Educating Children For The Journey: Jack Petrash at TEDxRockCreekPark


Translator: Mohand Habchi
Reviewer: Ivana Korom I became a teacher 40 years ago, and when people hear
that I’m still in the classroom, they think that I bring a considerable
amount of experience to the work I do. But honestly,
I look at it in a different way. And I ask them, “Can you imagine how many bad lessons
I’ve taught in 40 years?” (Laughter) Now, don’t get me wrong,
I value my bad lessons. They’ve helped me learn
a good deal about teaching and about the nature of children. And one of the things
that I’ve noticed when I teach poorly, is that the children in my classes
behavе three distinct ways. The first children I notice
are the “fidgeters”. Those children who’ll play with anything
they can get their hands on. They’ll flick little pieces of paper, they’ll crack their knuckles. I saw one boy
tried to stand his pencil on an eraser at least twelve times. (Laughter) Now, as a teacher I value that,
that’s perseverance. (Laughter) These children
are my kinesthetic learners, and they’re trying
to send me a message. They’re saying, “Please, can you give me something purposeful
to do with my hands?” (Laughter) Now there’s a second type of child. Maybe you were this kind of child. The one who’s too discrete to fidget. You would fold your hands, you give the appearance
of paying attention, and then you gaze out the window, and you’re gone. Gone to a place, an imaginative place
that’s rich in feeling. A place with suspense
and humor and romance. These dreamy children,
are my social emotional learners. And they’re sending a message also. They’re saying, “Please, teach me in a way
that would touch my heart.” There’s a third type of child. I call these children,
the clandestine readers. They slip the book out
of their desk onto their lap, and they read
while the teacher is teaching something that they’ve already learned. These children are committed
to thinking new thoughts and entertaining new ideas. These three ways that children behave
when I’m not teaching well, they represent the three
essential needs of children. To be engaged actively, emotionally
and thoughtfully in every lesson. Today, in our standards driven education, we’re not engaging our children
in a multi-dimensional way. Our approach to teaching
is decidedly one-sided, and it’s based on imparting information. And as a goal in education, imparting information
is flawed for many reasons. But one is, that much
that we teach our children we’ll be outdated
by the time they’re adults. I learned this early on. When I was in school as a boy, we were given a newspaper: “The Weekly Reader.” And I remember one issue
on the front page, there was a picture of a man
dressed all in a white suit. He looked like an astronaut. He had on a large white hood
and a clear visor. He was a fireman. And the title of the article
said, “Miracle fiber”. He was dressed entirely in asbestos. Asbestos was our miracle fiber
fifty years ago. We were so keen
on that friable carcinogen, that we’ve put it on our floor tiles,
our ceiling tiles, our house shingles, and then we spent millions of dollars
taking it out of our buildings. I ask myself,
“What’s our asbestos today?” What’s our Pluto? What’s our Soviet Union? What are the things
that we’re teaching our children that won’t serve them
when they’re adults? And how do we prepare children
for a world we can’t envision? I contend that the best way to do that, is to give our children capacities. And the three capacities
that we should develop in them, should align with the three
essential needs that they have. The first capacity
that we should give them, is for active red-blooded
vigorous activity. Activity that’s disciplined
and determined. An activity that develops
a reservoir of willpower. And by willpower,
I mean the same thing that Garrison Keillor refers to
in his powder milk biscuits commercial. The strengths to get up and do
what needs to be done. That’s what our children
are going to need to live in the problem filled world
that they’re going to inherit from us. And the best way to begin
to develop that capacity in a young child, is through play. Because when children play, they’re attentive and focused and totally involved in what they do. That’s why you can’t get them
to come to the dinner table when you call them. They’re at one immersed, and that’s a characteristic of genius. The Nobel Prize-winning geneticist,
Barbara McClintock, said that when she was doing her research
on the chromosomes of corn, she felt as if she was down
in the microscope, on the slide with those chromosomes. And the more she observed them,
the bigger they became. And then she forgot
where she was and who she was. That’s being in the zone. That’s the flow state. That’s where our children go
when they play. The second capacity
that we should develop in our children, is a capacity for a deep,
rich, emotional life. An emotional life broad enough to hold the polarities
that our complex modern world will demand of us. That they can on the one hand be sensitive and receptive
to new experiences, and at the same time
be strong and resilient enough to whether the crisis
that they will inevitably face. And the best way to develop
this deep feeling capacity in our children, is through art. And it is possible to integrate art
into the teaching of all subjects in the elementary school. I would like to show you
some examples of work done by the students
that I teach in a sixth grade at the Waldorf School in Bethesda. This is an illustration
from our work in astronomy on a study of the ecliptic. That band of constellations, that’s about twenty degrees
wide in the sky through which the sun
and the moon and the planets all pass and where the eclipses occur. Here’s a drawing
from our study of geometry. A complex construction
that required that the students construct a perpendicular on the diameter
bisect the arcs and connect all of the points carefully. This is a whole brain activity. It asked children
for their cognitive ability. For their sequential thinking. For their fine motor skill. And for their artistic sensibility. Now you may look at this work and think that the children that I teach
are uniquely artistic. But I tell you all children are artists. Years ago, I taught in a program
in the DC public schools, for children who’ve been removed
from their classrooms for behavioral and emotional issues, and we did geometric drawings like this. And at the end of the class,
there were students who wouldn’t leave. I went up to one boy at once, and I said to him
to move him along to his next period, and he looked at me and he said, “You know, you give me
an ordinary lead pencil, I can’t do much. You give me colored pencils,
I’m an artist.” Our children are artists. We should be teaching them
through art and through play, because if we do that
we’ll develop the third capacity that they’re going to need
for their lives. A capacity for a lively
curious dynamic thinking. A playful thinking that will play
with ideas and with problems. An imaginative, original,
out of the box thinking that will help our children
ask the questions that our world is still
waiting to have asked. With no child left behind
and raced to the top, we have asked our children to use only half
of their human intelligence. Just the left side of their brain. And 50% is a failing grade
by any standard. Our children deserve more,
much more. They’re waiting
for our schools to change. Thank you. (Applause)


11 Responses

  1. Lyall Swim

    May 17, 2013 10:48 pm

    Loved the talk. All three of my children are different learners, and he described each type that they are perfectly. Hopefully those running full steam ahead on Common Core or NCLB or whatever the most recent standards cookie-cutter gov't ed program will take a look at this and hit the pause button and broaden their view.

  2. Angela Kane

    May 20, 2013 12:25 am

    Our child goes to Meadowbrook Waldorf School in Richmond, RI and it is truly a wonderful place!

  3. Chris Charlwood

    May 21, 2013 4:56 am

    This is a great and very clear explanation of how children learn. Waldorf does make the best attempt to use the whole brain in each lesson, and try to teach starting each day with the head, hands, and then heart. I've tried to summarize some benefits here at Rootparenting called 5 Unique Benefits of Waldorf Education

  4. Sarah Glover

    May 23, 2013 1:10 pm

    this was so useful for me as a mom, already seeing these 3 distinctions in my own children- active, emotion, and thoughtful needs in learning. I am frightened by the focus on core curriculum and lecturing for kindergarteners. We we re so thank ful for a preK teacher who understands that intelligience includes creativity but more and more the standards of facts needed to be memorized is leaving out the collaboration and problem solving needed for true learning. our kids are missing out on living

  5. K.A. Krueger

    August 31, 2013 4:46 am

    I only wish that he modeled what he spoke about. Making people become active in the process of learning. Offering visual, auditory and kinetic learning practices for his audience to participate… and thereby fully learn…

  6. mobildetroit

    January 28, 2014 6:48 pm

    There is no way in hell I would send my child to any other kind of school then a Waldorf school.  I refuse to be responsible for stunting my childs brain development.

  7. Fiona M Havlish

    May 28, 2015 2:31 pm

    My daughter loves Waldorf school as do her classmates! They are creative, innovative, not afraid to ask questions or to be themselves. They still love stories and playing outside!! Me too:) She is in her senior year!! I wish this education was open to everyone!!


Leave a Reply