Alain de Botton writes a lot about love. In a conversation with Krista Tippett he explains, “As we know with children, the only conditions under which anyone learns are conditions of incredible sweetness, tenderness, patience. That’s how we learn.”
He is discussing romantic relationships and marriages and goes on to say that the failures of our relationships have created such anxiety that we respond so badly and fail to help our partners grow and achieve their best versions of themselves. This is interesting, but what we are concerned with as teachers is children and how they learn. Look at his description of the conditions for learning: incredible sweetness, tenderness, patience. Now think about your classroom and your students. Are your students met with incredible sweetness, tenderness, and patience?
These aren’t the usual concepts which inform our pedagogy. Typically we’re maximizing every second toward students gaining knowledge to prepare for standardized testing. This doesn’t leave time for patience and when patience is absent there’s usually no tenderness. And when in these precious few moments we are faced with a student who repeatedly and inexplicably disrupts the class it’s not an incredibly sweet environment in which we find ourselves. We plan our days down to the millisecond and there’s no room for error. Teachers, am I right? Isn’t this how it goes day in and day out? There is never enough time and we can’t afford to let a moment slip by.
We’re problem solvers. We are indomitable. When a student is not performing we examine the history, we collect data, and we analyze the data. We consult therapists. We read journal articles. We take workshops. We join list serves and social media groups in search of solutions to problems, which thus far have not been solved by any of the thoughtful means you’ve implemented.
What if it is simpler than that but, in fact, so simple to be novel? What if it’s as pure as going back to the basics of child development?
Study after study is bringing to light that even 17-year olds’ brains are responding in the same fashion as an 18-month old because of the impact trauma has had on brain development. And trauma is not uncommon. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are common. Almost two-thirds of study participants reported at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs.
If you walk into a roomful of 18-month olds you are not going to stand in front of the group and lecture or engage them in a discussion to activate prior knowledge. You are going to be on the floor playing alongside, holding, rocking, singing, and giving them incredible sweetness, tenderness, and patience.
Obviously sweetness, tenderness, and patience in a roomful of teenage boys will look different from the roomful of 18-month olds. But the attitude of sweetness, tenderness, and patience should frame every move you make just as it would with the toddlers.
Sometimes in our sophisticated society a simple solution isn’t looked upon with favor. To say that, well…as Lennon and McCartney put it, “Love is all you need” seems trite. And while we may need more than love, if we don’t start with love, we’ll not get very far.