Sunday, April 24, 2011

I Have This. I Don't Know What To Do.

Tom Drummond, recently retired instructor at North Seattle Community College, has a video of himself interacting with preschoolers by putting a can of house paint on the center of a table and saying something like, "I have this."

One of the children identifies it as paint.

Tom answers that it looks like a can to him. We then watch the kids over about 15 minutes guide Tom through to the point that he uses a screw driver to pry the can open where, sure enough, they find not just paint, but the color and type they predicted. Throughout this, Tom more or less plays dumb (or maybe he's playing innocent), sticking to simple, informative statements, and I'll never forget how right near the end of the video, at just the perfect moment, he introduced the word "pry" into the conversation, which really expedited things.

Viewing this had a big impact on me as a cooperative parent-teacher and continues to influence me to this day. It gave me an opening into a new understanding of what it meant to be a teacher, having up to then essentially understood the profession as one in which the teacher conveys knowledge to children by telling or showing them things and then expecting them to remember it. Here I saw a teacher guiding a group of children toward understanding, using language to prompt exploration and conversation, letting them construct meaning and purpose from their own experiences, collaborating with their peers, arriving at the point where a traditional teacher would have started, prying the can open.

I find myself taking this approach daily in the classroom, be it putting on bandages, building with blocks, or making art; playing innocent, not taking the role of authority or the possessor of superior knowledge. When the Easter Bunny comes up, for instance, as it did last week, my response is to simply wonder if that's their pet bunny and we're off. It's fascinating to facilitate a discussion like that, as they share what they "know," adding new parts to the story, deciding if EB is a boy or girl, debating if he's big or regular sized, wondering amongst themselves if she lays eggs or just brings them, and speculating on how he gets into their houses. I've found that as long as the adults refrain from attaching a right or wrong label to their responses, the discussions might get heated, but at the end of the day, everyone gets to go home with their own story intact, but enriched with new things to think about.

There is a debate raging in the US right now about how teachers ought to teach, with one side, the one at the podium right now, insisting upon a "direct instruction" approach, one in which the teacher shows or tells students the answers, while the other side, the one generally advocated on these pages, favoring an exploratory approach in which the teacher encourages students to find the answers on their own.

Teaching is a notoriously hard thing to measure, of course, because so many things play into it both inside and outside the classroom. Direct teaching may well be a superior approach if the goal is simply to teach specific facts or skills, the kinds of things that can be measured on standardized tests, but doesn't really do much for curiosity and creativity, attributes far more important to becoming lifelong learners.

In a recent article over at Slate by developmental scientist Alison Gopnick, she discusses the findings of two recent studies:

. . . (w)hile learning from a teacher may help children get to a specific answer more quickly, it also makes the less likely to discover new information about a problem and to create a new and unexpected solution."

(The studies) provide scientific support for the intuitions many teachers have had all along: Direct instruction really can limit young children's learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific . . . But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions.

I urge you to click over there and read about how the studies were conducted. I don't think anyone who has spent any amount of time in a preschool classroom will find the results surprising.

The thing that struck me the most, however, was that in both studies, the researcher playing the role of teacher in the exploratory approach essentially played "dumb," much in the way Tom did in his video, and the way many of us naturally do in the classroom.

Also fascinating is where Gopnick takes us at the end of her article, looking at scientists who work on designing "computers that learn about the world as effectively as young children do." Which, as it turns out, was the real motivation for engaging in these studies in the first place.

These experts in machine learning argue that learning from teachers first requires you to learn about teachers. For example, if you know how teachers work, you tend to assume that they are trying to be informative . . . (T)he learner unconsciously thinks: "She's a teacher. If there were something interesting in there, she would have showed it to me." These assumptions lead children to narrow in, and to consider just the specific information a teacher provides. Without a teacher present, children look for a much wider range of information and consider a greater range of options.

This is a little mind blowing for me. Of course it's true that an authoritative adult can narrow the world for young minds, but it never occurred to me that the very definition of "teacher" comes into play in how children learn. The kids who come to Woodland Park arrive as 2-year-olds and as such, for most of them, I am the only teacher they've ever known. And for many of them, three years later as they head off to kindergarden, the "playing innocent" approach forms the basis of their understanding of what a teacher does.

Nearly all of them then head off into a world of schools in which teachers are mandated to teach them a certain core curriculum of specific, standardized knowledge and skills organized grade-by-grade, year-by-year, much of which is conveyed by direct instruction. I assume, this changes their definition of "teacher." I know that most teachers in the early years strive to create a balance between direct instruction and exploratory learning, so I hope this new experience simply adds to the definition the children already have, making teaching a bigger idea. But I also worry that this new definition comes to completely overshadow the old one by the time they've made their way through high school, where the amount and specificity of knowledge they are mandated to learned leaves little room for exploration.

Personally, I'd like to see more of a focus on exploratory learning in our schools, especially in our upper grades, even if that's difficult to measure, because curiosity and creativity are the only traits we know our children will need as they come of age in our rapidly changing world. This is a position I've largely come to through experience and intuition, one I'm now pleased to see supported by scientists through well constructed experiments. While the education debate rages, it's interesting to note that no one -- from parents and teachers to politicians and business people -- disagrees that the future belongs to the curious and creative.

I have this. I don't know what to do.

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Jeanne Zuech said...

Tom. Thanks for the Easter morning post. Always am inspired by your perspective and your style in which you offer your ideas in the blogosphere.
Ensuring time for children to be the meaning makers of "this" or "that" - it is the richest experience as an early learning educator, absolutely.
Love the connection to your own inspiration teacher and his Can of Paint. Reminds me of a day in my 4s/5s class when a child brought in a bag of tomatoes from his garden. We ended up having a long Tomato investigation at meeting - dialogue, squishing, rolling, comparing, all that. We finally cut one tomato in half to explore inside and a child exclaimed "That part looks like a Stegosaurus!" as he examined one particular cut piece. We then had Tomato Dinosaurs around the room for the rest of the week and adventure stories written to bring TD to life.
Meaning makers. Can of Paint. Bag of Tomatoes. Best job.

kelly said...

Many parents, carers, grownups and children know about this different paradigm of learning and have long before school came along, and even without formal, published scientific study (see: autodidactic learning/unschooling/life learning). Living our lives like this has been an incredible experience, and one our family would (thus far) not trade for school (the way school is today) for anything!

I've long thought about how stifling memorize-and-regurgitate is for children, but it must not be that much fun for teachers either!

Thanks for your post.

Eli said...

Hi Tom,
I have a new 3.5 year old in my life and I've noticed that I instinctivly(?) started following this method with him, rather than trying to "teach him" stuff. Somehow, I just thought it would be more interesting and fun to ask him questions about new things, rather than to tell him about them. And it *is* more fun and more interesting. Part of me thought I might be doing something "wrong", though, and I'm happy to read your post and get some reinforcement.
Thanks and happy Spring!

Jen said...

Is the video of Tom Drummond and the paint available online? I would love to view it.

Alex said...

Your post reminded me of this video about the tendency of the school system to teach children to seek just one answer at the expense of divergent thinking and thereby creativity:

Deborah said...

I love the "I have this." So inspiring to consider that such a statement can lead to so much interest, learning, inquiring, predicting and so on.

Abby Cohen said...

I also would love to see Tom's video. I love all your musings and am right there with you in terms of pedagogy. I just saw this video and thought you might be interested: http.//

Teacher Tom said...

If Tom's video is online, it isn't easy to find. I looked for it this morning while writing this. I'll try to get in touch with him and see if he still has it. I was from over a decade ago, so I don't have high hopes.

@Alex and Abby . . . thanks for the links. I'll check them out.

Jess said...

Have you explored The City and Country School website? It's based in NYC and of course private and super expensive. However, why couldn't we use schools such as these as a model for all public schools? It's proven. It works. Let's do it! :)

Lucille said...

I enjoyed reading your post today. I've taught kindergarten in public school for 23 years and the changes that have developed are heartbreaking. We do a lot of teacher directed lessons but an experienced teacher can find ways to "sneak" in developmentally appropriate practices. My question to you is, Do you think it is possible to have a balance between the two approaches?

Earth Caring Rainbow Angel said...

Hey Tom,
I'm soooooo happy to see this discussion occurring on here. It is such an incredibly important one that is addressed brilliantly in the new film "August to June" with Amy Valens. It takes place in a Marin County Public Parent Participation Cooperative Elementary School. Very worth hosting a screening of this for all your parents to see.

Heather @ said...

Tom - This is such an interesting topic. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. And, I love your main blog photo. ; )

Heather &

Earth Caring Rainbow Angel said...

By the way, there is a wonderful (brief) video trailer available to watch on Amy Valen's website:

Anxious to hear your thoughts about it after you check it out. Highly recommend seeing it in its entirety at some point if at all possible. Now if only the Obama's would watch this film and learn about how children really learn best, which absolutely IS NOT... "No Child Left Behind."



Gardenbug said...

Back in our Peace Corps days, my husband was the science department at a new rural school. He inherited chemicals from someone and found them on the floor in the sun on his first day. His job involved teaching the students enough of the syllabus to pass the West African School Certificate. Laboratory work was required. Soon he had built a lab and collected water on the roof in barrels which ran into sinks in the new room.
The students criticized his methods at first because the experiments didn't always 'work'. There was much discussion of what an experiment actually is. They had thought it was a teacher showing them how to arrive at the 'correct' answer. They learned his definition quickly! Amazingly, every student passed!

Later on, with our son, Cuisinaire rods were used at his pre-school. To this day they appeal to me because they are so beautiful. But I find that a great deal of exploratory time is necessary before some of the games can begin. Touching and feeling and talking and making pictures with them before ever thinking of sizes and math! I think that exploring time is important for all sorts of things, no matter the age. I think that is one reason kids are better with computers than I am. They have no fear of exploring "what happens if you click here" and try something.

Teacher Tom said...

@Jess . . . thanks for the tip. I'll check it out!

@Lucille . . . I do think a balance is possible, although you're probably asking the wrong guy. I've never taught anywhere but Woodland Park and while I do a little "instructing" every now and then, always with the idea of giving it up the moment the kids get restless, almost everything we do is straight ahead play-based and there's no pressure to do it otherwise.

@Rainbow Angel . . . I'll see if I can find it. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Hello Teacher Tom,

First, I love and appreciate your posts - thank you for doing what you do!

Second, I, too, wanted to find a link to that video of the interactions about "the can". I see that you said you couldn't find it but would ask - did anything come of that?

I did see that Tom Drummond seems to have a website now that has lots of resources, though I don't see that one there. Maybe it's hidden somewhere I can't see it? Here's the site, in case you don't know about it:

Thanks again!