Thank You Robert Coles

I’m working my way through Robert Coles’ beautiful book, The Spiritual Life of Children. It’s a great “Elul” read.  Here are a few of the insights that speak to me as a rabbi and educator with an eye toward the Blog Elul theme for day 15: “learn.”

 

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1. In all child/adult relationships power always resides with the adult. In the introductory chapter of Spiritual Life Coles describes how he systematically deemphasized spirituality and religion for the majority of his career. In reflecting on his younger self he writes, “A shrug of my shoulders (a thought to myself: who will ever know?) and a remark of mine that moved us into quite another realm of discourse– such are the fateful turns in what later gets called ‘research.'” Whether we are researchers or not, the lesson is clear: we see what we want to see. In our interactions with children are we patient or rushed? Do we sincerely listen or do we pretend to listen? Do we give children opportunities to explore ideas or do we shut them down? Children are undeniably and irrepressibly spirited. But as adults we actually do have the power to celebrate their spirit or slowly crush it. The power is ours.

2. It’s natural to seek evidence to confirm our preexisting theory. In differentiating his work from that of James Fowler (who developed a faith development theory based on stage development) Coles critiques the idea of stage development theory noting, “If a child fails to respond to a researcher’s predetermined line of questioning, the researcher is likely to comment on a ‘developmental’ inadequacy.” Coles is saying that, when we have a theory that we whole-heartedly believe in, we begin to interpret the world accordingly. Human beings are meaning making entities. We can’t help the fact that we greet each experience with a myriad of predetermined ideas and beliefs. The more compelling and subtle of these might qualify as “theories”– assumptions about what meaning we’ll find in a given experience. The tricky thing is letting our theories guide us but not letting them define us. If our theories define us then they actually hinder our ability to construct new meanings and insights.

3. Wisdom can’t be acquired in a day. We want to know, we want to understand, and we tend to be inpatient with ourselves and with others when we or they don’t “get it.” Coles reminds researchers that in order to truly understand something, to acquire wisdom, we need to be open to the idea of prolonged encounters. Coles argues that to truly understand a child’s spiritual life takes at least a year of engagement. During his career he interviewed some of his research subjects as many as 25 times. Many of us are quick to trust our instincts and to make snap judgments. Often we’re fairly accurate in our initial assessment, but to acquire true wisdom, we need to slow down and be patient as well as reflective.

4. The best teachers are first and foremost committed to learning. Coles writes, “A good way to initiate… research is to sit down with children, tell them what you want to learn, and then hope that they will become colleagues, instructors, guides.” Too many educators are trapped by the notion that we have to provide the subject matter and represent the voice of mastery. Meanwhile, a lot of lip service is paid to the idea of child- centered education. In a truly child-centered pedagogical framework an interesting possibility emerges– that the adult teacher will actually come to learn important lessons from the child teacher. While we can’t always flip the classroom quite so dramatically, the idea that children are great teachers is one that we need to continually revisit in our classrooms and our schools.

I’m sure many of us have read Robert Coles’ work. What has resonated with others that have had the pleasure?

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