Monday, December 19, 2011

Direct Instruction From A Great Horned Owl

I would estimate that if a child stays at Woodland Park for the full 3 years, starting as a 2-year-old and graduating at 5, over the course of that experience, she'll spend less than 2 percent of that classroom time on the receiving end of direct instruction from yours truly. And by that I mean sitting on her bottom, facing forward, listening to what I have to say. Even our circle time, when there is an expectation that they practice their sit-and-listen skills, we're mostly paying attention to our friends, not Teacher Tom, and even when I am talking at them, it's typically to convey information they'll need for a fire drill or to stay safe on a field trip or so they'll otherwise have a heads-up about something out of the ordinary or possibly challenging that's coming up next. 

And even then, much of what I'm doing is providing the parent-teachers in our cooperative classroom this information so that they can repeat it consistently to the kids, later, when it actually has some direct value to them.

And even then, most of that direct instruction time comes during their final Pre-K year when I know that nearly all of them are heading off to a kindergarten where they will need to have had at least some experience of sitting on their bottoms, facing forward, listening to a teacher who is required by her bosses to cover certain material in a certain amount of time. It's a difficult, unnatural way of "learning" (I put the word in quotes because sometimes a child's ability to cooperate by siting and facing forward is mistaken for learning) and therefore doing it is an acquired skill, one I feel compelled, at least in my small way, to expose them for 2 percent of their time at Woodland Park.

It's not so much that I don't appreciate that there could be some value for some children in direct instruction, it's just that I've found that no matter how many times I tell kids, "2 + 2 = 4," they won't know it until they've actually discovered it for themselves through a process of play-discovery known only to themselves.

Of course, in our own little world here in the Center of the Universe, I tend to forget that for most of the adults out there in the great big world the direct instruction model is the norm from which to deviate. For instance, we've visited The Burke Museum, Seattle's natural history museum, several times over the years. It's a great place, full of interesting things, most of which are in glass cases or behind railings. I can tell folks at The Burke understand this is a challenge for preschoolers and with each visit they are finding more and more "hands on" ways to engage the kids, but most of what we do is still to look and listen.

We once visited a local branch of the post office to see how things worked behind the scenes. The woman guiding us was quite frustrated when we couldn't manage to walk from place to place in a line, and fretted the entire time about how the kids wanted to touch everything, just as they did during last year's field trip to Swanson's Nursery. Now, our kids have a demonstrated ability to stand in line when it's a self-selected activity, just not on command, and not necessarily all of them all of the time. As for "hands off," it's really not something they're going to hear at a school with a play-based curriculum.

Recently, however, we were presented with a big challenge. Bob the great horned owl came to visit us at school, and although he now lives at the Woodland Park Zoo, indoors is not his natural habitat. We were warned in advance that we would need to strive to be quiet and still so as not to frighten him. We were cautioned that sudden noises and movements were particularly worrisome. We were told that we needed to stay on our bottoms. We were even warned about the fact that he was likely to poop at some point during his visit and it was imperative that we take it in stride, avoiding a chorus of, "Ewwww!"

Not only that, but it was going to be an hour long presentation. I will confess to trepidation. Our best hope, as I saw it, was to expect that the kids would rise to the challenge out of their senses of wonder and their empathy for the poor owl who might be afraid of them.

I gave the kids a run-down of the expectations and concerns on Bob's behalf before entering the room in which he awaited in his covered cage, emphasizing the importance of moving slowly and quietly. Oh, how incredible it was to watch 24 children move in conscientious, almost painstaking, slo-mo and carefully settle into place on the gym mats I'd arranged on the floor for their seating. Bob's handler (I'm sorry I've forgotten her name) then ran through the expectations again, before launching into nearly an hour of direct instruction that included nothing "hands on," although the presence of a live great horned owl in our midst was quite awe-inspiring. The kids, for the most part, sat and listened. When they did feel they had to move, they instinctively crawled from place to place and there wasn't even much of that. 

No one made a sound when Bob pooped.

Some of us came away with new vocabulary like "talons" and "nocturnal." Some of us learned that owls come in a variety of sizes and make many sounds beyond the conventional preschool, Hoo! Many of us now know what owls eat and that they use their sharp beaks to tear their food. We certainly didn't learn everything, nor even most, of the words Bob's handler sent our way. We would have certainly failed the test, but it was still a solid educational experience, one that did what education should: inspire questions and comments that could have filled up a second hour. 

When Bob went back in the cage two-thirds of the way into the hour, the squirreliness began. A mild hubbub rose up from us, but we made it to the end, demonstrating that we actually could sit-and-listen, especially if you're a great horned owl.

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marcie jan bronstein said...

I wish I could go back to preschool and enroll myself at Woodland Park.

Mimi Boheme said...

I've been reading along for a while and just wanted to thank you for posting. This part, "sometimes a child's ability to cooperate by sitting and facing forward is mistaken for learning" is pretty much the reason we have launched merrily into homeschooling this year. My very full-body experiential (but not really rough-and-tumble) 5 year old boy had a horrible time in a super structured preschool last year. At pick-up he was always exhausted, eyes glazed over and cranky in a defeated kind of way. They actually seemed to encourage the other kids teasing him into "obeying" which is worlds away from working as a team, etc. I'm sure you hear about these situations all the time. That mention you made the other day of the boy being bullied sounded eerily similar, though in our case it didn't get that far before we quit. I think we were probably just lucky there wasn't one leader among the (teacher sanctioned) nasty group.

Anyway, thanks for posting this stuff as I love to gather up concepts for my kids and test them out at home. As a private violin teacher, I've found that play-based and montessori type kids have a better time when it comes to figuring out how to teach themselves something (i.e. to practice).

Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom

Were the children shown how to hear like an owl? If you cup your hands and put them behind your ears then all the sound in front of you becomes magnified. It's so simple and amazing!


Me said...

Fantastic post...totally agree with using non-direct methods. For anyone who hasn't come across the theory sitting behind this, it's called 'Constructivism'. It's learning by constructing your own understanding, rather than being told. We all learn this way throughout life, and children often learn 'despite' what they are told by their teachers!

The best analogy I have come across is to give children an understanding of the map of the area they are learning in (e.g. let them play and explore with groups of objects with the aim of adding them together), rather than giving them a satnav to get there (teaching them a method for addition). That way, if the satnav fails they have a good idea of how to get where they are going!