Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Challenge That "Success" Presents

When last we saw the old radio/cd/cassette player, it had finally succumbed to our efforts to open it. We'd used every tool we owned on it, starting with screw drivers, pliers and wire cutters, then escalating our efforts to include pry bars and hammers. We then dropped rocks on it, dropped rocks on it from the top of a step ladder, dropped it onto rocks from the step ladder, and finally, we got it open by dropping it onto rocks from a second story balcony.

If this had been a piece of theater, that's where things would have been properly left: a grand finale taking place right at the end of the school day, sending everyone home with the sense of having taken part in a community success.

On the following day, however, there was the second act. The halves were on the workbench again, under the supervision of a parent-teacher and the deconstruction continued apace, largely at the hands of a core group of kids, those with the patience and skills for the work, although at any given moment there were 2 and 3-year-olds with their hands in the guts as well, holding tools, manipulating them, but not necessarily to any effect. 

There's a balancing act adults walk when they assist kids in a deconstruction process. These aren't cleverly manufactured toys designed with developmentally appropriate challenges. There are machine-tightened screws, for instance, that need to be loosened before one can realistically expect a child to turn them. In fact, that's usually the first thing I do when getting going on a new appliance: as I check to make sure we have screw drivers to fit all the screws, I usually give each of them a quarter turn, just to get them going. There's a part of me that feels like this is a bit of a cheat, that the better course would be to leave it entirely up to the kids, but I've too often watched young children eagerly approach a deconstruction challenge, stab at the thing for a few minutes, then when nothing interesting happens their enthusiasm fades and it's on to something else. Without adult help in identifying targets for and instructing in the proper use of tools, a lot of preschool-aged kids at least, are left on the outside looking in.

On the other side, of course, we don't want to do it for them; we want their successes to be real, to be theirs. And there need to be successes, because as much as we learn from our failures, a steady diet of failure is discouraging. So, let's say that I generally come down on the side of setting the kids up for success, but not guaranteeing it.

I know what you're thinking: define success for a preschooler. Nice. Because it's true that success for me is usually that stage when all the screws have been removed and the appliance lies in pieces, while part of a successful process for many kids is about trying out the various tools in the tool box, sticking screw drivers into all the holes, trying out the wire cutters on all kinds of materials, and seeing what you can grab hold of with those pliers, without the pressure of removing a single bit from the machine. 

And that's the challenge that "success" presents when it comes to education. If we are truly meeting each child where they are, then there is a new definition for each child, for each undertaking, perhaps even for each day or hour or minute. Sure, many of the kids approach the work bench having adopted my adult construct of success: they arrive with the intention of taking it apart, and those are the kids for whom we loosen the screws.

Others, however, seek to understand the project in another way, one that will not end in a pile of parts, even if that's what they're pretending they're doing.

On the third day of deconstructing this radio, I just put it on the ground along with the tool box. I did give instructions: "When you're finished with your tool it goes back in the tool box," and "There are no hammers here." (I've found this second reminder important because as children freely experiment with tools, there are some for whom every tool ultimately becomes a hammer, which can be a problem for both the tool and the other children who would, I assert, rather not be hit by the errant flat side of a wrench.) I kept myself close, but above the kids, not down there with them, trying to stick mostly to my two instructions and answering questions.

Our play with this old radio had kind of petered out over on the workbench, but this venue gave it new life. Children of all ages (2-6) got involved in it, with the older children, the ones who had done much of the deconstruction up to this point providing vocabulary, direction and focus, and it was much easier for me to stay out of the way of the younger children as they put each tool through it's paces according to their individual inclinations. I can honestly say that for this half hour or so, every child who chose to participate achieved her own kind of success.

And it wasn't just the children working together on the remnants of this radio who found success. A group of kids had discovered the three speakers we'd already removed, and spent that same half hour experimenting with their magnets. They found for instance, several places where they could be affixed (and far more where they could not).

Taking them into the sand pit, they discovered that some of our sand attached itself to the magnet. "Metal sand! Metal sand!"

They then asked me for a nail.

"Do you need a hammer too? And safety glasses? What's the project?" 

No, they just needed a nail, the plan being to "lose" it in the sand, then find it with the magnets. I got them the nail with the condition being that they were responsible for returning it to me when they were done. "I don't want it to get left in the sand; that could be dangerous."

They took turns hiding the nail in a small area, then hunting it out.

I was impressed with how conscientious they were about keeping track of that nail.

I didn't hover over them the whole time. I trusted them. I left them on their own, in fact, for much of their game with the nail. I hoped I'd set them up for success. At the end of their play they gave it back to me. I call that success.

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