by Oliver DeMille

Abigail’s Crayon Drawinglearning outside the lines

She looked at Abigail’s crayon drawing and praised it. And this was no ordinary praising. Vernie’s comments were specific and insightful, and went on and on and on.

Eight-year-old Abi beamed with happiness.

I sat and watched, a little amazed. How is it possible to find so many nice details to admire, I wondered. She’s really good at this!

Of course, Vernie is downright amazing. She’s been my sister-in-law for many years, but I’m continually impressed by her ability to one-up her last mentoring victory.

Watching a great mentor at work is a bit awesome, when you think about it.

When Abi left, Vernie turned to the rest of us in the room and said something fascinating: “That’s why we shouldn’t ever have children draw in coloring books!”

My mind raced. Now, that’s a definitive statement. Is she right?

“Why not?” I asked.

A Poor Substitute

“Because that teaches them to color somebody else’s drawing when they should be learning to draw on their own. It just shuts down creativity. It’s like telling them what to think. It’s not good teaching, and it’s a poor substitute for learning.”

I like to watch good mentors get passionate about the topic of teaching. They often come to the same conclusions, and it’s very instructive to notice the little differences and nuances of how they articulate things.

For example, I usually say, “Don’t teach them what to think, or when to think; teach them how to think.”

Vernie said it slightly differently: “It’s like telling them what to think. It’s not good teaching, and it’s a poor substitute for learning.

I pondered how her version put the emphasis on learning. That’s a good change.

“Why are you so passionate about this?” I asked.

She looked at me like I might be crazy. Like the answer should be obvious to me—to everyone, in fact.

I laughed out loud when I looked around the room and realized that Rachel and my brother Will, Vernie’s husband, had the same expression on their faces.

“Seriously,” I said, “this seems really important to you. I know it’s important to me, but you’re responding to a child’s artwork, which isn’t my usual venue. For me, it’s usually a student’s comments or writings. I’m really intrigued. Please tell me more about teaching art.”

Starting Outside the Box

Vernie didn’t even pause. She just started talking: “The only thing that’s almost as bad as teaching kids to draw using coloring books is to teach them to color within the lines. That’s just wrong! Coloring outside the lines is so important.

“We spend years trying to make kids color someone else’s drawing, color inside the lines, write their letters in a straight line, and a bunch of other terrible mistakes, then when we hire employees we spend months or years trying to get them to think ‘outside of the box,’ use their creativity, take initiative, lead, use innovation and real thinking!

“Why don’t we just let them be creative from the start? Think of all the years of practicing their creativity and talents that we waste making them fit somebody’s ‘Official Education Plan.’”

I was feverishly taking notes.

“It’s like Mr. Pritchard from Dead Poet’s Society,” someone in the room said.

“When children learn to write their name,” Vernie continued, “if they are allowed to learn it naturally, they write it in any direction. They know how to write their name, but nobody has told them that it has to be on a horizontal line, from left to right, or in some languages right to left or up to down.

“They write it diagonally, upside down, upside down diagonal, half on one page and the other half in the dirt or even on a totally different paper…”

She smiled and looked around the room. She had us all leaning forward on the edge of our seats. All of us experienced mentors, all of us so excited by what she was saying.

If left to their own Creativity

“At some point, it’s okay to show them that one way to write their name is on a line from left to right, and that this is what people do most of the time. But it’s still their name if it’s done another way. And I think we shouldn’t even tell them that this is the most frequent way until they’ve been doing it however they want for a long while.”

My thoughts were racing as she spoke. This reminded me of John Holt’s writings. And Maria Montessori’s. And TJEd, for that matter.

I smiled at this last thought. Vernie kept talking and I kept taking notes. I’ll share them sometime. But this first idea really got me going. I just kept thinking about four pink petals and a long green stem with two carefully copied green leaves.

That’s the story that got me studying great education in the first place, and I shared it in my book A Thomas Jefferson Education. Like a true classic, it’s a story that teaches me more every time I read it—or even just think about it.

Today, listening to Vernie, and later to Will’s comments on the same topic, the pink petal/green stem story took on a whole new level of meaning. It’s not just about all the things a child can draw or paint if left to his own creativity. It’s even more than that.

It’s about how he or she learns.

Little Mentors

Put simply: Is the first lesson of education A) that good students follow and please an adult or expert, or B) that thinking and creating can bring you exciting knowledge and wonderful opportunities to serve?

Whichever one we chose, our child’s whole education flows from it. And let’s be clear: lessons A and B flow in totally opposite directions.

This evening I pulled Abi aside and asked her to show me her latest drawings and paintings, closely poring over them, one by one. I asked her lots of questions, the kind TJEd and Montessori (and Vernie) would approve of, open-ended questions that allowed Abigail to share her thoughts and feelings about her work.

As little Abi talked, excitedly, for well over an hour, I again sat in amazement and learned from her mentoring. I love learning. Learning is such an amazing thing, if we’ll let it happen.

Our children can teach us so much about learning. We just have to put aside things like schooling, curricula, education, and even teaching long enough to let learning lead out.

Learning is about coloring outside the lines.

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