Last week I told the story of how Helen, age 3, resolved a fight in the sandbox one Saturday afternoon. Her diplomatic skills were dramatically evident leaving one wondering how to get her on some Middle East peacemaking team—or simply how to turn over the job to her.
Her powers of observation and assessment, her problem-solving ability, her motoric mastery, her self-confidence, her social skills and her facility with self-expression were all sufficient to the challenges of “the real world.” Her pre-frontal cortex was well educated. I suggested that the main cause of her competence was thousands of hours of solving the never-ending problem of how to harmonize her needs and wants with the needs and wants of others.
Noting that Helen’s “fullness of thought” will stand her in good stead in all academic subjects, too, I proposed that we not limit the word thoughtfulness to social considerations but broaden our understanding to include problem-solving of all sorts—thinking things through, considering options and consequences, learning cause and effect, and so on.
In any case Helen has an important message for us.
Helen’s father had emailed me the Helen story on Sunday, and on Monday I read his email in the faculty lounge as several of us were having lunch together. Helen’s teacher, Alicia, was there, and before we had all finished expressing our delight, she said, “I have a Helen story, too.
“Last week Helen was in the sandbox scooping sand into a bucket with a large scooper. I came by and said ‘So, Helen, how many scoops do you think it will take to fill up your bucket?’ Helen looked up at me, and in a friendly, matter-of-fact way replied: ‘Miss Alicia, why don’t you go teach those two kids over there?’”
There may be teachers who would have found this response impudent. Some might take it as a challenge to their authority. But since increasing student authority is precisely the outcome Alicia was going for, she was delighted.
Last month on the Air Choice One flight from Decatur to Chicago, I had the good fortune, again, to sit across from my new CEO friend from Canada, and our conversation about education and parenting picked up where we had left off two months earlier. He said a wise thing on this trip, too: “Leaders think their job is to get other people to work hard and well. Sure, a CEO’s job is to get good work out of people, but the test of a good CEO is not what happens when you are around, but what happens when you are not around. Will they work as hard and as well when you are not there as when you are there?
“It is the same test for a good parent,” he continued. “In fact it was being a parent of three kids that taught me the importance of giving authority to others.”
Helen’s teacher had the same understanding, an understanding critical for teaching thoughtfulness. Will the students work as well when I am not there as when I am there? If an educator’s goal is thoughtfulness, then the test of her authority is her ability to increase the authority of her students.
And decision-making is the engine of authority development. Helen’s father once said to me: “You can’t become a good decision maker unless you make a lot of decisions.” So there we have it, the formula for turning out people who can think well in the sandbox, the science lab …everywhere. Decision-making yields mistakes yields thoughtfulness yields knowledge yields authority. It’s the way humans are wired to learn.
By contrast, following directions to find right answers yields thoughtlessness and powerlessness. The kind of thinking that is essentially “Guess what’s in the teacher’s head” is classically memorialized in the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” by the history teacher droning: “Anyone? Anyone?” We laugh in horror. But then we forget, and go on with school-as-usual—doing procedures to get desired outcomes.
Teachers-talking/students-listening has its place. That place is as part of a more complex delivery system that includes meaningful purposes, high imagination, internal motivation, complex decision-making and utilizes the full diversity of brains in the group toward the very purpose of making those brains more thoughtful.
To acquire Helen-level skills and to be prepared for life’s myriad of challenges, our children need to make as many decisions as they can, as early as they can. The depth, complexity, and rigor of these challenges will naturally increase through life and determine the thoroughness of their thoughtfulness.
What if we evaluated teachers by counting the number and kinds of decisions students make every day?
Next week: Focusing on thoughtfulness has important implications for how we assess children’s readiness for kindergarten.