Thursday, February 02, 2012

"Teacher Tom, Look What I Figured Out."

Making discoveries, learning how to make discoveries, learning how to pursue an interest or a question or a passion that leads to discoveries is at the heart of a progressive, play-based education.

Last week we were playing with a set of latches that hold two hinged pieces of 2X4. I might have made these a decade ago, but in any event we've had them at Woodland Park for a long time. I joke that if the kids can figure these out, they'll be able to break out of anywhere.

They're not usually particularly popular, but each year at least one or two kids take a special interest in them, enough so that they learn how at least some of them work. I wish they were precision devices, and some are, but some aren't. Instead they're the kind of latches you find in the real, DIY world, in which things don't perfectly line up and everything doesn't click smoothly into place.

One boy, in particular, took to them. There are four different kinds of latches on six 2X4's, meaning that two of them are duplicates. He worked his way down the row, tinkering and fiddling with each until he not only got it open (which is where most kids stop) but then re-closed as well. Once he'd succeeded in figuring one out, he then repeated the process several times to make sure he really understood. The last one in the row was the second dead bolt latch, one he'd previously mastered. I'd been watching his progress from the corner of my eye and figured he'd make short work of that one and be done, but this is one of those where the hinge is slightly misplaced, which means in order to get the latch open, you must first sort of hold the two adjoined pieces of wood together while you slide the bolt.

I've seen more than a few kids get frustrated with this sticky one over the years and was tempted to step in, at least to demonstrate it once, but decided instead to trust his tenacity and curiosity, which is often the role of a teacher in a progressive, play-based school. And, indeed, he began to grow agitated as this latch didn't work quite the way the last one had. In fact, at one point he intentionally dropped it, which made me think he was giving up, that maybe now was the time to step in. But again I hesitated, and I'm glad I did.

Instead of walking away, he went back to the first dead bolt, the one that works smoothly, and opened and closed it twice. He then returned to the sticky one. At one point, perhaps out of growing frustration, he squeezed the wood pieces together and the dead bolt budged. This was apparently the clue for which he'd been looking.

Throughout all of this he had taken no notice of me. In fact, he took no notice of anything going on around him, but I guess he did know I was there, because after successfully opening and closing this sticky latch a half dozen times he turned to me and said, "Teacher Tom, look what I figured out."

He may never again need the specific skills of opening a dead bolt latch -- perhaps by the time he's grown all the latches will be operated by keypads -- but he will need to understand his process for figuring things out, because the world will always be full of things that stick, both large and small. Well-educated people are the ones to whom we turn to show us how to un-stick them.

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Scott said...

Sometimes standing back and waiting is the teacher's hardest--and most important--task.

And "I did it!" is one of the most important motivators for a child.

Thanks, Tom, for the reminder to wait and watch.

Kathy said...

Agreed, Scott - well said!

Tom, thanks, too, for taking the time to describe the boy's actions in such detail. Otherwise we might have missed some important stuff about the development of the part where he "regulated" his own frustration by going back to an easier task. By experiencing success again, he reduced his feelings of frustration and found the motivation and confidence to go back and try some more. Brilliant! (and something we all would do well to remember when we get frustrated...)

Thanks, as always, for sharing your observations and thoughts about the capability of young children!

Barbara Zaborowski said...

Lovely story, Tom.

It's certainly true that it's not so much what you learn but the learning process that really matters.

Anonymous said...

Thank you

This has helped me consider how to help my friend's sons learn for themselves