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Unpacking Life’s Curriculum (Teacher Tom Hobson) Transcript

Teacher Tom’s Podcast – Episode #8

Unpacking Life’s Curriculum (Teacher Tom Hobson)

Teacher Tom Hobson: When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all. And though my lack of education hasn’t hurt me none, I can read the writing on the wall. That’s a quote from Paul Simon from his song Kodachrome.

Hi, I’m Teacher Tom, and welcome to Teacher Tom’s Podcast. Those of you who know me well know that I consider education to be life itself. Those of you who don’t know me well, sit back, this is going to be a story to explain what I mean by that, that all learning, all the most important learning we do, comes not from a curriculum, not from teaching, not top down, but from living life.

The first thing I do in the morning is go to the bathroom. That’s something I learned to do alongside my mother. She didn’t, you know, teach me exactly, but I have memories of her being there, conversing with me as I sat on the little varnished pine potty seat with a blue and yellow figure of some sort painted on it. It was an intimate moment, the two of us in that little room, me on the seat and mom kneeling beside me.

The next thing I do in the morning is go to the kitchen and make a cup of coffee. I distinctly remember learning to make my first cup of coffee. I was a freshman in college, living in the dorms. Bunch of the guys swore by caffeine as a study aid, so I purchased a jar of Folgers Instant, then followed the instructions on the side of the jar. Since then, I’ve learned to make coffee in every way imaginable; sometimes by following the instructions, and other times by watching someone else, then imitating them.

Next, I take my coffee to the sofa, where I fire up my computer. Dad bought our family an Apple II Plus computer in 1979, the year they were released. He spent a week or so learning to code a simple game that involved a crude monster that ate floating letters of the alphabet. I loved playing the game, but it wasn’t until the mid-80s that I had a computer screen of my own. A device connected to a Wang brand mainframe that needed a room all to itself.

There were no instructions or training for using the computer terminals on our desks. We were expected to figure it out, and we all did, mainly by goofing around on it, asking each other questions and sending massive numbers of messages, then leaning around the corner of our cubicles to ask, did you get it? Before shaking our heads in disbelief at this modern age in which we live.

It’s at this point in my typical morning that I begin writing a blog post. It’s impossible to pen down when I learned to write, although it logically came along with learning to read, which happened for me over the course of my first grade year. Mom had read to me at home from picture books, and I guess I just picked up some of it because, as it turned out, I could read anything Miss McCutcheon put in front of me over the course of that year. I often think I didn’t learn to read as much as I discovered that I could.

As for being a writer, as opposed to being merely literate, that’s been a process of unlearning most of what my teachers ever taught me about composition, and relearning by reading and writing nearly every day over the course of decades; a process that is ongoing. I write about all sorts of things. But what I mostly write about is early childhood.

I took a couple of relevant university courses back in my early 20s and then a couple more 15 years later. But almost everything I’ve learned about early childhood education has been on the job. First as a babysitter, then as a children’s baseball coach, then as a parent with a child enrolled in a cooperative preschool and finally, as a classroom teacher myself. I’ve learned from books, blogs, conferences, mentors, colleagues, and mostly from the children themselves. This too is an ongoing process.

My point is that here I sit, a man who holds a high school diploma and a university degree, the definition of an educated man, but most of the learning I actually use in my day to day life came from life itself, not any sort of curriculum. Now, I was an engaged student, one who did all the assignments and received mostly good grades. But the only aspects of my nearly two decades of schooling upon which I regularly rely are the proposal writing, vocational skills I learned as a college senior, and the memories that guide me in what not to do as an educator.

When I would complain about the irrelevance of my school’s curricula as a student, adults would assure me that it was all necessary foundational learning. But looking back on all those tedious writing exercises, those worksheets, those nights of grinding through mathematical equations, I see little connection to the educated man I am today. I don’t think those adults were lying to me exactly. I believe that they believed the myth of foundational learning, just as most adults continue to believe it today.

It would be a horrible thing to finally admit that all those years, over all those generations, have been wasted. So we cling to these unproven ideas about how learning happens because, to admit otherwise, would send shockwaves through society. Most of the important things I’ve done have been decidedly extracurricular, which, I would assert, is true of everyone. We are all self-educated, despite those years of schooling. I think.

We learn in the company of other humans, both children and adults. We learn from having the time, space, and autonomy to question, explore, and experiment. We learn when we find ourselves in stimulating environments, especially those we are free to manipulate. We learn when the adults in our life love us and have our best interests at heart. When these conditions are met, the curriculum emerges, unique for every one of us. And that curriculum is life itself.

Several times a year, we’d receive large orders of supplies for the school; paints, crayons, pastels, markers, and whatnot, paper of various types and sizes, tools and toys, science provocations; all that kind of stuff. My initial excitement over receiving all this new stuff was always short lived; however, as I then had to consider the dozen or so boxes that needed to be unpacked and then put away.

Now, like most early childhood educators, I’ve never had a lot of extra time in my day to do things like that, right? We’re there for the kids, the families, and that’s what comes first. Unpacking boxes would have to wait. So, that meant the boxes usually remained stacked in a corner, somewhere, awaiting that mythical, dull moment when I could get it done, which as you can imagine, never happened.

So, the boxes would sit there until I finally needed something. I would then tear through the boxes for those new paintbrushes or whatever. Then sort of haphazardly repack the box and stack it all back in the corner. It was a bad system for sure. I would look at those boxes every morning telling myself that tonight I would stay late to finally get it done. But by the end of the day, you know, I was exhausted. Weeks, if not months, would pass. Then, finally, I would make myself sacrifice a Saturday morning to get it done.

One day, the boxes arrived while we were on the playground; me and the kids. I was busy, so I just told the delivery person to take the boxes inside. Now, I meant to put them in some out of the way spot, but he just stacked the boxes right there in the middle of the classroom. Needless to say, this was an unexpected moment of mystery for the kids. “What is it, Teacher Tom? Are they presents? Are they for us?”

In that moment, as we stood surrounding the boxes, I had a sudden shift in mindset. Bam! I said to the kids, “The best way to find out is to open the boxes.” “Let’s open them!” The kids yelled. A couple of the more assertive kids started with one of the smaller boxes. I knew from experience that it contained either four gallons of tempera paint or four gallons of white glue. It was heavy and awkward, and it was sealed with way too much packing tape.

The kids went at it with all their might, slowly prying it open with their tiny fingers, working together, strategizing, bickering, agreeing, and straining. A larger group stood around them, watching, offering their advice and speculating about what we would find inside. After nearly 15 minutes of hard work, one of them cried out, “It’s paint! Yellow paint!” She held it over her head like a trophy. “I see more paint in there! I see red! This one’s blue!” I usually only ordered primary colors because I figured if the kids wanted other colors, they could make their own.

There was then some discussion about what to do with the jugs of paint. They decided to stash them on a bench by the door. Soon, other boxes were in the process of being opened and an entire corner of the classroom was given over to this real life project. While some kids wrangled the boxes, others took on the job of organizing putting like with like, temper paints together, watercolors together, construction paper, paint brushes, and so on. Other kids hung around discussing what they saw as they planned how we would use the materials.

In a flash, a dreaded, time-consuming chore had become a full on, real world, child-led curriculum. They were practicing cooperation, teamwork, and perseverance. They were doing math, organizing, sorting, and sequencing. They were projecting and using their imaginations. They were even taking on the job of planning their own curriculum for the coming days. They were not doing schoolwork, but rather they were fully engaged in life itself.

As the great philosopher and psychologist and education reformer John Dewey wrote well over 100 years ago, “Education is not preparation for life. Education is life itself.”

As educators, and as parents, we often find ourselves thinking of the work of children as being somehow separate or different from the work we do. Humans, Homo sapiens, have been around for some 300, 000 years. For the bulk of that time, like more than 99% of that time, children were found in the midst of life itself, side by side with the adults, imitating them, making themselves useful, teaching themselves to be competent in the only thing that matters – living.

I like to ask adults to do a simple mental experiment. Imagine that you have a toy lawnmower, and beside it you have a real lawnmower. Which one will the children be attracted to? That’s right! The real one! Despite the modern marketing myth that children need and want toys, what they really need and want is to engage in life itself.

Most preschool teachers, most of the time, prepare for our days by setting up cute or clever art projects, filling the sensory table or sensory bins with compelling materials, setting out blocks and puzzles and hanging up costumes. We might have pretend kitchens or pretend work benches or pretend lawnmowers. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But in all honesty, my major mind shift was that all of that, all of my preparation and planning was just something to fall back on when life itself didn’t deliver.

And it almost always did when the plumber arrived to install two new toilets, that was our curriculum for the day. When there was a fire at a local business, we spent our morning watching the smoke from an upstairs window. Then, when the smoke had cleared, we walked down to check out the fire trucks and police cars. The fire chief, with soot on his cheeks, even came over to talk with us.

We would often spend an hour or two on what we came to call Fremont Rambles, which involved wandering our neighborhood and stopping at local construction sites to curl our fingers through the fencing, window shopping, and tell one another stories about the time our family went to that restaurant or that auto mechanic. When we arrived one morning to find that an overnight windstorm had dropped a large tree branch on the playground, that became the center of our curriculum for an entire week.

After Christmas, the families who celebrated that holiday with trees brought them in for us to play with. I made a habit of asking families to donate their household junk. One time, we received a large box of motorcycle rearview mirrors. I didn’t have to make a plan for those. The kids knew exactly what to do with them. One time, we received a box of swim team and water polo trophies. The kids knew exactly what to do with them.

One time, we received mason jar lids. A family that owned a restaurant brought in a garbage bag containing well over 1,000 corks. And we know there was 1,000 because one of the things we did with them was to count them. Scraps of lumber from home improvement projects, stacks of used printer paper, old machines, telephones, or jewelry. Life itself provides anything and everything. And that’s just what came from the families.

Whenever I find myself in a local business, a framing shop, an antique store, a bike shop, I’d ask the owner if they had any junk the kids might want to play with. They always did. Every single one of them had something set aside that was no longer useful, but was too cool to throw away. I was once given a collection of ping pong paddles and balls by the owner of a sporting goods store. Starbucks always handed over their used coffee grounds.

Education is life itself. Children do not like being left out of life. They don’t appreciate being set aside. They want, more than anything else, to be competent at the things they see happening around them every day. I’m not saying they enjoy being assigned jobs. No one ever likes that. But if left to their own devices, young children are drawn to doing the job that is life itself. My friend John Yiannoudis calls this approach to preschool life derived learning.

Today, as a teacher, whenever I find myself confronted with something I’d rather not do or don’t have time to do, my first thought is, maybe the kids can do it. One day, life itself caused me to be so late to school that I arrived along with the kids. I was a little out of sorts because I’d not had a chance to do any of my usual preparations, but it really didn’t matter. I just asked the kids what they wanted to do and then, together, we made it happen.

Even things like assessments can be turned over to the children. What are you good at doing? What do you want to be good at doing? That’s it. The answers to those questions, what are you good at doing, and what do you want to be good at doing, are the only answers that matter when life itself is the curriculum. That’s it for this episode of Teacher Tom’s Podcast. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for your support. Thanks for playing with me.

I’m Tom Hobson, and you’ve listened to Teacher Tom’s Podcast, Taking Play Seriously. You can find out more about me at That’s T-E-A-C-H-E-R-T-O-M-S-W-O-R-L-D dot C-O-M. If you’re interested in the framework I always use for classroom setup, I have a free classroom setup guide for you to download. The link is in the show notes, or you can go to the blog,

Teacher Tom’s Podcast is a part of the Mirasee FM podcast network, which also includes such shows as Course Lab and Just Between Coaches. Stay tuned for more fun episodes by following us on the Mirasee FM YouTube channel or your preferred podcast player. If you found today’s insights valuable, take a moment and leave us a starred review. It’ll help us reach more people like you. Again, thanks for playing with me, and I’ll catch you in the next episode.