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Does An Oracle Have All The Answers?

A number of years ago I had the pleasure of teaching a class of 9- and 10-year-olds in my native England. We were in the middle of a history lesson when an incident occurred that created a profound change in my understanding of how to best support children.

One of the children asked a question, and, after thinking about it for a few moments, I answered, “I don’t know.” You would have thought I had just announced that I was in fact an alien sent from outer space to suck out the brains of the children before me. Thirty mouths took an intake of breath, and thirty pairs of eyes swiveled toward me, all looking aghast.

“But Mr. Harrison, you’re a teacher,” said one of the children. “You’re supposed to know everything.” The other children nodded in agreement. This was the way the world is, according to them. Teachers know everything, and students learn from teachers.

Naturally, I explained that teachers certainly did not know everything; nobody does. I added that when anybody tells you anything, you should question it to see if it’s right for you. This went down well with some children, but most of them were visibly shocked by my admission of ignorance.

I have spent the best part of a decade in various forms of teaching, which has allowed me to see a wide variety of different educational models. I cannot stress how much damage the “teacher as oracle” culture is wreaking on the long-term development of our children. Just because this model of doing things is normal, it should not be considered healthy.

One of the major problems it creates is that it sets up an environment where children learn that all the answers they need in life are to be found and acquired from an external source. Children come to a point very quickly where they discard their own paths of discovery and substitute their teacher’s answer for their own. This leaves the child in a precarious position: What will happen when the teacher is no longer around to give answers? At best they accept someone else’s version of the world, and live by the creations of others. The worst-case scenario is that, without the prompting of a teacher to ask questions, independent exploration and discovery simply cease. One of the saddest things to see is a child who has lost the passion to explore life.

If a child cannot find answers internally, or does not have the life experience that has fostered a desire to find answers, what will happen to his creativity? What will happen to his confidence? And what will happen to his independence?

We have set things up like this, deluding ourselves that retention and regurgitation of information constitutes success. Maybe it is success, if we’re trying to create a society of robots. However, it goes without saying that a human being is a creature whose very nature is to want to discover every last nuance of life. It is the very core of us, our soul, that drives us to want to go on adventures, discover the universe, and find out who we really are. If the answers come thick and fast from an external source—an oracle—they deprive children of the opportunity to respond to the calling of their souls. And, once the connection to our soul is lost, it’s very difficult to get it back. Apathy runs deep with children in our modern society, and a large reason for this is that we have taught them that answers come from outside themselves.

It seems the oracle is not really an oracle at all, but a system that has completely lost sight of who we really are. Next time a child asks you a question, see if you can answer not with the little snippet of information, but with another question that helps the child use her creativity to find the answer for herself. Watch as she takes delight in responding to the call of her soul. Watch as the next time she has a question, she has the confidence and ability to find out the answer for herself. My experience is that when we support children like this they discover the most amazing things. They dive deeper into life than even we may have, and they in turn teach us.

This long-term approach obviously requires love, and it requires patience. If we cannot find these basics of life in our relationships with children, it might be time to stop considering the role of the teacher and adult to be that of an oracle. It should quickly become obvious we actually have very few answers at all.