“It’s only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know.” ~ Henry David Thoreau
A friend unreservedly praised her wise young daughter while proudly showing me a picture of this rising star. Only 18 years of age, she, at the time, had already left home, knowing, as she had for many years, exactly where she wanted to live—in the progressive community of Nelson, Canada, amongst others she held as like-mind. With a wistful smile, my friend recounted an outstanding mindset her daughter had which she relentlessly advised her mother of—“question everything”; to look beyond the literal, the surface features of life, and sense that lying beyond the veil of reality most in the West traditionally acquiesce to. This young seeker knew there was so much more…
Young people today are indeed resounding bright lights, regularly challenging and reaching beyond conventional limits. Rachel Brouwer is a testament to this. At only 13 years old, her and her brother “were hiking in New Hampshire, and we saw the lakes and the rivers, and then we saw the ‘Contaminated: Do Not Drink’ signs,” Brouwer recalls. “And, at the same time I was reading the ‘I am Malala’ book and in that book many women and children were dying from the cholera outbreak. So, I kind of put the two ideas together and I wanted to help people in need.”
Brouwer was inspired to invent a water cleaning system that eventually won a Gold Medal at the Canada-Wide Science Fair. She also won the Best Junior Environmental Project Challenge. Her system is to be tested in Africa and Pakistan.
Like the wise daughter of my friend and so many other youth, Brouwer asked the pertinent questions most others simply cannot or do not want to ask. Is this the way it has to be? What could be another perspective? What do I know to be true? What’s possible?
Brouwer is part of a surging wave of courageous, intelligent and imaginative young minds, a wave unlike any we’ve seen in history. Whether it is 16-year-old Daniel Burd who found a way to use microbes to degrade plastic bags in as little as three months, or 19-year-old Boyan Slat who created an Ocean Cleanup Array that can remove 7,250,000 tons of waste from the world’s oceans, today’s kids are readily displaying acts of genius. Their will is strong. They are challenging conventions. They are listening to their hearts, their feelings, the winds of intuition. They see something we cannot, and are unwilling to settle. They are redefining what it means to be a young person living on this planet.
Dr. Michio Kaku was one of those precocious kids. “I went to my mom one day after school” he recalls, “and said, ‘Mom, I want to build an atom smasher. I want to build a 2.3 million electron-volt betatron in a garage.’ And my mom sort of stared at me and said, ‘Sure. Why not?’”
Dr. Kaku is now a theoretical physicist, bestselling author, acclaimed public speaker, renowned futurist, and popularizer of science. As co-founder of String Field Theory, Dr. Kaku carries on Einstein’s quest to unite the four fundamental forces of nature into a single grand unified theory of everything.
Thank goodness his mother trusted his wild daemon, Latin for one’s inner genius or calling, the deeper part of ourselves that knows what no one can ever teach us. Thank goodness she allowed him to follow his daemon and blew gentle wind on his excited sparks.
American author Clark Aldrich knows about our daemon. He notes, “Each child has a spark of genius waiting to be discovered, ignited, and fed. And the goal of schools shouldn’t be to manufacture ‘productive citizens’ to fill some corporate cubicle; it should be to inspire each child to find a ‘calling’ that will change the world. The jobs for the future are no longer Manager, Director, or Analyst, but Entrepreneur, Creator, and even Revolutionary.”
Indeed, these unstoppable kids are Entrepreneurs, Creators and Revolutionaries changing the world.
Stoking the creative sparks each child natively bears is thus an honor—an honor to the child, the adult and the waiting world. Each parent and teacher has this precious opportunity every day—a chance to make an impression on a child, one that encourages each to create the solutions our world will increasingly require.
The Gift of Ignorance
“You had a purpose before anyone had an opinion.” ~ Unknown
A particular mindset caregivers would be wise to inhabit, and that the aforementioned 18-year-old daughter and Dr. Kaku’s mother modeled, is that of ignorance—of being willing to humbly rest in not knowing. Your uncertainty around what is true, what can be, and what is best, may just be one of the most charitable gifts you can give a child who is here to do what parents and classrooms cannot properly prepare them for.
One particular grade-nine math teacher is a fine example of being bold in bestowing generous ignorance. She had little experience teaching on the subject when first starting, yet, like many teachers, was thrust into the position face-to-face with her own incompetence. This incompetence, her uncertainty, while initially appearing to be a curse, was a blessing after all, to her and her students.
“One day stands out above all”, she recounted. When needing to teach polynomials and feeling the crunch of her insecurity she made the courageous choice to fess up with her students and say, “I’m not really a math teacher. I know little about polynomials. Teach me, show me what a polynomial is.”
The students accepted the challenge. They went online, figured out what a polynomial was, had discussions amongst themselves, and shared their findings and existing understandings with classmates and the teacher. The result was that “it was the best class I’d ever had”, said the teacher.
Note: she didn’t say that it was the best class she ever taught. In this class, on this particular subject matter, teaching was facilitation—the facilitation of knowledge already present, available without the teacher’s interference. The students were engaged, in charge of their learning, to a degree, happier than they would have been had they been taught a lesson.
What’s possible if adults said, “I don’t know” more often? What might emerge from young ones, from the geniuses before them?
This can be difficult to the degree that the teacher’s self-esteem, respect from peers, professional status, and finances are invested in their authority of knowledge. Yet with the emergence of co-constructive education, admitting ignorance, admitting that you are not the authority of knowledge, is absolutely essential. We must now, in true service of children and their daemon, perceive them as more of an authority than we ever have.
From teaching to facilitating
“The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.” ~ Mark Van Doren
What if we treated a child as a holistic healer treats a client? Healers are humble enough to recognize that they don’t actually do the healing, but rather facilitate the healing that naturally wishes to occur. The intelligence native to the body knows what is needed, how the blockages wish to resolve themselves—not the practitioner. The healer is there to simply and gently facilitate this process, to follow, not lead, to hold space, not interfere. (Some directing and leading is necessary in education, of course; to be spoken of further down.)
While education shows signs of progress towards co-constructive learning, so much of the institution still reflects allopathic medical models—taking charge/directing with little respect for native creative intelligence. For, inherent within Western education is the belief that learning begins in the teacher’s mind, when, in fact, it begins in the child’s heart.
Children deserve to be treated as brilliant and creative from the day they are born; to have their daemon honored and respected. They deserve to be raised and educated from the premise that they are natural, willing, and capable learners, just as holistic healers honor the body’s natural capacity to heal. Only then, from this most humane foundation, can we truly serve a child’s learning and development.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The secret in education lies in respecting the student.” It lies in seeing them for who they truly are. This, by the way, is love.
“My best teachers were not the ones who knew all the answers, but those who were deeply excited by the questions they could not answer.” ~ Brian Greene
In grade two Jack was clearly struggling. He was unfocused, distracting others, and, for the most part, not enjoying himself. The concerned teacher thought she could help him regulate by offering him a big bouncy ball to sit on. A thoughtful idea, but it did nothing. She then placed a weighted mat on his lap thinking this may calm and ground him. That too caused no change. There was a treadmill in the classroom and she suggested he go for a run. But again, nothing shifted. Jack was still unhappy and causing distress in others.
Out of desperation she called Jack’s mother, Nicole, and suggested the only possibility left was to take away his recess. That, of course, was the last thing Nicole felt would support Jack, but she held her frustration in check and respectfully told the teacher to keep considering other options.
One day the teacher, having run out of ideas, decided to do something radically different. She went up to Jack and asked, “When you get those feelings (angst, etc), what do you need?” To which Jack replied, “I need to go in the hallway and draw.”
A fork in the road opened in front of the teacher. She had a choice to make: continue assuming she knows what is best for Jack and trying to fix him, or accept she does not know, and that Jack does.
The latter was chosen, thankfully, and Jack was set free to sit and draw as he wished.
In her desperation she finally yielded her authority and was willing to “question everything”, including her idea that she held the answer; including questioning Jack. In her curiosity, her asking, she released control. You cannot be curious and know at the same time. Knowledge was set aside for uncertainty. Uncertainty was a loss of control, as expressed in no longer being able to control Jack.
Sometimes the answer comes when we release our fierce grip of certitude, of agendas. When we give up.
Three days later Jack no longer walked the long walk of shame home with his communication book in his backpack listing all the areas he needed to improve on. His parents no longer had to endure the pressure to review and deliver the admonishments written down by the teacher. And at the end of the school year, Jack was awarded Most Improved Student!
The teacher never knew. She could not. Through her failings she was forced into humble ignorance, into recognizing that she was not the authority in Jack’s learning and development in that moment. Jack was. And drawing was the curriculum, emerging organically, naturally from the child, as learning is meant to.
Just as healing naturally emerges in the body.
This story is a reminder that we cannot make a child learn; we cannot make anyone learn. This is an old story, a false one. All we can do is provide the right conditions for learning to happen. And even those we may not know. Jack knew the learning and conditions. Drawing was the learning and sitting in the hallway was the condition. Both were perfect for how he was feeling, for what his heart and mind needed, for what wanted to emerge.
Nicole went on to share these touching words I’m sure many parents can relate to:
“I am so thankful that this teacher really listened to my son and trusted that he knew what was best for him. It is so hard to have a child and release them to the world. I really just want people to see the amazing person that he is and for his journey to not be too rough. I am so thankful that this teacher let the real Jack shine during his time in her class.”
You let someone shine by backing off a bit, by granting power to the authority of their inner fire—the fire of wisdom, the fire of imagination, the fire of intuition, the fire of gifts and talents each of us is born with. Indeed, ignorance can be bliss when given to a child, bliss for both the adult and young one.
“Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before.” ~ Loris Malaguzzi
This, of course, is not about giving up all agendas, all knowledge, all structure, all direction. Rather, it is about having the wisdom to know what is needed, how much, and when. And you know this, you feel this, in part, by giving up what you know; by feeling into that vulnerable space between busy thoughts and accumulated knowledge where wisdom and sensitivity arise, and from where you can more easily and respectfully attune to another.
This is not easy in a cluttered, hectic, classroom where the teacher has a litany of learning outcomes s/he has to meet. I recognize this dilemma, the need to push and take charge when pressured and short on time. Schools are but an expression of the larger, chaotic system at hand—the ambitious, busy, controlling Western world bent on the pursuit of knowledge, rigidly steeped in intellectual capital, getting that grade, getting into that school, getting that job, getting that paycheck. The Western world is built upon generations and generations of authority instincts—knowledge is power, competition, delusions of success, power over—instincts that are rooted in longstanding cultural survival imprints.
Knowledge and survival
As a child, Todd’s older brothers used to pick on him to the point of abuse. His parents did not protect him in ways he dearly needed. To cope, he hid himself in his room and in his books where he began a long journey of losing himself in his reading. This consumption spanning many years eventually led him to become an ardent academic; he earned two Masters degrees and a PhD. During an extended period of personal struggle and deep questioning, however, Todd realized that he had given up his daemon for the intellect. He could out-think others, out-know them, and, in this, have a sense of control, of authority, and the safety he never had as a child; but he was deeply unhappy.
How many of us find safety, approval and power in knowledge, motivated from old wounds, old intellectual coping mechanisms?
How many of us fear asking for help, failing, admitting incompetency or mediocrity. How many resist saying I don’t know. When knowledge becomes our means of safety and survival, when we are measured, tested, ranked, graded and compared for a great deal of our first twenty years, in and out of school, admitting ignorance is a struggle, if not impossible.
Kids these days demonstrate this inner struggle, this aversion to uncertainty, in their ardent quest for the answers. “Don’t tell me why I need to learn this,” they tell teachers. “Just tell me what I need to know in order to get the grade I need.” Get to the facts, they demand, not the nuance, not the reasoning behind why this subject matter may be important. Forget thinking about something. Forget considering how something came to be. Forget imagination. Just inject me with my fix of knowledge!
So much of their survival instincts are at play here. Their increasingly pressured need to make it in the world depends on their grades, and thus on knowledge. And when learning isn’t enjoyable, as it is for most students, it means school is less about the process and more about the outcome. It’s less about exploring (including questioning and being uncertain) and more about knowing, getting it right. As two grade nine students told me, school is just about passing tests.
The complacent learner
I witness the complacent learner mindset in my experiential / interactive playshops I lead for organizations. With chairs in a horseshoe and no tables, participants walk in the room startled—there is no place to hide. They know something different is going to be asked from them. They would much rather safely sit at a table all day, hidden behind their large stack of notes and cup of java, while I fill their minds with information, than step into the center of the horseshoe and participate in their learning.
They’d much prefer the allopathic route of learning whereby I simply give them a pill full of knowledge and do it for them than have me facilitate their learning from the inside out. Not a surprise given that from early on this is how we’ve been taught to learn. Less through engaged experience, and more through obedience.
A woman I met at a professional development conference told me she participated in eight breakout sessions. When I asked how many were experiential her answer did not surprise me. None. All were led didactically.
This is not how we learn, but it’s how we stay comfortable. When learning is facilitated rather than fed there is a greater degree of unpredictability—of uncertainty—and this frightens us. It’s far more likely that we stumble and fail if we participate in our learning than if we just take it. When a client lays on a table before a healer there is far more vulnerability experienced than when going for a 10 minute impersonal chat with a doctor who writes a prescription for them. The client is a more active participant in holistic healing. They must reveal themselves at much deeper levels if they are to be healed, just as one must be seen in the center of the horseshoe if they are to have a fuller learning experience.
(A side note: those who feel resistance initially eventually love my playshops. They are just not used to learning through engagement and experience—as children learn. Why would they be? We’ve forgotten how to be childlike.)
Adult child collusion
And so kids are grasping for information and adults are quite happy to give it to them. This is the collusion at play. Adults act as if they know and kids believe them:
Tell me, parent/teacher, what I need to know and I’ll make you proud. Let me tell you, young one, so that I can feel proud (of myself). Tell me, teacher, what I need to know so that I can appease my need to survive. Let me tell you, young one, so that I can survive.
Does this not remind you of confession? When we believed the priest to be the only intermediary between man and God? How much of our school system reflects these old Christian values of authority while denying the spirit, the daemon, present within each person?
Knowledge serves no one if little arises from the kids. Knowledge is simply recycled from one person to the next. If something new and unique and beautiful and creative is to come into this world it must come from within, from our innate creative daemon that surpasses the intellect. To draw out this immanence from kids one must forgo their hubris and learn to become childlike again.
“The best teacher of children, in brief, is one who is essentially childlike.” ~ H. L. Mencken
Small children don’t care about evaluating a butterfly or a leaf. What fills their heart is simply being with this sentience—touching it, delighting in its textures and movement, not needing it to become anything other than it is. This same enchantment is required from adults when they perceive a young curious heart and mind desiring, like all children do, to burst forth into the world. In wonder adults can more easily stand with the child in their unique world, curious about what wants to move from this young being, what textures and colors they wish to play with.
It is not about shaping the child, turning them into a product produced by the school system for society. We do not need more manufactured citizens lining our busy streets in their dark suits, starched collars and constraining ties. We need bold thinkers, deep feelers, imaginative souls who uniquely shape the world from their unique interiority.
“Kids deserve the right to think that they can change the world.” ~ Lois Lowry
Kids are our future, yet the future is unknown. Let it be such, for do we really want the future to reflect the present that we know of? Do we want history repeated, or something fresh, something wondrous, something never done before?
A standardized mind will create a standardized world. But no child, no soul, can be standardized; at least they are not meant to be. They are to be uniquely and rightfully themselves, much like every other facet of nature that fails to resemble any other facet. Moreover, it’s safe to say that the standard world we live in is broken and crumbling. An undomesticated spirit is needed to lead us to a world that can breathe fresh life again.
Therefore, for the sake of the child, for the sake of life, set your knowledge aside for a moment, or longer. Be like a child—humble in ambiguity, curious, knowing that your ignorance may be one of the great gifts you can bestow on a child. And in that space of uncertainty children can fill their life with their own flavor of heart-felt creativity and knowledge. Room is made for it to be birthed, with you, hands open, being a loving facilitator for them, a receiver of their dreams.
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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults