Teaching the Student Doesn't Always Mean Reaching the Student
Some children just weren't getting it
When I first engaged in teaching, I did everything very traditionally. What I did was widely accepted as "how you teach", so it never entered my mind that what I was doing was riddled with fatal flaws. The assumption in traditional teaching is that we are in possession of the facts that we want our students to absorb. In order for this to happen, they need to be quiet, listen, follow directions, and produce something measurable. They then receive a grade and they either have learned, or have not learned.
For circle time, we sat in a circle. We sang the ABCs, counted to a particular number we chose, and we eventually started "learning our letter sounds." That exercise sounded like this: "Ay says a, a, a, for apple. Be says buh, buh, buh for ball," etc. I even showed them pictures representing all these letters and sounds.
I noted after some time that some of the kids were not getting much out of this practice, and I started to wonder why.
And this is the point of this blog post: I was coming up on a fork in the road. Was I going to assume the teaching practice, widely-practiced in classrooms all over our country, was correct and the children who were not learning were faulty? Or was I going to entertain the notion that if a child doesn't learn when I teach, the student is perfectly fine but I am not reaching him in a language he/she understands?
The disconnect between research and practice
Reading research about how young children learn was great. Research prompted a myriad questions in my mind, among them: "If we have all this body of research at our fingertips, why is our practice not conforming to what we know about how children learn?"
At this point, I began really observing my preschoolers. Studying them. It was amazing what I learned when I stopped using traditional teaching practices as my yardstick and started following my desire to learn how many ways children learn. The natural next step to studying the children was that I began to follow their lead as I taught. What resulted over time was that the children went far beyond, astronomically beyond, any expectations I might have had for what they needed to learn.
The take-away for me was this:
1. Children's minds are not broken and if they are bored, acting out, retaining nothing, I am the problem not them.
2. The factoids I am required to teach them can be taught quite easily in just a few minutes a day, most effectively in an activity that is student-led and involves very little in the way of measurable results, and most importantly in such a way that the factoids are a sideline, not the main event.
3. We grossly underestimate children's potentials - and this in a day when national mandates are calling for more stringent requirements for children at a younger and younger age. The reason highest level politicians are freaking out and breathing fire is because we are failing at HOW we teach children.
4. If we were to teach according to what is developmentally appropriate and focus on thinking skills, investigative skills, problem-solving skills, our children would learn far more on their own, and would be much more prepared for formal education and for life itself.
But back to the day in which I was still figuring this out...
What follows is an activity I did with a small group I taught every day. The purpose of this activity was to give ME a chance to learn my children. I wasn't really trying to teach them much... oh maybe a marginal "lesson" about modes of transportation, and more importantly an opportunity for them to collaborate, discuss, and problem-solve.
The Big Experiment
Reading and planning time: 5 hours. Research: Seven Pathways of Learning by David Lazear. Engaged time, 1.5 hours.
Goal: was to set up a thematic "experience" for the children, incorporating the seven pathways of learning - this was accomplished by allowing the children to respond to the event however they wanted to. I would then record in great detail their responses to the activity.
Children: Peter, Phillip, Mitch, Shelly - all 4 years old.
Preparation: I made a simple poster for each child depicting land, water, and air. I cut out pictures of vehicles and gave a small stack to each child.
Activity: Sitting on the floor, we spread the pictures out and discussed "going places" and what vehicles we could use to get to each place. Next I asked the children to classify the vehicles based on where they operate: on land, water, or air. They glued their pictures in place as they wished. In addition, they had markers and crayons with which to embellish their posters.
Taking it Further: Next, I told little stories to engage their imaginations and juice up their problem-solving motors.
First Scenario: "Mr. Green decided to go out for a ride in his boat. It was a beautiful day and before you know it, he was in the very middle of Lake Michigan. Suddenly, however, he ran out of gas!" [Greatly abbreviated. In real life, the story drew them in so they were almost a part of the adventure. We lived in Michigan, so they were familiar with the lake]. "If you were going to help Mr. Green, what would you do?"
Actual Student Responses:
Phillip: "I'd use a helicopter. I'd fly out there and throw down a rope ladder."
Me: "Why wouldn't you use an airplane?"
Mitch: "I think it goes too fast."
Peter: "The helicopter can hover."
Mitch: "But we can't leave the boat out there."
Me: "What should we do?"
Mitch: "We can get a box and put gas in it."
Me: "How would you get it to the boat?"
Shelly: "I don't like to ride in a boat! It makes me scared!" (begins humming)
Phillip: "We could take it to him in another boat. Then we could tow Mr. Green's boat to land."
Me: "If you want to go to China, what vehicle would get you there best?"
Shelly: "I like my red wagon. Sometimes Daddy pulls Chris and me in the wagon. I take my dolly."
Phillip: "In an airplane."
Peter: "I'd get this big shovel and I would dig a hole straight down until I got to China." (Big grin) He remained totally silent after his comment, but fully attentive to our conversation. After a few minutes, he took out a green marker and drew the most amazing submarine, complete with periscope, in his lake.
Wrap-up: I encouraged the children to decorate their posters any way they wanted to.
Observations: This was my first formal observation of my students. My initial impressions of them were as follows:
Shelly is intrapersonal and musical/rhythmic. Her comments had a lot to do with what she likes or doesn't like. She hummed or sang to herself now and then.
Mitch is interpersonal, I believe. He is more interested in caring for the person in the situation than he is in the mechanics of "the rescue." Most of the rest of the time, Mitch had his marker cap off, letting it dry out, totally engrossed in watching the others work. He asked Peter a lot of questions about what he was drawing. Mitch did draw a lot of earthworms in the ground on his poster.
Phillip is logical/mathematical all the way! He very carefully organized all his earth vehicles in regular intervals on the top curve of his land. His poster was boring but organized. He was involved in his project, but was not "lost" in his work like Peter was. I sensed he felt he had a problem to solve, and that meant classifying, pasting, and coloring, and so that is what he did. Before he finished, he drew a stilted row of flowers at the bottom of his picture: all the same size and all brown. This last activity fulfilled the directive "You may decorate your posters however you want to."
Peter is so visual/spatial! As I watched his responses to this experience, I felt he showed his feelings for the project by how involved he became in his drawing. The more interesting the discussion to him, the more engrossed and detailed his drawings became.
What I get out of this? In most classrooms, Phillip would have been greatly rewarded for his responses. He is super left-brained, logical, verbal, and we do so love that! I think that Mitch would have gotten low marks for his responses in most classrooms, as would have Peter and Shelly. However, these four children represent a pretty accurate cross-section of the children found in real classrooms everywhere.
We get really nervous as teachers if we don't have something in front of us to put a grade on. We feel the most comfortable with our Phillips...these kids produce a product, the product usually contains the elements required in the lesson. These products get an A. We expect verbal communication, participation, a demonstration of comprehension of our lesson. Which brings me to the bottom line. What was my POINT in this activity? Was it to make a poster so I could grade them and send them home so the parents would know we were "learning something"? Was it to teach classification? Was it an art project?
In this instance, I learned more than the kids did. I wanted to engage them in a discussion, wanted to learn how they respond to learning experiences, wanted to let them "produce" from out of their own particular giftedness. This activity was an experience, not a grade-able, test-able lesson. The children did more higher level thinking in this activity than they would have had I created a "lesson on transportation" with specific goals that I could grade. And isn't this the point of education? To encourage children to think, evaluate, and problem-solve, as these are the skills that will stand them in good stead throughout their lives.
The Big Switch in my teaching style had begun! Rather than teaching the material the kids needed to know, I was going to learn to teach CHILDREN the way they learn best. I was going to try and engage their brains every chance I got!