Friday, April 11, 2014

Motivated Math Learners

She was playing with the Hoberman Sphere, a toy I purchased years ago for my own preschooler. 

The packaging asserted that Hoberman, the inventor, was the "Buckminster Fuller of the 90's," a bit of marketing trivia I continue to pass on to the children, usually to blank stares. Whatever the case, it is a sturdy thing, having survived over a decade in our classroom, still functioning as it did the day it came out of its box.

She bent down to get a grip, then stood to expand the sphere, before squatting down to cause it to return to its resting state. She did it again and again, each time faster, calling out to me, "Teacher Tom, it's bouncing!"

I responded by smiling. 

"Teacher Tom, say it!" she commanded. "Say it's bouncing, bouncing, bouncing," wanting to share her joy of epiphany with me, so I did, "Bouncing, bouncing, bouncing."

I feel like I've written a lot lately about math learning in the early years, maybe because one of the primary areas about which the corporate drill-and-kill Common Core crowd is fear-mongering is that America is falling behind in mathematics, basing their assertions upon deeply flawed, standardized testing that primarily tests the socio-economic background of the test takers.

But it seems that another part of the problem is that they have no idea what real math looks like when it comes to young children. This girl, for instance, found a simple A-B-A-B pattern in our Hoberman Sphere and her discovery delighted her. Children this age are designed for concrete, hands-on learning, yet the yahoos with the clipboards persist in abstracting it onto paper or screens, confusing things, making them hard, creating stress, doubt and fear, with absolutely no understanding of the natural development of human beings.

If the goal is "motivated learners," as they insist, then free play is demonstrably the way to go about it. We needn't motivate them, they are already motivated: we just need to get out of their way.

Of course, teachers know that this is how math learning happens. We know that free play underpins motivation because we see it every day as the children in our charge explore mathematical concepts without ever knowing, or needing to know, that what they are doing is math. It's just something they enjoy because, after all, math is something the human animal is driven to understand, and our drive to understand is manifested in the urge to play.

This second girl, a year older, has arranged some of our classroom giraffes into a more complex pattern, three in a row, each larger than the last. Why did she add the elephant to the end? I don't know, and I don't need to know, but I'm guessing, knowing the girl as I do, that the elephant is an important part of the story she is telling in her head about the daddy, mommy, and baby giraffes.

The next thing she does, without missing a beat, is scoot over a few feet and pointedly assemble four curved blocks into a circle. I don't say, "What shape did you make?" the way so many of us do, a question that, in an instant, turns the child from her proper role as a tester of the world, into a test taker, responding to my very narrow understanding of the exploration she is undertaking. If this was a younger girl or one I didn't know well, I might say, "You made a circle," providing a vocabulary word, but in this case, I am fully aware that she knows what to call the pleasing shape she's made.

She then retrieves her giraffes, and only the giraffes, and arranges them on a rectangular blocks, which she uses to transport them to the circle. It's a story problem she has devised and solved on her own.

This is what motivated math learners look like in preschool. The only thing we can hope to do with our tests and screens and ivory tower assessments is to suck the joy out of learning, compelling children to blankly parrot things they cannot truly understand, like my joke about how some no-name hinge-designer named Hoberman can be compared to the great Buckminster Fuller.

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1 comment:

NZ Teacher said...

Thank you so much for writing about what I need to hear in regards to preschool learners. When recently asked "Where is your math center?" I replied, "It's all over the classroom." Now I have a designated "Math Center" but witness math in most areas of the classroom.

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