Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Tread softly because you step on my beans

I’ve been sent the above image by a reader of an earlier post. The image is by a young schoolchild - let’s call him Al – who has evidently been asked to produce a drawing and write a sentence to accompany it. Below his sentence is the teacher’s translation, presumably from Al’s verbal description.

Al’s character; Kasper, is rendered as a catlike being with whiskers, pointed ears, two spindly legs and arrows for arms. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch of the imagination to say that this image and accompanying sentence indicate that Al is thinking about what it means to nurture something: to sew a seed. It’s about cultivating a small grain of potential with the hope of seeing it blossom and bear fruit. As yet, the bean is simply an unassuming nondescript thing, but, as every child knows, beans should never be underestimated because someday they will become beanstalks. Kasper plants a bean. Al draws Kasper. Kasper is a cat. Cats are pets which, like beans (and children) need to be treated with care.

In a brilliant essay on adult paternalistic stupidity in the face of children’s passionate fascination with cartoons, Dave Hickey explains why the “spectacle of ebullient, articulate, indestructible animals” was such a vital antidote to the incomprehensible frailty of pets:

“What we did not grasp was just exactly why the blazing spectacle of lawn-mowed cats, and exploding puppies, talking ducks, and plummeting coyotes was so important to us. Today, it’s clear to me that I grew up in a generation of children whose first experience of adult responsibility involved the care of animals – dogs, cats, horses, parakeets – all of whom, we soon learned, were breathlessly vulnerable, if we didn’t take care.” (Air Guitar, Essays on Art and Democracy)

Kids feel these things. They grow to understand that they’re part of a chain of care and responsibility. They have to learn to attend to things which respond, often in very subtle ways, to their care. Children in turn, are cared for and it is the ways they are cared for which, in turn, model and influence their own acts of caring.

I realise that I’m laying it on pretty thick here but I think it’s important to acknowledge the huge disparity between what Al is talking about in his own simple way and his teacher’s utter lack of sympathetic awareness (tact). Sure, his sentence construction is poor but the response from the teacher is simply deplorable: a “well done” (praise) and an admonishment to think about his targets, when what he clearly needs is constructive suggestions and encouragement – after all, he has attempted to use a past participle when a wiser child (or more compliant one even) would have chosen to write in the present tense: “Kasper plants a bean.” or “Kasper kicks a ball.” or easier still: "Jack kicks a ball." You see, that's one of the risks with imposed targets: they discourage risk taking and encourage devious corner cutting. At least deviousness requires some inventive creativity, but then, such teachers soon stamp out this tendency at the first opportunity too.

But let’s be fair. Perhaps this teacher was overworked. Perhaps s/he had very little experience or confidence in interpreting children’s drawings. Perhaps s/he felt that legibility and grammar was the paramount objective (“target”). All of these things are probably true and ultimately, let’s face it, it’s only a brief comment in a notebook, it’s not going to have any lasting influence on Al – he probably can’t even read it anyway. But to think thus is to entirely miss what education is all about. As John Dewey once wrote: “The effect of an experience is not borne on its face.” In other words, we can’t know the true consequences of our pedagogic actions, and to presume therefore that something will have no lasting effect is simply irresponsible. As Al’s little story deftly illustrates: we can plant our beans, but we’ll never know quite what we’ve planted until they grow up.


Mary said...

The child is not yet at the stage of sentence construction. He is making that mysterious leap into the world of symbol and meaning. His 'emergent writing' shows that he is aware that marks of a particular shape have meaning. That is what is so poignant about this piece of work - that the praise refers to the fullstop alone.

What is also clear is that the teacher is marking the book for someone other than the child. A four-year-old has no idea of what a target is. Managing to put his socks on by himself in the morning is a triumph so incorporating abstract targets (what could they possibly be?) into his worldview is out of the question I would have thought. So if the comment is not for the child, who is it for?

J. Hamlyn said...

I wonder what those targets could possibly be too. It made me think of what would happen if we were to treat gardening or cooking in the same way. I'm in no doubt at all that it would take every shred of enjoyment out of the process and turn it into a stressful and demoralising means to an end.
I assume the final comment is for the child's parents but in many ways it appears to be more a case of covering tracks and offloading responsibility for actually teaching. Shocking.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps these are the targets:

J. Hamlyn said...

Hahaha - motivational speaking eh!

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