Thursday, May 16, 2019

Becoming A Community Of Experts

Not long ago, I wrote about releasing the butterflies we raised from caterpillars. What I didn't mention was that we also had front row seats to lady bug larva pupating and praying mantises hatching from their egg cases. As with all things we do around the school, some of the kids were only mildly interested, while others were super excited. And then, there was one boy who was out of his mind with anticipation and joy.

He already had a passion for small critters of all sorts, including insects, spiders, garden molluscs, worms, and anything else one might find on leaves or under rocks, an interest that grew in the place that had previously been occupied by dinosaurs. But our classroom insects seem to have accelerated and amplified things.

Our class begins its day on the playground, but he could do nothing before rushing into the classroom to check on the bugs in their habitats. He took it upon himself to give daily (if not more frequent) reports during circle time on the insects' progress, including his theories about what we could expect in the coming days. He noticed when the pray mantis finally began to hatch within seconds of the emergence of the first one. He wanted to try various kinds of "food" to see what they preferred. His parents read to him at home and he enthusiastically added his new information to our classroom discussions, sometimes refuting the literature that had come with the eggs and larvae.

Every teacher has taught students like this, ones given to a single-minded intellectual curiosity, kids who are driven to "go deep" into whatever it is that has captured their imaginations. It can last for weeks, months, or even years, sometimes to the point that parents express concern, using words like "obsessed," worried that their child's focus is too narrow, that they are missing out on everything else. But it's a misplaced concern. There is no right or wrong way to satisfy curiosity: some of us tend to be generalists, while others are more inclined to specialize. The important thing is not what trivia we memorize, but rather to, through out self-selected interests, have the opportunity to fully develop our own unique way of knowing, to learn how we learn. Some go broad, some go deep, and most of us do a little of both.

For the last couple of weeks, this boy's enthusiasm has spread to his classmates. Whereas we were once only casually interested in "bugs," there is now at any given moment a bug safari taking place on our playground, with our resident expert playing the part. They'll call out to him, "I found a slug!" and he rushes to the scene. They gather around, forming a voluntary audience for his impromptu lectures, asking questions, starting their own bug collections in imitation of him. His passion has gone viral.

We started as a community with one bug expert, but we are rapidly becoming a community of bug experts, not because it's what some adults determined we should be able to regurgitate onto a test in order to continue along an education assembly line, but rather because it's what we have decided, together, to become, a community that shares passions, learns together, and grows together.

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