Friday, April 03, 2020

"Their Language Will Always be Adequate for Their Own Understanding"

We were on the playground, down on our knees in the wood chips, playing with rocks, sticks, general debris, and a variety of broken or otherwise orphaned toys. Sylvia suggested, "Let's play a story."

We all knew exactly what she was talking about even though none of us had heard that particular phrase before. It delighted me, striking me as a uniquely inventive way of expressing herself. It was an invitation to join her in an idea, and not just any idea, but an idea to work together to create more ideas. Her phrase opened a door of understanding for me, giving me insight into something I thought I previously fully understood. I was so impressed that I've since made the expression my own, "Let's play a story," continuing to use it to this day.

"(T)here is no reason to give children "language tools" in order to facilitate clear thinking, intelligence, or greater knowledge. Their own use of language will always be adequate for their own understanding."  ~Eleanor Duckworth

Sonya definitely understood what she was proposing and her language was obviously equal to her understanding. She was an avid player of pretend and her understanding of it, judging from her use of words to talk about it, told me that she really understood it.

 She once told me a story which I wrote word-for-word.

It's all about birds. Some birds flied over a tree and landed in their nest. The eggs hatched. And then the birds flew to get food for their babies.

She starts with a clear statement of what she is setting out to do. She tells us that she knows that birds fly, that they land, that they have nests, lay eggs, and that those eggs hatch. She finished by demonstrating that she understood that adult birds must hunt (however she conceived that) and feed their babies. Her language, while less poetic, was still equal to the task of explaining her understanding.

From the moment of birth we begin to understand, far before we can speak: understanding precedes language.

A four-year-old told this story, which I again wrote word-for-word as he said it:

The boy went outside and he was discovering a new planet. And he was going to planet to planet. Then he found his friend inside outer space. And they played space ball. And they had a great time at outer space.

He understands that there are planets and they are discoverable. He conceives of planets as places to which he's never been, but where one might "go." He knows that other people could be in this place, his friend, a person with whom to play. He perceives of space as something you go inside. Later he mentions being "at" outer space, which may or may not indicate that he is wrestling with what kind of place "outer space" is. It could also, however, indicate that he's wrestling with prepositions. Or maybe that for his purposes any old preposition will do.

I suppose it's possible to construct understanding from language, but that's an unnecessarily hard row to hoe. It's like the way I was taught math in middle school: here's the formula, memorize it, practice it, practice some more, then pass a test to prove you understand it. Of course, what I demonstrated was that I understand how to use the formula, but not necessarily that I understood the math. It seems backwards to me, at least from the perspective of the way humans usually learn things, which is to become aware of them, to mess around with them, to get it wrong more than we get it right, not because we're made to do it, but because we're curious and because curiosity spurs us to look at new things from all sides.

Years ago, a boy was playing with a hamster wheel. He discovered that it spun. He knocked it on its side. It didn't spin in this position, but he discovered that if he slid it along the floor the friction caused it to turn a bit. He tried it upside down, driving it along like a wheel. He tried bouncing it. He tried it out in the sensory bin, which was full of kidney beans, making a mess. He ran it up and down the walls. At one point he managed to remove the wheel from the base, then wrangle it back together again. Finally, he went back to spinning it, faster and faster, before having the idea of putting a wine cork inside it. He had been playing with it interestedly, but suddenly he was excited. The cork seemed to defy gravity by adhering to the inside of the wheel as it spun. He had discovered something new!

He called out, "Look what's happening! It's sticking to the inside when I spin it fast, but when it gets slow it falls." He was describing a natural phenomenon as he understood it. The cork was sticking or not sticking and it had something to do with the speed he was imparting to the wheel. He continued to spin it. Every now and then, the cork would fly out of the wheel as it spun causing him to laugh in surprise. "I know," he said, never taking his eyes off the wheel, "When I spin it fast the cork is trying to fly out, but it's trapped. When I spin it slow it just falls down." He did not know the words gravitycentripetal or centrifugal, but he understood the phenomena, something for which he won't likely have words until he hits a middle school physics course.

All too often, adults assume that it's their role as "teacher" to intervene in a child's process. I can imagine any number of places where an adult might have stopped the boy in his pursuit of understanding about that hamster wheel, any one of which would have prevented him from discovering these aspects of Newton's Laws of Motion on his own. I can imagine any number of points where an adult could have offered vocabulary words, or suggested tips, or posed leading questions to interrupt or divert him from his quest, this story he was playing with the hamster wheel and the wine cork.

"Let's play a story." It's an invitation to invent, to discover, to explore, to understand. As important adults in children's lives, we would be better served if we would more often simply accept that invitation. We might learn something.


And now, another in my series of short videos for parents who find themselves suddenly homeschooling their preschoolers. I'm making these videos for parents. If you're a teacher, please feel free to share it with the parents of the children you teach. If you want to watch all of my tips videos, look at the bottom of previous posts here on the blog, or visit the Teacher Tom TV YouTube channel:

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