Monday, December 21, 2020

The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think

It was in one of Tom Drummond's classes more than 20 years ago that I first heard about the "technology" of speaking with children so they could think. Tom was explaining the ultimate ineffectiveness of "directive" statements. You know the kind -- "Sit over here," "Stand there," "Pick that up" -- the sorts of adult communications with which most of our childhoods were filled. He then gave us an assignment, which was to simply keep track of the number of directive statements to children we made during a single classroom day. This assignment was simply about ourselves, about listening to our words, practicing using this new technology, not being burdened with the complications of having to make judgments about how the children were responding, just focusing on ourselves and the words we were using, but it was impossible to not notice the immediate impact that it had on my relationship with the young children in my life.

Although, this was my first formal exposure to the "technology" of treating children like fully formed human beings, I'd previously been exposed to this technology "in the wild," so to speak, via our daughter's preschool teacher, with whom I'd been working as a cooperative classroom parent for a couple of years. But, as technology often does for the uninitiated, it had just looked like magic, something Teacher Chris was able to do because she was Teacher Chris. 

One of the goals our classwork was to replace our directive statements with informative ones and it was awkward and unnatural at first. For instance, instead of saying, "Pick up that block," I would try to make the more cumbersome informative statement, "I see a block on the floor and it's clean up time." One of the basic ideas, Tom explained, was that unlike directive statements which tend to shut things down, informative statements create a space in which the kids get to do their own thinking, make their own decisions about their own behavior, instead of merely engaging in the power struggle that inevitably emerges from being bossed around. It made sense to me even while it felt strange and artificial. It was true, I couldn't help but notice, that when I took the time to be informative, children were far less likely to push back, and instead take a beat (which, I've learned means they are taking a moment to process the information you've given them) then pick up that block and put it away. 

I discovered, on my own, the truth of Tom's assertion that the ultimate weakness of relying upon directive statements is that, over time, they need to be escalated in intensity. I recall standing in our school's parking lot with a much more experienced parent as she yelled angrily after her kids, "Get your butts over here!" only to have them giggle and scamper away. When she grumbled, "I never thought I'd be the kind of parent who spanked her kids, but I'm almost there," I saw a glimpse of a place I didn't want to go.

And I still had doubts, however, even as I began to practice with my own preschooler, who soon detected the change in my approach and began to object to it as "teacher talk." I felt a little guilty, like a magician letting the public in on my trick, as I explained to her what I was trying to do. I remember my five-year-old nodding along, agreeing that it sounded like a good idea. She especially appreciated that I wouldn't be bossing her around, even suggesting she would be happy to help me by pointing out when I slipped up. I thought for sure that I'd ruined everything by letting the cat out of the bag, but if anything, the opposite happened. She became my ally in making "teacher talk" a more natural part of my day-to-day language until I've arrived at a point in my life when parents refer to "Teacher Tom magic." 

But none of this is magic. Like all technology, which is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, it still works, often even better, when everyone knows how it works.

I've now come to a point at which I have complete trust in the technology of treating children like fully formed human beings. Indeed, it's a technology that works with all fully formed human beings no matter what their age and it starts with the assumption that I can never, whatever your age, command you into doing anything. My primary responsibility is to speak informatively, and to leave a space in which thinking can take place. It's not magic, but it sure seems like it.


For anyone wanting to learn more about The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think, I'm excited to introduce my brand new 6-part e-course in which I pull the curtain back on the magic. This course is for educators, parents, and anyone else who works with young children. It's the culmination of more than 20 years of research and practice. I've been speaking on this topic around the world for the past decade and know that it can be transformative both for adults and children. For more information and to register, click here. Thank you!

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