Open thread

Published by Lori Pickert on September 26, 2009 at 03:35 PM

From our first years in the educational system, society has ways of discouraging the expansive, questing mode of attention that’s essential to creativity and personal rebirth. In one poignant indication of what happens when young children learn to switch off active focusing and just go through the motions, second-graders from different schools were given a problem to solve: “There are twenty-six sheep and ten goats on a ship. How old is the captain?” Nearly 90 percent of students from traditional classrooms answered “Thirty-six”. Not one pointed out that the problem didn’t make sense, compared to almost a third of the kids from less conventional, more mindful classrooms. — Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, Winifred Gallagher


Comment by Brynn on September 26, 2009 at 05:57 PM

Oh that's just scary! Always love the snippets you share. They are very affirming.

Comment by se7en on September 27, 2009 at 07:30 AM

I would love to know what my kids make of this!!! My kids are scattered now but when they settle down for lunch I am going to ask the question... and see wether their minds are conventionally or unconventionally programmed... getting back to you...

Comment by se7en on September 28, 2009 at 07:58 AM

Ok - True Confessions, my children are very conventionally educated... two appeared puzzled and said 36... when I said he stopped in at port and collected five pigs, how old was he then? The eight year old without batting an eye said he was 41... the ten year old burst out laughing!!! He immediately saw the error of his ways.

The 12 year old said it was impossible to determine but he should give an answer so he was going to say 36, but couldn't figure out how it related to his age!!!

The six year old tells me that it depends on when the captain's birthday is - because he is going to be se7en at his next birthday...

Comment by Jess on September 28, 2009 at 01:23 PM

That doesn't surprise me at all:o) Ha I am going to try that one out myself:o)

I am currently trying to get a way from the norm education wise. The other day I talked with my mother in law about child led learning (reggio emilia etc.) and she kind of looked at me like..."OK?" She has taught preschool for years. I knew right away though what her learning beliefs are for children. (How could they possibly learn if you're not telling them what they need to know) I have struggled to understand this myself but slowly it is all making sense.

I know our educational system in the U.S. builds on itself. So I do worry about my kids getting into college etc. I also know that my own brothers dropped out of school, got into drugs for a while (one is still an alcoholic) and they both I bet would have made more of themselves if they would have been in a different learning environment. I am not sure what I learned in school. How to get a good grade and not remember hardly anything afterwards. I think I have learned more after graduating than I did while I was in school. I am challenging my own beliefs now and loving every bit of it! Thanks for the inspiration Lori:o)

Comment by Jess on September 28, 2009 at 01:40 PM

I found this thread that really helped out with what I was talking about...sorry if my post was at all confusing!:o)

Comment by Lisa on September 28, 2009 at 04:15 PM

With both my kids back in public school I don't doubt the validity of this story for a second! There's too much like that being discussed in my home daily!

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 28, 2009 at 07:06 PM

brynn, i thought this was interesting. what is it about traditional classrooms that make children fall into a robotic way of doing work — the (usually) predictable, repetitive nature of fill-in-the-blanks testing? the pace? the way teachers deliver the material?

what is it about nontraditional classrooms that encourages kids to be more “mindful”? interesting.

se7en, i find your 12yo’s answer the most interesting — it made no sense but he gave 36 as the answer anyway — i think that represents a lot of kids’ attitudes about their schoolwork: this doesn’t mean much to *me*, but i can tell you want something, so this is what i’ll give you…

jess, i would love to hear what your mother-in-law had to say! people teach preschool in a variety of ways; at my school, we taught using this Reggio-inspired approach. it does work…

re: the educational system in the u.s. building upon itself … i think most parents *think* this, trust it, believe what they’ve been told — that if your kids don’t do well in preschool it will follow them all the way to college, that if you get into an elite high school it’s a path to ivy league and a mcmansion, etc.

but *i* don’t believe it. i know too many nontraditional success stories — music majors who own tech companies, the math genius who didn’t go to high school or college but has a Ph.D., and etc.

there are at least as many nontraditional ways to be successful as they are traditional … they are just not as known, and therefore they invoke fear in parents. people cling to the familiar, and they feel most comfortable with other people who are making the same choices. follow the herd, etc.

but that may not be where *your* true path lies.

lisa, well, share your stories anytime. :^) i hope it’s going well overall!

Comment by se7en on September 28, 2009 at 08:31 PM

I should have said our children are "very conventionally educated" ... The funny thing is our kids have had absolutely no conventional schooling, home schooled all the way - pretty much led the way and yet conventionalism seems more ingrained than just in the education system and I was completely surprised by their response and their need to provide answers to unanswerable questions!!!

This was such a good question for me because I like to pat myself on the back for our kids learning process and their apparent progressive thinking and how school kids are so boxed in boxes... so lesson learnt again - Don't Label!!! Thanks I love your open threads!!!

Comment by Sophia on September 28, 2009 at 09:05 PM

I gave my 6yr. old the same question and she responded laughing,
"I don't know...a hundred?" then "Tell me another joke, Mommy!"

I'm so encouraged to know that others believe in non traditional schooling, as I attempt to give my children something other than the boring, pointless work I was given during my education.

thanks for the inspiration.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 28, 2009 at 09:21 PM

se7en, i know your kids are all hs’ers; i just thought it was interesting how even a hs’ed child knows when an adult is just looking for a fill-in-the-blank answer!

and thank you! :^)

sophia, that is a great response. :^)

thank you for your comment!

Comment by Sarah Jackson on September 28, 2009 at 09:26 PM

Annika reacted the same way - looked really puzzled and then guessed 36 based on the only numbers she was given. When I asked her how the numbers of animals affected his age, then she said "well they don't. Maybe he's 40. How old do you think he is?" I said I didn't know and she wanted to find a way to figure it out.

Comment by Jess on September 29, 2009 at 03:21 PM


My mom is in the process of starting a Reggio Emilia inspired school in Idaho and I had mentioned it to my mother in law, who would love start a preschool again. My mom lives in Boise and we are in a different state. My mother in law mentioned to me that it would fun to start a similar school in our State. I then explained to her a little bit of the Reggio philosophy. She didn't say much after that. So by not saying anything (she's very outspoken) that was her way of saying...hmm I don't know. I have talked preschool with her in the past, seen her in action and know what kind of teaching she has done, very much teacher led.

I didn't discuss more after that because I am in the middle of digesting all this amazing new material, and I don't know enough to debate. So much to learn and read! :o) We are currently doing k12 and everyday they groan when I say time to do school. They don't remember their material very well and now that I have read into Reggio/project based I have a hard time wanting to make them do traditional school. My dh loves that they are a part of a school (online virtual k12 school) so I am also going to have to work on him:o)

Anyway:o) I did the test on my 7 year old and she answered... (i gave her easier numbers) 10 sheep / 5 goats...and she answered 15 :O) lol

My 5 year old didn't want to answer...she doesn't like it when she has any pressure to answer anything:o)


Comment by nancy on September 29, 2009 at 06:44 PM

I love this:

"there are at least as many nontraditional ways to be successful as they are traditional … they are just not as known, and therefore they invoke fear in parents. people cling to the familiar, and they feel most comfortable with other people who are making the same choices. follow the herd, etc."

The majority of the people I know in real life have a herd mentality and it just amazes me that no one is willing to step outside and try something different. I'm not sure why I am interested in the different, but somehow I can see that my children can learn in a different way than I did and it doesn't take a prescribed way to get there.

I'm just so thankful for the people I have come across online that can think outside the box. Thanks for the support Lori!

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 29, 2009 at 07:55 PM

sarah, we've been talking about this; it's so interesting.

we've taught kids that somewhere in the question is the key to the answer.

talk about a lesson that doesn't apply to real life!

jess, how exciting for your mom! i hope she is successful; let her know she can contact me if she wants to talk about anything. :^)

lol 15-year-old captain -- he was quite advanced for his age. ;^)

re: convincing family members and friends .. it's too bad we have to make such a herculean effort to convince people of these things. i used to talk to teachers from chicago who described having to flog their kids (not literally ;^) to learn anything -- they said, these kids wouldn't learn a *thing* if we didn't push them the entire time. on the other hand, our kids were pulling us so hard we were often reaching for the brakes. what was the difference? their kids were completely unmotivated; ours were filled with motivation. their kids were bored and made trouble in the classroom; our kids were busy and filled with plans. and it wasn't enough to point to them and say, see? still, teachers would say .. well .. there's something going on here. we can't figure it out. but it still wouldn't work for our kids. we *know* them.

most parents and teachers believe that kids won't learn unless they're forced and they won't learn the right things unless they're controlled. they aren't able to see what kids are really like -- and how alive they become when they are allowed to direct their own learning.

nancy, thank you! :^) i was having an interesting discussion with a friend this week; he was saying that it is a waste of time to try to convince people that you can educate kids a different way. and i said, well, not if you’re preaching to the choir. ;^)

i don't see change happening in schools -- except in small, isolated pockets. but i see a lot of great things happening with people who have stepped off the main path. things are good out here! ;^)

Comment by Sarah Jackson on September 29, 2009 at 08:43 PM

What I got from Annika's reaction was "of course my mom wouldn't ask me an unanswerable question, so those numbers *must* have something to do with it." I told her it was okay to tell me that I was making no sense, and then she laughed and said it was a crazy question.

Comment by Kellyi on September 29, 2009 at 09:08 PM

So I asked my kids the question.

My daughter (age 8) looked blank and said "that makes no sense." My eldest boy (age 6) asked if the captain was a boy (?) and my middle boy (age 5) said "Were there any cats on the boat?" (We've been reading Dick Whittington recently.)

All of my children are home educated. They have tried school and it didn't work for them. You can probably see why with their slightly off-the-wall responses!

Comment by Kat on September 30, 2009 at 11:09 PM

Oh, I'm going to have to wait a year or two before I ask Amie (4). But I'll try it out on a couple of other kids I know :))
Scary, though.

Comment by Ginger on October 1, 2009 at 09:51 PM

Hi Lori--

Glad to see you back!!

I immediately asked my ten-year-old the question (3 yrs ps, 3rd yr hs). He made a polite face and said right back to me "How old is he?" Then he cringed, bracing himself, I'm sure, for a long explanation from me. LOL

The six y.o. (all hs) brother laughed out loud and said "I don't know! You didn't tell me how old he was supposed to be!"

The funniest part is how relieved I felt that they both "got it right." I'm fascinated with how I will still panic over "testing" my children in any way. Even alone in my kitchen with a random internet question. Why are we so concerned that they all share the same body of knowledge and respond in certain ways to certain questions?

Thanks for your thoughts!

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 2, 2009 at 06:33 PM

thank you, ginger! :^)

my 12yo read my blog and went laughing to my 9yo to ask him; the 9yo’s reaction was: “what?! WHAT?! i don’t get it!! mom, make him tell me the answer!” he thought it was a riddle. :^) (and i guess it is!)

love your question about testing — i don’t know! i don’t know why tests always filled me with dread when i was in school even though i was an A student. tests aren’t about double-checking to make sure you understood the material or even figuring out where you might need additional knowledge — they’re about judging. and who likes to be judged? (as a student *or* as a parent)

Comment by Cordelia on October 4, 2009 at 03:41 PM

Ginger, Lori,
Interesting thoughts about testing. We are back in the states-my boy back in school-and I am amazed at how much the children around us spend time judging and raniking themselves and each other. "I'm the second best reader in my class." I read a 500 page book, and most kids my age can only read a 200 page book." "You don't know your times tables? I've known them since second grade." Of course some are in the "gifted" program, and others in the super gifted program (this being the only part of the school doing something like project work.) It reminds me vaguely of the chatter of my childhood, but much more specific and intense. They are all little olympic athletes in training, and their sport is school. I suppose this triggers in parents a desire to protect children from the knowledge that they might be the what? the 55th best reader in the class? An anxiety fest over how our children will feel about their own position in this sport.

Comment by Barbara in NC on October 10, 2009 at 03:27 AM

I love the word "expansive." It's one of my favorite things about homeschooling--that our world is big, and ever-expanding. It seems to me that kids are so naturally expansive--learning and exploring and figuring out how things fit together. There is always more to learn and do and find out about--and that's exciting.

It's hard to imagine that anything good ever came of tunnel vision.

Comment by Christy on October 12, 2009 at 01:03 AM

I have enjoyed your blog for several months now. I thought you would like the following speech if you haven't already seen it:

Comment by Lauren on October 13, 2009 at 02:02 PM

re: Jess and Lori . . . and anyone else

I think that the best thing to do in order to help other teachers understand the significance of Reggio inspired teaching is to let them read and see what's happening in Reggio, and start trying small things. Let me tell you what happened about 5 years ago at the school in which I am currently teaching:

Teachers were very skeptical about child led curriculum, and so first they were encouraged to change the environment, which doesn't pose too much of a challenge to "traditional" curriculum. Teachers read and discussed articles and books about the Reggio approach, and might decide to start documenting differently (or start altogether). After that, some teachers would begin following the child's lead.

I think the best thing we can do as teachers is to always remain learners (a crux of the Reggio approach), and challenge our beliefs about children and education. I like to think about Reggio as more of a continuum, rather than a program, that we choose to follow or not. It’s possible for a teacher to understand the principle of child-led learning, but not dialogue with other professionals about the learning that’s occurred. She is, in fact, missing a huge chunk of the approach in not discussing what’s happening with another teacher (and her documentation won’t be as good because of it), but that doesn’t mean she’s not teaching the Reggio way. It’s a continuum . . . some people are further along than others, and that’s OK.

I’m going to Reggio this Sunday for the international study week on documentation as interpretation, something that will hopefully help me understand the Reggio approach even more. Ciao!

Comment by aly in va on October 14, 2009 at 02:01 PM


Comment by OMSH on October 20, 2009 at 06:39 PM

I'm following the link, because I believe that to be COMPLETELY true. And? I was pleased when I asked my two girls (Kenny is in his room playing Legos and simply could not be bothered) they said "Huh? There's no way to figure it." Emelie, my 12 old said, "That makes no sense - is that all they gave you?"

While I believe there is a need to know the mindless rote things like 6x6=36; I also believe there is less "rote" and more "note".

Thanks for a great passage!
Found you through SAJ!

Comment by Meredith on October 22, 2009 at 05:35 PM

I just tried it on my Waldorf educated, but now homeschooled almost 11 year old daughter. I was sure she would find the flaw, but she dutifully added 26 and 10 in her head and answered 36! She did say, though, that she figured I was asking because the captain's age was equal to the number of goats and sheep he had. She's usually a pretty creative thinker, so I'm very surprised!

Comment by Alison Kerr on October 23, 2009 at 02:34 PM

Of course the question makes no sense. In fact many school-type questions make no sense, even the ones that have a mathematically correct answer. They just don't reflect real life. Imaginative kids would start asking all kinds of questions like, "What kind of ship was it and where were the animals going to?" or "Is the captain the only one on the ship besides the animals?" or even "Why are there more sheep than goats?" It's agony for a kid with a lot of imagination to be presented with this type of question.

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