Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Dense With Learning


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.

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. Cecilia 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, Cecilia 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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I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!

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Jenny Kable said...

I like to tell the educators that I work with to look with wonder for the extraordinary in the ordinary. The big things are often the little things!

Anna D said...

Hello Tom,

What a great blog.. I stumbled upon it recently. Although I think I have been to it before. I like these images you have created of your classroom. Getting kids in touch with nature is a great way to teach. I also like that you have a classroom blog. It provides a sense of community.

I too have an education blog that I am trying to develop. It's sort of an amalgamation of teaching resources and ideas.

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