Saturday, September 8, 2012

Musical Chairs and the "Real World"

"I recently read an commentary from the Teachers College Record on the importance of empathy in education/life.  (Because, really, can we separate the two?  I mean, I know we've tried to take the life out of education, and to look at the lives of students as being devoid of educational experiences...but seriously?  You can't separate the two.)  The author, Nadine Dolby, writes persuasively about the importance of this socio-emotional aspect of learning that, as I've noted, we've paid too little attention to.  

After attending a conference this summer on Mindfulness in Education, I've become increasingly aware of something I've always known:  In terms of getting anyone to think, they first must feel safe and emotionally secure.  We've overlooked this for too long and too many of our practices are actually harmful towards those ends.

For instance, in my school, on our second teacher day before the start of the student year, we had a rousing discussion about grading and failure.  Is failure a useful construct, or are we simply playing a "gotcha" game with students we feel refuse to comply?  Are we "teaching them a lesson about the real world" or are we irreparably harming them and indelibly marring their view of the entire system of public education?

From my point of view, we have to think about education and its associated grades as linked to teachers' particular world views.  Think of it from this perspective:  Are we educating children for the way the world was, or are we educating them for the way we want the world to be?  If all we ever do is the former, we do our children a massive disservice.  The world is not a static place.  It never “is”.  It either was, or is in the process of becoming something else.  We ought to be educating our children to drive and direct the process, not to take their place in a world that will not “be” when they graduate.  

You can gripe and argue all you want about teaching kids lessons and preparing them for the “real world.”  Seriously, I don’t know what the real world is because I’m not out in the “real world” every day. My school is a sheltered life.  I mean, sure, I read about the real world, I am friends with people who populate it and work in it.  And, yes, I live in it, my students live in it.  But as used by teachers in the construct "We're preparing you for life in the real world." I truly have no idea what that is.  I am, for all intents and purposes, sheltered from it.  However, that does not mean I cannot understand it or that I cannot strive to change it based upon my perception of the harms it inflicts on the people who populate it and the natural world upon which our constructed "real world" sits.  Thus, the world I want to prepare them for is a world where they get to make the choices and design a better world.

I gave a presentation in Boston in August at the National Conference for the Industrial Designers’ Society of America.  In it I quoted journalist John Hockenberry from this TED talk.  Hockenberry claims that we are all designers now, that we have at our disposal the power to make our world and shape it in ways we never had before.  Because of that, Hockenberry says we are all now confronted with a fundamental question:  “What will we do now in the face of the chaos we have created?” 

Don’t think for a moment that you, as a teacher, are simply preparing your kids for PSSAs/Keystones/Insertnameofnextstandardizedtesttotakehere.  You are not.  You are preparing them to take over the reins of the democracy, to enter into and become a vital (rather than redundant) part of the economic engine that is the foundation for our success, to learn enough about themselves and their potential to awaken their genius.  Only students prepared for those eventualities will be capable of facing the fearsome question “What will we do now in the face of the chaos we have created?” and not cower or run for cover but rather, design a better world by challenging and changing the systems that create the chaos. 

Some things are for sure:  They won’t face that question alone.  They won’t answer it by racing to the top. And they won’t answer it by winning at musical chairs and learning all about the triumph of social Darwinism.  So we need to ask ourselves, what are we doing in our classrooms that will help students face that question, and what are we doing that is simply musical chairs.  

The commentary:

Empathy, Education, and Musical Chairs

by Nadine Dolby — September 04, 2012

This is a commentary on new research on empathy in neuroscience and related fields, and implications for education. 

"Let's play musical chairs!" The young, inexperienced teacher of my daughter's Saturday morning dance class was clearly having great difficulty getting a room full of four and five year old children to listen, never mind follow her dance moves.  Musical chairs, I assumed, was the first thought that came to her--a way to get the children focused on one activity, or at least in the same part of the room.

My then four-year-old daughter stopped, looked at me, and asked, "What's musical chairs, Mommy?"  "Well," I said, "it's a game children play at parties or in school. All the children run around a line of chairs as the teacher plays music, and then when the music stops, the children sit down in a chair. The trick of the game is that there is always one less chair than there are children, so each time, one child does not get a chair. Whoever is left at the end is the winner."

My daughter thought about this for a moment, and replied, "So what's the point of the game Mom: is it fun?"

 It was then my turn to think. No, I thought, it is not fun. The child who fails to get a chair inevitably collapses in tears.  No, there was no point---at least not a good one. Quickly, I scurried across the room to the dance instructor, explained that my daughter would not be playing musical chairs, and tried to suggest that perhaps a more inclusive, cooperative game might be a better way to restore some peace to the room.

"Musical chairs," of course, is one of thousands of games, diversions, and unquestioned ways of life that are so deeply embedded in our culture that is difficult to see them clearly. While it was beyond my daughter's comprehension to understand the larger place of "musical chairs" in the world of children and childhood games, here are a few of its lessons:  humans are inherently competitive by nature;  you need to fight for everything you get;  there is scarcity in the world; and only the strongest and most ruthless will triumph. Anyone (including me) who remembers being pushed out of a chair and onto the floor by a bigger, older child knows that Social Darwinism is at the core of this seemingly innocent game.

I can imagine that the other parents at the dance class might have two reactions to my analysis of musical chairs, either that I am reading too much into a game, or well, yes, that is true, but that's how we are as humans, the world will always be that way, and children need to learn that early, even if it comes with a few tears and bumps.

As it turns out, however, recent scientific advancements in the field of neuroscience are showing that actually, these parents--and everyone else who believes that people are onlyinherently competitive--are wrong.  Instead, human brains are actually primed for bothcompetition and cooperation: which side of us emerges as more dominant is dependent on our culture.  Our brains are not separate from the world around us and how we are taught to interact with others: instead, our brains are embodied in that world. The fairly new discovery of "mirror neurons" (Iacoboni, 2006; Ramachandran, 2006 ) furthermore begins to strongly indicate that as humans we are naturally able to empathize with others. This empathy is there in all of us from birth, just waiting for our culture to nurture it.  Empathy, it appears, is not just a moral or ethical good: it is a biological part of every person, and as research also demonstrates, of virtually every animal also -- even mice demonstrate empathy.

But of course, right now, our culture does not nurture empathy and cooperation. Instead, in schools, our homes, in the media, and in every aspect of our lives, we value competition. From the earliest lessons of musical chairs, to the fierce competition brought on by excessive testing, to battles for college admission, jobs, and the greatly diminished access to the "American Dream" we teach our children that this is just how humans are.  The consequences of accepting that all of this is "natural" has been devastating for our planet.  As George Lakoff (2008) points out:

Economic man produced global warming and chemical chickens. The unbounded pursuit of self-interest that was supposed to be moral, which was supposed to produce plenty for all, is bringing death to our earth. If it continues, half the species on the planet will die within a century. Economic man was an idea--a claim about human nature. Empathy and real reason, as we shall see, reveal its fallacies. They also reveal how ideas can be destructive (p. 121).

Multiple fields of scientific research, including neuroscience, primatology, evolutionary biology, cognitive ethology (the study of animal behavior in naturalistic settings), social psychology, and subfields in philosophy have produced enough evidence over the past two decades to confirm that our greatest hope for the future rests in understanding the real possibilities of human biology, and beginning to translate these findings into our culture (de Waal, 2009). As educators and educational researchers, that means that we need to resist the current threats to education, while proactively building new realities: ones grounded in an understanding that a more peaceful, cooperative, humane, empathic world can emerge if we nurture it in ourselves and our children.

In The End of Growth (2011) Richard Heinberg underscores that the old ways of thinking about how we as humans structure our world must end. This is not a choice, but a mathematical necessity, as the world's resources are finite. Questioning and eliminating games such as musical chairs from our children's lives may seem silly -- too minor to have any impact on the future of the planet. But "musical chairs" is not allowed in my daughter's Montessori school, and for good reason: only practices (that includes games, toys, etc.) that lead to the development of a peaceful, empathic child are allowed. I would suggest that we need seriously to consider the daily practices of our own, grown-up lives, and ask the same question. I think we will find much to get rid of, and many more joyful, cooperative, productive ways to fill our days, and remake our world.


de Waal, F. (2009). The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society. New York, NY:Harmony Books.

Heinberg, R. (2011). The End of Growth: Adapting to our new economic reality. Vancouver: New Society Publishers.

Lakoff, G. (2008). The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-century Politics with an 18th-century Brain. New York: Viking.

Ramachandran, V.S. (2006). Mirror Neurons and the Brain in the Vat. Edge, January 10. Retrieved on August 4, 2011 at

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