By Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach
I am helping to lead a community of practice initiative in Alberta, Canada. I love the work because it is focused on community and inclusive environments rather than 21st Century skills. More and more I am thinking the skills just need to be embedded in the work, rather than the skills being the work..Anyway I digress. In reading a thread in the community this morning I noticed one of the participants responding to a video someone shared and here is what they said …Why does it always go back to what we learned when we were in Kindergarten? Once again I’m reminded of that simple truth that so much that it is important just has to do with seeing then person and then treating them as I want to be treated. So simple and yet hard to do.
Going back to what we learned in Kindergarten struck a cord with me. Maybe it goes back to when we were in Kindergarten because that era represents a time when, as learners, we were hungry to know. We still had a sense of wonderment and learned mostly from self driven experiences. Kindergarten educators are typically still willing or free to nurture that sort of curiosity and passion. We let children explore and take control of their own learning. We are willing to situate them in immersive environments that encourage discovery and learning, standing back and watching as they make sense of their environment and the world in which they live. But for some reason when kids get older, we shift that scenario. Play and exploration are cast as not important or controlled enough to result in deep learning and education becomes something more simulation based, something we develop and deliver. As children progress in grades learning becomes filtered through a teach and master lens. Rather than provide a rich learning environment and stand back as the young scientist makes sense of their world, we predetermine what it is we feel they should learn and know. We mold, shape and impose rather than letting learners pick and choose what they want to explore and dabble in. We convince ourselves that direct instruction produces better learning. That caring adults who simply serve as helpers who facilitate a child’s chosen journey are too laze-faire. That we as teachers know what is best for them and that education happens only when a teacher – student relationship exists. And besides, they are kids, they can’t be trusted to know what they need or should learn at this immature stage. Right?
Why do we do that? Maybe some of the reasons are embedded in the fact we are educating the masses. For every problem it solved, compulsory education created three more. When you educate 20, 25, 30, 40 kids at a time you have to standardize to make certain things are effective, efficient and flow. No time to deviate on roads less traveled or interests that one child might have- because everyone is on the same train heading in the same direction. Imagine what would happen if 40 kids showed up for your biology class and you gave them all bicycles and let them take off in different directions, rather than everyone getting on your planned and organized train. Chaos right? I mean seriously- how would you control the learning if they were all on their own path? It would be impossible to cover all the content and have them all test well. Right? Therein lies the problem.
What if we restructured a bit? Just think how deep the learning would be if it was driven from “want to” rather than “have to” motivation. What if we developed environments that were created intentionally so that they fostered a passion to learn. What if our primary role was to be a catalyst for learning- on hand, answering questions, pointing out exciting things along the way? What if it was the child’s passion and interest in the materials, manipulatives, media and books we provided that directed the learning journey. What if education wasn’t about efficiency, control and standardization but rather it was about each child’s personal learning journey based on interest and wonderment? What if your role was to be a learning travel agent arranging interesting learning journeys that ensured those who were immersed in your “learning trips” would not only learn (often very different things) but have a great time doing it. That their learning would be full of purpose, authentic purpose aligned with personal passion for the topic. Just like the “Choose your own adventure” books we all used to love as children– what if your role was to design learning like that? What if rather than you teaching, you help them to learn? What if rather than instruction being content focused it was environment focused with surprised endings based on a learners interest and choice of content along the way?
For example, my grandson is really into walking. Luke Skywalker Walblay turns one next week. And he is REALLY into walking. He has taken lots of first steps on his own for short amounts of time and we all cheer and he likes it – some, but what he really likes is holding your finger and traveling long distances around the house, yard and drive way. It is his passion, not mine (it is uncomfortable for me to lean over like that for long periods of time) but because of his intense interest in walking fast and far he is motivated to do it for long periods of time. When I care for him I have a choice: I can spend my day distracting him to do what I want (read books, play on the carpet, swim in the pool) or I can leverage his interest as a means to learn new things. I have chosen the latter. When Luke comes to visit we walk together–everywhere (he is happy) and I use the opportunity to constantly label, vocalize, and encourage him to repeat sounds and words. I stop on our walking circuit in the backyard to look up in the tree and say “bird” or on our track in the house stop by the TV and say “television”, “cabinet” or “dog”. He is moving and mastering his passion while being exposed to lots of learning on the journey. It works. I am respecting Luke as a learner who has his own desires and interests but as long as he is interested I am also sharing what I know with him along the way.
Learning is personal knowledge construction fueled socially where we schematically connect ideas and concepts as we do things and discuss them with others. Just like we shouldn’t eat until we are hungry, I believe learning should be natural and likewise fueled. Give children a rich, interesting environment or scenario filled with beautiful literature, authentic problems to solve, and places to explore or create a journey and you will have kids who are motivated to learn and engaged. A steady diet of force fed content with no authentic application goes against the natural way were designed to learn. The way we learned in Kindergarten.