Somewhere in a musty old box there is a photograph of me that makes me laugh every time I see it.
It is a snapshot of me as an infant sitting in a high chair with an enormous grin on my face, a plastic bowl on my head, and bits of spaghetti and sauce everywhere else. As I heard the story, this was my first night eating “regular food” instead of baby food out of a jar, and the meal was a bowl of spaghetti. The noodles were cut up nice and small and I was given a spoon to complete the task, but my attention quickly turned from eating to exploring this new thing placed before me. I abandoned the spoon and dug in with both hands, squishing and smearing, laughing and looking closely, taking what was in the bowl out and then putting it back in again. Somewhere along the way I discovered that it was food and ate most of what was originally in the bowl. I had a marvelous time, and in the end I decided to wear the bowl as a hat. During this time my parents were having as much fun watching me make the mess as I was having in making it, and at some point a camera came out and the photo was snapped. I laugh when I see it because it captures the simple joy of new discovery, but in the past few years that image has helped me understand better how I should approach education.
Every child that has ever sat in a high chair has probably been outfitted with an essential piece of equipment: the bib. And the bib has become a metaphor for my growing understanding of good education. It deserves a place alongside the Tools of Learning
At its essence, the bib assumes the child will make a mess in the process of learning how to eat table food, and seeks to protect the child’s clothing from becoming soiled. Nursing infants have no need of a bib, and older children skilled in the art of feeding themselves (hopefully) have no need of it either. But there is a proper time in a child’s life where the bib is necessary. As he moves from mere milk to solid food being fed to him by a parent, and then on to the more complicated skill of feeding himself, the bib serves to protect him as he learns to eat different food, use utensils, and gains the skills necessary to eat independently. If we introduce it too soon or delay its departure too long we invite problems. Imagine requiring a newborn to eat strained peas from a spoon, or requiring a fully developed seven year-old to sit in a high chair while his father feeds him! No, but at the proper time in the child’s development, he must be allowed, and required, to make progress. As he develops the capacity to independently eat, the independence must be granted. What the bib does is allow for an easy (or easier) transition from one level to the next. It expects the child to initially fail at the task and protects them from the consequences of the mess that predictably results. This is such a natural and common concept, yet I overlooked its implications for my classroom for a long time.
During the first years of my educational career, I did not make any room in my lessons for students to explore and “play” with the new ideas and skills that they were learning. I did not allow them to try their hand at a new skill without a consequence for getting it wrong. I forbade them to attempt a different way of solving a problem because I knew that it would not work, even if they did not. In all of this, I discovered that I was like a parent that demanded his youngster adapt immediately to new food and denied him the opportunity to try to feed himself. When I considered why I acted this way, I found the answer to be quite simple, and selfish. I was impatient and did not want the mess. I wanted the students to learn the lesson quickly, without delay, and I wanted them to do it without causing any inconvenience to me. So I gave them no time to explore and did for them what they should have learned to do for themselves. But the worst of it was when I realized that I had no remedy for students that failed at the lesson. I anticipated that every student would grasp the lesson immediately, fully, and without difficulty. I had no plan for the student that did not meet these ridiculous expectations and inadvertently made a mess of things.
What I needed was to learn the lesson of the bib as a tool of learning. The bib anticipates failure and seeks to prevent permanent consequences while the lesson is being learned. The bib allows for exploration, self-discovery, and the development of skills over time. The bib presumes that the activity will result in a mess, but that useful and natural learning is taking place. So I am reforming my teaching methods to allow for, and even expect, student failure, with plans and procedures in place to help them recover and move forward. I allow them to try a new skill a few times before they are graded on their performance. At a level appropriate to their development I teach them how to learn what they can on their own, and allow them time to explore and absorb new ideas, all with the goal of eventually being independent learners, free of the need for a teacher. I also have to accept and work through the inconveniences and difficulty that results. In the end, I want my students to have the same freedom and joy of learning how to intellectually feed themselves that I had in learning to eat spaghetti all those years ago, and that requires a bib of some sort, for it will get messy. But it is a labor of patience and love, and the result is well worth the trouble.
However, the tale the young Mr. Marsh with the bowl of spaghetti on his head does not end with the snapshot. Apparently I was so enthused with the positive feedback I had received that first night that I attempted another mess-making performance the next night, only to be met with a rebuke instead of the paparazzi. Eventually I learned to eat without making such a mess, most of the time. But what if I had never been given the chance?
Education is risky. We need bibs.