Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Future Belongs To The Curious And Creative

Tom Drummond, retired instructor at North Seattle College and one of my most important mentors, once showed our class 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 guide Tom until 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, 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 discover 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 an article on Slate by developmental scientist Alison Gopnick, she discusses the findings of two 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.

Of course it's true that an authoritative adult can narrow the world for young minds, but it had 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 will spend the next dozen years in 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 the kid's definition of "teacher." I know that most teachers in the early elementary 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 always pleased to see repeatedly 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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