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Why Kids Need to Question, Not Conform ~ Unleashing Creativity and the Rascal Within

“Creativity is an act of defiance.” ~ Twyla Tharp

My mother will tell you that when I was a child I asked “Why?” a lot. My inquisitive nature was more than just a simple childlike curiosity, though. I was provocative, bent on challenging the facts of life, eager to question conventional thought and practice. Like many kids, there was a little rascal in me who wanted to be different, have a voice, and say No. Little did I, or my mother, realize that this rascal had a larger purpose—to forge a path that brings new thought and possibilities into the world.

Questioning is a natural and necessary part of any change process. Asking “Why?”, wondering, imagining, dreaming new dreams, engaging in healthy open discussions, and challenging existing worldviews all open an array of doors into new paradigms. And kids, with their innovative spirits burning brighter than ever, are at the frontier of the burgeoning creative revolution we are currently in. They are reimagining our future daily by increasingly asking, “What if” and “Why not?”

Kids are the harbingers of new thought.

“Since the jobs that our preschoolers will do probably don’t exist yet, our priority is to teach them the skills to adapt and inquire and question and cooperate…life skills. So much more useful than rigid concepts such as the alphabet.” ~ Caroline Bellouse

How many stories have you heard of young people inventing something that can/does positively serve the planet? Just yesterday I watched a news report on 13 year-old Maxwell Loughan who created an energy-harvesting device out of a coffee can, two coils, some wires and a spoon. For only $14 he created renewable free energy. There is also Daniel Burd, a 16-year-old who found a way to use microbes to degrade plastic bags in as little as three months. Kids are increasingly surpassing conventional logic on what is possible, and boldly standing out with their fierce ideas. They are showing the genius in each of us that, if cultivated, can change the world dramatically.

Yet, despite the widening scope of possibilities for kids today, due in part to technology and the information age, the school system still demands compliance, obedience and conformity at alarming levels. Instead of engaging kids on their thoughts and ideas, on what they want to learn and is meaningful to them, so many are expected to ingest outdated curricula that does not reflect the zeitgeist of our times, nor tap into the potential and curiosity of each student. We are preparing kids for jobs that will no longer exist instead of engaging them on ideas the world needs.

One major US study found that only 15 percent of preschools in 11 states showed evidence of effective interactions between teacher and child.

How can an education system produce more Maxwell Loughan’s and Daniel Burd’s if it struggles to engage the creativity of its students? How can we forge an innovative and healthy new world without the questions only a kid can ask?

“A child can ask questions that a wise man cannot answer.” ~ Author Unknow

Despite demanding conformity from kids, questioning the status quo has almost become common practice for society. What we used to simply accept, turn a blind eye to, or be ignorant of, we now question vigorously: the rigged election system, corporate corruption, food production, animal welfare, consumption and waste and its impact on the earth, education models, and the abuse of children in religious institutions. Thanks to the information age, and some courageous voices, we are more informed and less naïve; we have become global citizens with a voice and a demand for accountability and change.

So why are we not encouraging kids to question more? Why are we not asking these brilliant minds, “What do you think?” more often? What’s possible if the curriculum emerged from their creative inspiration more, and from the institution less?

In a world that increasingly demands new answers, does it not make sense that we encourage kids to ask more questions?

So many of us were taught not to rock the boat; to be seen, not heard; to conform, not form our own opinions. That’s, in part, because if we stood out, or asked “Why?” too many times, we would potentially threaten the hard-won ideals, intelligence and authority of our parents, teachers and the system at large. We’d jiggle their comfortable tight rope. Comply, and we fit in, and the thoughts of what should be were justified. Everyone remained “happy”. Question, however, and the very foundation of our mental and social systems would begin to shake.

Yet, if you pay close attention to world affairs, you’ll see that shaking is exactly what is happening now. And it will continue to happen on larger scales. Our political, economic, religious, and education systems are being put under increasing scrutiny, and in some cases crumbling before our very eyes, because the old operating system (OS) is out of date. And today’s youth are the savvy engineers whose purpose it is to poke at, and point out the flaws of, the existing OS, and creatively construct version 2.0.

When we allow kids to question they do their job.

Behind every No there is a Yes wanting to be heard.

Within each of us lies a rascal, and it serves a purpose. The rascal needs room to play. Its job is to be disruptive to a degree—to say No so we can discover what we need to say Yes to; to jiggle the tight rope we call life; to question and challenge so we avoid complacency, and so space is created for new thought and possibilities to emerge. If suppressed, the rascal may cause disruption in other ways, perhaps by breaking windows, stealing cars, or worse. It needs to be put to good use.

Kids who are disruptive are crying out to be heard. They are trying to say No to something that does not resonate with their creative spirit and intuition, while at the same time attempting to have their inner Yes validated—their questions, desires, needs, feelings, ideas, and perspectives. Their genius! But so many of us don’t look at their Yes, what wants to emerge from them. Instead, we narrow in on their No because we expect them to conform and behave. And then we pathologize and medicate them for being disruptive, for not fitting in and doing as told; for fidgeting when they have been sitting at their desk for hours on end against their body’s wishes. We condemn the kid instead of considering that perhaps the system is not large enough to house their creative spirit. They get anxious and we expect them to self-regulate; meanwhile, we don’t consider our part in it.

One in five Canadian youth have a mental health disorder. The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that 12 to 19 year olds at risk of depression is a staggering 3.2 million.

If kids are not able to do their job—to be the rascal—there is a tremendous loss not only to the individual, but to society as well. Something is needed of them in this world, of the rascal. They are here to stir the pot a little, or a lot; to draw our attention to something only they can see; to help us step off the tight rope we limit ourselves to. But the institution is not paying enough attention, let alone willing to draw their ideas out. Despite the etymology of education being educere—to draw out—we still feel entitled to prioritize putting in, which is a form of control.

And OS 1.0 creaks and puffs ever more.

Is it any coincidence that anxiety and depression rates continue to rise amongst kids? When kids cannot act on their inherent genius, have a voice and choice, and find meaning in what they do—when what is needed of them is discounted time and time again—it’s only natural that their mental health suffers.

“What’s madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?” ~ Theodore Roethke

Welcome the destroyer.

“Something very beautiful happens to people when their world has fallen apart: a humility, a nobility, a higher intelligence emerges at just the point when our knees hit the floor. Perhaps, in a way, that’s where humanity is now: about to discover we’re not as smart as we thought we were, will be forced by life to surrender our attacks and defenses which avail us of nothing, and finally break through into the collective beauty of who we really are.” ~ Marianne Williamson

Throughout various cultures and traditions there exists Gods and archetypes whose purpose is to crack our firm worldviews and cause our knees to tremble. In India there is Shiva, the destroyer. In indigenous cultures there is Coyote, the trickster. And in Slavic folklore Baba Yaga is the one who pulls the warm comfortable blanket out from beneath us. While it may be easy to assume these Gods and archetypes are “out there”, or fiction, they are in fact pointing to a quality inherent within us, and in life. Their purpose is to shake and wake us a little, or a lot, and invite growth that only comes when the life we thought we had or understood is challenged, often to the core.

Consider for a moment: when do you grow the most? When things go smoothly or when the shit hits the fan? Yes, the latter—when things fall apart. Your business collapses, you get that unexpected illness, or your partner suddenly leaves you. Shiva, Coyote and Baba force you to your knees, to examine yourself, including your beliefs, plans, desires, fears, and circumstances; to consider what really matters. Suddenly, who you are, and what you thought life is about, is in question.

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” ~ Woody Allen

Life does not move in a straight predictable line, despite what our security-seeking minds may think and try to achieve. Yet we prioritize A-B-C’s and 1-2-3’s in schools. We evaluate kindergarten students for how well they use scissors to cut along lines on a piece of paper (yes, shockingly it’s true!). So much of education is memorization, linear convergent intelligence, and rote learning practices. We teach kids to learn in a way that does not reflect the unpredictable, non-linear, curve-ball realities of life. We don’t allow them to get messy and learn through chaos, to learn how to learn and on their own terms.

How much do we ask kids to gather and grasp ideas, versus encourage them to consider them lightly, weigh them, toss them in the air, and open to something new? How much do we educate to fill their bucket, versus encourage them to empty it and start over? How much do we pressure them to succeed, versus make it safe to fail? How much do we drive them to be certain, versus allow them to rest in uncertainty; to learn versus unlearn; to deconstruct life versus keep it all together?

How much do we drive kids to build, versus be like Shiva the destroyer, or the four-year old who loves smashing his sandcastle and tower of blocks more than erecting them?

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” ~ Rumi

A friend of mine just did a writing course. On the first day the teacher told the students to begin writing something badly. What a liberating gift that was to the students, especially to those who harshly judge their creative writing / have a relentless inner perfectionist. Permission to fail! The teacher knew that to free the mind from doing it “right”, it needed permission to play with doing it “wrong”. It needed to free itself from both polarities so that the individual could just write from the heart where there is no right or wrong.

Osho the Indian mystical teacher used to tell his disciples to go off and build a hut. So off they would go for weeks or months putting their creative ingenuity to work, and when finally finished, they would proudly rush back to Osho to tell him of their accomplishment. Without mincing words, immediately he would tell them to tear it down. This, perhaps, harsh lesson was intended to teach that life is not so much about building or tearing down, but rather being unattached to either; for in being unattached we remain open to the unpredictable currents of life; to the unexpected; to something more—the field Rumi points to.

That is the gift of questioning—staying open. Attachment to the answer keeps us clinging to our hut, our tightrope, our past, our outdated worldviews, that old lesson plan, the expectations of our parents, society, “right” and “wrong”, what no longer works. It keeps us from learning, growing and moving on.

Kids, with their vivid imagination and bubbling curiosity, eagerly redirect us to the spaces between our well-tread answers where the seeds of a promising future can be sewn. They do the work of Shiva, Coyote and Baba Yaga, stirring the pot of conformist culture, shaking stifling curricula and ideologies, breaking us open from rigid thought towards wild frontiers. That’s their job. That’s the job of rascallike curiosity—to make our knees tremble and minds open.

“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” ~ Eugene Ionesco

In suspending my knowing I open to yours.

“Teaching is not about answering questions but about raising questions—opening doors for them in places that they could not imagine.” ~ Yawar Baig

Many years ago a wise woman told me that the more I know the more I will realize that I don’t know. This has certainly been true. Life for me has been as much about gathering as emptying. I learn and then I question what I know. That way I remain open to the unexpected. In this I aim to remain humble.

It’s difficult for teachers to welcome a “Why?”, or counter-point of view from kids if they are heavily invested in the current culture of thought; if their paycheck, comfort, or more deeply, their identity depends on it. It can be experienced as an affront to who they are, their authority. What is needed is greater humility on behalf of the institution, and certain teachers, so that the rascal is invited out to play, and so that adults can consider that perhaps they don’t know the answer. Maybe they are the student and the kid is the teacher.

Now we move into a different collaborative-based model of education, one that better reflects what Socrates had in mind when he believed that his students had inherent wisdom within, and that expressing this wisdom was essential in advancing the learning process. We move into a model of education that better reflects the intelligence of our natural world, with the classroom acting like an ecosystem—reciprocal in nature, fluid and adaptable. We move into educere.

“Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water. Through an active, reciprocal exchange, teaching can strengthen learning how to learn.” ~ Loris Malaguzzi

Change comes from standing out, not fitting in.

“When you are born into a world where you don’t fit in, it’s because you were born to help create a new one.” ~ Anonymous

The change we need is not going to come from fitting in, but rather breaking apart and standing out. The great leaders of the past were often persecuted because they stood for something the world was not ready to hear. Who are you to… was the perspective held by those who tortured and killed countless revolutionaries for their unusual worldviews. Again, the worldviews the persecutors held were deeply identified with. A threat to their worldview was a threat to their existence. It was safer to conform than stand out.

Fortunately, we live in more tolerant times. But still, we persecute the intelligence and creativity of kids everyday by failing to respect and be curious about their unique lens and gifts. We persecute them by giving them pills for their inability to cope with being told “Yes but” countless times. We persecute them by creating a culture of grading and testing to the bone, and making kids desperately afraid to fail.

How can kids stand out with their inherent brilliance if not encouraged to explore their imagination and intuition; if they are being evaluated for how well they cut paper in kindergarten; if linearity and predictability reign supreme; if they are taught to fit in? For them it has become safer to succeed at fitting in than fail at standing out, especially with the amount of pressure they feel today—the pressure to be smart, make it, look cool, get into university, pay their obscene college debt, and get a good job.

Yet, are more people doing jobs they don’t like what our world needs? Do we need more cogs in OS 1.0? Or do we need a revolution stirred by the questions, “Why?” “Why not?” and “What if?” that will build the jobs our world needs and feed the souls of those filling those positions? As Clark Aldrich says, “The jobs for the future are no longer Manager, Director, or Analyst, but Entrepreneur, Creator and even Revolutionary.”

Put information into kids and you prepare them for jobs they have no personal relationship with. Draw information out and you help them find a calling that will change the world.

It’s time the institution serves the creative spirit. 

“What is essential is to realize that children learn independently, not in bunches; that they learn out of interest and curiosity, not to please or appease the adults in power; and that they ought to be in control of their own learning, deciding for themselves what they want to learn and how they want to learn it.” ~ John Holt

Teachers are in a unique position to remind kids that something is needed of them in this world, and to create the environment for their gifts and dreams to be nurtured and realized. What an opportunity for the education system! The question is: will the institution catch up to modern times and stop educating kids based on an industrial factory model that is more about compliance, conformity and obedience than nurturing innovative minds? Will the system reform enough so we don’t have a 30:1 ratio of students to teachers; so we are not teaching kids years worth of information they will never use, and that they can now access by one click of the finger? Will the system create enough space in the cluttered curriculum for teachers to act on their intuition, their heart, and creatively leverage teachable moments so they can feed the hearts of those before them?

Will the institution take the risk to ask “Why?” “Why not?” and “What if?”

Nearly half of all new teachers in Canada are quitting after only 5 years for a reason—how can teachers love their job if they feel like just another cog in OS 1.0; if their overwhelming lesson plan and class size prevent them from acting on their intuitive nudges and stoking the creative fire in each kid and classroom; if they are just as afraid to stand out as their students?

I cannot tell you how many teachers have shed tears in my playshops, feeling the ceaseless pressures to meet exceedingly high expectations; feeling handcuffed in their desire to reach the heart of their students; afraid to fail the system, the parents, the students and themselves.

It’s time the institution serves the creative spirit of both student and teacher: for greater permission to be given to both to question, wonder, explore, imagine, debate, get messy and create; to have their mind and heart, their intellect and intuition, engaged; to have plenty of unstructured time to explore their own ideas, and plenty of opportunities to engage in hands-on relevant learning; and to ensure that any structure given serves its purpose—to support creative exploration, not limit it.

Its time to see and treat individuals as incredibly capable, and practice educere; to be willing to lay down our pride at the alter of curiosity, and for a brief while consider that maybe we don’t know what is best, including what and how others should learn. Maybe people know more than we can imagine, even the little ones.

“Children come into the world exquisitely designed, and strongly motivated, to educate themselves. They don’t need to be forced to learn; in fact, coercion undermines their natural desire to learn.” ~ Peter Gray

As soon as we stop questioning and assume we know, we stop growing. And so too does the world. But if for a moment we offer ourselves to the crucible of uncertainty, we invite the unexpected—the wisdom and gifts bursting from the hearts and minds of today’s kids that the world is waiting for; the creative possibilities for a reformed education system taught by inspired and engaged teachers.

It’s going to take something fresh and new to create the world we want. It’s going to take a radical shift based in honest evaluation, deep self-awareness, genuine curiosity, creative minds, and bold courageous action. We are speaking of leadership now, not just educating.

It’s time to tear down the hut, perhaps not completely, but certainly in part.

“The ultimate gift we can give the world is to grow our tiny humans into adult humans who are independent thinkers, compassionate doers, conscious questioners, radical innovators, and passionate peacemakers. Our world doesn’t need more adults who blindly serve the powerful because they’ve been trained to obey authority without question. Our world needs more adults who challenge and question and hold the powerful accountable.” ~ L.R. Knost

About the author: Vince Gowmon presents keynotes and playshops and offers somatic Life Coaching and Counselling in person, on Skype and over the phone. For more of his writing, subscribe to his free e-newsletter. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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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

Related training:
Teacher as Leader and Learner
~ Inspiring Engaged Co-Creative Learning
Remembering to Play ~ Inspiring Joy, Freedom & Self Care
Keynote information

Related reading:
We Over-Educate Children Because We Over-Think and Are Afraid to Feel
The Disease of Being Right

Is it the Truth?
~ Question Your Beliefs and Expand Possibilities
Children Are Here to Help Us Birth a New World
Transcending the Illusion of Success
~ Thriving in Heart-felt and Hard-won Truth

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