“Look at me; I have paint all over my arms!”

The three year old student’s whole arm was, indeed, covered in paint. 

“My paint is dripping down!”

Her neighbor had dipped both fists fully into cups of paint, and was now watching gravity and pressure extract the gooey substance from her clasped hands.

The two girls sat with a teacher in Classroom 1 at a large table covered in newspaper, inviting its users to make the space messy.  On top of the newspaper sat several cups of brightly colored paint, each with a paintbrush placed neatly inside.  Pieces of goopy construction paper littered the table.  The teacher watched and chatted with the students.  Observing the whole scene myself, I was struck with the teacher’s responses.

“Is it cold or warm?” She asked the student who stared at her hand immersed in a jar of paint.

 “Is it smooth or is it bumpy?” She asked as a student swam her fingers across her paper in a puddle of paint.

“I noticed you made a new color, one that we didn’t start with in the paint jars,” she commented, as the student stepped back and wondered at the odd white-gray color that looked back at her.

What was happening here?  Why was she encouraging the children to move away from the paintbrushes, away from the tidy art activity she had planned for them? Why was she following the children instead of the other way around?

When a teacher leads a classroom, even the most creative teacher, the outcome is forecast by the teacher’s expectations.  This is the educational model utilized in the first two eras of education in this country: the first following the Puritan principle that young children were miscreants whose sinful ways had to be corrected as swiftly as possible; and the second leaning on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Enlightment ideal of the child as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, in which the child was an empty vessel waiting to be filled with facts and truths from adults.

The third era, which is historically speaking still young and gaining strength, is characterized by a child-centered curriculum.  A century ago John Dewey popularized and gave theoretical vigor to the nascent progressive education movement.  He wrote about the child as a vital citizen, worthy and capable of intellectual activity. The progressive era of education welcomed the child’s voice in the classroom for the first time in our country.  Suddenly, we listened to our students.  We realized, and are still realizing, the power of giving children space in which to create something that we have not expected of them.

Bertrand Russell, an English philosopher and contemporary of Dewey’s, wrote about why children need to be given autonomy in their education. He explains that if society’s goal is to recapitulate itself, then teachers can set the agenda and be done with it; but if society’s goal is improvement of the human condition, then children must be allowed to follow divergent paths in their education. They must be encouraged to develop new ways of thinking and doing. Their education should prepare them to approach any given situation and probe and critique its assumed parameters.  If we can only see things as they are, we have no hope of creating a brighter future.

So what of our two young girls, arms covered in paint?  They are in training to become change agents within this vision of the future.  They are busily engaged in subversive activities, seeking out non-standard ways of using materials and interacting with the world. “Orthodoxy is the grave of intelligence,” Russell wrote in Education and The Social Order in 1932.  When we limit children to narrowly designed activities, meant to be enjoyed in one particular (orthodox) manner, we deprive them of needed opportunities to develop intellect, imagination, and the capacity to create a better world.

How do you respond when your child uses materials or ideas in divergent ways? As parents and educators, how can we assist children in seeing new and interesting versions of the world?

Shabbat shalom,