Each month, the Director of the Lab Schools, David Magill, shares his thoughts and ideas with our community in a column entitled On the Same Page. This month, he invited teacher Michael "Spike" Wilson to respond to Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. Mr. Pink's book was chosen as our annual faculty and staff summer read and it's set the theme for many of our discussions this year.
I began my career at the Lab Schools in Spike's classroom as a student teacher. Right away, Spike gave me the trust and freedom to teach his students. He encouraged me to try new things and helped me to build relationships with children and colleagues. I learned so much in those short three months. Spike has an amazing intuitive understanding of children. He gives them his patient, yet firm support and can handle the most difficult children better than any teacher I've met. These are the children he affectionately calls "rascals." His thoughtful, creative and well-planned lessons continue to inspire me. My experience with Spike as my mentor laid a strong foundation for my own career as a Lab teacher.
Lab can be an intimidating place for a new teacher. Teachers are given the great responsibility and freedom to design and implement curricula that follow best practices. We choose our own materials and structure the time children spend in our classrooms. At Lab, teachers are truly accountable for their work. Although we have grade level standards, we also have room for our teaching to be spontaneous (taking full advantage of those teachable moments) and dynamic. We can allow the curriculum to emerge from the needs and interests of our students. In turn, we give our students a great amount of responsibility and freedom. Teachers encourage children to wonder, explore, investigate, think and act for themselves. This learning doesn't stop at the classroom door. Here is just one example of the learning that happens at Lab, in one of the most unlikeliest places.
Learning Transcends the Classroom
Michael “Spike” Wilson
Recently, a disgruntled patron of the second floor boys’ bathroom began expressing his displeasure with things in general by repeatedly putting the two plants that thrived there into the garbage cans. Elizabeth, the kind and efficient member of the housekeeping staff who takes such good care of this vital retreat, lovingly rescued the plants each time our lad disposed of them. After several weeks, even Elizabeth had had enough of this regular exercise. With the uprooted plants in hand she asked that they either be removed from the room or she would just leave them in the cans the next time they landed there. The plants were repotted once again and moved to the room next door where they receive more light and less attention.
Left-minded thinkers would immediately ask why anyone would put live plants in a boys’ bathroom to begin with. That is a good question, and one that can be answered in one word, freedom. There must be places where children have total freedom to think and act on their own if they are to develop well-rounded cognitive skills and the confidence to use them in a self-directed way. This of course is a strong argument for both long periods of unobstructed learning activity and even longer periods of unstructured play that is safe, but free from as many adult constraints as possible. Where could a child find more freedom than in a boys’ bathroom enriched with creative materials like plants, artwork, and now, even toilet seat covers? There is an honest gender distinction to be made here as boys' bathrooms have the addition of urinals with automatic as well as manual flushing valves, and the urinals contain pink sanitary disks that look and work like hockey pucks. Also, the chances of encountering an adult in the boys’ bathroom in the Lower School are few. Opportunities for developing right-minded thinking are many, and the more stimulating materials there are, the better.
What children need most to develop their whole minds is the freedom to explore and experiment in a natural, personal way. This is one of the true challenges of teaching young children. Much of the incredible growth that occurs before children begin organized academics comes from the freedom they have to sate their curiosities without preconceived notions and with only the expectation that their explorations bring them joy. The success of their discoveries depends heavily on the emotional connections they make, their abilities to share what they’ve learned through stories, and the reactions of the adults to whom they animatedly report their findings. These are all right-hemisphere brain functions.
Once in Lower School, children begin to be directed in a linear fashion, as the curriculum and learning become more sequential, functional, and analytical. The challenge then for teachers is to give young children the freedom and time to develop deep understandings of concepts and firm grasps of skills in an idiosyncratic manner. When children begin to believe that there is one right way to do everything, they will stop using the right side of their brains. They will simply give back in a linear fashion what they expect adults want, and they will begin to copy whatever models have the most attractive forms. The best artist then is the child who is able to draw and color the most life-like horse; the best mathematician is the child who computes numbers most quickly; the best writer has the most correctly spelled words written in the neatest handwriting, and so on.
When a broad spectrum of approaches and results are validated and encouraged, children will naturally use the right sides of their brains, the sides they relied on so heavily before they entered Lower School. Given the freedom to use their minds completely, children will feel secure in the thinking that there is nothing they can’t learn if the process gives them as much freedom as possible to learn in their own styles. Children will still learn to read, and to develop mathematical algorithms, and to write clearly, and they will use what they have learned with a self-reliance that will motivate them as artists, researchers, and problem solvers.
The place that offers young children the most freedom in school is the bathroom. As a result, a trip to the bathroom for young children is only occasionally for biological purposes. The first and best reason to go is because adults are few and far between, and they do not linger. If you want to get away from a teacher, go. Social concerns are the next important reason children plan a trip. Unfortunately for them, Lower School teachers are fundamentally suspicious, and they devise elaborate rules for the numbers and combinations of children who may leave the class at a given time. Children must rely on the randomness of meeting up with friends from other classes to make a trip socially worthwhile. Still, the most prevalent reason for a bathroom break is not knowing what to do next on an assignment. Whether they have writer’s block or they are stuck on a tough math problem, when a child hits an academic wall, the best choice is to get out of the classroom and go. Luckily, for the children who spend considerable time in this safe haven, it is time well spent.
In the boys’ bathroom the lads are free to design with all the available materials. Plant leaves, potting soil, paper towels, toilet paper, toilet seat covers, sanitary disks, plus the things they smuggle in, enable them to create with whimsy. The lads enter with their heads aching from the assault of linear information and directions, and they exit with a clarity that comes from refreshingly high-concept creation.
No trip to the boys’ bathroom should be short. To savor the joy of true freedom a lad needs to extend his trip as long as possible. The challenge is to come up with a story that is persuasive and at least biologically reasonable. A good long session in a stall is a time when a lad is motivated to compose a well-organized story that is embellished with details and descriptions, usually of the characters he is implicating as research associates.
Symphony permeates a boys’ bathroom. There is great science as the lads watch the pink soap plop on the floor to make larger and larger concentric circles. There is social studies as the younger lads experience a hierarchical social structure while waiting their turns to use the favorite stall by the window. There is math as the lads unroll the toilet paper to get a good estimate of how long it is. Most importantly, these learning activities happen simultaneously, throughout the day, creating symphony that a well-organized classroom can only hope to approach.
Nowhere is empathy nurtured more than in the boys’ bathroom. Women in particular wonder why, with the added resource of urinals, some lads insist on using the floor. Ask any lad and he will shrug his shoulders and declare earnestly, “Well, because.” The rest he can’t explain because he feels why it is so comforting, but it is a mystery that cannot be put into words. The empathy that lads develop for one another is accompanied by an unspoken code of honor that is essentially high-touch.
Play in the boys’ bathroom is unstructured and unobstructed. There are no playground rules or adult monitors. There are climbing structures, projectiles of all manner devised for throwing, batting, and kicking, receptacles for targets, hiding places, and limitless running water. A lad can look forward to as many playtimes as he can bargain before drawing suspicion.
The search for meaning often leads a lad to the boys’ bathroom. It is an elemental place, and a place where status has nothing to do with material possessions or privilege. A lad is who he is, and he must rely on his creativity, skills, and guile to make a trip there fulfilling and meaningful. The clamor of lads shouldering open the door and reentering the organized world of linear thinking is a joyful noise born of the rewarding feelings that come from a successful journey.
As a uniquely free space where there are no rewards
for left-minded thinking, a boys’ bathroom is a place where few
behaviors are linear.
As they exist, boys’ bathrooms are exemplars of essential learning
environments. When the restraints on right-minded thinking are lifted
and children enjoy the freedom to learn in ways that befit them as
individuals, they do so with confidence, self-reliance, and a sense of
personal fulfillment. The challenge for teachers is to create
environments with as much individual freedom as possible. One such
environment will always be the second floor boys’ bathroom, which for
the time being has everything needed to inspire a right-minded lad,
except potted plants.