Wednesday, March 19, 2014

One Moment To The Next

Oh sure, we hear all about extraordinary things like light-bulb-over-the-head epiphanies and ludicrous claims like babies who can read, but most learning happens on such a small scale, and in such mundane moments, that it's often overlooked. Once you know what you're looking for, however, once you're attuned to what learning looks like, you see it everywhere, in every moment, as children play according to their own lights. And the teacher's primary role is to simply be there and narrate.

Indeed, play, as opposed to the kind of education that relies on direct instruction, is so dense with learning that it's virtually impossible to not see it in every moment.

Yesterday, a group of 2-3 year olds were horsing around up by the cast iron pump, which sits in the upper level of our two-level sand pit. Acadia came to me with a request, "Build a sand castle, Teacher Tom."

I answered, "You build a sand castle. Do I look like a kid?"

She thought that was funny, "No, you look like a grown-up."

After a moment, Zinn said, "I built a sand castle."

Acadia and I looked at him, then at the ground nearby. Spotting nothing that looked like a sand castle, I guessed that he had misspoken, employing the present tense when he was referring to the future, a not so uncommon occurrence, so replied, "Zinn is a kid. He's going to build a sand castle."

He corrected me, "I already built a sand castle." He pointed to a ridge of sand between his feet. 

Acadia was delighted, "That's a little sand castle."

Zinn replied, "I'm gonna smash it," then proceeded to stomp it flat.

Acadia said, "Build another one."

Zinn responded by spreading his feet apart, then dragging them together, pushing the damp sand into another ridge between his feet. And again, he said, "I'm gonna smash it." He then repeated the process several times. He stopped narrating his actions, so I took it up. "Zinn made a sand castle," then "Zinn smashed his sand castle."

Spencer, who was looking on, then made his own sand castle, perfectly imitating Zinn's technique. I said, "Spencer made a sand castle," and then "Spencer smashed his sand castle."

By now Acadia had seen enough and she too made a sand castle, smashed it, then made another, as I continued to narrate.

After a short study, Calvin joined the game. Cecelia followed suit. Then Alice.

This all took no more than three minutes, each child learning Zinn's technique from the next, an idea passed on from child to child.

One might ask, But what's the point? And my response might be, "What's the point of learning anything?" I mean, it's true that knowing how to make a "sand castle" between one's feet isn't likely to be on any tests, nor, down the road, a vocational skill or resume builder. As much as others might try to shape it another way, education, at least in the early years, isn't about the trivia that is learned, but rather the practice of satisfying our curiosity, and in the case of schools, of doing so within the context of our fellow humans. 

Moments later, Cecelia was putting her foot atop a shovel by way of using her body weight to sink it into the sand. I began narrating her attempts and it became the next technique that several of her classmates were inspired to try for themselves. And from there it went on, one moment to the next, each dense with learning.

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Stephanie Schuler said...

Good to see that you saw the inherent "teachable" moment evident within something as simple as making sand castles. Keep up the great work, Tom!

Ms K said...


What kind of sand is this? It looks dark and squishy, not really like traditional sand?

Unknown said...

Tom didn't do much. That's the point. He wasn't teaching, he was making space for Zinn and Acadia and Cecelia to learn. Maybe he passed on a little language. But the real effort here, the work, was Zinn's. Zinn wasn't taught, Zinn was learning. Kids are not balls of clay being molded by the wills of the adults around them, they are ravenous black holes sucking up every drop of experience around them and growing through osmosis. I think it's disingenuous for us teachers to take the credit for a students learning. If a student really learned anything, they did it through their own effort. The best teachers, like Tom, are struggling right along side them, learning together.

Maureen said...

In fact an important 'teaching' technique is to avoid stopping the children's learning from happening. This is a struggle - as John Holt said, the 'teacher demon' inside all us teachers desperately rears it's head and wants to be heard - and get credit.

Katrina Sherwood said...

I'm studying to be a teacher (at Murdoch University in Perth , Western Australia) and I just want to let you know I'm using this post as part of an assignment I'm working on about Piaget and the way children assimilate new information. I've read your blog for some time now and really enjoy your writing- thank you :)

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