Recently I was dropping my daughter off at the Brigham Young University preschool. Quite prominently displayed near the door was a set of rules for children and adults. I was struck by how many rules there were for children and how sparse the rules were for adults.
I’ll begin with the rules for children: run, jump, dig, explore, talk, build, pour, yell, saw, hammer, paint, tear down, ride, imagine, sing, wonder, measure, ponder, play, be alone, examine, experiment, work, express emotion, lead, spin, follow, watch, hear, be excited, smell, taste, mix, daydream, create.
Sounds fun, doesn’t it?
What were the rules for adults? Listen and observe.
I’m not sure as a parent I can fully obey those two parental rules. Nevertheless, I accept that if I want my children to learn, to truly learn, I must step out of the way and simply listen and observe.
As I reflected on those rules, I realized that the subjects could be swapped out. Children could be replaced with learners and adults with teachers.
What does that mean for adults and parents? Let me share my perspective as a teacher of college students.
I teach large lecture (250 students) world civilization courses at BYU titled History of Creativity in the Arts, Science and Technology. When I introduce the course purpose to students, I tell them the course is designed to spark their innate creativity as they understand, explore, compare, evaluate and apply to their own lives the principles and insights from past creative cultures, peoples and technologies.
But such advocacy is ironic to me given the physical circumstances in which we meet. My students are constrained to immovable theater seats, bunched together like herded cattle who have no agency in their future. Is this the physical ideal for a course devoted to helping students develop attributes that are deeply aligned with divine attributes — to becoming creators?
Then the performance begins! There I am as the edutainment, on stage performing my knowledge and understanding for the students. Some of them “ooh” and “aah” about some apparent witty or brilliant remark. They may even write home about what an opportunity it is for them to be at a great university involved in such an interesting course.
Yet many of them don’t realize that the learning enterprise has inverted how the rules of learning should play out. What do the students get to do while I’m on stage? They watch. Is that learning?
Do my students walk away from a learning session in my class having engaged all of their learning senses: touching, seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, thinking and feeling (i.e., the emotions and the Spirit)? Have I expanded my students’ agency to learn more? Or have I, by the strictures and ideology of traditional higher education, narrowed my students’ epistemological options?
It dawned on me, standing in my daughter’s preschool room, that I and much of the educational system have inverted the rules of learning. (The rules are attributed to Bev Bos of Roseville Community Preschool in California.) I make the students, the ones who most need to learn, sit and listen and observe while I am the one on stage who gets to do. Shouldn’t I be the one listening and observing their learning performance as they do?
Learning is agency. Am I truly a teacher if, by my choices, I constrain student agency because I limit their choices and opportunities for doing learning? If so, then I must change and begin to live by the rules of learning: the teacher is to listen and observe; the learner is to act and do.
Isn’t God the great teacher because he follows the rules of learning? He listens and observes. If one considers the many thousands of years of human history, God is not the one doing the acting and talking. Yes, he acts in history. And yes, he speaks. We have thousands of pages of scripture to attest to that salvific speaking and acting.
But God is not on stage. We are. We are the ones here to learn. He is there to observe and listen and, when needed, provide correction, feedback, guidance and insight. If he was doing all the acting and talking, if our only choices were to listen and observe, the plan of salvation would be entirely frustrated.
Ultimately, shouldn’t we all be like little children, as King Benjamin advocated (see Mosiah 3:19), living the rules of learning?
Taylor Halverson (Ph.D., biblical studies, instructional tech) is a BYU teaching & learning consultant; founder of Creativity, Innovation & Design Group; and travel leader to Mesoamerica and Middle East. Taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.