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School is about Keeping it Together and Being Right; Education is about Breaking, Being Wrong and Becoming Whole

 Parents and teachers would do well to observe Yom Kippur all year round

A two-year-old boy entered a Montessori classroom clinging to his mother. While she talked to the teacher, he hung on her leg looking anxiously around the room. He cried when she left and glued himself to the window. One teacher remained seated eight feet away, calmly watching, waiting, engaging with a student who showed her an apple, then helping another unscrew a cap.

After about five minutes the sad boy picked up a set of rainbow colored nesting cups, examined them, pulled one out, put it back, pulled it out, put in on the table next to him, and the whimpering passed. Fifteen minutes later he was pouring himself into the classroom, working with other materials and interacting with his classmates and teachers.

Great Educators from Colonel Francis W. Parker  to Maria Montessori to Clara Belle Baker to Anne Marie Roper to Mel Levine (hundreds of them) have reminded us generation after generation not to underestimate children. “Children are whole people,” says Magda Gerber.

It’s true. The human brain is an amazing instrument for making sense of the world. A four-year-old knows the past tenses of 10,000 verbs even though he has only heard maybe a hundred. He’s figured it out—just add “ed.”

At the same time we are messes. We are torn from loved ones, we get confused, we make mistakes, we lose, and the things we thought were right turn out to be wrong time after time. (The past tense of “go” is not “goed.”)

It’s worse than that. The older we get the more we are blind to the evidence that we are wrong. All too often we would rather defend our wrong headedness than take what would seem to be the easier step of noticing the evidence of our wrongness staring us in the face. Friendships, partnerships, marriages break up over rightness–or is it wrongness?

We are whole people; we are a complex of uncoordinated parts.

We are gifted; we are a bundle of learning disabilities—yes we all are.

We are separate individuals, and we are our relationships.

Those relationships are powered by love, yet they tear us apart and make us fragments of our former integrated, whole selves.

A human is an ironic, paradoxical, oxymoronic conundrum. We are broken, and yet we walk around in the world all in one piece.

Reminding ourselves of our brokenness once a year is important—no, necessary. And this seeking atonement once a year reminds me of the sarcastic punch line of Tom Lehrer’s song “National Brotherhood Week:” “Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year.”

Today is a good day to do what we need to do become whole again—admit our errors, pray, ask forgiveness. Giving ourselves the time and space to pull ourselves together with our god and experience One-ness is necessary–once a year whether we need it or not.

AND the secret to educating children is to allow it to happen every day—allow the brokenness and wait for the coming together. This dynamic is actually central to the learning process. Piaget called it “Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” It’s the process by which we build our brains.

Until kids get to school they are engaged in this process continually and the rapidity of their learning is, well, mind-boggling. School can often slow this down. What if the main point of school were to keep this process of making and breaking mental structures going at the same clip? There are schools that do this, and the results are dramatic.

What if we adults could maintain the same fluidity in our thinking and feeling so that whenever a relationship got stuck, we were in the habit of changing our mind and returning to our former, dynamic friendship?

Parents and teachers try really hard to do the right thing and to get it right with their kids. But that is only half the art of raising children. The other half is getting things wrong, making mistakes, then being obvious about it, then talking about it, and then, when appropriate, modeling the process of forgiveness and the return to integrity. Perhaps it’s the most wonderful gift parents and teachers give their kids: to model being wrong.

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9 Responses to “School is about Keeping it Together and Being Right; Education is about Breaking, Being Wrong and Becoming Whole”

  1. janetlansbury September 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    Rick, this is wonderful. I especially love your “brokenness” analogy. If parents and educators can let go of everything going “right” there is room for much more life and real learning.

    I was trying to convey something along these lines to my college sophomore daughter last night when she expressed minor anxiety about choosing between two classes she wants to take that are at the same time (while also trying to eventually discern what her major will be). I suggested she let go of worrying, let it be undecided for now, and just trust that the answer will come to her before it needs to next week. If we can’t let things be broken, they don’t get mended properly, right?

  2. Doug Thompson September 26, 2012 at 1:22 pm #

    Somtimes hanging back is the hardest thing to do,..

  3. Lyn September 26, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

    Loved this one!

  4. Rick September 26, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    Think of when you got it right. Getting it wrong was a big part of getting there, right?

  5. janetlansbury September 26, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

    Not just getting it wrong, but being totally confused and having to sit in that feeling. That happens to me at least once a week.

  6. Rick September 26, 2012 at 7:58 pm #

    Now that you mention it. Being lost is a very important component of my writing process. So are interruptions. After almost every interruption, a much better sentence pops to mind than the dozens I was going to write.

  7. Marty Dutcher September 28, 2012 at 3:52 am #

    That feeling of being lost, thinking I’m on the right track, thinking I’m on the wrong track … it happens all the time to me too. It’s funny, after working with children for so many years, and watching the process of hanging back, letting things be the way they are rather than giving in to having do something about everything, I am now encountering the same thing in caring for my 92 year-old-mother. Rick, your last comment is so good … and it is why I don’t think of this way of evaluation and judgment (self?) as something broken but more like some things are not yet connected – except when I’m thinking I must be broken!

  8. Rick September 28, 2012 at 6:04 am #

    It’s true, Marty. Feeling we are broken, is what not being all connected yet feels like.

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    […] Education is Only Half About Being Right – The Rest is About Being Wrong {The Genius in Children – Rick Ackerly} […]

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