Thursday, May 12, 2022

A Method Of Learning, Not Teaching

Pedagogy is generally defined as a method of teaching. I've often discussed what I and others like me do in our classrooms as a "play-based pedagogy," although to be honest there's never been a lot of teaching involved. The children are learning, of course, they are learning at full capacity, they are learning the way the brain is designed to learn, they are learning through the method of asking and answering their own questions in their own way at their own time. But at the end of the day, this pedagogy, if it can even be called that, is a method of learning not teaching, and anything we do teach is almost accidental, through role modeling for instance, or sporadic, most often done at the specific request of the one doing the learning.

Play-based educator Nick Terrones, director of the Daybreak Star Preschool in Seattle writes in his book A Can of Worms: Fearless Conversations With Toddlers about a girl who asked him if a worm had a penis, a direct question to which he owed her a direct and honest answer.

Kisha Reid, founder and director of Discovery Early Childhood Learning Center, recently told me about a ballet class she taught in the midst of her play-based program because the children themselves, and especially one girl with a passion for dance, insisted upon it.

I once brought in a stack of my old comic books at the children's request because they wanted me, in my role as a Marvel universe elder, to help them settle an argument over the "real" colors of The Hulk (originally gray, but the printers couldn't get a consistent shade, so they switched to green), Ironman (also originally gray, then all yellow, before finally settling on the yellow-red combination for which he's now known), and Spiderman (blue and red, although he started off with little spider web winglets under his arms).

These are exceptions that prove the rule. 

I played a lot of baseball in my youth and the longer I played, the more I came to understand that the common trait of all good players is the capacity to "be ready." You might go an entire game without a ball coming your way, but you still had to be ready on every single pitch, just in case. As a batter, you spent most of your time not swinging your bat, but being ready to swing your bat. As a fielder, you might spend an entire game without a ball hit your way, but you have to stay ready for the ball for all nine innings. I often think of this in the context of play-based learning: I want to have my head in the game so I'm ready to go when I'm needed, so I can keep children safe, and so I can respond when needed in ways that best supports their play. But entire days go by without a ball coming my way. 

When I think of my own pedagogy, I get a bit embarrassed, because it seems like a kind of highfalutin word for what I do. 

Art therapist and author of the book The Good Enough Studio, talks about the importance of "permission" in her work. I struggle with the word permission because I shouldn't be a position to grant or not grant permission to anyone for anything, even children, but in a world that tends to distrust our youngest citizens, I must admit, in all honesty, that granting permission is exactly what a play-based program is all about: a place, maybe the only place in the world, where children know they have permission to follow their own curiosity.

Permission means that I must release any notions I have of controlling children, which is to say that my relationships with them cannot be hierarchical. This too is a challenge in our very hierarchical world, and especially when it comes to being an adult working with children. Daily, I have to remind myself that I am not in charge of these young people, but I am responsible for them. Perhaps more importantly, I'm responsible to them in the way one is responsible to any person with whom you have a relationship.

When I think of my own pedagogy, I see it as being entirely grounded in my ideas about how to treat other autonomous humans. In everything I do, I must consider it in the context of relationship and responsibility and resist the temptations of control and hierarchy. It is a pedagogy in which best practice means the conscious creation of healthy, caring, even loving relationships. Indeed, that is what the children demand of us. From the moment we are born we are connection-seekers. What else is curiosity other than the drive to enter into relationship with people, places, and things? And curiosity is the business of a play-based pedagogy, even if there is very little teaching involved.

Most pedagogies can only be fully understood as a theoretical concepts, but our pedagogy, the one embraced by educators like Kisha, Nick, Nona and thousands of others around the world -- the one of being ready, of responsibility, of permission, of relationship -- doesn't live in ivory towers. It is a pedagogy of learning, not teaching, of dirty hands, of tears and joy, of beating hearts, and of curious minds.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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