Two engineers are at my door, their neatly rolled blueprint in hand and two rubber bands keeping it neat and tidy (“Todd! Don’t lose those rubber bands. We’re going to need them at the end.”) These are carefully laid plans for a rocket ship, part of their class “Not a Box” project. In other words, it’s not a box, it’s a rocket ship. They are here on business: getting their plans passed by their principal and then by Dan, the head of buildings and grounds. We are high-ranking officials. These two Very Big Deal appointments, the culmination of a long process of planning, drawing, describing, coloring, imagining, and constructing, will earn them the Seal of Approval. It is tantamount to Planning Board Approval and license to build, the dispensation for a lot of cardboard and duct tape work. The financing has already been arranged.
More importantly, this is a test of another kind of flight.
The engineers speak. “Todd, we’re building a rocket ship. Do you have time to talk with us?” That introduction alone is a major feat.
Actually, the It’s Not a Box project is Not a Project! It’s a conversation. Yes, our 4-year-old engineers have a detailed, colorful and imaginative plan to be executed in three-dimensional glory. However, the launching pad of this rocket ship is the conversation that ensues around my office table. I will ask questions, seek clarification of various aspects of the drawing, and engage the engineers. It is a conversation that has required a great deal of negotiation already. It’s part of a day in the life of an unusual childhood.
Here at the learning-to-communicate onramp, preschool teachers Maureen and Sunday are asking good questions of their young charges. “Can the children communicate effectively with others?” they ask in their Friday e-mail to parents. “Can they recognize conflict, let alone try to resolve conflict? In order to do the above, one must first notice that others count too, as much as oneself. But can children manage their own thoughts? Can they make sense of the constant bombardment of stimulus (noise, etc.)?” They continue, “We think that these are some of the areas that need addressing with children in today’s world? Therefore, we have begun to incorporate the following practices into our classroom time: Silence. What did you notice, what did you hear? Was it easy (comfortable) or challenging? Why? Breaking down communication into specific steps: Slowing down to give time to consider how and what you want to communicate.” Like saving those rubber bands…. or an explanation of the big red squares colored into the rocket blueprint with crayon.
Consider the ancient wisdom at work in these questions and observations. Socrates said the following: “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” “To find yourself, think for yourself.” “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.”
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Examination can be complicated. There’s trouble ahead. Other forces have set in, thanks to their visit to my office. In the larger cultural context, conversations aren’t what they used to be. In fact, we seem to be retreating from some standard received wisdom of the Western intellectual tradition.
A recent commentary by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry Turkle suggests we are enamored of connection, but not always the depth of the kind of communication we are heir to. “We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection,” she writes. “Technology, she says, “is taking us places we don’t want to go.” Though hyper-connected through our digital devices, we may in fact hide our real selves from one another. We are too busy on our email! We can’t get enough of each other — if we can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control. Think Facebook and texting and tweeting…. just right. How about face to face? Sounds like a job made for preschool to me! It’s messy, noisy, exuberant, chaotic…. just like enriched learning. This is not to condescend to preschool, but to elevate the skills taught there to their proper level: the soft and hard skills of the workplace and life of the future.
What would Socrates, the father of Western dialogue, discourse, and critical thinking, say about the current state of communication, conversation, probing argument, comfort level with disparate points of view, and tolerance levels of ambiguity? He would probably agree with Ms. Turkle about the larger culture, and feel pretty comfortable with the kind of talking, listening, and eye contact embedded in an elementary school education. He would enjoy asking Caleb and Ethan questions about their rocket ship — whatever that is. He would see that we are giving our students something that they will need, and that they may not be getting anywhere else. Won’t the future have a great need of critical thinkers and communicators, not just connectors? What happens to these engineers in middle school and high school? Does tweeting take over?
Back to the blueprint. One of my questions has posed a problem. “What if you used tin foil to make it look metallic?”
It’s a curve ball. Not in the plans. How will they adapt their drawings and materials list? Time to wonder, think, and examine their options.
“Ethan! I know! We can have a conversation about this,” says Caleb, rocket ship engineer and conversation starter. He and his engineering partner analyze the situation. I have recommended an external part to their ship. The problem is, it’s a late-entry building material and causing consternation for their partnership. But a very precise, rational dialogue ensues and a new plan is ratified based on sound management and aeronautical engineering principles (Preschool division). The project is still on track for an on-time, on-budget delivery. I get out the special stamp and and my Very Big Deal signing pen.
The rubber bands go back on the carefully rolled blueprint. The rocket men go back to their factory. Socrates exhales.
I’ve always loved the point of view of an old friend of mind, a former school head. Jonathan Slater told his faculty, one September, “Watching and listening are the greatest of the teaching skills — the most difficult to master truly, the most demanding to sustain over time…. By and large, children go about as far as the adults in their lives invite them to go, and truth to tell, most children are not invited to go very far. They are not invited to be curious, to be informed, to discriminate — except in the best of homes and in the best of schools.” But my school is not a box. It’s a school. Permission to rocket to the moon?
Granted. Signed and sealed. Fasten your seatbelts for take-off. Vertical lift. Warp factor nine, Mr. Socrates.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Todd R. Nelson is head of school at The School in Rose Valley. He and Joan Blanusa (ABetterConversation.com) presented at the recent National Association of Independent Schools convention in Philadelphia: If Socrates were on Facebook, would he friend you?