Smashing things is normal: Education on the margins

As a child I broke a great deal of things. It started out with toys in a very primitive way. I had matchbox cars, if you don’t know what they are they were very well made small toy cars made out of metal, and they were incredibly sturdy. Through play like any other kid they would get damaged, little dents or the paint would fade and chip, a wheel may come loose but they were hard to properly break. One day I decided to take a rock and repeatedly throw it at one of the cars till it was fully and definitively smashed to bits. Feeling guilty and thinking I’d get in trouble from my mum I buried it in the garden.

This destructive streak is quite common in children, my sister used to cut the hair off her dolls, we both drew on things and I’ve probably forgotten most of the things I broke intentionally or otherwise.

As I got older this habit continued, except it wasn’t toy trucks I was smashing with rocks but electronic devices which I carefully took apart to see how they worked. Once reassembling a broken radio which I got to work again I blew the fuses in my mum’s house, I claimed full ignorance as to how it happened as I’m pretty sure she would have stopped me out of fear of electrocution, and justifiably so as I had no idea what I was doing.

According to my mum I also had a habit of sticking my fingers in any hole I found, and once put my hand on a hot element and received a nasty burn, neither of which I recall. All of those things are normal, normal for any child and I’m sure many of you will have similar stories for different things.

Is it true that boys are more destructive than girls in the way that they play? Yes, generally[1]. My sister was a bit of an exception. This is not because boys are more destructive, but the destructiveness is a reflection of the fact that males are more systematic, in that they like to know how things come together, work, and come apart. That is a generalisation but it is largely true. Women are better at empathising and tend to play with characters and stories.

Either way, play is a way of learning. It can help you discover how things work, it can help children learn how to interact with others, it can help you count and spell (how many children’s games involve counting?) And pretty much anything else. Children learn by playing, tasting, touching, falling, breaking, building and generally experiencing their surroundings.

Walking down the road near work one day I saw a Television set, broken, smashed. I assumed for some reason some kid had done it, just to see what would happen. At the same time I had the desire to do the same, what if I kicked it? I’d love to smash a brand new TV open, just to know what happens. A gown man of nearly 40 years old shouldn’t even want to do that, right?

I suspect most people think things like that even if we don’t act on it. We’ve been taught social rules as we grow up which make it very clear that smashing things is not only immature but often illegal. Adults shouldn’t do something destructive. There clearly many times when a person being destructive is aggressive or rebelling in some way and the destruction is an act of protest or anger. This can be the case with children but I remember most of the time I was just curious, besides it being fun to be destructive with no aggression at all. This drive in children to discover what things can do, including what’s inside them is totally normal and adults shouldn’t ignore that desire. As an adult you may suddenly decide to study a new craft, or take up a new sport and have to begin learning again, this is just the same thing. We don’t stop learning and we don’t stop having the desire to see what’s inside things. If you lose this desire, this need, then chances are you’ve told yourself you can’t learn. Smash the fucking TV, as long as it’s yours…

Why is it that the social rules tell us to stop this method of discovery? Maybe we just grow up and learn that a screwdriver will work just as well and we can put it back together again afterwards. But it’s not just about that, smashing something also makes sound, is visually stimulating, and is always different. Often it’s not about putting it back together. Those social rules are sensible, once some things are broken their life also is, it is irresponsible to break something perfectly good. Children haven’t learned that yet. As a kid I just knew my mum wouldn’t buy me more toy trucks if she caught me busting up the ones I already had. What did I learn from breaking that toy truck? Not much to be honest, but I learned how many times a big rock needed to be thrown at something to break it, I guess there’s some physics in that. Plenty of experiments fail.

In my adult years I became an improvising musician, this activity of creating music with no starting point has a similar basis to children having a go. We get on stage and start playing with little to no plan, it’s risky, and its discovery and it’s creative. These are the things that all children should experience while they are children. And more importantly, we shouldn’t stop people doing this as they grow older.

Let people smash stuff.

The main culprit for the murder of this creative exploratory behaviour is school. Not the concept of school but the structure of how it works and the national curriculum.

Let’s look at some of the ways school stifles creativity and makes people lose their drive to discover.

Structure: imposing a time and place and pace and environment for learning arguably gets people ready for adult life of work. This may be true but I’d also argue that it takes away the desire to learn and the fact that every person has different learning needs. One aspect to consider is people’s natural circadian rhythms. I won’t go too deep into this but in short we have different natural sleeping patterns and therefore different times of the day when we are at our best. Forcing people to fit one single sleeping pattern (the 8hour, 9 to 5 day for example) means that a certain part of the population must try and function outside of natural cycles. As an adult I can problem solve this and find ways to deal with it but we can’t expect children to, if they are tired, they are tired.

Adult life never really works out how anyone expects it to. Jobs aren’t all 9 to 5, you don’t necessarily live near your work, and you may have to compromise on parts of your lifestyle that you hadn’t planned on. Considering that, making kids go to school with a single set of restricted hours doesn’t even prepare them for that, even University study doesn’t stick to those hours which makes you need to adjust again.

The curriculum: What it is, is basically what is taught. In schools there are national expectations which means that every child is marked in line with every other child in the country. Doesn’t sound fair at all. The teaching curriculum is the aspect that I fell most impact on children, particularly poor children. When you are poor your choices are limited, chances are you have one or two choices of school. Whereas wealthy people can send their children to any private school anywhere providing they have the money to do so. At school all kids are expected to learn math, literacy, a few life skills, maybe some science, possible some geography or another language. Nothing wrong with any of those subjects (I have never used algebra in adult life, why didn’t they teach budgeting skills? Or explain what a mortgage is? How interest rates work?)

 

Teaching to the needs and interests of the population is a key element in all of this. By that I mean to be effective in teaching you need to understand who you are teaching first. We all need some fundamental skills like counting, reading, cooking and so on but how you learn those best is based on many factors. Where you are born and grow up. Rural New Zealanders have differing needs from kids in London or other big cities. Understanding what is culturally and socially significant to the learner is important as well as knowing their strengths and deficits.

Trying to rein in a child’s energy is not useful, trying to direct and channel it is and by allowing learners to learn in a method that makes sense to them is incredibly important.

Being an educator isn’t easy, needing to know the needs of a full class of different learners takes a great deal of time, energy and empathy but doing so will lead to better results for all.

Don’t stop someone’s destructive streak, channel it. Don’t restrain energy, use it. The best teachers know this and will find ways around the restraints of their bureaucracies. All minds are enquiring, thinking, wondering, just in different ways about different things.

 

[1] Read Simon Baron Cohens’ The Essential Difference to learn the neurological and biological reasons for this.

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