grind” of life. People do the hard things in the short-term if they want the long-term results bad enough. For young children, school is all grind with no obvious payoff. This is why school takes so long to accomplish so little.

Recently we had a cable guy at our house installing a new cable box. It was 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and the guy entered carrying a huge “Gulp” drink from a convenience store. He had to go outside twice to take a smoke. He seemed indifferent when we noticed things weren’t working quite right. Finally, I shooed him on his way.

I know nothing about cable systems. I know less about electronics. But I know this: I wanted my cable system to work a lot more than the cable guy wanted my system to work. That put me at a distinct advantage over the expert. I sent the cable guy packing so I could get to work on understanding and solving the problem myself.

Never underestimate the potential of a person on a mission. Never overestimate a person who is not. Most children in school are on YOUR mission. You might as well get out the flashcards right now because the only way children are going to learn something of YOUR choosing is if you drill it in to them. But, if you wait until children are old enough to see and understand the need, they will learn it quickly and easily on their own terms. They will not need a childhood of flashcards, drill, and review to get it done.

After our disastrous school experience with our first child, we decided to delay formal academics with our second, especially the reading process. The results were startlingly effective. In fact, we didn’t have to teach our second child, Kelsey, to read at all. There came a point at about age 7 where Kelsey decided she wanted to be able to read all the beautiful and interesting books in our home. So she taught herself how to do it using a very natural approach commonly referred to as “whole language.” 

Learning to read is like all learning: Children learn what they want to learn in order to do what they want to do. 

Until next time…be fearless.