Friday, January 30, 2015

The Weakness Of Direct Instruction

We recently took a field trip to the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture to take in their Washington state geological exhibit, the highlight of which are the dinosaur skeletons. It's always a good experience if only because most of the kids are familiar with it, interested, and like to show off their knowledge.

Our guide was excellent, with a strong pedagogical understanding of how to engage young children, and she created a series of opportunities for the children to construct their own knowledge. The kids did their part as well, keeping their voices and bodies within the expected parameters. In the heart of the exhibit is a "classroom." This is the hands-on portion. It helped that we all knew it was coming.

As the children minded their proverbial P's and Q's, I reflected on the fact that they are rarely expected to mind these particular P's and Q's at school, yet here they were not just stepping up to the challenge, but thriving. I was thinking about writing a post here about how parents and other grown-up people worry that children who have experienced nothing but a play-based curriculum in preschool will not be prepared for the unnatural rigors of following directions or sitting still or listening to lectures when they move on to traditional schools. I was going to use this experience to riff on the notion that if we've fed them well on play, they will naturally be prepared for the famines ahead.

Later, as we were sitting together examining fossils from various extinct animals, our guide held up a rather large one. After soliciting guesses about what it might be, we finally figured out it was the tail bone of a stegosaurus. It was larger than the fossils with which we'd heretofore been entrusted, so she gave us special instructions on how to hold it, directing the kids to put "one hand on top like this and one hand on the bottom like this."

Whereas the other, arguably less exciting, fossils, the ones handed over without direct instruction, had been fully examined with our hands, eyes, noses and whispered conversation, the children treated the stegosaurus tail to none of that deeper inquiry. Instead, as they had been instructed, they passed the fossil amongst themselves, carefully placing their hands where told, putting their entire focus on the "holding technique," few of them even glancing at the rare thing they held in their hand before passing it along.

The stegosaurus tail fossil raced efficiently through our group, winding up back where it started long before we were finished with our examinations of the fossils we had been free to fully explore sans the blinders of direct instruction.

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1 comment:

Marcela said...

Thank you for another thought-provoking article!