Whether we like it or not there’s always other stuff going on: we’re teaching what we think of our students, whether we value other people’s time or feelings, how we think we should speak to people, how a person might be in the world…
All the time – consciously or not, or both – teachers are sending messages about what it means to be at school, about what education is for, whether this stuff we’re learning is part of the thrill of a lifetime or a necessary chore.
We play a huge role in determining whether or not our students like school, and the qualities that we reward and emphasise – risk taking or obedience, creativity or following the script, delight or the humdrum, kindness or indifference or worse – shape our kids’ days and so – their futures.
As with so many things, what we do and how we do it speaks louder than what we say.
Put aside AI and machine learning for a minute, and ask instead:
“What does it take to equip a human to be self-teaching?”
As a starting point – how many lines of code does it take to make a child who can read with fluency and ease and with critical understanding, and who loves reading, and is motivated to read and learn more?
We just tidied my kids’ bookcase, and I took a moment – okay, more than a moment – to count the books.
There are 519 books on this book case (including those on the floor and nearby that should be on it).
There are picture books, stories, touch-and-feel books, comics, small novels, catalogues, phonics books, kids bibles, magazines, science books, poetry, stories and non-fiction books about other cultures, lots of books about cars, even a couple of hand-written and coloured books by his great aunt, and a couple of notebooks with short and often unfinished stories that he’s written himself.
He’s had them read and re-read to him by a range of people, had pictures pointed out, words explained, sounds and meanings spelled out, questions asked.
He’s listened, looked, laughed, frowned, cried on occasion, got fed up, desperately begged to have them read to him, been indifferent.
And he’s read them repeatedly by himself: browsed their pages, poured over the pictures, flicked through them, gone back to favourite bits again and again, skipped the endings or skipped to the endings, tried out the words, phrases and attitudes, in the real world come to us with questions, absorbed our answers, disagreed with our interpretations, shared with us bits that he’s loved, come to us with things that have scared him, made up stories just like them, and new stories of his own.
Did I mention the 250 leveled reading books – the books specifically designed to help kids learn to read – that live upstairs? Here’s a selection:
Or the books we’ve borrowed from friends or read at their houses, the books read at or borrowed from libraries?
Or the ebooks?
He’s probably read about a thousand books.*
190,000 and the less-than-one-percent
But it’s not just about numbers – which books he’s read is as important as how many. Most of these books are a custom selection, just for him, made by someone with his current tastes and future growth in mind (my wife is something of a book-picking phenomenon) from the roughly 190,000 books aimed at children under 12 that are available to him in our culture.**
So the selection on these shelves represents the tip of a huge pyramid – roughly the best, most engaging and most appropriate 0.5% of books written for people like him.
Don’t forget the wrapper
That – the books themselves and the wrapper of love, support, enthusiasm, the culture of curiosity and valuing education, the relative affluence, and living in an economy that makes books like these cheaper than ever before if you bide your time and look out for deals – is what it takes to produce a solid reader at age seven or eight.
*I’ll try to estimate how many words this represents another time **My point of reference for this was the number of books available on Amazon.co.uk – see this post for more information.
It’s fine to start with your own or those closest to you. If those kids aren’t your kids, it’s hard to see how any others possibly can be.
So ask yourself: what will it take for those kids closest to me to thrive – to have the kind of future I hope they’ll have?
They’ll need to love and be loved, to stay safe, to have enough to eat and drink, to have chances to learn and make mistakes. They’ll need friends, peers, juniors, seniors, neighbours, teachers, colleagues, leaders, followers, allies and possibly opponents. They’ll need people to build infrastructure and people to operate and maintain it. They’ll need medical care. They’ll need places to go and things to do and see. They’ll need clean air and water and plants and animals and natural beauty. They’ll need practical skills and art and science and wisdom and faith.
Our kids need all of these and many more to live well and, eventually, to die well too. So starting from the future-that-is-becoming-the-present – that is, starting from right now, and forever after – our kids will need other people just to live, let alone to thrive.
And not just any people – our kids need as many of the right sort of people as possible – people who can flourish, and help those around them to flourish too.
So of course, we start with the kids closest to us – of course we do. But even in the unlikely event that you only cared about yourself and those closest to you, when we’re talking about education for the future and what our kids need, we can be clear that “our kids” can’t just mean your kids.
Our kids need other kids, and the adults that those kids will become.
The best – the only – way to prepare our kids for any future is by showing them a vision of a flourishing life, and by equipping them with the best tools we have to achieve it, and with the wisdom to use those tools well.
Stu Patience / Driverlesscroc
“Our kids” can mean several things.
My biological children.
The children in my extended family.
The children of my friends.
The children of my neighbours, colleagues, fellow members of groups I belong to.
All the kids in my district, city, region, country.
Boy: “Are we going to give something to help the people in Palu*?” Me: “Good idea – how much do you want to give from your pocket money?” Boy: “Hmm…” Me: “You choose an amount, and we’ll add ten times that amount.”** Boy: Names an amount a little over one week’s allowance Me: “Done.”
And so at 6.30 this morning my eldest son went to school with his own donation, and 10x his own donation in an envelope to send to Palu.
If he hadn’t said anything, nothing would have happened. If I hadn’t said yes, and told him what I’d give if he went first, he might have found it harder to give. We made it easy for each other, and everyone won.
If you’re with the right people – people who share your values, people who are ready to be led – sometimes all it takes to make a change is to say the words.
Even if people might not share your values, and might not be ready, it’s often worth saying the words anyway, because they might come with you, or at least be more likely to come with you next time.
Do you want to lead? Say the words.
Want to see change happen? Be listening for the right words, and be ready to say yes.
* (see this article if you’re not sure what he was talking about) **I knew roughly how much he had in his piggy bank