How Do They Learn?

Parents who come to see the Macomber Center for the first time are almost always impressed by the beautiful location, the friendly kids, and the Center’s overall calm and happy atmosphere.  And then, naturally, the questions arise, “But what do the kids do all day, what do they learn, how do they learn, are there classes, what role do the adults play in the learning process?” Learning happens all the time and in so many different ways that it’s hard to give a single concrete answer.  First, it is important to make clear that the adults are not here to steer kids in any particular direction but to help them access the world in ways that are meaningful to them.  Second, much of the learning that happens here takes place without any adult involvement whatsoever and very often even when adults are involved it is through informal activity and conversation.  We do not place any more value on formal learning activities than any other kind of activities.  Having said this, there are also plenty of opportunities for formal learning for those who may find it useful, enjoyable, or engaging.

Last year there was a small group of older kids who came to the regular Monday morning meeting and said that they wanted a biology class.  This was not something that we had ready to go upon request, and it was also not the first time I had heard someone expressing the desire for some kind of formal science class.  So this year we hired James Style who has previously worked as a researcher at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. So far his two classes, Marine Dissection and Cell Biology/Forensic Science have been the most popular classes this year.  As the kids have come to know James better, they have become aware of his many other interests and competencies.  He has a formal background in philosophy as well as ancient Greek and Latin.  So pretty soon he was teaching a Latin class which has now split into two separate classes and, most recently, he has been asked to do a logic class which has become an unexpected blockbuster.

James’ initial two science classes are a fairly clear cut example of classes coming about from a formal request from the kids.  But this is not always the case.  Sometimes classes begin to take form in a much more organic and gradual way.  One of the wonderful and unique things about working at a place like the Macomber Center is that, just like the kids, the adults are also free to be themselves, to follow their curiosity and to pursue their personal interests.  In fact, this is one of the ways that kids are exposed to different ways of thinking and new ways of doing things.  One day I was reading an article called “Mystical Anarchism” by the contemporary philosopher Simon Critchley, when Amanda, a fourteen year old “Goth”, asked me what I was reading.  I showed her the article.  She took it from me, looked at it for a moment and then handed it back saying, “Can I read it when you’re done?  "Sure", I said, and kept on reading.

A few days later she asked, “Are you done with that article yet?”  “What article”, I said, having forgotten our conversation.  “You know, the one about Anarchy.”  “Oh, yah, I finished it," I said.  “Was it good?”  “Yeah, it was great.”  “So can I have it?”  “Of course," I said, “I’ll bring it in tomorrow.”  I guess I hadn’t taken her request very seriously the first time.  After all, what would a fourteen year old girl want with an article about medieval Christianity and revolutionary political movements?  Anyway, she kept on me about it until I finally brought the article in.  I handed it to her and said, “Don’t feel like you have to finish this, it’s really long and kind of dense.”  “You think I’m an idiot don’t you,” she said in her typical deadpan, half-joking sort of way.  “You think I won’t be able to understand it.”  I assured her that it wasn’t a question of her being smart enough, I just wasn’t sure whether she would be able to relate to the material.

Boy was I wrong!  When Amanda returned the article to me a day later, she told me that she read the whole article and then shared it with her father.  She said they both really enjoyed it and discussed it at length.  I asked her what she liked about it.  It turned out that many of the questions and ideas that the article brought up for her, and which she found so engaging, were precisely the kinds of things that I have been interested in for a long time.  So we decided to do some reading together.  Every week we would read one or two short articles and then discuss them.  After a month or two of this, we decided to pick a particular area of interest and then go deeper into it.  When I asked her what that might be for her, she seemed to have a definite sense that there were some common strands within everything that we had been reading, a sort of theme, that she found compelling, but that she was also having difficulty articulating.  This was really exciting for me to see because it meant that she was onto something totally new and unfamiliar, something not yet in focus, but that she felt compelled to investigate, and that's such a wonderful place to be.  After some time of trying to tease it out, it seemed to me that what we were talking about had something to do with the psychological underpinnings of religious and political movements.  “It sounds to me like we need to start with Freud," I said, and so we did.

Every week I would give Amanda a book to read and she would read it.  She always did the reading and never missed a single meeting.  I have to admit, I was pretty amazed by this.  Sometimes she would tell me that reading Freud made her brain hurt but she never seemed to have trouble doing the work.  One day, as we were getting ready for our meeting, Alex and Aidan, two of Amanda’s good friends, announced that they were joining the “Psycho Readers” class.  I had written “Psycho Readers” , a haphazard abbreviation for “reading psychoanalysis,” on the board outside the room which is used to reserve the space.  But Alex and Aidan thought that this term was hilarious and so insisted on being included in our “class”.  If there were two kids who I could not imagine engaged in a serious conversation about Freud it was Alex and Aidan and they were clearly playing on this irony when they entered the room, sat down and said, “Ok Draper, teach us something.”  Since they hadn’t read anything for that week, I suggested going over Feud’s system in general.

First, Alex and Aidan had not heard of Freud.  They knew what psychology was but had never heard the term psychoanalysis.  So I started from the beginning, making notes on the whiteboard as I went.  Some of it clearly struck them as pretty strange.  In particular, a brief explanation of the five stages of psycosexual development ilicited everything from fits of laughter to outright rejection.  But the Oedipus complex was by far the strangest thing that they had ever heard.  As I began to timidly lay out the scenario of a little boy who adores his mother and fears his father, I realized that I just couldn’t bring myself to complete this strange Freudian scene, fearing that it might make these kids too uncomfortable.  So I moved to the more remote, and therefore easier to handle, Greek myth of king Oedipus.  But evidently I had already revealed enough because Alex, by now having put the pieces together, stopped me and said, “Wait, let me guess, he kills his father and marries his mother”.  All three of them erupted in laughter.  Alex was of course joking, rushing to the most absurd conclusion he could think of.  Little did he know that he had inadvertently hit the nail on the head.

What began to be clear to me was that, for all the jokes, sarcasm and irony, these kids were really engaging with the material.  Joking around, making puns, turning sentences and ideas on their head - this is how these kids process and master the world around them, and they were deploying all of their highest capacity resources on this material.  After a couple of weeks, Amanda took me aside and told me that, although she liked the psychology class, she felt that it was restricting the scope of our reading and conversation.  She said that she wanted to return to our original format but to also keep the psychology class going with Alex and Aidan.  So now there are two separate events and they both grew out of very spur-of-the-moment, casual interactions.

I could never have guessed that this material would ignite Amanda’s interest in the way that it has, or that Alex and Aidan could have ever been turned on to Freud.  And for their part, I’m sure Alex and Aidan never would have signed up for a class on Freud.  And how would Amanda have stumbled onto these interests if she were not free to follow her curiosity in a rich and diverse environment?  But the bigger point here is that this is only one example of the kids of encounters that are happening all the time at the Macomber Center.  They are part of the fluid and dynamic activity of every day.  Yet they are not easily observable unless you are part of it.  They are also not the kinds of things that kids are likely to go to the trouble of explaining when their parents say, "So, what did you do today?”  It’s even hard for me to talk about unless I very consciously sit down and try to put into words what exactly happens.  Here I have tried to do precisely that because it’s hard otherwise to really do justice to questions like “Do you offer classes for the kids?”