Open Connections

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Peter's Podium: Is the Needle Finally Beginning to Move?

Originally published in the OC Magazine, Summer 2019


I once took a workshop (c.1983) on infant-toddler education from Burton White, author of The First Three Years of Life and creator of programs to help parents and other care-givers of young people become more effective at helping to grow happy, healthy, bright, well-balanced young people. I was so impressed with the combination of his knowledge and common-sense approach that I suggested to Susan (my wife and OC Co-Founder) that we engage him as a speaker, in part as a fundraiser for Open Connections and in part to help spread the word of his findings from decades of hard-core research into the development of our precious wonders from birth to thirty-six months of age. “Bud” was more than happy to come to Bryn Mawr, have dinner with the family and speak to what turned out to be an audience of over 600 adults who gathered at Bryn Mawr College’s Goodhart Hall, which housed the largest lecture hall on the Main Line at the time.


In the workshop that I attended and from future readings of White’s newsletters and other materials, I heard several pronouncements that have stuck with me over the years (decades) and have guided some of my thinking with regard to parents and education and young people of all ages. When there are public outbursts such as the one this spring with regard to the college admissions scandal, or in various political debates on such topics as universal day care and pre-school education for all, I am reminded of one or another of the observations made by people like Bud White and others who have been guiding lights on my journey to ascertain how adults might best serve the next generation. For this issue of the OC Magazine, I thought it might be interesting to review some of my favorite quotations and the ways in which they have affected my work.


The first example that comes to mind was when Bud was answering a question from a parent who asked about a new service that had just been introduced by Johnson and Johnson featuring monthly (as I recall) mailings of what were presented as products to stimulate your baby’s development, physically, socially, and intellectually. Each product came with a description of the areas of development that were being addressed by that month’s toy (they were almost always presented as something for us to play with our little one) as well as the time period in which it would prove most useful—the so-called critical stages that developmental psychologists such as he and Jean Piaget had identified. Often the accompanying literature would say things like, “helps develop the grasp-and-release 

capability,” or “encourages babies to explore” this or that, or simply “helps” with the aspects of any normal stage. Similarly, Bud would read from the brochures of nationally-renowned businesses that provided Mommy-and-me gym programs for toddlers, or sold raise-a-genius curricula for anxious parents desperate to get their little cherub onto the Ivy League Express. The words from White that have stuck in my mind for the past 35 years were these: “What the sellers of these products and services are describing is what they wish were true and not actually something that has been proven so.” (I am paraphrasing here.) In addition, he noted that some of the areas of development that they were focusing on were areas that would develop naturally with or without the toy, and furthermore, parent stimulation would do nothing to affect the pace. There was no need to encourage, support, stimulate, reward or in any other way interfere with the natural process of learning and development: the youth would cross those bridges regardless (on the assumption that there would be no massively traumatic event or birth defect, in which case intervention in the right way at the right time might prove helpful).


In the intervening years, of course—with the insights and encouragement of John Holt, followed by my own experience as a parent—I have come to apply Bud White’s critique more generally to almost every product or service that defines itself as “educational” and that suggests, if not states outright, that such growth would not likely happen in the absence of their goods. The whole concept of compulsory schooling is based on this assumption, starting with the core belief that “school is where you go to learn.” I’m sure that every homeschooler/unschooler has been faced with the question, “But if they don’t go to school, how will they learn how to read, or who Shakespeare was, or how to do math?” In short, I have come to see how school personnel, among others, promote their businesses on the basis of what they wish were true, as opposed to what they know to be true.


One example is the number of youths who learn to read before starting school. When I ask the naysayers about this they pause, then answer somewhat defensively, “Well, they must have had a parent who taught them before they started school,” or perhaps, “Well then they must have been born exceptionally bright and precocious.” There is no thought given to the possibility that there could be another way of learning that did not involve compulsory instruction, or in some cases instruction of any sort. To suggest that there is such a thing as self-directed education is to imply to the naysayers that all teachers are totally unnecessary, which is ridiculous. They just shouldn’t impose their methods on people who have no option but to endure them or get into trouble of some sort.


A quotation from another mentor that has proved useful over the years came from W. Edwards Deming, who is considered the father of the Total Quality Movement that was the flavor of the month in the business world for a few very short years. For those unfamiliar with his name, let me provide a brief background. Deming came out of the war effort (WWII) with a reputation for having been a major contributor to America’s success as a provider of the best in military supplies. Deming’s secret came to be known as statistical process control. The idea was that if you gathered specific data on a manufacturing process, you could continuously improve the quality of its product by identifying what were the causes of errors and waste. After the war, Deming was invited by the Japanese to help them use his methods to rebuild their economy, which we had effectively destroyed. Deming told them that if they followed his advice, they could lead the world in whatever categories they chose. I imagine that they said, “Fine. We’ll take electronics and cars.” The results speak for themselves: Sony, Mitsubishi, Toyota and Honda have led the way to total quality ever since.


I was introduced to Deming’s work by the Bryn Mawr Hospital executive vice-president who hired me to introduce OC’s creative problem-solving techniques to his colleagues. The words from Deming that have stuck in my ears since my consulting days at Bryn Mawr Hospital are ones that the master was known to repeat often when presented with an explanation for what was causing some particular problem in an organization. He would ask rhetorically, and somewhat suspiciously, “How do you know?”—as in, Are you certain?


This mindset came to be reflected in a somewhat whimsical saying that Deming’s followers came to utter as a matter of course: “In God we trust. All others must show data.”

This is my response almost daily almost thirty years later, when I hear in news broadcasts, or read in magazine articles or books, that such-and-such is the result of this-or-that. Professional researchers are well aware of the distinction between correlation and causation, but pundits often seem not to be. Does poverty cause ignorance? Do college degrees lead to higher levels of income? Does practice make perfect? (See Malcolm Gladwell’s re-telling of the work of K. Anders Ericsson in Outliers, and Geoff Colvin’s more extensive presentation in Talent is Overrated. Both books provide value, I believe.)


I think of how often we make statements to our young people that are based on what we wish were true or believe to be true even though we don’t have the assurance of hard data (except, perhaps, the limited data that provides what psychologists call confirmation bias, which is not necessarily valid from an objective point of view). Similarly, I also think about how often we defend our positions, or make significant decisions, again based on what feels right rather than most assuredly is right.


Of course, in real life, it is often not feasible, or in some cases even possible, to know, with supporting data, what actually causes what. Do youths who use math workbooks develop a better working understanding of mathematical operations (let alone principles) than those who don’t? Do those who have limited screen time actually have greater powers of concentration and better memories? If unschooling isn’t “right” for everyone, how do you know it’s going to be the best approach for your son or daughter—or both? (Even the old saying that “the proof is in the pudding” isn’t helpful here, because there is no way of knowing what a different choice would have produced in the long run.) So what’s a parent to do?


I’m guessing that the answer seems obvious at this point, but I’ll state it anyway: you gather what you can and sort what is supported by data from what you want to believe, what you wish were true. Then ask yourself, Why do I wish this or that were true? You may have good reason for your choice. If the data as you hear it does not support your wish, there is no need to abandon either one. Look for ways to amend a process so that the data you produce better reflects your wishes. This is the creative process in action. It means, to me, creating the world that you want rather than thinking you must accept whatever comes your way—and certainly not what others say is the way it must be—if current “reality” is not to your liking. The interplay between what seems to be and what we want is where much of the fun in life can be found, especially when it comes to being told what one is supposed to do in order to be a proper parent.