At nine months, granddaughter Zoe, pulled herself into a standing position at a small wooden stool in our kitchen. Her cousins were nearby, and five-year-old Ilyas put a small square block in front of her. With dramatic force, she swatted it off with her right hand. This authoritative self-assertion delighted all observers.
Ilyas put down another block and started to build a tower, but Zoe’s hand got there first. They began to invent a game: how high can you build a tower before Zoe will knock it down?
Where does that self-assertion come from in children? It comes from the core of their being. All humans come into the world driven to author their lives.
Recent research has revealed that the enlightenment idea that children come into the world blank slates for us to write on is wrong. They are born wired to become authorities. Second by second their brains generate hypotheses, which they then immediately test. Through this process their brains become causal maps of the world and their place in it. When parents and other educators understand that building this reality-testing mechanism is their primary job, they become better educators.
Sitting in the speaker’s chair at morning meeting second-grader Claire presented a yellow silk scarf to her class. As she spoke she floated it through her hands and around her neck, all eyes of her classmates were on her.
When she was finished talking, she asked: “Does anyone have a question?” and when six hands went up, she hesitated, looking at each one before calling on James, who asked, “Did you ever think of using it in a dance?”
For ten minutes the questions kept coming. Ginny, the teacher, was particularly happy when she heard “Why do you think it’s so expensive?” because she saw an opportunity to make a connection to the study of silk worms she was planning for the afternoon.
Claire spoke quietly but with authority, and everyone listened. It made her feel good to be someone who was an authority on something that others cared about. With each question Claire’s authority grew, and her way encouraged the inquiry of others. In a good school, this symbiotic relationship between author and audience is enacted in every class all day long. At one school the fundamental concept behind this style of teaching and learning is ritualized once a week at assembly. The person leading the “announcements” portion of the program reminds the speaker (if necessary) to: “Stand up and wait till everyone is listening.”
The concept that everyone is working on increasing their authority, and that this is a collaborative enterprise is the core concept of the culture of any good school. Learning is shared not so much because someone knows something, but because each brain is uniquely imperfect and brains grow best when they build off each other. Furthermore, other brains are powerful indicators—motivators for making sure that what one shares is worth sharing. Learning collectively minimizes the frivolous and maximizes self-confidence, collaboration, creativity and learning that is valuable.
The drive for self-actualization is there at birth, and–contrary to the insinuations of Maslow’s pyramid of hierarchical needs–proceeds regardless of what other needs are met or unmet. It’s as if every brain has an Inner Author that delivers a steady stream of messages to the pre-frontal cortex inviting us to do something creative, or playful, or to go deeper. It sometimes sounds “crazy,” which is one way of knowing we should listen to it.
Authority is a good word. Teachers are charged with making sure that their students leave them more authoritative than they were before. All good teachers want their students to be writers regardless of subject, because getting their children to write about what they are learning is a very helpful way to solidify the thoughts and understandings that will make them authorities. Speaking in front of a group is a critical activity if children are to become the strong social animals they need to be for optimal functioning in the world—right up there with reading, writing and ciphering.
That these obvious statements are so often in the shadows of our minds rather than the forefront is partial proof of my thesis that our culture is somewhat authority-avoidant. Authority has acquired the negative connotations of “power over” in the last three generations, but education is the business of increasing authority, and therefore we have to bring it back into circulation and begin saying things like:
- “The measure of your authority is your ability to bring out the authority in others.”
- “I want to become an authority on this.”
- “Let’s hear your voice.”
- “Wait. We haven’t heard from Sophia, yet.”
- And “Arrogance is a learning disability.”
- And “Thank You for Criticizing.”
- And “Perfectionism is also a learning disability.”
- And “Relationships Are the Key to Performance, Not Ability.”
- “Conflict Avoidance is a Learning Disability.”
- And “Authority-avoidance is as dysfunctional as conflict-avoidance.”