Protecting Childhood

Three Voices Explored: Teacher Tom, Alison Gopnik, Alfie Kohn

By Joanna Ainsworth

For this month’s blog I have been invited to write about Teacher Tom, Alison Gopnik, Alfie Kohn – just three voices in the vast mele participating in the conversation about early childhood education and care. It is noisy out there. Sometimes it is helpful to disentangle just a few threads every now and then.   

Teacher Tom

“Teacher Tom” (Tom Hobson) is an Early Years Practitioner, author and blogger. His mission,

‘…to help make high-quality, play-based preschool education a possibility to children everywhere’ (2023). Teacher Tom is prolific, publishing several new blogs each week on many topics within the broad heading of Early Years Education and Care (EYEC). Starting points are often vignettes observed from his work as a preschool educator. His writing is jargon free, accessible, experience laden and as a consequence, deeply authentic; sometimes digging deeply, sometimes simply using rich detailed narrative observation through which to pose a question.

What would happen if we replaced the word school with preserve abd teacher with naturalist?

…when I consider it, I recognize the role I’ve tried to play in the lives of young children and their families. We preserve other disappearing habitats. How about this one?

(Teacher Tom, Tuesday, March 14, 2023).

Alfie Kohn

Alfie Kohn is a psychologist, author and blogger. Kohn is perhaps best known for his work railing against education systems in which children’s learning is governed by grades, standardised testing, adult control/ ‘behaviour management’ and compliance. I have returned again and again to Kohn’s writings over the years. His writing is compelling, having the simultaneous effect of providing reassurance (here is someone who thinks like I do) and yet triggering feelings of guilt and discomfort surrounding my own positioning as a mother of boys navigating ‘Education’. As I write I have an 11-year-old at my side revising for his SATS and I have just been asked the question, ‘Do I get a reward for doing this?’ Not sure whether to laugh or cry.

I sometimes talk about the three Cs of motivation.

The first C is content… ‘Has the child been given something to do worth learning?’

The second C is community: not only cooperative learning but helping kids feel part of a safe environment in which they feel free to ask for help, in which they come to care about one another…

The third C is choice: making sure that kids are asked to think about what they’re doing and how and with whom and why…

You show me a school that really has those three Cs in place—where students are working with one another in a caring environment to engage with interesting tasks that they have some say in choosing—and I’ll show you a place where you don’t need to use punishments or rewards.

(Kohn, 1995)

Alison Gopnik

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology, affiliate professor of philosophy at Berkeley and author. Recognised for her pioneering research work in children’s learning and development. Her development of the ‘Theory Theory’ and her latest work with AI argues, in a beautiful reiteration of ‘follow the child’, that rather than seeing children as, ‘little scientists’, we should instead be seeing scientists (the adult kind) rather more like big children (Remmel, 2009:413). I am entirely new to Gopnik’s work but already love how it presents and celebrates the rigour, breadth and effectiveness of a ‘bouncing’ toddler’s ‘research’ methods.

It’s good to be a grown-up. We can do things like tie our shoelaces and cross the street by ourselves, and it makes sense that we put a lot of effort into actually making babies think like adults do. But if what we want is to have open-mindedness, open learning, imagination, creativity, innovation, maybe at least some of the time, we should be getting the adults to start thinking more like children.

(Gopnik, TEDGlobal, 2011).

In just these three voices there are so many avenues of exploration to head off down but let’s keep this really simple. What these voices have in common is that they have really ‘got the back’ of childhood. Intertwined like a plait within this tiny sample is the desire to celebrate, respect and protect the right of the child to be a child and to ring-fence the period of childhood. Teacher Tom through practice, Kohn through psychology and Gopnik through the rigour of research.

Peering down possible pathways of exploration…

Reward and Punishment

Systems foregrounding motivation through pitting peers against one another in which, ‘one person’s success depends on another’s failure are bound to be counterproductive’ (Kohn, undated). Whilst, Kohn assures us, the discipline of ‘Psychology’ has moved beyond Behaviourism, understanding its limitations, and seeing it as a ‘relic’, Culture, particularly in the field of ‘education’ – the informal kind (parenting) and the formal kind (‘schooling’) – continues to bow down to it. I am sure we have all witnessed first-hand, in both non-Montessori and Montessori settings how, when behaviours are misunderstood, sometimes a ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered (in the adult) resulting in the reactive seeking of believed solutions of ‘behavioural management’ and control rather than proactively seeking to understand what lies behind. With unmistakable links to be drawn here with the ‘spiritual preparation’ of the teacher, Kohn urges teachers to dig deep in order to understand and surmount focus on compliance and control and to ‘do with’ as opposed to ‘doing to’ our children in order to foster learning cultures suffused with, ‘intrinsic motivation and excellence’ (Kohn, 2020). Kohn’s ‘doing with’ is about creating a democratic classroom for which he refers to Mel Nodding’s’ and her Ethics of Care and how democracy is so much more than voting but about caring, and about choice and autonomy. Teacher Tom describes a community where, ‘Competence, autonomy, and personal connection’ (prevail) (2016) ‘… the building blocks of a play-based education where children are allowed to become competent by having the time and space to autonomously ask and answer their own questions within the context of a loving community…. will never emerge from the reward and punishment model… (Teacher Tom, 2016).

Human babies are the best learners in the universe’ (Gopnik, 2009)

As Montessorians and Early Years educators we do not need convincing about the unparalleled capacity for learning of the very young. This is powerfully recapitulated in the three intertwined voices of Teacher Tom, Kohn and Gopnik. Gopnik declares children to be, ‘the research and development division of the human species’ (2011) and in a recent research project entitled, ‘Machine Common Sense’, in which she and other Developmental Psychologists collaborate with Computer Scientists findings revealed that, ‘babies and young children are much better at making sense of ‘messy data’ and able to learn, ‘much more general and powerful kinds of knowledge than AIs do’ (Gopnik, 2011).

Alison Gopnik & Alvy Ray Smith

An analogy Gopnik uses to help understand the comparative learning processes of babies and young children and adults is that of comparing the different pools of light from a lantern and a spotlight. The broad light of the lantern taking in everything within its radius represents the evenly pooled learning of the child, while the narrow spotlight directed focus is that of the adult. The young child is not ‘bad at paying attention’ but rather more, ‘bad at not paying attention’ (Gopnik, 2016). Adults decide what is important in the moment and pay attention to it. A child on the other hand will problem-solve, forming and constantly revising their hypothesis as necessary, as all possibilities are explored. This Gopnik calls high temperature research (as opposed to low temperature research). Through our grown-up eyes this kind of research is likely to be a lot ‘bouncier’ and to involve a great deal more movement and mess, but and importantly, it is considerably more effective.

It is due, explains Gopnik, to the high plasticity of the brain in early childhood coupled with low executive control that enables this period of ‘exploration’ and flexibility. There is even some empirical evidence to show young children outperforming older children and adults, ‘on abstract social and physical causal learning problems’ (Gopnik et al, 2017: unpaginated). This is risky and time-consuming business, and the period of human childhood is by necessity long. So, whilst adults might be better at: ‘executive function, working memory, attentional focus, and control’ (Gopnik et al, 2017, unpaginated), there is serious trade-off as sensitivity, plasticity and flexibility are lost as executive functioning capacities are gained.

The question, What If Our Tendency To Get Distracted Is Actually A Superpower? is similarly posed by Teacher Tom in a blog post detailing research findings of more ‘off task’ behaviors’ yet greater problem solving abilities where groups of students working together included a student with an ADHD diagnosis. The conclusion: ‘distractibility, rather than being a problem, can actually be a superpower’ (2023). If children’s learning is graded, chosen by another, timed, and peers pitted against peers in soul destroying competitive isolation then children are less likely to be utilising their superpowers. Montessorians see first-hand the simple rich benefits of time through the work cycle, through non-interruption and learning not being chunked into rigidly timed blocks. We also know that intrinsic motivation might be better protected and nurtured through self-correcting materials rather than the soul-destroying processes of correction by another. We believe that there is a strong possibility that given the time space to explore, to repeat and to self-correct that there will be less likelihood of children seeking quick fix solutions resulting in shallow level learning and more likelihood that deeper learning will take place where the ‘open-mindedness, open learning, imagination, creativity, innovation’ of which Gopnik speaks will prevail and thrive.

Some points either not included or deserved of more attention:

  • Intergenerational Care – Gopnik writes superbly about this in the context of extended childhood and the caring loving adult.
  • Play – Gopnik again writes of ‘the tension between play and work; tradition and innovation…’ (Gopnik, 2016: 250)
  • Prolonged human period of Childhood
  • The Democratic Classroom – Kohn
  • Praxis – Teacher Tom’s blogs mediatory positioning between theory and practice 

Join us this Tuesday 9 May at our webinar when we delve deeper into the work of these important voices and how the work of Teacher Tom, Alison Gopnik and Alfie Kohn might inform our work as Montessorians. Register now.

Reference List

Gopnik, A. (2023) On Child Development, Elderhood, Caregiving and AI, Santa Fe Institute

Gopnik, A. et al., (2017) Changes in cognitive flexibility and hypothesis search across human life history from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences. 114 (30) 7892-7899

Gopnik, A. (2016) The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children. London: Vintage

Gopnik, A. (2011) What do Babies Think? TEDGlobal. Available from: Date accessed: 14 April 2023

Gopnik, A (2009) Amazing Babies, Edge, Available from: Date Accessed: 14 April 2023

Kohn. A (2021) The Case Against Classroom Management… a Quarter-Century Later (Education Week, September 22, 2021)

Kohn, A. (2020) Autism and Behaviorism: New Research Adds to an Already Compelling Case Against ABA Available at: Date accessed 14 April 2023

Remmel, E. (2009) Brainstorming Babies, American Scientist, (September – October 2009) 97, 5:413
Available from: cite. Date accessed 11 April 2023

Teacher Tom (Tuesday, April 04, 2023) What If Our Tendency To Get Distracted Is Actually A Superpower?
Available from: Date accessed: 16 April 2023

Teacher Tom (Thursday, June 30, 2016) Competence, Autonomy, And Personal Connection. Available from: Date accessed: 15 April 2023

Teacher Tom (Friday, March 29, 2013)) Teaching Motivation. Available from: Date Accessed: 15 April 2023

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s