“Experience isn’t the best teacher. Experience is the only teacher, experiences to give names to.”
Bev Bos, one of the most respected early childhood educators of our time.
In our increasingly virtual world Bev’s insight is golden. Each word is a concept; chair, hand. The ability to leach out abstract concepts and create symbols and metaphors to stand in place of concrete experience is the hallmark of human mental capacity and complexity. I won’t mislabel this truly miraculous ability intelligence because it is not. Intelligence is the ability to see between the lines these concepts create and move towards wholeness and wellbeing for all. To mistake the metaphor for the movement of holistic intelligence is a terrible mistake.
It is astonishing observing Carly Elizabeth, not quite 2.5 years young, mastering the fundamentals of this leaching of experience into concepts in two distinct languages with little or no effort. She mastered the ability to walk upright before her first birthday and is racing towards mastery of the second most challenging capacity of her entire life, symbolic-metaphoric language, in less than twenty-nine months, all because experience is the best and only teacher.
At the park today Carly walked up and down a steep flight of sixty or so wood and gravel steps five times, each time announcing, “I did it like a big girl!” “Udelala jsem to jako velka holka,” in Czech. Carly expresses her needs and preferences directly and clearly in the language most appropriate to her companion. I would place her emotional development on par with many adults I know. Her appropriateness is arresting. It is this blend of appropriateness and clarity about how she is feeling that makes is so easy to read and respond to her needs. How did this happen? When empathy leads the way the child feels seen for who they actually are. Because her feelings and needs have been honored, she trusts herself and the clarity of her expressions. Imagine how frustrating it is for many children to only see their parent’s expectations in the mirror of their relationship. They rarely get honest and clear feedback. Of course they need to wiggle and scream. And Carly Elizabeth is not exceptional. She is just like most other children, each a sensitive, alert, walking, talking everyday miracle.
In the news is an emerging phenomenon, the creation of Cyber Charter Schools, and how the learning and performance of these virtual (so-called) educational institutions are, well, lacking. I am no fan of the compulsory conditioning we call schooling. Carly Elizabeth is not in school and yet she is mastering the most difficult challenges she will ever face with playful ease and delight. When I compare this explosive growth, all based on direct experience, to what I experienced at school and what it has become, Carly’s unlimited possibilities quickly narrow as the rainbow life offers is funneled down an increasingly dark, and narrow play-less tunnel.
No matter what ‘content’ is being displayed at Cyber School it is a two-dimensional, radiant, yet a lifeless counterfeit of three-dimensional living experience. Only the very thin top layers of the brain are touched by technology’s enchantments. For over 90% of a child’s sensory, emotional, and even the symbolic and metaphoric capacity the experience that is being experienced is the device itself, not what we think of as the ‘content’ being displayed. Carly can master the experience the device provides in a few minutes. That is what we might call ‘real learning.’ After that, the ‘experience’ quickly becomes habit - automatic, repetitive and reflexive, and this is the foundation for much of what we call education, and pardon me for saying, parenting today.
The great challenge, of course, is to meet the exploding, exponential capacity that every child is and continue to provide real, living experiences that meet and expand his or her potential without being seduced by virtual counterfeits. Personally, I find this to be a daunting challenge. It is extremely difficult to do this at 2.5 years. What about three and five, seven and eleven? Instead of our children hitting a wall or staring in a mirror of conformity and boring repetition, what would they be like if Carly’s current pace of steady-exponential growth continued throughout childhood and went on into her twenties and even thirties? She would leap past Einstein in a single bound. Carly’s capacity is not the limiting factor. She has billions of stem-cells like neurons, perhaps as many as there are stars in the Milky Way, waiting to express as new patterns and possibilities. What is she waiting for? Experience.
I have often said that our children have heard most everything we have to say by age five or six. With Carly I am adjusting this back to maybe age three or four. Everything we do is new at the beginning, and then, very quickly, repetition sets in and what we call school is pretty much the same game. We usually engage, challenge and nurture only a tiny fraction of our children’s vast potential. Most of the time we and school are booooring. The latest app or gadget that blings is more novel and addictive. These tease and flirt, pretending to be the real experiences we crave, the radiant three dimensional dance partner and embrace that gives life meaning, are empty of real nutrition as the proverbial Twinky.
And then we have the limiting forces called identity and culture. We do things this way. Conform or you aren’t a member. The majority of activity we call parenting is this behavior modification game based on conforming to the parents’ excitations, and these mirror the culture’s expectations. The entire pecking order of any culture - comparisons, grades, all the sub groups, churches, the clothes we wear, the language and music we listen to, all this represents a conservative set of habits that limit and stifle unmanifested human potential, the anything but mediocre we all could be.
Real freedom to learn and to grow, to discover and develop what nature intends is freedom from these limitations and constraints which boils down to a self-world view that is not identified with or dependent on the authority and approval of these social-defining roles and their images. You won’t find that in school, church or on any social media platform. Building such a self-world-view with its empathic intelligence is the real goal behind what Joseph Chilton Pearce called ‘nature’s agenda.’ Health, creativity, compassion and wholeness would replace nationalism and conflicting religious ideologies as the organizing forces that forge our personal identities, these being virtual realities just like the beeping counterfeits we carry in our pockets. What would human potential look like then? The disgusting rat-hole called the military-industrial complex would be transformed into creative life-affirming enterprises. The social and ecological corruption we see all around us would stop and turn on a dime.
I’m confident that I will miss nurturing this ideal by a long-shot, helping Carly Elizabeth ‘experience’ what it feels like to be unconditionally free. But it is an ideal worth holding. Dreaming how one might do that is a dream worth dreaming. In the game of life, you take your best shot, watch with wonder, learn, adapt and shoot again. It is always our turn up at bat.