Why is a great question. Okay, if you’re suffering through the endless Why‘s with a toddler, you might not think so. Barring that, the ability to ask why is what really puts us at the top of the food chain. We aren’t just problem solvers, in fact there are a lot of animals capable of looking at a problem and finding a solution. For example if the monkey wants the coconut milk but the coconut is sealed tight, he can bash the coconut with a rock and tada! drink his fill. Lots of primates are pretty good at using simple tools to get what they want. Problem solving isn’t limited to primates. Recently I heard an ant expert on a public radio news story talking about how ants will build the opening to their nest up sort of in the shape of a volcano. This clever architectural change only takes place in monsoon season. When the rains come, the pooling water will roll away from the ants’ nest rather than drowning them. If you ever doubt that the animal kingdom has some amazing problem solving skills, just try to keep a rabbit out of your garden. This might very well be the reason that Leon Schlesinger decided that Bugs Bunny should be able to outwit just about any nemesis.
Despite all these marvelous examples of if-then thinking in the animal kingdom, no creature but us humans can really ask, “Why?”. Why does the moon appear to change shape? Why can a song bird fly when an ostrich can’t? Why does using a lever make it easy to lift a rock? By asking those questions homo sapiens learned to build more advanced tools or use a specific set of simple tools together to solve more complex problems. The ability to ask why made us capable of controlling fire, allowed us to build insulated homes, and encouraged us to find a way to fly not only on Earth but away from it. Given the importance of this single concept, one wouldn’t think that “why” would be be so unwelcome in a public school setting.
It isn’t that past instances of “why” have been banned. The discussion of why we decided to form our state (for example) is absolutely discussed in school. I’m referring to how limited the students are in what they can explore in a public school setting, and also how limited the teachers are in asking why a student is having an issue. This isn’t really the fault of the schools. The setting as it exists today is really not conducive to true exploration. It all comes down to limited resources, crowded classrooms with a single teacher responsible for a large number of children, a political agenda that is determined to push testing, and overstressed administration that is no longer willing to think outside the box.
If a child is to really learn something well enough to someday use the knowledge of the past to build the future, they need to be able to ask why Columbus took that historic voyage that landed him in the West Indies, not just that he took a trip in 1492. The latter information will help them pass the standardized test, but the former is what will make them have a real grasp of what was taking place in the world. Contrary to what I was told in school, a lot of people already knew the world was not flat. On this subject alone is a fascinating point. Columbus was born in Italy. Ever wonder why he ended up being sponsored by Queen Isabella of Spain. Why her and not a king? And did you know that Queen Isabella didn’t sponsor the whole trip? There is a whole lot of information missing — a story to be told, and if a child is so busy stuffing dates into their heads, they miss out on a fascinating tale.
Perhaps the biggest leaps in science are made from asking why (or sometimes why not). By wondering what shooting stars really were and then why they burned as they fell to Earth, we were able to send someone into space and then bring them back safely.
I spoke to a friend recently about her son. Her little guy is an obviously bright little boy who is having a lot of trouble in school. One of the recent tests he failed was an open-note test and while we were talking about it, my friend said she’d have to take a look at his notes and see if he’s even taking any or if he’s doodling instead. This kicked off a discussion about writing and it seems that writing may actually be a difficulty for him for a totally physical reason. She noticed that his writing is always black, his crayons break the moment he tries to color and he doesn’t like to hold a pencil when writing, but draws all the time. He’s got great fine motor skills, but has not learned about how to control the pressure of his writing. This can actually be related to sensory processing in the proprioceptive area and I’ve encountered it before. Pumpkin had this problem, but a lot of other kids do as well.
Proprioception development doesn’t come instantaneously. There are a lot of factors to this particular piece of Sensory Processing Disorder, so I won’t go into all of it here. But to explain how this can affect writing, you have to understand that where we are, each of us, in space, is a learned skill. If we have trouble distinguishing how far our bodies are from a barrier of any type, think for a moment how much harder it is to control another object as it presses against a barrier — pencil against paper. Too much pressure can break the lead, make erasing much more difficult, or even cause a child to tear the paper. Practice helps, but kids who struggle with too much pressure tend to hate practicing writing because when your pressure is too great, hand fatigue is far worse than normal writing. In other words, these kids hate writing because it causes pain, pain which could be relieved if they learn to grip the pencil less tightly and press on the paper less forcefully.
With regard to my friend’s son, his teacher had heard about this particular disability. Educators are constantly given further education, some of it to learn about disabilities. But if a teacher is trying to manage a classroom of 30 kids, she may not take the time to ask “why” this one child failed this test. He is, after all, a quiet kid and usually pretty good in school, though distractible. Kids like him are not severe enough to draw attention away from the worse cases, and when the report goes home to a household that doesn’t know to look for a learning disability, the response is likely to be consequences, or maybe even a punishment, instead of doing something constructive to help. If a child has a disability, meaning they can’t actually help it, school becomes a dreaded chore and the issue is compounded.
Many of my non-homeschool friends are reporting issues at school. I’ve recommended School House Rock twice this week over math issues and offered my services as a tutor. Because I’m working in the role of a teacher, I’m trying to learn what teachers do (the right stuff and the wrong stuff), and because I’m not saddled with a class so big I can barely manage, there’s time to ask “why” if a problem arises, and even time to ask “how do I fix it” rather than just noting it and moving on. Once again, I think that many teachers envisioned this when they headed off to college. They probably imagined being able to make a difference to many children, but the image was probably of one child that the system had lost — finding that magic answer that turned that kid’s life around. I do that everyday — only the kid is my own, and I will get to see everything, including how he turns out.