It’s time we outgrew this limited and limiting psychological theory. That means attending less to students’ behaviors and more to the students themselves.
Or as John Oliver would say, “Why is this still a thing?”
During a recent Skype conversation with my young grandson, Ben, he asked me, “What is your favorite letter?” He was serious. I had to think about letters of the alphabet and how I would determine which most appealed to me. I asked him, “Do you mean which one is my favorite to write or which letter shape do I most like?” He said, “Just which is your favorite.” His sister, Olivia, chimed in, “Mine is the letter “O.”
I love having conversations with young children and eavesdropping on their conversations with each other. You can learn a lot about them and how they think. What you learn is that they think much differently from adults and older children. Their priorities are different and their curiosities are too. Their openness makes anything possible. They view life as artists and approach life as scientists.
Moving on from the favorite letter conversation, Ben began to tell me about his new school materials. “Would you like to see them?” He ran to the next room and came back with 4 folders and a workbook. He described the purpose for each folder, and then opened the workbook to show me the illustrations. “There’s a cat named Nugget and a robot named, Rigolo.” He described to me in great detail, how they were dressed, their colors, and what he liked about them. He pronounced their names with both the English and French pronunciations (He attends a French school in Quebec, Canada).
Because Ben loves and owns cats and is very interested in robots, the illustrations drew him in, obviously the intention of the textbook company that created the workbook. In addition, there were animal photographs scattered throughout. Ben held the workbook up to the computer camera, pointed to each animal, and named it. The workbook was meant to be a language arts teaching tool but, for Ben, it was a book about a cat named Nugget, a robot, named Rigolo, and animals that are found in the wild. He never once mentioned the “exercises” that filled the pages.
It is only the beginning of the school year but soon Ben will have to complete the exercises. I suspect the illustrations and photographs will take a back seat to the prescribed tasks on each page. I cannot help but wonder how much more learning would take place if Ben and the children in his class were allowed to pursue their own questions and interests, like those animals and robots—the stuff that matters and makes sense to them.
- The adults listened to Ben’s questions, comments, considerations, and thoughts about the illustrations and photographs that seem to pique his interest?
- He dictated his own, made-up story about one or more of them?
- He and his classmates acted out that story?
- The teacher engaged Ben and his classmates in a conversation about how robots and cats might live together. What would they eat, where would they sleep? How would they play? What would they need? (I am basing these questions on what I know about young children and their concerns)?
- He and his classmates had the opportunity to design a living space for these two characters and then build it with blocks or other materials, perhaps measuring and calculating what would be needed to provide a comfortable space?
- The teacher recorded all the beautiful vocabulary words Ben used as he eagerly described the characters and animals?
Of course, what I am advocating is to build on what children already know and what interests them. This, it seems to me, is the key to learning, for all of us, but especially for young children because they do not view the world as we do and their frame of reference is different. It is for this reason that preschoolers and primary aged children are so often baffled by school expectations. They are very good at orally repeating back what adults want to hear, without truly understanding. As the beloved scientist Richard Feynman reminded us, there’s a difference between naming something and knowing something. It should be the knowing something that we go after, the real learning. Unfortunately, schools place too much emphasis on the naming.
What if the teacher heard Ben’s question and suggested he do a survey in his class, asking his classmates to name their favorite letter of the alphabet? What would be gained from this experience and what might he learn? He would see that reading and writing have a purpose and that they are strongly connected. He might, with help, tally the numbers and make a graph of the results. There might follow some interest in creating fancy letters of the alphabet to display around the room. Perhaps the class could create a book for the library, containing all the letters, as well as text that children dictate to the teacher. There’s a strong likelihood that they would read and re-read this book together because it is theirs, created by them, about them, and for them. They could form the shape of letters with their bodies—either standing up or lying on the floor and then photograph them to use as a display or projection. They might research different letters in different fonts. They might each make their own letter book, listing favorite words that begin with each letter. These are simply possibilities. The teacher might have these ideas in mind, but the children’s ideas and interests would guide the course of the letter study. Who knows what might come out of conversations about the illustrations in the workbook?
There is absolutely no need to fill in blanks or finish sentences that have little to do with what young children are thinking or feeling in order for them to learn. In fact, it goes against everything we know about how people learn. It’s counterproductive and takes the joy out of learning.
I have no doubt that Ben’s initial question would surely have sparked further questions for the entire class. It is the teacher’s responsibility to support the children’s curiosity and make clear that she values their thinking. That’s when learning gets exciting and the possibilities are endless. And the children’s ideas and questions will be unlike any a teacher could imagine. The children will “get” it because the subject matter is relevant to their way of thinking. Once hooked on the idea, the children will be propelled to seek out more knowledge and make more discoveries.
So, what is your favorite letter?
When I am (rarely) watching mainstream TV, I mute the commercials and take that time to read. It saves me from listening to the inanity of commercial television, while catching up on my most recent book.
However, one commercial caught my attention. You may know it. The scene is of a harried young teacher who is dreaming of a vacation while surrounded by children running amok in her kindergarten classroom. The camera pans around the room to reveal a child sitting in the fish tank, children running, screaming, and throwing things around the classroom. There is a child using a long tube to knock down a globe and other classroom furnishings.
I find this commercial fascinating because it reinforces a lack of understanding about teachers and young children. The commercial implies that:
- Teachers are overwhelmed and powerless.
- Teachers, especially young teachers, are not very good at working with young children.
- Teachers who do not “manage” or discipline children will end up with chaos.
- It is “cute” and humorous to think about teachers wanting to flee their classrooms.
- Teaching young children is a nightmare.
At the same time, what does it say about young children?
- Children, unless corralled or “managed” will run wild.
- Children are destructive.
- Children and teachers are natural enemies.
- Children have no respect for the materials or the people in their environment.
- Children are not capable.
- Children are not curious or interested in their surroundings.
Obviously, this commercial is meant to amuse us. I am well aware that it does not claim to depict an actual classroom. It is not a documentary, after all. However, it does reveal the confused and conflicted attitudes about young children and those who work with them.
So how does the commercial get it wrong?
Let’s start with the classroom environment. Surprisingly, the creators of this commercial have created a kindergarten classroom environment that is quite appealing. Although I am sure there are still kindergartens that look like this, in the Northeast, at least, they are few and far between. Instead of lovely children’s art on the wall, fish tanks and open areas to move about, in most of today’s kindergartens desks take up most of the classroom space. Walls are covered with admonitions, like, “Keep your hands to yourself” as well as word charts and schedules with assignments.
In fact, it would be a wonderful thing to see a kindergarten classroom that looks like the one depicted in the commercial. And, if a group of young children were in a similar classroom, allowed to play and to investigate freely, there would be no chaos. Those of us who have worked for many years with young children know this. The richer the environment, the more engaged children become. By “richer,” I mean a room with open-ended materials, private spaces, places to be comfortable to look at a book, places to play, to construct, places to investigate science and art. And plenty of time for children and teachers to nurture good relationships, allowing friendships to bloom through conversation, sharing meals together and, of course, through play. So, the commercial reveals a complete lack of understanding about what the real kindergartens of today look like and how the good ones, that still exist, function.
And does the commercial reveal anything about the public’s attitude about teachers? We too often hear teachers of young children described in terms that relegate them to either saints or masochists. Still others (and I certainly hope this belief is dwindling) believe that the work is menial and requires little expertise.
When I was teaching 3 yr. old children, a 4th grade teacher said to me, “I don’t know how you do it. Wiping noses and tying shoes all day.” I shot back, “I don’t do that all day. I teach them how to do it themselves and I am happy to help them when they need it. We do many other important things too, like learning through play and making discoveries. It’s exciting.”
The media and sometimes the general public too often neglect to see the intelligence and kindness of both teachers and children. Good teachers of young children, enjoy their work. There is no chaos. Yes, there is some noise. Children move around the classroom and there are occasional arguments. Some talk, messiness, and conflict are all necessary in the young child’s healthy growth and development. But there is also laughter, conversation, learning and happiness. Both the teachers and the children are keenly aware of nature and the world around them. The teachers are thoughtful. They observe, plan, and co-research with the children. They are curious about how children think and about life, in general.
However, teachers and young children (especially together) are too often depicted in either overly academic environments, “sugary” perfect scenarios or, as in this one, complete rebellion.
Do teachers sometimes dream of taking a vacation and lounging on a beach? Of course they do! Who doesn’t?