Whether age 4 or 50, a learning tree

DSCF7757copyJust this last week I decided to observe Jessica Watson’s “We Are Nature” class for 2.5 – 5-year-olds. I had been thinking about how we approach teaching young children at Stony Brook, how kids best learn, what we can do to encourage their curiosity and life-long learning skills. Of course my own grand-children spurred on some of this reflection, but two articles in The Atlantic online were my principal impetus: Educating an Original Thinker, by Jessica Lahey, and The Power of Thinking Like a Preschooler, by Lauren Cassani Davis. Both are well worth reading.

DSCF7775copyLahey’s article is essentially an interview with Wharton professor Adam Grant whose new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, examines how unorthodox thinking changes society. She discusses the tension between order and control in a teacher-centered classroom and the spontaneity of student-led inquiry focusing on problem-based learning. Too much freedom and kids can suffer “choice paralysis.” Too much structure and discipline and “kids don’t learn to think for themselves.”

DSCF7749copyNeedless to say, Grant argues for a blend of both pedagogical approaches with an emphasis on giving kids responsibility for their own learning. This comes in a variety of ways: for example, in developing their own ways of teaching a lesson learned and presenting it in small groups; exploring a variety of solutions to problems; offering students a chance to reinterpret something they think they know by presenting competing viewpoints; asking them to investigate why something fails or does not work and how that failure can be beneficial. Grant emphasizes values over rules and points to such concepts as a respect for difference and the joy of meaningful work that makes a difference in people’s lives.

DSCF7751copyDavis’s article is an interview, as well, in this case with Erika Christakis, a child-development specialist from Yale, whose book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups, examines the “academic takeover” of pre-school education in this country and the lack of “understanding children’s needs and inner lives.” Christakis argues that we “under-estimate kids’ intelligence,” don’t understand “how profound children’s thoughts are,” and often “don’t give them enough time to engage in something.” She points to the value of “spontaneous, meaningful conversation” between adults and children, the importance of open-ended toys that can be used “to represent things symbolically,” the power of fantasy play, the need to ask open-ended questions that encourage dialogue. Like Grant, she advocates “inquiry-driven” education whereby children acquire content rather than simply get it spoon-fed.

DSCF7779copyChristakis cites the importance of developing a cognitive approach to learning that involves “observation, questioning, exploration, (and) reflection.” In essence she says that we need to equip young people of all ages with basic skills like “how to have a conversation, how to listen to other people, how to… express yourself, how to observe and then explore and then reflect on what you’ve explored.” These, she says, become life-long skills for all of us, whether age 4 or 50.

DSCF7776copyWhat excited me about these two articles, however, was not so much the content per se as it was seeing that content validated by Jessica Watson’s class. From the very beginning she declared her central values (“I love to pretend”; “I love to use my imagination”; “I love to be silly”) and invited the children to  explore with her “what it means to be a bird” and to discover “how birds use their beaks as tools to eat.” She encouraged them to talk, to ask questions, to move from one investigation table to the next and then to share what they had learned. The goal: to figure out what tool (eye dropper, chop sticks, scissors, spoon, sieve) worked best to collect the pretend food (ants, worms, algae, nectar, meat represented by such things as rice, packaging peanuts, fruit loops and model clay).

DSCF7764copyThe kids were intent upon their tasks, enthusiastically sharing their insights, responding to Jessica’s praise, volunteering to help, asking questions freely. They seemed to relish the tactile nature of their learning, to see it as an opportunity to play. They helped one another find answers, waited patiently for their turn. Rarely did they get side-tracked, and when they did Jessica invited them back into the conversation smoothly. One boy simply wanted to manipulate the eye dropper and the “nectar” over and over again, as if fascinated by the process. But his reluctance was not a problem. He was given free rein to go his own way, but was brought back into the group when it came to working on the craft which everyone else chose and he knew he’d enjoy.

DSCF7784copyLater, after drawing some final conclusions and celebrating their discoveries, Jessica moved them outside where they had a chance to run. First they closed their eyes to listen for sounds and talked about what they heard. Then they moved down the trail to observe beaver cuttings and a goose feeding in the stream. As if on cue, the goose illustrated perfectly the virtue of a bill that strains duck weed from the water, much as the kids had just discovered inside. Then on the way back Jessica asked each child individually what animal he or she wanted to pretend to be, and the whole group ran (or flew) down the path imitating the various choices.

DSCF7787copyThinking back to the articles I had read, I could see the virtue of learning in this way. There was structure and a clear cognitive pathway to be followed, but there was flexibility and opportunity for the children to take the lead, to share their stories, to move at different speeds and to find their own way. This is what we strive for at Stony Brook and why I encourage parents and grandparents to enroll their children in our programming. We foster growth and responsibility. We see obstacles as opportunities. We believe in process and life-long learning. And we see work as a kind of play.