There is a group of people who appear around this time of year. I like to call us resolutionaries. You know who we are. We are the people who have the best intentions and make great plans for the year to come. We will quit our bad habits and develop new and healthy ones. We will become more fit, eat better, be kinder, get more involved with our communities, learn more, read more, spend more time with those we love and just become better all-round people -- all in the new year.
Sometimes, we actually fulfill our promises to ourselves. Sometimes we continue to work toward our goals, but mostly we give up by mid-February because it is just too hard to change our habits. I worry that education looks a lot like it is being run by those resolutionaries who just give up.
There is a large and growing number of education theorists and scholars who agree that teaching children to think critically and to ask relevant questions must begin at an early age. While memorizing facts and even poetry can improve our lives and our capacity to do many things, it sure won't prepare us to be active and engaged citizens.
While our new teachers may learn in faculties of education about the importance to democracy of critical thinking, they rarely see examples of critical thinking lessons and styles of teaching. Is this because the senior teachers, who mentor the teacher-candidates when they are in their classrooms, find teaching about freedom to be scary and difficult to manage, or it just that, like stopping smoking, they find it hard to get rid of old habits?
Can we break through our old ways? The new year may be just the time to do so. Today, we are sending our children back to school for the first week of 2014. Let's make a resolution to help them develop healthy habits -- and stick to those new habits. Let's help them to explore freedom.
Have you ever asked young people what the word "freedom" means? While they often say it means release from such obligations as going to school, getting up early, doing chores or homework, etc., others put it more simply. They tell us that freedom means doing whatever one wants, whenever one wants to do it. This requires freedom from restriction as well as the freedom to explore new ways to act.
Do you want to go bungee jumping? Climb a mountain? Take part in a polar bear swim? Get tattooed or shave your head? Well, it's a free country. But what if your idea of freedom includes driving as fast as you can, or joining a political group that advocates violence? Should it still be a "free country?" Can we teach our children how to think about limits to their own and other people's freedom, without telling them what to think?
If you would like to start 2014 as one of the resolutionaries who doesn't give up, you and your children can launch the year with this fun and simple exercise right now: Standing at least two arms lengths away from your children, flap your arms up and down. Now ask the kids if they think it is OK for you to do such a silly thing. Is it OK for you to embarrass them by acting like a fool? Are they willing to let you flap away to your heart's content? Now, start moving while you continue flapping. Getting very close to one kid's nose, ask that young person if your arm flapping is still OK. My guess is that they will want you to stop. Why?
Why should we limit anyone's freedom? How could one person's expression of freedom (arm flapping) be more important than another person's safety (her nose)? If both are important, we will need to strike a balance. Should we create a rule or a law about arm flapping? Or should we simply make an agreement not to hurt one another? What if we make a rule or have an agreement not to embarrass one another? Would that go too far? Don't answer these questions. Find out what the children think.
It might not be easy, but joining the resolutionaries who don't give up, knowing that each of the questions you ask your child and more importantly, the questions your child asks you, will help us all to develop new and healthy habits -- the habits of democracy.